Sawtelle, or the now municipally recognized “Sawtelle Japantown”, is a small neighborhood in the heart of West Los Angeles with strong Japanese heritage. Dating back to the 1900s, Japanese Americans began taking up residence in the area—it was one of the small pockets on the West Side of Los Angeles where housing was not restricted by race covenants. Back then, residents established nurseries, boarding houses, schools, and numerous small businesses. Today, the main drag of Sawtelle Boulevard is exploding with mixed-use development and has become a mecca for Japanese and modern Asian cuisine.
It would be near impossible to compile a guide to the best food and culture Sawtelle Japantown has to offer. That’s because one, the street’s storefronts are in constant flux and two, with so many different tastes, what’s truly the best is a matter of preference. LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold has named a few of the street’s eateries in his 101 Best Restaurants list; Plan Check is noted for a prime selection of gastropub burgers, wings, and creative bar food, and Tsujita for some of the best classic Japanese ramen, both tsukemen (strong broth with dipping noodles served on the side) and tonkotsu (noodle soup with creamy pork broth). This is a very small sample of what’s available to eat in Sawtelle.
And of no surprise, the street also offers some excellent coffeehouses, two of which I consider to be among the very best on this side of the 405. So let Coffee Tomo or Balconi Coffee Company be a springboard to an afternoon of exploring. Grab a coffee, browse the shops, smell the flowers, and by then you’ll be ready to sit down for a bowl of ramen or soup dumplings.
A fire truck red-colored Diedrich roaster in the front window doubles as an advertisement to the savvy customer, causing any coffee aficionado in passing to do a double take. The shop keeps a rotating selection of single-origin coffee, freshly roasted and brewed from Hario v60 hand drippers. The house espresso is smooth and sweet and serves as the base for many animal-inspired latte art creations.
Food pairings diverge from the typical shop fare: think sweet potato and cheese pretzels, caramel butter bread and the self-titled “Cheese Tomo”. They’re all made to order but well worth the ten-minute wait. “Some people come all the way up from San Diego for the pretzels,” says shop manager Adam Hong.
Coffee Tomo has also teamed up with nearby Plan Check to provide an elevated coffee experience at the restaurant. “They use our coffee for cocktails, desserts, and in their French press,” Hong notes. It’s nice to feel the communal spirit between two compatible eateries.
Balconi Coffee Company
Balconi Coffee Company specializes in syphon or vacuum pot style brewing. The menu features single-origin coffees from Verve, De La Paz, and other rotating roasters. Just before brewing, each customer is offered a whiff of the fresh grind. There is no rushing through the line. The baristas here have the preparation down to a science and it shows in the consistency and clarity of each cup they serve. Coffees come with a single Dutch butter cookie on the side, which to my surprise made a noticeable difference in the coffee flavors.
This shop is really all about the coffee and reintroducing a bit of old school, pre-Internet culture. There is no WiFi; the best entertainment comes from the chess set which is missing a pawn. The walls are lined with paintings from local artists and every once in a while the shop hosts a gallery reception. It seems like a great place to start practicing the lost art of conversation with an old friend.
Since opening in 2000 as a vintage retailer, the shop has evolved into a hybrid of street fashion and small trinkets. One side of the store is lined with pairs of stiff raw denim, printed sweaters, and jewelry. Step into the other half and you’re surrounded by porcelain figures, mugs, stationary, and stuffed toys. As I walked through, a child pointed to the small stuffed animals and exclaimed, “Look how cute these are!”
Giant Robot Store
The Giant Robot store is the brick and mortar manifestation of the Asian and Asian-American pop culture magazine of the same name. Though the magazine is out of print, the store keeps a healthy selection of manga cartoons and creative toys. Giant Robot 2, the sister store down the street, features the work of rotating artists.
Gardens in the residential neighborhood behind Sawtelle are evidence of the lasting Japanese influence, and Hashimoto Nursery is likely responsible for many of the plantings found in this neighborhood. It’s the oldest nursery on the street and one of the only original storefronts dating back to pre-war times. It’s easy to spend an hour getting lost in the maze of cacti, small trees, clay pots, and bright flowers.
FuRaiBo is a great dinner spot to enjoy Japanese izakaya cuisine. The restaurant is one of the few that still employs tatami mats—rice straw floors that take the place of chairs. Izakaya dining centers around tapas-like small plates and appetizers (accompanied well by sake and a few Sapporo). Teba-saki chicken wings are a crowd pleaser or, if you’re more adventurous, try the hatsu—skewers of chicken heart.
Sushi on Sawtelle, even more than the rest of Los Angeles, is everywhere. Kiriko Sushi, tucked in the Olympic Collection, is known for its high-quality selection and special daily offerings. Hide Sushi has been an establishment on the street since the 1970s. If you want to eat here, you better put a name down at least 30 minutes before. For a combination of affordability and enjoyability, try SushiStop. Strong business has now justified three separate locations within just three blocks. It’s no wonder when all rolls are $2.95.
Hide Sushi is located at 2040 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles.
SushiStop is everywhere, one location can be found at 2222 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles.
Today storefronts are being built out for a new taco joint, clothing boutiques or snack shops, and the local YMCA is threatened by another mixed-use behemoth in the pipeline. The scenery will continue to change on Sawtelle as the Expo Line Metro extension opens a few blocks away and more begets more. Hopefully, the balance of old and new is preserved, or at least remembered. But right now, Sawtelle is still a great place to hang out, drink coffee, and eat, eat, eat. Go.
Mackenzie Champlin is a freelance journalist based in southern California. Read more Mackenzie Champlin on Sprudge.