Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

Police had cordoned off the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, in Los Angeles’s old Jewelry District, before I arrived. I was walking aimlessly downtown that afternoon, killing time and eating tacos, when I spotted the bright yellow tape. Some men had robbed a jewelry store, and one of them had been shot.

Five police cruisers parked near the crime scene, along with several unmarked detective cars and three news vans. A Telemundo TV anchor in a tie stood in the middle of Broadway’s southbound lanes, shooting a segment. A Channel 5 anchor and her cameraman set up in the intersection as onlookers stood by watching.

“What’s goin’ on down here, man?” one pedestrian asked another. The second guy shrugged.

A third man walked up. “Someone get killed?” No one answered. The second guy, the shrugger, walked off in silence. Despite the sizeable crowd of lookers, even more pedestrians ignored the scene entirely, streaming past and barely glancing, as if everything was normal, just another day of crime and camera crews in downtown LA.

Maybe it was. The intersection was a hive of pawn shops and jewelry stores. Dave Tipp Pawn Shop stood on the northwest corner, Omid Jewelry on the northeast corner, and Broadway Jewelry Plaza on the southeast. Police buzzed around Broadway Gold Center, a corner shop with an iridescent interior that stood next door to another gold and diamond retailer called L.A. Noosha.

As if the sight of cops and news crews would make a cool keepsake, onlookers held up cell phones to shoot videos and snap photos. One young guy stood beside the Telemundo van and filmed the filming of their segment. The other talking head stood near the northeast corner by the crowd, reading her notes and discussing revisions with someone on the other end of her cell phone.

I stood on the curb beside Omid Jewelry and took in the scene. The stink of urine kept wafting by. The breeze carried the heavy scent between buildings, a dizzying mix of dirty truck stop urinal and cat litter ammonia that came from nowhere and everywhere at once. When someone walked by with a greasy slice of pizza, it briefly displaced the smell. The cherry cigar of a young kid in baggy jeans also helped conceal it, then the breeze shifted and the odor returned.

A pedestrian walked up and asked an employee at Omid, “Someone rob a jewelry store?”

Dressed in blue jeans and a dark collared shirt, the employee sat on a stool outside the store, one leg up, one down, and eyeballed the stranger. “Don’t know,” he said. That or he wasn’t telling. His job was to beckon customers. While cops surveyed the crime scene and journalists colonized the street, the man kept yelling “El pagar del oro!” in a Spanish accent, adding what sounded like, “Low price, like for gold!”

Unsatisfied with his response, the stranger walked off, and I caught the employee’s eye. In sync, we nodded.

To find out what happened, I started asking around. I leaned into a conversation to ask three strangers if they knew the details. I talked to an older man on a bike, and a twenty-something taking cell phone photos. The story was vague but simple: when two armed men tried to rob Broadway Gold Center, the security guard pulled out a gun and opened fire. The guard was an off-duty reserve sheriff deputy. When the criminals ran, he darted outside and kept shooting, hitting one in the back. “The one robber went down,” the bicyclist told me. “It hit him in the lower back, and boom, just down. His buddy kept running, just left him like that. Somehow he got up and made it to the getaway car.” A helicopter circled above downtown, searching for the suspects.

Another person contradicted the bicyclist’s account. The kid that got shot didn’t get away. He got caught and treated at the scene. And there weren’t two robbers but three. While two hit Broadway Gold Center, the other went next door to L.A. Noosha and jumped the counter to grab a handful of gold chains.

Nobody knew anything more about the guard: why was a sheriff deputy moonlighting as security? Was that common practice? “He’s a cowboy,” said the man on the bike. The guard’s actions were questionable. In late afternoon, this area was bustling. His bullets could have hit anybody, which suggests he was more interested in protecting jewelry than civilians.

I leaned against Omid Jewelry and listened to the helicopter echo between buildings.

Although the police tape left room on the sidewalk for pedestrians, it shrunk the corner of Broadway and Sixth into a tight passage. People inched between the tape and Omid like cattle in a chute, their shoulders bumping and hands rubbing as they squeezed through.

A scowling tan redhead in a blue tank top pushed through the crowd and yelled “Fuck!” Exasperated, he swung his dirty backpack back onto his shoulder after a passerby bumped it off, and he pushed into the swarm.

A city worker in a neon yellow vest came rolling up the street. Pushing a trash can with an enormous plastic bag full of trash set on top, she announced her arrival with a friendly, “Beep beep.” She stopped beside Omid and waited for a gap. One never came. “’Scuse me,” she said to no one in particular. “Comin’ through. ’Scuse me.” At first, her voice was sweet, but the longer she waited and the more people streamed past, the firmer her tone became. Finally she yelled, “Hey! You need to you move. I’m comin’.” Still, no one stopped.

A stranger emerged from the crowd and held out his hands to restrain the others. “Hold up one second,” he said in a booming voice, “someone’s coming through.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, her voice soft and genteel again. When she wheeled past, a rush of people filled the opening behind her like seawater in a tide pool, and somehow, in her wake, a tiny white Rite-Aid bag tumbled through the maze of tromping feet without hitting a single one.

“El pagar del oro!” yelled the man at Omid. “Low price, like for gold!”

Out of nowhere, a woman with long eyelash extensions and green reflective tights asked me, “What happened?”
“Robbery,” I said. “That place there.”

She looked across the street. “A robbery?”

“Two guys got away,” I said, “and one got shot.”

“Shot? He die?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

She squinted hard at the store then turned her head so fast that her thick braids twirled and draped across her shoulders. “That’s crazy. Glad he lived. Recession havin’ hard times out here.” As she walked up Broadway, the scent of perfume mixed with the stink of piss.

Beside me at Omid, a security guard stood by the door, hands in his pockets, white text on a black windbreaker announcing his position. A man stopped to ask the guard what happened.

The security guard smiled and shook his head. “No. No know.”

“You don’t know? You’re the security guard.”

The guard smiled again and looked at the man, and then at me. “No entiendo ingles.”

“No entiendo ingles?” The stranger stood close to the guard but leaned closer, staring hard through dark lifeless sunglasses as if he were about to reach out and push him. After a moment he said, “Uh, huh,” and walked off.

Behind him, a mother in a colorful headwrap walked by, telling her two young daughters: “It’s quiet. Look how quiet it is. Why’s it so quiet when somethin’ happens?”

After filming her segment, the Channel 5 news anchor slipped under the police tape and cut through the crowd. Wearing a skirt and pink sport coat, her stilettos were so sharp that she had to take tiny, stabby steps to maneuver. Outside of Omid, she paced around the sidewalk, making a spectacle of talking loudly into her phone as if she were some minor celebrity.

Once her cameraman arrived with his equipment, a Hassidim with a thick beard and a dark suit greeted them outside the store. He paused to point to the mezuzah on the doorframe. “Here is the scroll I mentioned.” The cameraman shot footage of the exterior and the scroll. Inside Omid, the anchor held her microphone over a glass case and asked an employee questions in a voice too low for me to hear. The guy next to me kept yelling “El pagar del oro!”

After the crew finished their interior shots, the bearded man led them outside and thanked them. “Okay,” the anchor said. “Thanks.” To her cameraman she said, “Great exteriors, too,” and brushed invisible fuzz off the front of her coat.

“Let me get a shot of this gentleman here,” the cameraman said as he aimed his camera at the security guard.

I scoot away to get out of the shot, and an older businessman and a young hip kid came from different directions and stepped beside me at the same time. The older man asked, “What happened?” I told him.

The young man listened and chewed his food. He had a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, wrapped in brown paper. “Wow,” he said, “shot in the back.”

I said, “That a pork bao?”

“Yeah, from up the street.”

The other man said, “Thanks for filling me in,” and left.

A young couple walked up, arm in arm. From their blissful smiles and wobbly sway, they looked like two lovers who’d been out drinking, even though it wasn’t even four o’clock. A police officer stood nearby, tearing down the yellow tape, and the couple asked him, “What happened?”

He wore dark Ray-Ban sunglasses and tugged at the tape with the delicacy of a bulldozer. “A robbery,” he said after a long pause. He wadded the tape into a ball in his hands, then he smiled. “Watch the news,” he said. “Watch the news.”

“Ah,” the young guy said, “thought someone got killed,” and squeezed his girlfriend around the waist. They tipped forward, like two jovial drunks, and walked up the street.

