Japantown on Sawtelle in Los Angeles is about as close to Japan as we’ve been able to get these last two years. As someone who considers Japan to be a second home, the inability to travel to Japan has been rough. One thing that helped (a little anyway…) is knowing I’m not alone in missing Japan. I’d like to introduce my friend Sheila Stone. Sheila loves travel so much that she started her own tour company when she was 60! And today she’s sharing with us some of her favorite spots in Japantown on Sawtelle:
Japantown on Sawtelle in Los Angeles
After two years Japan is finally open! But at this point, there are still some caveats.
Unless you are a student, business traveler, or relative of long-term/permanent residents, you are required to take a pre-approved packaged tour. This means no solo travel yet. You also will need to apply for a visa in advance. Although independent travelers cannot yet enter Japan, there are some signs that they may be able to do so starting in the fall or later. Of course, it goes without saying that you will need to be vaccinated and wear a mask whenever it’s asked of you.
While we’re waiting for the rules to relax, let me tell you about a special place in Los Angeles where your Japanese food dreams can come true. Sawtelle Japantown isn’t as big or as well-known as Little Tokyo in downtown LA, but it packs a big punch.
The Best Places to Eat in Japantown on Sawtelle
There are literally dozens of places to eat and drink in its small two-block area. The restaurants used to be all Japanese but, over the past few years, that has expanded to include Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, and even a couple of Mexican places.
In no particular order, here are some of my favorites:
Who can resist freshly-filled cream puffs? Not me! Which is why Beard Papa’s definitely tops the list.
They don’t fill them until you place your order, and the combination of a crispy shell with creamy filling is truly a delight. Vanilla, chocolate, and green tea custards are always available and sometimes they also offer seasonal fillings (such as pumpkin). The shells can be plain or frosted with chocolate, matcha, strawberry, or even have a s’more topping. They have other desserts too. Everything I’ve ever had there was scrumptious! Their creampuffs run $3.75-4.25 each – buy 5 get one free.
Deep-fried mochi hot dogs at Mochi Dochi! You start by choosing which combination of meat, veggie-dog, or cheese you want. Then pick a batter – plain, squid-ink, or jalapeno-curry. Finally, the dipped dog gets rolled in your choice of potato cubes, sweet potato cubes, or chopped onion. Then it’s all deliciously fried and this is heaven on a stick. Mochi dogs cost between $4.99-6.99, depending on your choices.
This tiny storefront (there is no indoor seating) has a small menu but they serve some of the best karaage I’ve ever had, including in Japan. You can’t beat freshly made, crispy pieces of chicken with tasty dipping sauces. Try the ponzu! It’s just off Sawtelle on La Grange – but definitely worth a walk around the corner! I recommend the Karaage; it’s $6.75 for 5 pieces and 1 dip.
Marugame Udon is a Japanese chain offering both delicious udon soup and a selection of tempura options. I go in for the tempura shrimp and the tempura sweet potato. Interesting story, when I led my 2019 tour to Japan, the second night we were eating at the food court of Tokyo Skytree. Guess where I got my dinner? Bowls of udon run from $5.95-13.95 and tempura is between $1.95-2.25 per piece.
Taiyaki is a fish-shaped, waffle-like treat that’s usually filled with anko (sweet red bean paste). The taiyaki at SomiSomi are freshly made and come with your choice of fillings – cheddar, Nutella, custard, taro, and Oreo, in additional to anko. They also sell the Korean treat Ah-Boong – fish-shaped cones filled with soft serve ice cream. They are cool-looking as well as delicious! Taiyaki are 3 for $3.95 and 6 for $6.70 and Ah-Boong run about $6.00-$7.00.
Two words: mochi doughnuts. And another three words: Hokkaido Cream Cakes. You can’t go wrong with either choice. SubMerry Bakery also offers beautiful cakes that are perfect for a birthday or other celebration. This is a tiny place, but their treats are so freaking good! Both mochi doughnuts and Hokkaido cream cakes are $2.00 now.
B-Sweet‘s specialty is many kinds of bread pudding but my favorite choices are ube (purple sweet potato) delights. Since it’s Filipino, I might be cheating a bit putting it into this Japanese blog post but ube is used a lot in Japan so I’m going with it. If you get lucky, B-Sweet’s Ube pop tarts might be on the menu, which is the most fun Asian-American mashup I know! If they’re out of the pop tarts, opt for the Ube Cheesecake.
The purple is so vivid it’s hard to believe they didn’t pour in a whole bottle of food coloring, but that’s the natural color of these delicious tubers. And the taste is SO good! The menu changes often but desserts run between $5.00-7.00.
Kaz – The Soba Place
Kaz‘s soba is delicious served either hot or cold. But they also have something I’ve never seen anywhere else – tempura cherry tomatoes! Sweet, salty little bites of goodness – just be cautious of the internal temperature of these babies. Oba is $7.00-13.75 and the delicious little tempura cherry tomatoes will only set you back $2.75!
Have you had the delicious savory pancake called okonomiyaki? It comes in two variations – Hiroshima-style, in which the ingredients are layered – and Osaka-style, in which the ingredients are all mixed together. Chinchikurin serves Hiroshima style. I always ask for the layer of noodles to be crispy! Since each one is made to order, you can choose meat, seafood, vegetarian, or a whatever combination strikes your fancy. It might take a bit longer to get your order, but the results are absolutely worth it! Prices run between $16.00 and $22.00, depending on your choices.
Not a restaurant but definitely a Don’t Miss! Daiso is essentially a Japanese 99ȼ store. A great place for kitchen gadgets, snacks, stationery, and even socks for those of us with smaller feet. Due to the imported nature of their inventory, most things are $1.75, not 99ȼ, but it’s still an amazing deal!
Author: Sheila Stone loves travel so much that she started her own tour company when she was 60. She personally creates and leads tours to various places in Europe, around the U.S. and – of course! – Japan. Check out her offerings at www.sheilastonetours.com. Sheila Stone Tours can be found on Facebook and Instagram. All photos by Sheila Stone.
Fall in Love with Japan Tour – Nov 6 – 20, 2022: for no more than 10 women. Everyone gets her own room at no extra charge. Personally led by Sheila Stone with local Japanese guides. Includes Western-style accommodation in onsen (spa) hotels, all ground transportation (including the Shinkansen – bullet train), all group admissions, and many unique experiences. We will wear kimono in Kyoto, have a cooking experience in Osaka, and meet both Japanese women and ex-pats living in Japan.