(The festivities end on Sunday, August 24th, so get up there while you still can.)
Every year, Little Tokyo holds Nisei Week, a festival celebrating the history of Japanese-Americans Los Angeles. Over the years, what originally began as an ethnocentric event has become a way for the Japanese-American community to reach out to the rest of the city, with a beauty pageant, street fair, cultural exhibits, martial arts demonstrations, live bands, and food food food. There's even a gyoza (fried dumpling) eating contest!
(Irvine Amtrak station)
Cat has been an Angelena all her life, but she's never really explored the tiny ethnic enclave that makes up Little Tokyo. Several years back, she had to miss a trip there with friends. Since then, she's been looking for an excuse to have me take her. All she needed to do was to find the right bait. An outdoor fair with street food was perfect.
Stealing a page from my buddy Kirk's book, I decided to make it a (rail)road trip. I like hopping the train into the city. It takes same amount of time as driving, but I get to skip the nasty 5, 101, & 10 freeway switcheroo, the weekend traffic, and the stress. I also don't have to worry about finding and paying for parking. With gas prices what they are, the $30 per person round trip tickets are more than worth it.
Catching the train was a bit of an adventure. The Irvine Amtrak station is putting in a new, multi-level parking structure. While construction is in progress there's even less parking than before. We missed the first train even though we got to the station 20 minutes early because we couldn't find parking. Ironic...
However, once we actually got on the thing, we were looking at some seriously cushy digs. I don't know if this was a special train, but it was nicer than business class seating on most airlines. Cat and I had crazy amounts of room. There was even a proper restaurant car serving hot food. If Amtrak ran one of these up to LAX, I'd ride it every day!
The trip took about an hour and was very smooth. We spent a few minutes admiring the architecture in LA's Union Station. Cat told me the city spent millions restoring it. It was worth every penny.
(Crowds in Little Tokyo.)
The front of the Union Station faces the famous Olvera Street. However, we wanted to catch some of the Japanese cultural exhibits while they were still open, so we did our best to ignore the loud Mexican music and the smell of the food. Instead, we hung a left and headed down Alameda.
Fifteen minutes of walking brought us to the busting Nisei Week crowds in Little Tokyo. There was an eclectic blend of recent immigrants, locals, tourists, neighborhood toughs, and high school and college kids dressed up as anime characters, including the occasional sexy schoolgirl complete with uniform. As I'd hoped, food was everywhere.
(From right to left: octopus dumplings, shrimp meatballs, chicken meatballs, pork dumplings.)
In front of the Mitsuru Cafe, we found a mobbed stand featuring fried spherical items on sticks. My Unified Fair Food Theory states the following:
Given that everything fried at a fair is tasty.
Also, given that nothing on a stick can ever be bad.
Then, fried fair food on sticks is awesome.
I was proven wrong. It was awesometacular.
The folks at Nijiya Market had a sizzling hot griddle frying up Okonomiyake, a savory Japanese pancake made with shredded cabbage. Do you see the dark, tea-colored patina staining the metal? That's a mark of griddle quality. When you come across a well-seasoned griddle like that, you know the food is going to be good.
The steaming slab of cabbage, batter, and bacon they handed me was thickly slathered with a special sweet and sour sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried algae flakes, and dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes. It's an ungodly combination that, if you haven't tried, you really must. I guarantee you'll be hooked. I joked with Cat that although we were in Little Tokyo, all the street food was Osaka style. It made sense. Osaka has arguably the best street food in Japan.
Bellies full, we made our way over to the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, where we checked out displays of flower arranging, tradition brush painting, dolls, and ceramics. There was also a tea ceremony being offered on the fifth floor, but the weather was much too hot for us to properly enjoy that.
We did, however, linger in the refreshing cool of the JACCC's small Japanese garden. It was a nice change of pace from all the concrete and asphalt of the city. I was surprised to find such an idyllic area in the middle of LA's downtown.
Then, it was time to hit the pavement, canvassing the entire area in search of fun shops, knickknacks, and (of course) more food. Kirk and the Missus's beloved Sushi Komasa already had a line forming in front of it, even though dinner service didn't start for another hour. Cat and I decided to give it a pass. However, we did manage to drop by Fugetsu-Do, an iconic local sweets shop that has been in business for over 105 years. Not a bad kick in the bucket.
The tiny store is lined with every Japanese candy imaginable, including some I haven't seen since my childhood. They even had a particular type of milk candy which my father once told me hasn't changed since he was a boy. A charming, old-fashioned Coca-Cola soda pull and ice cream case occupies one corner, a remnant from a previous generation.
As much fun as the candies are, the real attractions at Fugetsu-Do are its artisan Japanese tea cakes. Each confection is hand crafted and exquisitely flavored. The mochi are made from pounded glutinous rice flour and seasoned with fruit or chocolate extracts. Some are filled with sweet red or white bean jam. The manju are small steamed or baked cakes also filled with sweet bean jam. The yokan are jellies made using a seaweed extract and flavored with red or green beans. I can't visit Fugetsu-Do without picking up a box of these sugary gems.
As it was starting to get dark, Cat and I decided to head back to Union Station. We got there about an hour before the next train, which was fine by us, since it gave us the chance to try out Traxx Restaurant.
I'm usually leery of fine dining establishments in airports or train stations. Having a captive clientele, most of which are only passing through once, seems to breed a criminal indifference in restaurateurs. This often results in shoddy meals at outrageous prices. However, I'd heard some surprisingly nice things about Traxx that prompted me to give it a chance.
(Studying the menu.)
As seems to now be established custom in LA, Traxx offers different selections of small and large plates. Their dishes are a familiar Californian blend of American, French, and Asian influences.
Cat opted for the Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crab Cake from the small plates menu. After our experiences at other restaurants, we expected a golf-ball sized crab cake or two with a thimble of salad as garnish. Instead, she got a pair of massive, rugged patties larger than my palm and bursting with crustacean goodness. Each cake was practically solid crab and aggressively seasoned with a spicy chili and garlic blend. A cooling salad of crisp bell peppers, carrots, onions, and cilantro added a Latin twist to a really delicious dish.
Feeling a bit hungrier, I ordered the Hanger Steak & Pomme Frites. Although it was a little gristly, the steak was seared to a nice medium rare. The herbed shallot butter added a lot of flavor, while the peppery watercress salad helped cut the richness. The pomme frites were a disappointment. I'd been expecting thicker fries, but these were the shoestring type that was harder to eat with the steak.
After dinner, we hopped on board another comfortable train. The ride home was just as relaxing as the ride up.
Little Tokyo's Nisei Week - A fun way to spend half a day, especially if you haven't visited the area in a while. Parking isn't that hard to find, but I recommend the train if it's convenient. For me, the smooth ride and ability to relax beats fighting LA traffic any day.
Fugetsu-Do - A must-visit stop if you find yourself in Little Tokyo. If you can't get yourself over there, you can still enjoy some of their confections at your local Mitsuwa. Just be aware that they keep all the really good stuff in the shop.
315 E 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Traxx Restaurant - The food was good and the service was excellent. Our waiter was courteous and efficient, helped us pick dishes that would take less time to prepare, and got us fed and out to door in plenty of time to catch our train without feeling rushed. I'd advise sticking with the small plates. They're plenty of food for one person.
800 N Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Bill (Traxx Restaurant):
Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crab Cake - 14
Hanger Steak & Pomme Frites - 23