Welcome to Little Tokyo!

I was in Los Angeles this week on a business trip for one of my clients. The client office is in an industrial-warehousing-cum-low income residential suburb past the eastern outskirts of Boyle Heights. Within a few miles, no real signs of civilization exist unless one counts the Montebello Shopping Center and umpteen strip malls with 7-11s, liquor marts, and (weirdly) sushi restaurants as anchor tenants. I don’t count them although I am familiar enough with greater-LA to know that these elements, strung together along a ginormous web of freeways and boulevards, are what make up City. The City, that is, that forms all of Los Angeles outside of the “West LA.” West LA distinguishes itself by proximity to the beaches, and sports high-income housing along the same freeways and boulevards strung with liquor marts, sushi bars and shopping malls that feature more exclusive buying experiences than JC Penny. In other words, same shit, different bathroom.

That’s not to say some interesting gems don’t lay hidden in dusty corners. My last few visits I have stayed in the Little Tokyo section of Downtown. Even if you know LA, you may not know where that is – so, here in LA-speak: that section of downtown south of the Hollywood between the Los Angeles Street and Alameda Street exits. It’s where the new Geffen Contemporary Art Museum, the Japanese American Museum, and a few Japanese-themed shopping malls and hotels are located. It’s downtown without traffic, with a Metro Gold-Line (the line to Pasadena I believe) stop, and a close up view of the colorfully lighted LA skyscrapers by night. Palms line sidewalks, construction cranes vie with them for your attention.

It’s clearly one of those areas that was considered “blighted” fifty or so years ago and was bulldozed to make way for ten-story bank and government office buildings, a few shopping malls, street-level retail and restaurants and broad streets – and still a lot of vacant lots. It has that unfortunate 1960s harsh concrete urban-renewal vibe. If it weren’t for beautiful warm weather it would be as if San Francisco’s own pitiful Japantown (a shopping mall in the shape of a pagoda) were transplanted into the area around the SF Giant’s ballpark. Interesting, with that “there is almost something vibrant going on” feeling that in the end is crushed by the inhumanity and artificiality of the neighborhood.

You’re wondering where the “gem” part of this dusty corner is. We’re not there yet Ms. Impatience! I’m not a civic-booster shill, there’s more dust first.

One of the historic sites in the area, a warehouse that because the first Pentecostal church in 1906 (just a few days in fact before the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco), was part of the bulldozing and has not even a marker now. Back then, the area was already in decline and was becoming LA’s skid row. I imagine that having had a high African American population made it a target for demolition when the urban renewal forces rolled through (just as with San Francisco’s Japantown). Today one doesn’t see evidence of African Americans in the area – lots of Japanese tourists (go figure!), lots of “Luxury live-work” lofts for rent, and the usual LA ethnic mix.

I’ve been staying here for a few reasons – it is *much* nicer than the area near the client which would be akin to staying in Antioch; the client is a Japanese-owned company and visiting execs like to stay here, so one of the most upscale hotels has a corporate rate and perks like free parking (who would guess parking in LA costs $30 a night!); because everyone commutes to Downtown rather than living in Downtown (but that is changing rapidly) getting out is fast in the morning and getting back is fast at night.

Now – despite the bulldozers and new concrete retail malls, auto orientation and artificiality the Little Tokyo district (and all of Downtown) does have a few interesting features that have managed to establish themselves much as a hardy clover can push up through a sidewalk crack and bloom, despite neglect and constant threat of being trod upon. Senor Fish is a local Mexican seafood bar-restaurant in an old single-story brick building surrounded by parking lots on its side of First Street, across from the Geffen and a Metro Line “transit mall”. You have to have heard of it to bother. I had passed it numerous times driving to and from my hotel – intrigued by the colorful mural and fish logo it sported, making it too quirky and idiosyncratic to be part of any chain – yet was put off by its isolation. It must be empty! I assumed.

Then I yelped it. And found out it was not only popular, but had a patio in back, and was an art gallery space as well. They get a huge lunch crowd, the patio doesn’t need heaters, the food is fine and cheap (not fancy) and the art has life and freshness – think Puerta Vallarta gallery rather than local cafe “artist of the month”. I didn’t more than peep in at the bar, but the crowd was more Mission-hip than skid row leftovers. Like a lot of genuine Mexican places, the bar is a completely separate room (in this case separated by a hallway that also functions as a gallery space) from the family dining area.

Maybe because of the relatively isolated location (even for the area) I went for a dinner and had the place almost all to myself. Still more fun than the mall spots (or heaven forbid eating at the Hotel!) of course but it’s really a lunch spot, especially when the weather is nice (I guess in LA that’s not much of a qualifier) and everyone wants to be eating in the lovely walled patio space in back.

The other spot I found on this trip – “Spitz” – I noticed along a row of storefronts in strip mall of Japanese resturants, food marts, pop-culture trinket stores (logoed ball caps, t-shirts, backpacks, sunglasses key chains blah blah blah) that must pull in the tourists. I pass it all by, but one of the shops on the Second Street side had a big sign out front that screamed something about “Doners” which I recognized from my days in Canada is another name for a Greek gyro sandwich. Suddenly I was hungry for a “doner”. So I peeked in.

The view in from the sidewalk is just of a darkened space. But inside, for those in the know apparently, is a beautifully designed and decorated bar-restaurant serving their own contemporary take on the traditional Greek-American gyro / doner. The bar serves micro-brews and daily sangria specials – the day I tried it the sangrias included a peach-basil / white wine; cardamom-cinnamon spiced red, apple-mint rose among a few others.

A deconstructed (hat-tip top Top Chef for knowing that!) Gyro with a Southern California twists: sweet potato fries. Best, the lamb was not your typical Sysco food wholesaler pressed spiced lamb. They were doing their own.

I had a “doner platter” with a red sangria for dinner, while watching the eminently watchable twenty-something sk8r patrons and listening to the Philip Glass-meets-flamenco live guitar performance. The guitar player was uncredited, but should be discovered. I guess that’s why he was playing a Doner house in Little Tokyo LA – because the crowd was not a bunch of big tippers. It was quite warm and the tables outside on the sidewalk were all occupied, and only a few spots inside were not taken – and the crowd most all including the bartender could have been my kids.

Strangely I did not feel out of place at all – just kept reading a favorite John Rechy novel, keeping an ear cocked on the music, munching very slowly through a pile of the spiced lamb, romaine, feta, and sweet potato fries. And occasionally checking out one of the hipster / sk8rs sitting nearby because he kept checking me out. I wondered if these 20-somethings might be locals who actually live in the nearby (newly renovated) lofts and apartments carved out of old warehouses and factories that were ignored by renewal forces long ago and are now being put to alternate uses?

I hope so – it would certainly be a good sign that life can survive, can return anywhere.


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