Want to go to Tokyo? OK, make it Kyoto.
You'll think you are in Japan when you go to Little Tokyo Square, an indoor mall on Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles.
And do go. You'll find in this quaint mall not only a fabulous Japanese fresh food and deli emporium, an intriguing department store filled with imported Japanese products (many of which you'll have fun identifying) and a movie theater with English subtitles, but also some of the most Japanese restaurants to be found outside Japan.
Consider Issenjoki, which is the Japanese name for the British "one-penny boat," steamers that made their way to Japan during the 19th Century. The restaurant is operated by Takao Ishii and his wife, Kumiko, who make you feel as welcome as if you'd just walked into their inn on a bitter winter's night.
It's a cozy place, much like the inns found in Japan, with a stark wood floor and Japanese antiques from Kumiko's collection. (The Ishiis, by the way, also own several sushi bars in Japan.)
I had driven to Tokyo Square one evening intending to try the Apple restaurant, a sort of Italian-Japanese spaghetti and steak house; but it was closed, so I took my chances at Issenjoki next door. What a dream of a dinner I had there. What a surprise.
The menu comes with snapshots of many of the dishes to help guide you, but they in no way do justice to the real thing.
The salads are works of art on huge platters, piled with angel hair of carrot and horseradish. The fresh noodles are served in beautiful ceramic bowls with large wooden spoons.
And the single dishes are beautifully presented. Oddly, they are placed under the heading of fast food on the menu, probably meaning that they are kappo fare, meant to be eaten quickly with drink.
The dishes in the health-food category are nothing more than fresh vegetables served with vinaigrette--cucumber, seaweed or tomatoes, with a bit of octopus.
The grilled fish, which comes on a huge platter with beautiful garnishes, include scallops, sardines, pike, flat fish, squid and mackerel.
There is also a sashimi category with tuna, squid, shrimp, octopus and jumbo clams .
The grilled kebabs called kushiyaki include chicken and beef. Then there are fried foods, with an unlikely chicken in a basket and French fries as well as fried eggplant, fried tofu and the standard pork or beef cutlets.
Just when you think you've decided what to eat, the menu goes on with the house specials, which are guaranteed to entertain you. The baked tofu with melted cheese is among the most daring--and good. But you find a few other oddities fun too--tofu steak, baked potato, German potato salad (which the Japanese drown in mayonnaise), scallops with butter, and spinach with scrambled eggs, among others.
Rice and noodles, the final category on the menu, includes some soups, such as the salmon roe and rice soup, and noodle favorites such as the cha-soba (buckwheat noodles), and rice dishes with chicken and beef. Nothing outstanding, but good and nicely presented.
However, the noodles at lunchtime are excellent and worth a special stop if you are in the neighborhood. You can choose from a large selection, from zaru-soba (buckwheat noodles) to udon, the fat, filling noodles in soup that the Japanese love to slurp. There are noodles with bean cakes or tempura, with raw egg, yams, chicken, beef and seaweed. There is a curry noodle dish as well as the noodles topped with tempura-batter crumbs, which the Japanese adore.
On the lunch menu you'll also find tempura and teriyaki combos or donburi (rice bowl) filled with chicken, beef, tempura or pork.
The price range is as reasonable as the food is good, averaging about $5 for lunch and $10 for dinner--a few dollars more if you are ordering several dishes.
Sake--hot and cold--and Japanese beers and wines are an integral part of this restaurant's business, especially when customers come to drink while they eat, before or after a movie.
Issenjoki, Little Tokyo Square, 333 S. Alameda St., No. 301; (213) 680-1703. Open everyday except Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch; 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. for dinner. Reservations accepted. American Express and Visa accepted. Indoor parking.