It turns out that two thieves dug a tunnel into Broadway Gold Center in February of 2011 and stole approximately $3 million dollars’ worth of jewelry. The store normally locked their merchandise in safes, but it took three hours to move the jewelry from the safes into the cases, and three hours to move it back, so on this night, they left the jewelry in sight. As one local jewelry store owner, Mahvash Zendedel, told CBS news after today’s heists: “This is very dangerous. Police, police we need help, more police here on the Broadway.”

The cop tugged at the tape, and as the rest of it came down, a surge of pedestrians streamed across Broadway, a river of living bodies rushing past me and the security guard and the gold. Cop cars and black sedans pulled away, falling into formation with the meticulous ease of migrating geese. Except for the group of detectives in suits outside L.A. Noosha, the intersection looked the same as it would on any other day. Cars passed unimpeded. Pedestrian traffic flowed, brisk and blasé, as if nothing had ever happened. People’s deadpan faces and the pulse of their lives erased evidence of the event, their feet scouring the scene of this day’s bloodshed, and the intersection of its fleeting significance, but not scouring it from memory, because with all the guns and money around, and the idea of the American cowboy, nothing can cleanse the certainty of the violence that lies ahead.


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By the time Lucky Peach magazine did their ramen issue in the summer of 2011, ramen shops and izakayas were already multiplying in many West Coast cities. The issue’s recipes and the unprecedented “Specifist’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan” only fueled Americans’ interest in this popular Japanese food.

You can call this ramenia a hipster fad if you want. Dismiss many US versions as inauthentic. Go ahead and be a grump. But trendy or not, I’m enjoying the dish’s increasing availability.

On a recent vacation, I slurped my way through numerous luxuriant bowls in Los Angeles. Like many of the world’s great cities, LA is an energetic, multicultural mélange. It’s been fortunate enough to have a large Japanese population for a long time. As both a generator and early absorber of culture, it’s no surprise that LA is home to some of America’s best ramen shops. Although they’re all over the city, two neighborhoods boast the greatest density: Little Tokyo downtown, and Sawtelle on the West Side. Here’s a tour through a few:

1) Daikokuya

In the solar system of LA ramen shops, this place is the sun. Located in Little Tokyo on 1st just east of San Pedro Street, Daikokuya sits across the street from Mr. Pizza (“dinner special available,” says the sandwich board) and Las Galas (offering Philly Combo, Taco Combo, Burger Combo, Quesadilla Combo), and it’s so revered that it’s one of the only reasons many people come to Little Tokyo at all. I’ll be generous and assume that the people eating at Mr. Pizza are lost.

Other Little Tokyo shops top peoples’ best of lists: Aoi Restaurant next door, for instance, Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo, and Manten down on 2nd and Alameda. But the consensus is that Daikokuya beats them all.

Daikokuya is a small local chain with five locations: Monterey Park, Costa Mesa, Hacienda Heights, Arcadia and Little Tokyo. LT’s is a tiny shop. A few booths line the walls. A small counter surrounds the cook station. Demand usually outstrips seating, although on my last trip I got lucky and only had to wait about fifteen minutes.

Some people deride it because of its popularity: “The line is ridiculous! Screw that place! Why wait thirty minutes when Aoi rarely has a wait?” There’s some logic to the latter. Whether or not you think Daikokuya’s is LA’s best ramen, it is, without question, ridiculously good.

Daikokuya is known for tonkotsu ramen, a broth based on stewed pork bones. In Lucky Peach, chef David Chang says, “Tonkotsu is to ramen as Chicago deep-dish is to pizza: it’s a food group of its own, with a style that’s a thing apart, practically a different dish.” Daikokuya simmers their broth overnight.

As the menu says, “the process begins the afternoon before it ever reaches your table by boiling pork bones and joints in a large cauldren (sic) all throughout the night reducing at an undisclosed location. by the time it reaches the stove behind the counter the next day all the goodness is concentrated in our famous tonkotsu soup base.” Their broth is so good, they could cook it in a polluted brake drum for all I care.

This stuff is gravy, a rich, buttery comfort food that packs a salty porcine punch without being greasy. Amid its many layers, it has hints of bacon smoke. On my last visit, it was ninety something degrees out, yet the broth didn’t feel overpowering. And somehow it’s only $8.50! Bottom line: you’re not going to wait in line only to conclude, “That ramen was horrible.” The only regret you’ll have is seeing the bottom of your bowl.

Ramen is composed of four parts: the noodles, the broth, the tare (the salty flavor essence that helps determine the type of ramen it is) and the toppings. Daikokuya tops theirs with stewed bamboo shoots, green onions, a marinated hardboiled egg, bean sprouts and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Their chijiri egg noodles are springy and chewy.

Their hardboiled egg is perfect, with a firm but soft orange middle and a white that absorbs the broth’s flavor.

One key topping is chashu. Daikokuya’s is perfect.

Chashu is simmered pork. Some shops use pork loin; others use pork belly, or kakuni. Different places also spell chashu differently: charsu pork, chasu pork, char siu, hyphenated and not hyphenated. Buttery, laced with ribbons of silky fat that melt in your mouth, Daikokuya sets the standard for this stuff.

Another thing about chashu: ramen shops never seem to put enough in their soup. They use it as a condiment, rather than a central component of the dish, which conflicts not with some culinary code of ethics so much as the American tendency to view meat as a meal’s centerpiece. Even if my desire for more pork is rooted in cultural relativism, I still want more. It’s frustrating to pay $9-15 for a bowl somewhere and still only find one or two slices in it, since no matter how filling the noodles and how savory the broth, you’ll always crave more of that soft, stewed meat. That’s why it’s such a score when you find surprise scraps floating in the bottom, entangled in noodles like incidental fish caught in a net. The lesson: no matter how much it pushes your bill beyond your normal “acceptable” level, always order extra chashu. Go work an extra shift at your job. Book overtime. Sell stuff on eBay. But order extra pork, especially here.

The menu also includes fried rice, chow mein and chicken teriyaki, but who would come here for that?

One guy next to me – a young Indian-American office type guy – leaned over his steaming bowl and didn’t look up once. A single earbud hung from his ear, snaking back to the iPod on the counter. He leaned over his bowl, and after finishing his noodles, spooned up the soup with the repetitive, medium-paced motion of a shovel moving ore from a rock pile, one load after another after another. Then, when he finished, he got up and left. The only time his gaze broke was when the waitress brought his check. She set it beside him and he lifted his head, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He muttered, “Thank you,” and resumed slurping.

2) Suehiro Café

Located on 1st Street, the main drag in Little Tokyo, this small café’s sandwich board lured me in. Weekend special, it said, tonkotsu ramen $5.99, down from $8.99. The usual crowd stood outside Daikokuya waiting for tables. I would’ve gone to Aoi instead, the little mom and pop place nearly next door – what some people call one of the last old school joints in Little Tokyo – but I’d missed their Sunday 5-9 hours. So I came here.

Suehiro is a small café. The sign by the door says “Maximum Capacity: 49.” A sign in back says “Thank you for helping Japan. We raised $12,518.” Drawings from kids line the walls and back hallway, all slipped into protective plastic sleeves presumably to protect them from tonkotsu broth splatter.

Even for six dollars, this ramen is more than utilitarian. The broth is well above average, the meat meaty and noodles springy. Any place outside of LA, this would likely be considered pretty damn good. The broth is much lighter than Daikokuya’s. It’s less porky, more golden in color, and tastes like it’s made with much more chicken, kind of like a Japanese matzo ball soup. With the popularity of heavy pork broth, it’s nice to have a range options.

Along with the soup, the highlight is the toppings: half an egg; spinach arranged in a generous bunch; nori seaweed; scallions; a slice of pink and white fishcake; and a liberal pile of soft, stewed bamboo.

It’s the traditional, pre-trend Tokyo ramen arrangement, and one whose bounty puts most ramen shops to shame. It would matter more if the pork was better. Toppings alone cannot carry ramen.

The chashu pork is good, but it’s the weakest link in the chain. It’s a thicker cut than Daikokuya’s, made not from belly but from pork loin or roll, which has been sliced and simmered until approaching tender. But it’s not as tender as I like.

