West Los Angeles: Boulevard of the Rising Sun
SAWTELLE BOULEVARD in West Los Angeles may be 5,000 miles from Japan, but please dont tell the locals. More than a decade ago, this nondescript street, strung with strip malls and modest apartment buildings, was a quiet community of second-generation Japanese immigrants that was mostly known for its botanical nurseries.
Things changed in the late 1990s, when foodies hunting for authentic Japanese cuisine discovered the area and its family-run yakitori and teriyaki restaurants. In the last few years, as the vogue for everything Asian has exploded, so has the neighborhood.
Today, this three-block stretch between Missouri Avenue and Olympic Boulevard is an oasis of noodle and boba (pearl tapioca tea) houses, Tokyo street-wear shops and karaoke bars that are packed until the woozy hours of the morning not just with fashionable Japanese, but with college students and hipsters as well. Call it Neo-Tokyo in the heart of Los Angeles.
Kick-starting the trend was Giant Robot (2015 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-478-1819; www.giantrobot.com), a miniemporium devoted to Asian pop arcana like wind-up Japanese robots ($2) or vinyl Ugly Dolls ($25). Eric Nakamura, 37, opened the store in 2001, not far from where he grew up. I collected things like comics, baseball cards and toys as a kid, he said. And once youre into clogging your house with stuff, stocking a store is just as addicting.
Giant Robot has since expanded up and down the street like a real estate Godzilla. Theres an art gallery, GR2 (2062 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-445-9276; www.gr2.net), that features contemporary artists, including graffiti artists like Twist. Theres a cafeteria-style restaurant, GR/eats (2050 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-478-3242; www.gr-eats.com), that serves cheap, fast-food-style fare and chicken teriyaki ($7.75). There are even outposts in San Francisco and New York.
Hello Kitty fans have their own boutiques. Tokyo (2109 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-914-5320) specializes in all things kawaii (Japanese for cute), like heart-shaped stickers and Hello Kitty backpacks (starting at $19.99), while Happy Six (2115 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-479-5363; www.happysix.com) sells polka-dot shirt dresses with pink velvet bunny patches ($68).
But most visitors still go to Sawtelle Boulevard to soak themselves in soy sauce. You can sample nearly every style of Japanese cooking, from instant ramen to slow-cooked barbecues, from cold soba to hot curry.
Among the finest, and smallest, is Orris (2006 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-268-2212; www.orrisrestaurant.com), a Tokyo pub-style restaurant that serves izakaya Japanese tapas with a French twist. Favorites include Szechuan snapper carpaccio ($9.50) and squash blossom tempura ($8.25).
For a casual vibe, head to Mizu 212 (2000 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-478-8979), where a grumpy-looking Felix the Cat glares down at the customers who are busy cooking their beef shabu shabu ($11.50 to $45.50 for Kobe beef). Sushi lovers should go no farther than Kiriko (11301 Olympic Boulevard No. 102; 310-478-7769; www.kirikosushi.com), on the Sawtelle side of the Olympic Collection mall. Its a serene, bamboo-screened sushi bar that serves glistening slices of fat-marbled toro (market price).
Finally, since no night in Tokyo or on Sawtelle is complete without singing off-key, stumble over to Karaoke Bleu (2064 Sawtelle Boulevard, 310-477-4794), the most popular of three karaoke bars on the strip. Dont worry if you cant speak Japanese. The song list includes plenty of Britney Spears ($1 a song).