You may have heard of Little Tokyo near downtown Los Angeles, but to the west, not far from the University of California Los Angeles, is the Sawtelle neighborhood–formerly known as Little Osaka. This area is known for the stretch of restaurants, cafes, and shops concentrated along Sawtelle Blvd which is in the area between Santa Monica and UCLA.
Sawtelle Japantown (it’s official name, see below) boasts a number of great Japanese restaurants and is a nice place to take an evening stroll or go on a date–all while wearing a mask and social distancing of course.
Let's go over briefly some of the history of the location as well as explore a few of the popular food spots and notable shops to visit in this diverse, cultural hub.
1890 Sawtelle. Photo from Wikipedia.
Sawtelle - A Brief Historical Background
The official name of this area in West Los Angeles, just north of the Sawtelle and Olympic Blvd intersection, is Sawtelle Japantown. Unanimously approved by the LA City Council in 2015, the name Sawtelle Japantown is to recognize the area's long history for being a hub for Japanese Americans pre and post World War II.
"It's a broad-based, historical commemoration of our ancestors settling Sawtelle 100 years ago," Ted Tanaka of the Sawtelle Japantown Association shared. The area also takes its name from developer W.E. Sawtelle who established it as a city in 1899 which was later annexed into LA in 1922. Japanese Americans that were excluded from settling in the surrounding areas of Westwood and Brentwood due to racial discrimination, settled here in the early 1900s.
After being uprooted and displaced because of the unjust Japanese American internment camps of WWII, many Japanese American families came to this area to resettle and establish businesses. The descendents of these families along with other local families have made it the destination spot it is today.
Coffee Tomo Picture by Mary S.
Cafes and Boba Shops
Coffee Tomo boasts a wide variety of drinks, a personal favorite being the red bean latte which has a hearty red bean flavor and does not contain coffee. They’re also known for their Tomo Latte, an espresso based drink with condensed milk and their gourmet pretzels. Nice coffee shop vibes.
Volcano Tea House is a very popular boba tea spot in Sawtelle and is located next to Seoul Tofu. Pre-pandemic you’d often find a line going out the door on busy nights, but now they’re only allowing a few people in at a time and take COVID precautions seriously. Their house milk tea and taro milk tea are favorites and they also allow Venmo as a payment option.
Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea is a Taiwanese drink company that uses organic cane sugar and fresh fruit to create delicious fruit teas with shops in Koreatown, San Gabriel Valley, and Sawtelle. Named after the owner’s grandmother Yifang, the house favorite is the Yifang Fruit Tea which is filled with fruit. They also have excellent boba tea like the Brown Sugar Pearl Milk Tea.
Balconi Coffee Company (recently closed) was a quaint coffee shop just off the main stretch of Sawtelle Blvd. The interior and the various coffee making machines on display gave this place an artistic feel that will be dearly missed. They do happen to have pop ups, please check out their website here.
Photo of Tsujita LA pre-pandemic. By Bee M.
Places to Eat
Tsujita L.A. Artisan Noodles, the most famous ramen and tsukemen shop in West LA. Even during the pandemic, demand seems to be strong with people still willing to wait for pick up and outdoor seating. They’re known for their dipping ramen–tsukemen–in which you’re given noodles and a separate bowl of broth you use for dipping. If you finish your noodles you can have another order of noodles. They also have a shop across the street, Tsujita L.A. Annex, which specializes in Jiro Ramen, a pork-flavored ramen with a mountain of garlic and bean sprouts on top.
Daikokuya is one of my favorite ramen spots and less of a wait than Tsujita. They’re known for their Spicy Miso Ramen and Daikoku Ramen, each having their own rich broth and flavor. Greetings of arrival and departure are done in Japanese which is fun. The interior is set up like a traditional old school ramen shop, with wooden boards and signs, which hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy after the pandemic.
Marugame Udon is the go to spot for delicious udon noodles and tempura, all at an affordable price. Before the pandemic, service was done like a lunch counter, with each customer taking a tray, ordering their main noodle dish and then choosing their sides. Now, food ordering all takes place in one spot and then there is outdoor seating in the front and along a side alley. The broth (kake-dashi) is made fresh each day and the udon noodle texture is great.
Mogumogu is known for its delicious mazemen, dry/soup-less ramen. Instead of the ramen coming in a soup broth, it comes in a savory sauce, similar to zhajiangmiang (jajangmyeon), and a boiled egg on the side. The first time I had mazemen was here and I was blown away by the flavor. The Deluxe Mazemen is a popular choice and for vegetarians/vegans there is the Impossible Tokyo which is all plant-based.
Photo from Giant Robot.
Here, I’ll go over briefly some of my favorite shops in the area.
Nijiya Market: quaint Japanese market that carries authentic Japanese groceries and foods such as a wide variety of instant noodles, mochi, Japanese snacks, sushi, grilled fish and meat bentos, etc…Also they have Japanese drinks like rice tea and Calpico.
Daiso Japan: sometimes I’ll go into a Daiso and not expect to buy anything and then I’m walking out with a handbasket of stationary, kitchen tools, and a stuffed animal. In the same plaza as Nijiya, this Daiso is a little smaller than the stores in Northridge or Torrance, but still offers many of the same conveniences.
Giant Robot: I’m so happy this shop is still open during the pandemic. They sell an eclectic array of graphic novels, shirts, and toys that are available to view under the canopy tent they’ve set up outside of the store. They support Asian American creators and is only one of the few stores I was able to find a children’s book with an Asian American lead character for my niece. Down the street they have the Giant Robot Art Gallery that displays works by Asian/Asian American artists, but is currently only open by appointment according to their website.