Pork loin isn’t buttery or laced with the type of fat that makes belly meat so appealing. Although far from disappointing, it offers proof that being meaty is not enough. You have to have texture and flavor. The thing is, Suehiro gives you so much of it, which raises a deeper question: would you rather have less of the perfect meat, or a larger serving of the mid-range stuff? This is the place to find the answer.

Unlike iconic Daikokuya, Suehiro Café was filled with teenagers and tourists. If that sounds like a nightmare, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Five middle school girls sat at the long table to my left, accompanied by one adult, than mother of one of the kids. When the drinks arrived, one girl with a bob, big eyes and a striped, shirt said, “Ugh. This soda tastes like my medicine.” It was Calpico, the Japanese yogurt soda. The mother and daughter were Hispanic, one kid was white, and the others were, by their own description, “Indian, not Pakistani.” When sushi arrived, the daughter with the bob poked the wasabi with her chopsticks and said, “One time my dad and I bit into that. I thought it was, like, bell pepper, and I put it in my mouth and was like oh my god, oh my god.” She put some fish in her mouth and started shaking her head in disapproval. “I don’t like squishy tuna.”

One of her friends said, “Tuna is always squishy.”

“No,” the first girl said. “The red kind. I don’t like when it’s red.”

To my right, two young, gangly boys sat with their mother. The oldest kid was an early teen. He had feathered, emo hair, tight pants and braces with green rubber bands tied so tightly that they gave him a lisp. “I want a purebred,” he told his mom. “If I can’t get a purebred, I want a part Newfie.”

His mom flipped through one of the thin magazines that stood on a shelf by the front door. “There are lots of jobs in here,” she said without looking up, “restaurants you can work at.”

“Mom,” the younger boy said, “we’re not even in college!”

They each ordered variations of grilled chicken.

3) Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle

 Part I: Ramen

You want to talk about ramen hype? With coverage in the LA Times, LA Weekly and on innumerable blogs and the tweetosphere, Tsujita had peoples’ attention before it even started serving noodles.

Tsujita is located in the Westside’s small but thriving Sawtelle neighborhood, an area sometimes called Little Osaka. Part of a small Japanese chain, this shop is the only North American branch, a fact that the ‘LA’ in the ‘Artisan Noodle’ name only vaguely hints at.

Tsujita offers two menu distinct menus. During the day (11am – 3:30pm) they focus on noodles: ramen and tsukemen. At night (6pm – 12am), they’re an izakaya, serving hot dishes and small plates, as well as a stellar omakase (“I’ll leave it to you,” aka chef’s choice) menu.

Tsujita offers three kinds of tonkotsu ramen: straight up for $8.95; Char-Sui Ramen for $12.95: “Ramen soup topped with slices of roasted pork;” and Negi Ramen for $9.95: “Ramen with thin strips of green onion.”

Head chef Kenta Ikehata

The charshu pork is really good. Tender, buttery, it even has the faint smoky taste of bacon.

Three thick slices float atop the noodles in the basic $8.95 bowl, all carefully placed alongside nori, bamboo and scallions. Although not as buttery as Daikokuya’s, Tsujita’s pork is delicious, so good that in hindsight I can see that I should’ve followed my own advice and paid the four extra bucks for the Char-Sui Ramen.

Three Jewish business people ate beside me. They kept playing what my own Jewish family calls the “Jewish name game”: guessing who’s Jewish based on their last name. One guy talked about trying to find a rabbi for his son who just left for college at Brown. When the waitress came to take their order, one man said, “I’ll have the rah-mahn.”

“Ramen,” said the waitress, scribbling it down.

“Yes,” he said, overcorrecting, “the rah-men.”

When their food arrived, they ate and talked and commented on their first bites. Businessman #1 said, “This is fabulous.”

Businessman #2 said, “Yes. Noodles are too hard for my abilities.” He was struggling to use the chopsticks to get noodles into his mouth.

The lone Businesswoman said, “We’re all here eating pork soup,” and they laughed. Through a mouthful of noodles, she described her father’s death and her mother moving into assisted living. “My mom is eighty-four, on JDate.”

Businessman #2 laughed. “Marketing is everything.”

Another highlight is the large selection of condiments on the counter.

There’s slivered red ginger, hot leaf mustard, sesame seeds, vinegar and pepper — you can dress your noodles to taste. If you like your soup spicy, add some of that mustard. This isn’t wet, hot dog style mustard. It’s the actual mustard plant, diced and leafy and seasoned to add heat but not too much. (Meaning, if you like your Korean food medium-hot, you won’t feel this at all.) It also adds flavor but not a pickly, tart flavor that’s going to overwhelm the soup.

The broth is thick and super porky, satisfying all the points on your palate with its dense flavors and silky body. They cook it for sixty hours. Besides this slow, careful simmering, part of Tsujita’s secret is fat. It comes from the pig parts, as well as a clear slick of lard on top.

Lard, you say? Before setting the bowl on the counter for the waitress, the cook spoons in some soy sauce from one metal bucket, then spoons in liquid lard from another.

Lest you think all Japanese food is healthy, know that, in Japan, it’s common to thicken ramen broth further by adding liquid lard. Some shops add butter. If that sounds like overkill, it is. It’s also delicious.

Take, for instance, Asahikawa ramen, a shôyu-based broth that blends chicken, pork and seafood. Since it’s located on Japan’s cold northernmost island of Hokkaido, Lucky Peach says, “The bowl is topped off with an insulating layer of lip-scalding melted lard to prevent the soup from losing heat in the frigid winter months.” In that same issue, David Chang says, “There’s a shop called Jiro in Japan that has become epically popular for having the most extreme tonkotsu-style broth, with so much pork fat emulsified into it that people talk of getting sick after eating it for the first time. But that doesn’t stop them from returning for the second go-round.” It’s a description that could fit countless junkies’ first use of heroin: getting sick then continuing using. What is it about pork fat that’s so seductive? And ‘emulsified?’ Any food whose preparation requires industrial and pharmaceutical terminology is going to take a toll on your body.

It gets crazier.

According to Lucky Peach’s “Specifist’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan,” restaurants in the town of Kurume, on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, serve their ramen with bits of fried lard. How you fry lard is beyond me, but determined chefs have found a way. And in the frigid west of central Honshu, “The twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjô lay claim to one of the most unusual and unhealthy ramen variants in Japan—an already rich broth made of pork bones, chicken, and sardines is topped with an almost obscene amount of suspended pork fat. There’s enough lard and raw white onion shaken on top that it’s almost impossible to make out the extra-thick, linguini-like noodles hidden below. They say that the salt and calories go a long way to replenishing the body after a hard day’s work making forks and spoons.”

A few words on lard skin:

Lard skin

Lard is a curious beast. Like mercury, it exhibits unusual physical properties that give it strange movements and qualities. Drizzled on hot soup, it liquefies, yet like the top layer of American sausage gravy, it quickly solidifies. Its resting state is congealed, and when it congeals in ramen, lard skin at rest resembles rice paper: a clear, delicate, surprisingly pliable layer. It contains tiny bubbles, and no matter how many times you stir it, as long as the soup is hot, the skin seems to reform. It sticks to everything, draping from the side of the bowl like a plastic pool cover, encasing the noodles, chopsticks and green onions as if this were sous-vide.

like a plastic pool cover

When you look at that reflective film, you know that that is exactly what it’s doing inside your arteries: coating everything and blocking passage. But when it’s on your tongue, you don’t care. You’ll care a few decades from now in the ICU.

In addition to compromising your health, the eating is fraught with danger. Even the tiniest drops will ruin your clothing. Bowls slide across the counter and leave oily traces that you don’t notice until they wet your arms. Pouring your soup into a take-out container requires surgical skill and the ability to disguise your terror in a way that maintains the illusion of masculinity. I even found a pool of liquid lard on the plate beneath my bowl. It had a semi-skin when I lifted it.

Broth like Tsujita’s elbows you in your bloated gut and proves that no matter how much Japan imports and celebrates Americana, it can also out-America America on uniquely Japanese terms. America invents the bacon cheeseburger topped with a fried egg and onion rings, and Japan lets some lard soup harden in your wheezing ventricle. Most ramen is a bacon cheeseburger. Although its complicated and protracted preparation means that it is not necessarily fast food, it does offer eaters a similar sense of comfort and a fatty rush, as well as a comparable physical abuse.

