Niki Nakayama and her at-the-time partner (now wife) Carole Iida-Nakayama, have been cooking together at their hit Palms restaurant, n/naka, for over 12 years. They introduced Los Angeles—and really, the country—to the Japanese concept of kaiseki dining, multicourse meals that emphasize the freshness of seasonal ingredients. At n/naka, guests can dine on an extravagant 13-course menu with dishes like sushi and nigiri, seared wagyu, and spaghetti with abalone (depending on what’s in season). And with a glowing 2012 Jonathon Gold review, one Netflix show, and two Michelin stars under their belt, it’s safe to say that they’ve gotten their message across.
Niki and Carole are both natives of Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley east of the main city limits, and they grew up frequenting Little Tokyo, a neighborhood in downtown L.A. that’s considered the heart of the city’s Japanese American community. Founded in 1885, Little Tokyo is one of just three Japantowns in the United States, along with San Francisco and San Jose. It’s filled with restaurants serving Japanese fare, specialty bakeries, Japanese American–focused shops, and dessert spots. The options on how to spend an afternoon in this popular nabe can sometimes almost feel overwhelming.
This is Niki’s and Carole’s guide to one of their favorite neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Little Tokyo, as told to AFAR.
Kouraku Japanese Ramen
Location: 314 E. Second St.
Must try: Niku dango teishoku
Founded in 1976, Kouraku is considered to be the first and longest running ramen restaurant in the United States. Here, patrons will find old-school Japanese dining and a menu inspired by dishes that were popular in Japan post–World War II: think takoyaki, yakisoba, Chinese-inspired plates like mapo tofu, and of course, ramen. The restaurant is open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays and until 10 p.m. on other days, making it a popular late-night haunt in the area. One of Niki’s favorite dishes at Kouraku is its niku dango teishoku, or pork meatballs stewed in sweetened soy sauce, which she says remind her of her childhood.
Location: 134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Must try: The dinosaur egg
Though it may have an Italian name, Café Dulce is an Asian-style bakery with things like fruit-adorned egg tarts, strawberry cream doughnuts, Vietnamese coffee, and Hong Kong–style milk tea available for purchase. James Choi opened the shop with his mother in 2012, and it’s considered to be one of the first gourmet coffee shops to serve the Little Tokyo area. For Carole, the cream-filled matcha doughnuts and “dinosaur eggs,” chewy, green (they’re colored with spirulina) tapioca flour buns are not to be missed.
Location: 124 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Must try: A Japanese organic produce haul
There are three big Japanese grocery store chains in Los Angeles: Mitsuwa, Tokyo Central, and Nijiya. Everyone has their own opinions on which one they love the best, but Niki enjoys Nijiya’s Little Tokyo outpost for its location and wide selection of organic produce (Nijiya grows much of its fruits and veggies at its farm near San Diego) and hard-to-find Japanese vegetables like matsutake mushrooms and takenoko (young bamboo shoots). A visit to Nijiya wouldn’t be complete without at least perusing its deli, which serves homey comfort foods like pork tonkatsu, curry, and hamburger steak as well as sashimi and sushi.
Location: 123 Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka St., #205
Must buy: A magazine on modern Japanese design
Kinokuniya is the largest bookstore chain in Japan and has 16 stores in the United States—including one location in Little Tokyo. Shoppers here will be able to find a large variety of books in English as well as Japanese literature and manga, graphic novels, art and design books, and children’s books. Carole is an especially big fan of their selection of Japanese cookbooks and magazines.
Location: 343 E. Second St.
Must buy: A T-shirt
Shop owner Ricky Takizawa was born in Japan and moved to Los Angeles in 1996 when he was 22. He immediately fell in love with vintage clothing and making T-shirt designs with his friends. Though there have been four different Popkiller stores over the years, the Little Tokyo location is the last one that remains. The items at Popkiller are inspired by both Japanese and American fashion, and shoppers will find T-shirts with fun designs (imagine tops that say things like “Jesus shaves”) as well as a selection of vintage goods. It’s one of Carole’s favorite stops on any run to Little Tokyo.
Utsuwa no Yakata
Location: 333 Alameda St., #101
Must buy: A Japanese-style mug
For all your Japanese dishware, kitchenware, and ceramics needs, look no further than Utsuwa no Yakata. Although they do have a robust selection of goods on their online store, Niki says she enjoys seeing what they have to offer in person. Expect an eclectic mix of sake ware, tea ware, bowls, cups, and mugs, as well as fun tchotchkes like parakeet- and penguin-shaped chopstick rests.