Japanese presence in Mexico dates back 400 years to when the samurai Tsunenaga Hasekura stepped off a boat in Acapulco in 1614 to serve as the island’s first ambassador to what was then called New Spain. A few centuries later, in 1976, a new Japanese Embassy opened in the capital city, designed in the metabolist style by architect Kenzo Tange. As teppanyaki restaurants and Asian groceries began to sprout up in the surrounding neighborhood, it became an unofficial Little Tokyo district.
In the past few years, the Little Tokyo project has gotten both more official—area businesses are lobbying for a formal designation—and more chic, with a wave of sleek new restaurants, a standing wine bar, and a contemporary 10-room ryokan, all within a few tree-lined blocks of one another. Here are some of the highlights of the new generation of hot spots that are redefining Mexico City’s Little Tokyo for the modern age.
This casual izakaya (above) kicked off the Little Tokyo renaissance when it opened in 2012 with Tokyo-born, L.A.-raised chef Hiroshi Kawahito at the helm. The place is tiny, with just a handful of seats at the sushi bar, so reservations are essential. The menu features fresh sashimi and nigiri made mostly from fish caught off the Mexican coast, plus hand rolls and appetizers like sunomono with octopus and truffled toro tartar. Order an omakase (chef’s choice) option to get the full experience. —Río Ebro 87, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Rokai Ramen Located next to Rokai, this equally tiny ramen spot offers a dozen different broth-and-noodle combinations, plus hot dishes like spring rolls, karaage (Japanese fried chicken), miso wings, and a rice bowl topped with wagyu beef tongue. —Río Ebro 89, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
This low profile yakitori-ya is hidden behind an inconspicuous slatted sliding door. Inside you’ll find a spare, hushed interior and bar seating for fewer than 20 guests; they watch as the cooks at the grill sear dainty skewers of anything from chicken hearts to tender cubes of sea bass to oh-so-tiny ears of buttered corn, still in their silk. The two-tiered omakase is your best bet. —Río Pánuco 132, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Le Tachinomi Desu/Enomoto Coffee
Inspired by the standing bars of Tokyo and located right next door to Hiyoko, Le Tachinomi Desu is another small, inconspicuous hideout. With exposed brick walls, marble counters, and—as you might expect—no seating, the understated space specializes in natural wines, sake, and Japanese whiskey. By day, Le Tachinomi becomes Enomoto Coffee, which serves cortados and carajillos (a popular Mexican coffee cocktail) from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. —Río Pánuco 132B, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
This new 10-room hotel (pictured at top) is modeled after the traditional inns of Japan. Designed by architect Regina Galvanduque, the light, airy space seamlessly combines traditional Mexican elements (think: granite sinks and speckled-enamel plates) with Japanese influences, like a koi pond and Zen garden. Browse art magazines in the lobby-level sunken library, soak in one of four rooftop onsen tubs, or retire to your tatami room, which comes with a low-slung bed, lightweight yukata robe, and cushions for traditional tea service (available for an extra fee). From $150/night. —Río Pánuco 166, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Exit La Librería
While not exclusively Japanese-themed, Exit is Mexico’s first contemporary-art bookstore, with gorgeous photo books that share shelf space with titles from Satori Press, a Spanish-language publishing house specializing in Japanese literature and culture. —Río Pánuco 138, Colonia Cuauhtemoc