Despite the grim air of mortality surrounding this meal, there is much to love here, as evidenced by my consumption of the entire bowl and half of a second one. One highlight are the noodles. They’re fresh and chewy, closer to angel hair spaghetti than the springy, curly rubber bands most ramen eaters are used to.

Tsujita cooks them three different ways: hard, medium and soft. As the menu says: “Our recommendation is hard!” (That’s also how they like their arteries.)

If the bowls are smaller than the Daikokuya feeding trough you’re used to, then at least the flavor here more than makes up for it. Forget about size. This dish isn’t your penis. The soup’s so rich that a small order is sufficient. If you’re reading this and you’re American, though, you likely think that bigger is better, in which case, Tsujita makes you a dangerous proposal: buy a refill of noodles for $1.50, and the restaurant will give you free soup with it. This practice is called kaedama (替え玉), which translates to “extra noodles.” Since some customers may still be hungry after their meal, or might find the restaurant’s portions too small, some restaurants have a system where you can order extra noodles for a small additional fee. The Ramenaiac website says: “Ordering kaedama is a pasttime that originated with the Hakata style of ramen, in which portion sizes are traditionally smaller.” Many Japanese ramen shops require that diners have enough soup left in their bowl to accommodate the added noodles, which is why diners with foresight will resist drinking too much of the soup if they’re going to order a second helping. That’s why it’s generous that Tsujita includes more soup with the deal: Drink your soup, don’t drink it, they don’t care. You’re getting fresh soup either way. When the waitress brought my extra noodles, I realized the wisdom of not drinking too much of the soup: mine arrived in a new, clean bowl. The second was essentially a naked recreation of my first bowl, minus all the toppings – just soup and noodles.

I dressed it with sliced ginger and hot leaf mustard, then sprinkled it with sesame seeds. I was so stuffed that I could barely get through a third of it.

As Americans, we’re used to ordering more than we should, and eating more than is wise, so when you sit down at a place this good, it’s tempting to just assume you’re going to order kaedama. Eat like a horse, I told myself, you’re not in LA very often. It’s vacation. But Americans aren’t the only ones. A Japanese twenty-something came in, said hi to someone he knew at a nearby table, and in the time it took me to eat half my first bowl, he scarfed down two. His wallet was out to play before I finished slurping up my broth.

During the meal I felt fortunate to be here. Afterwards, I felt sick. No wonder: I’d eaten the gastro equivalent of wall insulation. After paying my bill, I tried to walk down Sawtelle but had to sit down in the shade to keep from throwing up. I pictured what that would look like: the bald gringo, vomiting into a planter. Bloated and remorseful, I tried to keep it together. Like the baby that I am, I text my girlfriend. She texted back the truth: “That’s what happens when you eat lard, baby!”

Part II: Tsukemen

Like those nauseated diners at Jiro, I returned to the source of my torment for more.

Besides ramen, Tsujita serves tsukemen. At first glance, this resembled a healthier soup, one based more on fish than pork and lard. “For 12 hours,” the website says, “the rich flavors of bonito and dried sardines are simmered together with pork bone, chicken bone and many vegetable creating a succulent fragrance of the sea that is powerful and beyond compare!”

I’m addicted to bonito dashi – that rich, umami-laced flavor based on dried bonito fish (katsuobushi) that tastes like a bacon-infused ocean. A whole, carefully simmered broth of that struck me as liquid heaven. I would have ordered it on my first visit, but once I read the menu’s tsukemen section it was too late; like a miracle, my ramen arrived less than three minutes after ordering. I came back a week later.

Since Tsujita’s so popular, there’s often a wait. If you get stuck waiting for lunch outside, drink some of the barley tea they offer in a large plastic jug. Waiting outside beside me, three twenty-somethings discussed their recent celebrity sightings. A young woman in a high-waisted brown dress said, “You saw Angelina Jolie a few weeks ago, right?”

Her friend, a young man in super skinny black jeans said, “A few years ago. I saw Russell Brand a few weeks ago at the airport.”

She nodded. “You see them at the DMV because they have to go there themselves.”

It’s not that kind of restaurant. It’s just that kind of city.

So, what is tsukemen? Pronounced skeh-men rather than tsoo-keh-men, it’s a cold-noodle dipping style of ramen. Despite its rampant popularity in Japan, it remains relatively unknown in the US. Lucky Peach gives a brief history: “As much a different concept of ramen as a regional style, undressed tsukemen noodles are dipped into an accompanying bowl of fishy, barely diluted broth before slurping. Though tsukemen has taken the ramen world by storm of late, it traces its history to the early postwar era, when the now-legendary ‘God of Ramen,’ Kazuo Yamagishi of Tokyo’s Taishôken, decided to offer his customers soup and noodles separately.”

Tsujita is one of the only places on the West Coast that serves tsukemen, reproducing stateside one of the best recipes in Tokyo. In his 2011 LA Weekly article, Jonathan Gold calls the dish “life-changing” and describes a noodle blogger/cognoscenti known as “Rameniac” who flew from London to LA just to eat it. As Garrett Snyder puts it in his 2012 LA Weekly article, “The tsukemen broth [at Tsujita] starts out as the same tonkotsu base as the ramen, except it’s simmered and reduced for 60 hours, then fortified with bonito until it’s as viscous as motor oil. You dip your noodles, chewy, bouncy and cooked al dente, into the umami-rich liquid, then slurp up the lubricated strands. The proper technique for enjoyment involves consuming one third of the noodles with the broth, the second third with a dash of togarashi spice, and the final third with a squeeze of lime. Although you might have a hard time getting past the pure animalistic bliss of the first section.”

Los Angeles magazine included Tsujita as #88 in their 2012 “101 Cheap Eats” summer roundup and described chef Kenta Ikehata as a tsukemen fanatic who moved from Tokyo to LA to open Tsujita’s first US location. “[H]e’s been known to toil into the wee hours to perfect his pungent broth,” it said. “All that labor has yielded a bowl of silky soup unmatched in L.A.”

The Tsujita menu offers directions to bring out the emergent flavors:

Enjoy Tsujita Tsukemen Style in 3 Stages,

Begin by dipping the noodles into the accompanied soup broth until you have enjoyed around 1/3 of the noodles.

Please squeeze the lime juice over the noodle at the timing you like.

After the noodle is finished you can enjoy the soup at the end by pouring some addition soup stock.

The taste changes dramatically with each stage. Tsujita Tsukemen style at best.

The menu didn’t mention lard, though, and this time I arrived prepared.

I asked the waitress if she could hold the lard in my tsukemen. She shook her head no.

“You can’t tell them not to add lard?” I said.

She said, “Oh, it’s already in the soup.”

“That’s okay. Can you tell them not to spoon more on?”

Yes, she said she could do that.

Some people might see this as sacrilege, akin to asking Katz’s Deli to make their famous pastrami sandwich without the rye bread, but I disagree. Why take such great pains to source and combine specific ingredients only to ruin the dish at the end? Japanese soup stocks have some of the most complex, satisfying flavors on earth. Wanting broth straight wasn’t sacrilege. Dumping lard in there was. I just wanted to eat without feeling ill.

The broth was incredible. Potent and complex, porky and oceanic, rich and savory — like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It was also pretty greasy. A layer of clear fat floated atop the dark, cloudy broth like spillage in the Gulf.

In that 2011 LA Weekly article, Jonathan Gold says, “If you try to taste the tsukemen dipping sauce alone, somebody probably will stop you before the spoon makes it up to your lips.” Either no one bothered to stop me, or they didn’t see me spooning it to my mouth. Same with leftovers: “You are permitted but not encouraged to take home leftovers,” he says. The waitress with the ramen was more than happy to let me take what was left of my second bowl home. By the time I ate all my noodles, though, I was so larded out that I didn’t even want to take the tsukemen home. Less than half the broth remained in the bowl.

Rare or not, I was happy to leave it there. All that flavor, the cooks’ labor, the meticulous ingredients – burying it beneath so much grease seemed more egregious than like pouring generic barbecue sauce over Central Texas brisket that had been smoked for two days.

Maybe my stomach’s too sensitive. Maybe I have a prejudice against grease. I would say that Tsujita just barely missed the mark if I didn’t have the unbearable urge to eat there again.

4) Miyata Menji

Miyata Menji’s small, Spartan space presents a far more welcoming environment than you’d expect from a narrow expanse of white walls and wood floorboards.

A Plexiglas case of cookies stands by the door. Between the cookies and the kitchen, a large group of construction workers sit at the large center table, slurping noodles and sharing boisterous conversation.

Unlike many places, Miyata Menji has chosen the path of simplicity. It offers two items: tsukemen and tonkotsu ramen. Although they serve specials like a curry ramen, their simple menu means they do everything well.

Miyata’s soup didn’t turn my stomach the way Tsujita’s did. In fact, when I asked the hostess if they added lard, she tried to conceal her confusion with a smile. “Lard?” she said. “What is lard? I don’t think so.” There was a sense of finality that countered the rising intonation of her final sentence.

And unlike Tsujita, there was no wait. Miyata’s hostess greeted me at the front door with the traditional “Irrashaimase!,” or “Welcome!” in Japanese, and let me choose a table. She was super sweet and accommodating. Wearing a bright yellow Miyata t-shirt, a dark apron and a white headscarf decorated with Japanese characters, she buzzed around the room refilling water glasses, seating new arrivals and smiling when she caught your eye. A few bites into my meal, she appeared beside my table. “Everything good?” she said. She rubbed her belly. “We have extra noodle if you’re still hungry.”

Part of a small Osaka-based chain, Miyata is a recent addition to Sawtelle’s ramen kingdom: it opened on March 21, 2012, the first American branch in the company. As the LA Weekly reported right after the opening: “Owner and ‘famous comedian’ Menji Miyata wants to spread his food to the world, explains vice president of operations Akihiro Kanda. The 26-seat, cash-only restaurant, which opened on March 23, has yet to make any public announcements of its debut and is relying heavily on word of mouth and foot traffic for customers. ‘The ramen business is blowing up,’ says Kanda.”

A tiny Japanese woman ate an enormous bowl of tsukemen next to an enormous Hispanic kid in a maroon Adidas soccer shirt, eating an enormous bowl of ramen.

While I ate, a brusque middle aged Asian woman stepped inside to grab a menu. When the hostess greeted her, the woman barked, “Do you have cold noodle?”

“Tsukemen?” said the hostess. “Yes.”

“No,” the woman said in unsteady English. “Cold noodle.” They exchanged words I couldn’t hear. Her eyes darted around, and then she left.

The menu describes their take on tsukemen as “steamed noodle with anchovy cabbage, white shallot, grated cheese & vegetable ptage, pork minced, tomato crouton.” It notes: “If you are allergy or dislike to cheese, please tells staff. We are able to make it without cheese.” Looking around, it seemed that most people ordered the tsukemen.

Although I wish I’d ordered it, too, Miyata’s tonkotsu is the stuff of dreams. It’s rich without being heavy, fatty without being greasy, porky but not too salty. It’s the same approach that Daikokuya takes, finding flavor in the slow simmering of broth and adding fat back in, rather than adulterating perfect broth with lard. Like Suehiro’s, the broth here is golden like matzo ball soup, and its medium-body is silky in your mouth.

As usual, they top their soup with scallions, but in a twist that’s unusual among LA’s ramen shops, Mikyata garnishes their soup with diced tomato.

The tomato adds a nice tartness and a soft, fresh texture to each bite, a counterpoint to the hot broth. It doesn’t alter the flavor of the soup, though, which is nice. In what almost seems a cue from Vietnamese noodle dishes, they sprinkle on white shallots and fried slivers of garlic. The combination adds a deep, satisfying punch to the broth that fans of Kumamoto prefecture’s garlic-infused ramen might appreciate.

Another unusual twist: instead of using charshu pork, Miyata uses terisyabu – teriyaki beef. Granted, there isn’t much of it, and maybe it’s more a cost-saving measure than a culinary decision, but the thin strips are flavorful and have that chewy, resilient texture that makes teriyaki so good.

You can add extra terisyabu for $2, and more fresh tomato for $1. Ramen and tsukemen are both $8.75 for a regular size bowl. A large size is available for when you feel like an animal.

While chewing terisyabu, I started thinking: after eating all this pork ramen, what was it doing to my body? If you want a biased opinion, famed Tokyo ramen shop Nantsuttei offers a nutritional analysis of chashu pork. (The lead singer of the Morning Benders, Chris Chu, told The New York Times that of the twenty-five or so bowls of ramen they ate on a 2012 Japanese tour, Nantsuttei’s tonkotsu “blew everything else out of the water.”). Nantsuttei says: “Pork is a great source of good quality protein and contains an abundance of vitamin B1. Vitamin B1 is highly effective in relieving fatigue and is necessary to change glucose to energy in the liver. Vitamin B1 also helps to stabilize your autonomic system and relieves the symptoms of menopause and autonomic dystonia. Pork also contains compounds that reduce cholesterol and help prevent hardening of the arteries. By combining with garlic, which contains scordinin, you can feel the full effect of fatigue relief!” Oh, pork actually protects your arteries from hardening? Who knew. (Notice their website discusses the nutritional profile of green onions, garlic and eggs, but doesn’t list any info about their soup’s salt, fat or calorie content.)

Daikokuya, on the other hand, has taken a more subtle, evasive approach to the subject: “Currently we do not have the nutritional info for our food. It is something we will do in the future, but it is an involved process. Right now we are a small restaurant chain of 4 locations.. The California law requires restaurant chains of 20 or more locations to provide nutritional info.. so we still have time lol. Alternatively, you could look up general item’s nutritional info such as ‘gyoza’ etc.. and find a possible ball-park idea of what it might be. Of course, our recipes are not necessarily the same, so it would not be entirely accurate. Eventually we will have the analysis done.” Now that’s a line of BS I can respect.

Miyata’s only problem is location: the shop is easy to miss. Set off the street, on the edge of a small parking lot, the tiny storefront is composed mostly of a doorway and a yellow awning beside a blank wall.

Walking by, it looks like it’s part of the neighboring hardware store, rather than an appetizing restaurant.

Because it’s set back a ways, Miyata sets a sandwich board by the sidewalk to draw attention. I’d say that I hoped that tactic was working, but the crowd at 12:30 on Tuesday proved that it was.

Despite the seductive decadence of Tsujita, Miyata is my favorite noodle joint on Sawtelle. Simple, savory, with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff, eating here is like eating at a friend’s house, expect they leave you a bill. As the red paint on the parking block in front of the door says, “Thank you!! See you again.” Oh hell yeah you will.

5) Asahi Ramen: Japanese Noodle House


If we judged a restaurant’s prospects by its appearance, we’d miss some of the best food on earth. A birrieria with bars on the windows whose screens buzz with flies? A man grilling meat on a cart on a downtown sidewalk? Unlike the covers of books, food often works on the counterintuitive, uglier-the-better principle (UTBP). In fact, when it comes to ethnic, neighborhood restaurants, you should ignore the setting entirely. In Los Angeles Magazine, food writer Zach Brooks goes further, offering two rules: “Avoid Anything ‘Clean’ and ‘Real’ – These are code words for ‘expensive’” and “Look Past the Surface – Love the ambience and friendly staff at your favorite restaurant?  Of course you do. Know who pays for that? You.” That’s good advice.

Asahi Ramen isn’t dirty. It isn’t cramped or even faintly crusty. Rather than a hole in the wall, it’s the sort of benign brood cell you find in suburban strip centers next to office parks. Instead of overpriced iceberg lettuce salads and garbage sub sandwiches, it serves twelve types of ramen, more varieties than any other place on Sawtelle.

An hour before closing on Saturday night, the place was jumping – only two vacant tables in a room full of about ten. As the restaurant’s website says, Asahi is a place “frequently visited by film stars, so one wall is like a small gallery with star photographs covering it.” I missed the wall of photos, but the place was a sea of civilian faces.

A middle-aged guy with his girlfriend knocked over his cup of Diet Coke. Ice and soda cascaded over the edge of the table, onto the floor. She giggled and handed him a napkin. “Why is that funny?” he said.

She leaned back in her seat and tightened her ponytail. She said, “It is,” and smiled at me as if we had an inside joke. I smiled back. I couldn’t deny it was funny.

An older woman with buggy eyes and overprocessed big black hair sat next to me with her young daughter and said nothing. The kid watched a kid’s show on a smart phone with the volume turned up. The mother stared past her, past me, straight out the window, her chin resting on her hands as if the life had just left her. Only when the food arrived did the two speak.

“Would you like a fork,” the mother said, “or chopsticks?”

“Fork,” the kid said. Then they ate.

Nearby, a young man ate by himself, slowly and methodically, and drank a Coke.

A jovial couple behind me spent a lot of their time laughing and swapping stories. When the server came by, the man asked, “Can we get this to go?” He and his girlfriend said they loved their ramen but were full. “As you eat it,” he said, “it expands. It grows and grows. You have to watch as it reproduces!”

Japan is home to numerous regional ramen varieties. Despite this diversity, ramen broth is often divided into four basic types: pork-bone based ramen (tonkotsu), salt-based ramen (shio), miso-based (fermented soy bean paste) and shôyu-based (close to soy sauce). Nine of Asahi’s twelve ramen are shôyu-based, but each has a distinctive flavor, due as much to its toppings as its broth. There’s Wakame Ramen (“Noodle with seaweed, bean sprouts, cooked bamboo shoots in a soy sauce soup”), Moyashi Ramen (“Noodle with sautéed bean sprouts and shredded pork in soy sauce soup”), Shio Ramen (“Noodles with roast pork, ½ egg, bean sprouts, cooked bamboo shoots in clear soup”) and Kimchi Ramen (“Noodles with pan fried kimchi and shredded pork in soy sauce soup”).

I ordered the Mabo Ramen.

I’d eaten so many varieties of tonkotsu in the last few days that I wanted to taste something completely different. Often spelled mapo doufu, mabo tofu is one of the most well-known Chinese dishes in Japan, Korea and the West. It’s simple: slices of tofu seasoned in a red, chili- and bean-based sauce, whose flavor comes in varying levels of heat that frequently reaches the popular Sichuanese “numbing” level. Asahi’s menu describes their Mabo Ramen as “Noodles with spicy sauce with ground pork and tofu in soy sauce soup.” It was spicy but not overpowering, just warm enough to have heat and lots of flavor. But the broth was mediocre.

As Asahi’s website puts it: “The broth is derived from meats and 10 different types of vegetables and steeped for over 24 hours. The broth requires vegetables of which 7 would easily spoil, so the profound taste of the broth is very special to the dish.” Maybe the owners prefer the taste of shôyu soups. Maybe they want to specialize in a type that few other LA ramen shops serve, make it their niche. Or maybe shôyu ramen is just easier to make. The problem is, you can taste the difference. It’s not that Asahi’s broth is cheap or lackluster. It’s clearly labored over. It’s just that, for all that simmering and those ten different vegetables, the result is too simple a taste for my palate. Even though I’m partial to stronger flavors – briny, porky, oceanic – Asahi’s stock is savory and salty but lacks depth. You won’t find a whiff of bacon smoke. You won’t find the complex layers of tartness, garlic or butter the way you do at Miyata, or the concentrated seafood character of Tsujita’s tsukemen. The flavor that dominates here is salt, not overpoweringly, but in a simple way. It’s silky on your tongue but flat, which is disappointing considering their range of offerings.

I initially saw the menu hanging in the window and thought, “I want them all. This will require numerous trips.” I ate one bowl and thought, “Eh, next time I’ll eat the Hiyashi Chuka (“Cold noodles with egg, seaweed, cucumbers, and bean sprouts in sweet sour sauce”) and tsukemono pickles.” Maybe shôyu broth just isn’t for me, in which case, I’m a poor judge of quality. Maybe this is actually what ramen is supposed to taste like, and the heavy porcine gravy version is just the now version, the “extreme” next-level, take-it-over-the-top trend soup. Hard to say. I like porky, though.

If this was a person’s first experience of authentic restaurant ramen, they would be missing out on the depth of experience, but Asahi still has many charms. A small bowl of delicious, sautéed cukes accompanies each soup. Nice and crisp, they’re seasoned with what tastes like salt and sesame oil. The staff is super friendly, very attentive. Prices are reasonable and servings large. And unlike Tsujita, overindulgence at Asahi won’t make you ill. If there’s any post-meal regret here, it’s that I don’t live close enough to work my way through their menu.

In addition to ramen, Asahi serves yakisoba, sara udon (katayakisoba), oshitashi (boiled spinach in a sweet sesame sauce topped with shaved bonito), ban ban ji (“marinated shredded chicken and thinly sliced cucumeber”) and mabo rice, even egg flower and wonton soups.

As I ate my soup, servers repeatedly walked to the front of the store to close the door behind customers. The door locks in an open position. I can only imagine how annoying that would be to do all day. If the servers were irritated by it, they concealed it well. When the clock struck ten, they flipped the “open” sign and kept refilling diners’ water, as the rest of us slurped soup and paid our checks.

6) Jinya Ramen Bar

Despite the number of meals I had on Sawtelle, I never got around to eating at Jinya. But for those planning a trip to the area, it’s worth mentioning. As LA Weekly said during my visit to LA, Jinya serves “Tonkotsu ramen – including a black version with black garlic oil and a spicy red version – soupless ramen, gyoza and organic tofu made to order at your table.” The idea that I missed spicy red and black versions makes me ache with regret. That I walked by this joint and didn’t go in – what an idiot I am. LA residents, I ask of you: please slurp a bowl for those of us who cannot.

7) Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi

Another venerated place I didn’t get to eat is Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi. It’s a small chain with a few branches in LA and one in Tokyo. The Little Tokyo location is on Central Avenue, south of 1st. In their June, 2012 Cheap Eats round up, Los Angeles magazine said of it: “Mitsuyasu Shigeta’s chain of Shin-Sen-Gumi restaurants serves everything from yakitori to hot pots. The draw at the latest branch in Little Tokyo is a pork-centric hakata-style ramen that’s meant to be customized. From the firmness of the noodles to the thickness of the broth to the flecks of fried pig’s ear on top, you get to choose. » 132 Central Ave., Little Tokyo, 213-687-7108.

The restaurant’s website explains their unique offering: “Hakata ramen originated in Hakata city located north west of Kyushu . The main characteristic of Hakata ramen is the white, thick soup that is made from pork bones, also called Tonkotsu (pork bone) soup/ramen. Some of the other differences in character it has from other types of ramen are thinner noodles, and the simple decorative toppings of cha-shu , chopped scallions, red colored ginger, and sesame seeds.

In our restaurants we use carefully selected Berkshire pork and filtered water. It is cooked for more than 15 hours with a strong flame from a commercial grade jet burner to make our unique Tonkotsu soup.

Some of you may think, Tonkotsu soup is just a soup, it can’t be difficult to make. soup is like a living thing that must be carefully monitored. The water level, temperature, and strength of the flame must be maintained in order to create the best consistency of coloring as well as taste. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to open our restaurants, as it has happened a few times in the past. We take great pride in our work and food that we serve. We will not be second best!”

I admire their obsessive dedication. It’s one more reason that I need to go back to LA.

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Like a billion other people, I took a trip through Los Angeles recently. Thanks to my food fanatacism, I’m going use the ’60s “Summer of Love” convention to describe my time there, except in place of love, I use tacos and burritos. Here are a few of the more interesting places in LA where I ate Mexican food.

1) La Tehuana

Maybe it seems weird to drive to Koreatown to eat at a taco truck, but if you think about it, it’s sort of weird to let strangers cook your food inside a truck.

Parked on the north side of 3rd street just west of Normandie, in a dense, residential strip, La Tehuana serves food Monday through Friday, 7pm to 1am, and Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 2. If you sling tacos in the middle of a city this big, it’s wise to stay open late for drunks and weekend revelers.

When I arrived after 9pm, I slid in line behind a Korean couple and some fellow solitary eaters. It was Saturday night. People walked and biked by. Cars raced down 3rd and piled up at the stoplight. I parked a few feet away, in front of a Korean liquor store whose sign simply said “Liquor” in both English and Hangul.

A guy on a skateboard rode up, ordered an asada burrito and leaned his board against the newspaper wrack that stood in front of the cashier window. Because of the way the truck was situated, the dispenser functioned as a de facto table, which you could relax on while waiting or use to set your drink.

An elderly man on a bike yelled “Get outta my way!” to a pedestrian crossing the street. I leaned against the cool brick wall of Lucky’s Laundry and waited for my food. Three women in aprons and ball caps hustled inside the truck. Two prepared food. One handmade tortillas. When the cashier called the Korean couple’s order, they sprinkled their tacos with cilantro and hot sauce at the salsa bar and carried their food down the street.

If you want napkins here you have to ask for them. Same with utensils. If your order is to-go, the cashier will wrap your plate in aluminum foil. She’ll call your number and slide your plate across the counter: “Cuarenta y ocho!”

I sat on an upturned milk crate and ate.

The coastal air was moist. People continually arrived to place orders. Two tacos cost me $2.50. Every taquería garnishes their tacos differently. La Tehuana doesn’t dress theirs — just meat piled on one corn tortilla. You add onions and cilantro as you like, shredded cabbage, too. A row of condiments and salsas lines a metal counter.

There’s the usual containers of limes and thinly sliced radishes. There are two mulcajetes of salsas – one a thin, smooth guacamole, the other a fiery roasted red, as much flavor as heat. And there’s a Tupperware of plain but workable chunky salsa which seems to be made with only onion, tomato and cilantro; I couldn’t taste lime or salt in there. Inert as it is, it does add a nice crunch and color that makes the food pretty.

La Tehuana makes their own corn tortillas by hand, and they’re delicious. My sole hang up is that they only use one tortilla per taco. Doubling up lets you spread the contents out into a longer taco, which extends the pleasure of the taco experience and keeps your bites from being ridiculously overstuffed. Doubling up also helps keep any wet tortilla from disintegrating in your hands. Even though using one tortilla is an understandable way to cut costs, if you’re known for handmade tortillas as La Tehuana is, I say slap another on there. It’s a minor complaint.

Despite the abundance of local taco options, lots of Angelinos love this place. One woman on Yelp recalled the moment her La Tehuana addiction began: “Saw this random taco truck with a crowded line and I immediately made an illegal U-turn and almost ran through a red light.” Another woman said, “$1.25 for a taco? Great price to pay to get through the gates to taco heaven.” “I once heard you can judge a taco truck by their Pastor tacos,” said a Yelper named Victor, “and let me tell you this trucks pastor is 5 stars.”

Apparently, they used to serve a mysterious, decadent dish called Alambre, which the LA Weekly covered. It wasn’t offered when I went, though I wouldn’t have ordered it anyway. I was here for the tacos, even if they did only use one tortilla.

For dessert, here’s a fun blog, subtitled “Celebrating the Taco Lifestyle in Los Angeles” http://www.lataco.com/

2) El Gran Burrito

Red words painted on the yellow wall say:





“Burritos any time” – I want that on my headstone.

Located just west of the busy corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, cattycorner from an ARCO gas station, El Gran Burrito Restaurant offers a setting that feel as close to a picnic as you can get in this part of East Hollywood.

The restaurant is a giant patio. The register stands outside, set beside toy dispensers and coin-powered electric rides. Cars race by on the other side of the fence, as breezes blow between tables.

When you park, you step into the covered patio, rather than inside the restaurant, and even if you eventually spot the register, it isn’t entirely clear what you’re supposed to do next.

This convoluted ordering system is guaranteed to confuse newcomers and separate them from the regulars. Like Machos Tacos further up Vermont, though, this place engenders the kind of repeat visits that turn occassionals into regulars.

When I approached the register, the clerk was wearing headphones, scrolling through songs on an iPod he kept in his pants pocket. “Here’s your receipt,” he said. “You hand that to the lady in the window and she’ll take care of you.”

I scanned the dining area behind him for the condiment station. “Do you still have pickled carrots?”

“Yes,” he said, “just ask her for some.” They’d rearranged things since my last visit. No more self-serve carrots. Now cooks doled them out. The restaurant had also moved their entire condiment station inside; it used to be behind the register, in between the tables. It was so exposed that anyone could have stepped off of Santa Monica Boulevard and fixed themselves a bowl of carrots or helped themselves to salsa. Budget eaters like me probably spiked costs.These weird arrangements and idiosyncrasies are half of El Gran Burrito’s charm. The place is down-home, and in a world of chains, that’s refreshing.

Unlike other restaurants further north in Los Feliz, this isn’t the kind of place where you’ll hear talk of food allergies or gluten-intolerance. It’s the kind of place where you use paper towels, not napkins, and you have to fetch them yourself from an automated dispenser mounted on a metal column. It’s the kind of place that spells midnight “midnite” in its “El Gran Burrito Restaurant Midnite Tacos” sign, the kind of place where a kid on a skateboard will roll by on Santa Monica spooning cereal from a paper bowl, and two kids will chase each other through the parking lot, throwing gravel at each other.

You want a plate? Just ask for it. Otherwise, the cook will place your food in a small plastic bag, with the tacos wrapped together in foil, pickled carrots wadded in foil, too. You’ll be thankful for the paper towels’ larger dimensions and heavy gauge. For their size, these tacos are messy.

While I ate, a Hispanic man in his late forties pulled up on a BMX, wearing a white striped shirt and black plaid, knee-length shorts. He asked the cashier for a cup of water. “It’s hot, man.”

“It was hotter yesterday,” said the cashier. “But yeah.”

As the clerk filled a cup, the bicyclist peddled through the dining area, weaving between tables with the agility of a teen. His shorts stretched down past his knees, bright white socks pulled up to meet them.

The first time I ate here, a young black man in a tight purple dress beckoned me over from the neighboring Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. “Pssst,” he said, waving at me. “Hey. Come here, baby.” He was sitting on a bench, his back straight, one leg crossed tightly over the other. “Baby, come here.” People streamed past him, in and out of the subway stairwell. I waved back and said, “Thanks, but I’m hungry and need to eat. Have a good night.” When he kept calling I turned back around and blew him a kiss.

At El Gran Burrito, “everything on them” means that cooks dress the tacos with onions, cilantro and hot sauce. In addition to green, they serve two types of salsa: a chunky wet red one like the kind you’d dipped chips into, and a salsa fresca made of onion, cilantro sprigs and large slices of tomato. There’s too much oregano in the salsa for my taste, giving it a bit of a spaghetti sauce flavor. The salsa fresca is delicious, though. The tacos are stuffed full of meat both tender and flavorful. Not one but two tortillas hold each together. At $1.25 a pop, these are just what you need, especially after midnite when little else is open.

3) Tito’s Tacos

I spotted take-out containers labeled “Tito’s Tacos” in a friend’s refrigerator in Santa Monica one morning. When I asked about the restaurant, she said it was a local landmark, one that I, as a self-described taco fanatic, had to visit. When I arrived in Culver City hours later, I realized that at some point someone else might have mentioned Tito’s to me, too, but one reason I might not remember it was because of their speciality. They served tacos durados, aka hard shell tacos.

No matter how generous the contents, no matter how tender the meat, I don’t care for hard shell tacos. I prefer Mexico City style, which are often called “street tacos”: meat in warmed corn tortillas. Save the hard shell for tortilla chips, which I will also largely ignore to save room for the good stuff like tamales and beans and green chile. Maybe mine is a problem of association: any hard shell taco tastes reminiscent of my Taco Bell childhood, conjuring uneasy memories of cheap cheese atop soy-laced “meat” and the anxiety of going on high school dates with occasional acne. Can any high quality adult taco experience can undo that strong a Pavlovian response?

A crowd pressed against Tito’s five outside windows when I arrived, spilling down the sidewalk in loosely formed lines.

Inside, the same scene, except in shade.

It was as if someone had chummed sharky waters with taco meat and caused a feeding frenzy. Yet the atmosphere was calm, the people in line patient and polite. Apparently, the line often stretches far down the street.

Two women in front of me ordered twenty tacos and two large sides of chili beans. They were headed to a corporate event. A nearby couple carried off two cardboard trays stacked with tacos and chips. I’m sure Tito’s tacos are delicious, but when I stepped to the register, I didn’t order any. I got my other favorite food: a burrito. I snapped two photos through the window and the clerk politely told me, “Sorry, no photos.”

A young guy ordering at the neighboring window said, “Take one when they’re not looking.”

“Normally I would,” I said, “but I want to make sure I get my burrito!”

He laughed. “Good point.”

My cashier put on plastic gloves and stepped to the food station to wrap my burrito.

Like so many of LA’s best restaurants, Tito’s occupies a nondescript building whose architecture and location don’t reflect its iconic status. Down Sepulveda Boulevard’s seemingly unbroken row of old one-level store fronts, past Culver Ice Arena and Johnnie’s French Dip — another iconic eatery — Tito’s sits on busy Washington Place, just west of Sepulveda, beside the 405 freeway. Parking spots line the street, but chances are you’ll have to park on one of the two side streets that run north and south off Sepulveda. The north one is quieter, lined with houses and trees. The shady spots under the 405 are nice, too.

I carried my food through the crowded interior and took a seat on the back patio at a table with a family of four: two teenage girls, their mother and what appeared to be their grandmother. The grandmother spoke quickly in Spanish between long sips of Pepsi from a straw. A heavy man at the table in front of me ate alone: first a taco, then an entire chili con carne burrito and chips. He spooned salsa on nearly every bite, just as I always do.

Tito’s salsa tastes so fresh and alive, it seemed wrong to drizzled it on fried tortilla chips. It’s pureed. Composed mostly of tomatoes, it contains a little chile, a few chile seeds, and tiny, infrequent green bits that speckle its nearly absolute redness. The tomato flavor is intense but not overwhelming, and the flavor is so light and bright in your mouth that it almost tastes like they’ve pureed watermelon in it. I’ve never experienced any salsa like it. It’s exactly what you want on a hot summer day.

Even if you share my devotion to street tacos, Tito’s menu is diverse enough to satisfy. They sell beef and chicken tamales, tostadas and enchiladas, as well as chili beans. By chili, they mean chili con carne: cubes of beef, stewed until tender. As much as I love chili con carne, Tito’s version isn’t the most flavorful. It’s a bit bland. I got a meat and bean burrito, and it didn’t have the strong red chile flavor or complexity that I like. The salsa and tortilla more than made up for it, though.

The tortilla was perfectly grilled, making it both pliable and firm and giving it the essential little dark grill spots that flake off like pastry. It was, without question, the perfect burrito tortilla and folding job. They wrap like only the experts do: tight, origami corners that you can trust to hold up under pressure.

The back patio overlooks a car lot. As I ate, a car salesman taxied a small SUV through the lot, his leg dangling out the door so that the soles of his feet almost skimmed the pavement. Despite the location, the patio is peaceful. Vines festoon the side of the 405. Sitting out there beside the trees, freeway traffic softens from a roar to a calming hum, like a river of cars lulling you into a trance rather than eliciting the sense of terror and traffic jam adrenalin that LA’s freeways often do.

At a large table by the door, seven Tito’s cooks and cashiers ate together. Two still wore their hairnets. All had on red aprons. They were laughing and talking in Spanish. At one point they started singing and clapping their hands. Behind them, in a space beside the alley, stood three towers of tomato boxes, each nine boxes high. A kid with baggy skater pants and a forearm tattoo sat down nearby and ate three tacos. Inside, gringos sat beside Asian, Hispanic and black customers, everyone enjoying a sunny summer day and offering proof that Los Angeles is as multicultural as New York, and that it is this very multiculturalism that is responsible for making it one the world’s great cities.

Here’s Tito’s website. Don’t judge the food based on the quality of their jingle, but do brace yourself for it: http://titostacos.com/

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For too long, when I thought about used bookstores in downtown LA, I thought of the lyrics in X’s song “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”:

L.A. bookstores open

Kicking both doors open

When it rested on 6th Street

Except those aren’t the lyrics. It’s “L.A. bus doors” not “bookstores.” Sometimes your brain hears not the world but the echo of its favorite conversation subjects. Some of my favorite subjects are books and independent bookstores, like Powell’s where I used to work.

Despite my error, LA does have independent bookstores. There’s pitch-perfect Skylight Books in East Hollywood’s Los Feliz neighborhood. There’s Pages in Manhattan Beach, Arcana: Books on the Arts in Culver City, and the venerable Vroman’s in Pasadena, which a friend described as “the Powell’s of Los Angeles.” There’s even the expansive Above the Fold Newsstand on the Promenade in Santa Monica, a magazine and newspaper stand with a classic, mid-century feel and outdoor weather ideal for browsing. The only bookstore downtown, though, is the one that carries the ominous name The Last Bookstore.

Store owner Josh Spencer used to sell books, CDs and other stuff on eBay from his downtown loft. He opened The Last Bookstore’s first brick and mortar incarnation in 2009 in a building in the Old Bank District at 4th and Main. When he moved the store into its current location on 5th and Spring Street in June, 2011, two indie bookstores in Pacific Palisades and Laguna Beach announced pending closures that same month, and downtown’s Metropolis Books went up for sale. Spencer didn’t go into this business with any detailed, long range plan, and he’s aware of the risks. “People look at all this,” he told Los Angeles Downtown News in 2011, “and think we’re rolling in the dough. They don’t realize I’ve used all the debt I can, from everywhere, to open this. We’re doing OK, but not great.” He added: “Whether we last will depend on if the community supports us. Right now, they’re supporting us.” It’s because there’s a lot to love.

The store is enormous: 10,000 square feet. Stock is varied and voluminous. Shelves are well organized. And prices are low. Also, the setting is one of a kind: inside an old Citizens National Bank, opened in 1915, on the ground floor of a tall historic building. White columns rise twenty-five feet to the vaulted ceilings. Original tile floors contain geometric designs and the sort of uneven wear that makes historic structures so charming. A small coffeeshop is wedged in one corner, all dark woods and purple walls and stray beams of light streaming through the window. Chair and couches ring the center of the store, though a sign warns:

Please note: we are not a library

1 hour time limit for chairs & couches

-No sleeping

You damage the books, you buy them

This message doesn’t detract from with the store’s warmth and larger message: that all are welcome.

In their 2012 article “The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World,” Flavorwire described the store’s “huge space, high ceilings and stately pillars” as contributing to “a lovely reading experience.” It’s true. Contrary to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” mantra, when it comes to ambiance, appearances sometimes matter, and this store is inviting, like a giant living room. You’ll want to spend quiet time here searching the shelves for surprises. That was Spencer’s intent. As Los Angeles Downtown News put it in 2011: “Spencer said he wants the store, which already hosts events including an open mic night on Mondays, to feel like a gathering place.”

Still, it’s hard not to get hung up on the name. The Last Bookstore – it sounds more like a eulogy than a business. Is it a nod to a waning industry? A challenge to the conventional wisdom that bookstores are a losing business proposition? Or just a reference to the death of LA’s once thriving used book business? A little bit of each, it turns out.

As the store’s website says, “The name was chosen with irony, but it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as physical bookstores are dying out like dinosaurs from the meteoric impact of Amazon and e-books.” In the LA Times, Carolyn Kellogg described what seems a telling metaphor for the rise of the niche independent bookstore in these times of chainstore die-off: “Scratch under the old style and the dark stain and some bookshelves might look familiar; several of them came from a closing Borders store in Glendale. ‘We scavenged the bones of the corporate giant,’ Spencer admits.’” Yet in that same article Spencer strikes a more dreary chord: “I think books are going to become sort of like vinyl is now: the province of people who appreciate things that are well made, appreciate craft in graphics and creativity they can feel. …I think there’s always going to be a great market for books, but it’s definitely going to shrink to those who value and enjoy the ritual of browsing through books and holding books and turning pages. That’s gradually going to become less and less, as the generations pass. This might be the last generation, I think.”

Time will tell. For now, The Last Bookstore is here to provide us with affordable used books and the kind of ambiance bibliophiles crave. In the process, the store is making a stand against economic trends and the general assumption that the old bookstore model is doomed, and it’s putting a little of the literary life back into the bustling center of this smart, literate city.

To get a sense of the store’s stock and buy books online, visit their website here: http://lastbookstorela.com/

For a sense of its interior, here are some more photos I took on 5/30/12:

But photos of bookstores don’t keep them open. We have to buy their books. You can do so online here. And when you’re in LA, you’ll enjoy a trip to the store through downtown’s shady, energetic streets, which are surprisingly congenial despite how urine-scented they often are. On my last trip here, I bought a few things, including the LA-based Slake magazine, an eclectic quarterly. Among the nonfiction I bought, my favorite acquisition was Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader. It’s a collection from one of New Journalism’s least known progenitors, Grover Lewis, contemporary to Gay Talease and Tom Wolfe, minus Wolfe’s horrendous titles and mouth-clot maximalism. It gathers great pieces from Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Texas Monthly and more. It was five bucks.


Great article by Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times here.

Another interesting one here.

And a short 2012 LA Times piece here.

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