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Eats: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Hidden Treasure of Japanese Cooking

Reikai's Kitchen in downtown L.A. turns out tasty, balanced dishes--and they're very affordable.

October 08, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I am eating a generous Japanese lunch--potatoes with shreds of beef, onion and bean threads in a mildly sweet broth, macaroni salad with broccoli and carrots, stir-fried bean sprouts, miso soup, a bowl of rice, pickles, an orange wedge and iced tea. The setting, an umbrella-shaded table in a garden, is as nice as the meal (granted, most of the restaurant's seating is not out here but in a large dining room).

The price is only $5, but few others join me in this bargain feast. The restaurant is so hidden in Little Tokyo that you wouldn't know it existed unless someone told you.

Reikai's Kitchen is on the ground floor of Tokyo Towers, a housing complex for senior citizens. Those aged 62 or older get $1 off on their food here, so the daily special, which is a complete lunch or dinner, costs them only $4. There's no tipping. You place an order, pay the cashier and the food comes out on a tray.

Along with the set menu, which changes constantly, there are noodle and rice dishes. Samples of these are arranged in a display case to help you choose. Once I tried a beef bowl--rice topped with sliced beef and vegetables paired with a big bowl of udon noodles in broth: a noontime carbo load. Another rice bowl, oyako-donburi, is a soft, creamy mixture of chicken, eggs and onions over rice.

A friend who teaches Japanese cooking insists that Reikai's Kitchen turns out the best tonkatsu in Little Tokyo. This succulent, fork-tender breaded pork cutlet comes with rice, a mild brown curry sauce (which contains some vegetables) and a salad. There's a rice bowl with pork cutlet and curry too.

Reikai's Kitchen does classic bento boxes, ranging from $6 to a $25 blowout that must contain an extraordinary amount of food. The $10 box contained almost more than I could eat: fried shrimp, broiled salmon, sliced pork, chicken, fish cake, sweet omelet (tamago), poached vegetables and konnyaku (yam paste), rice rolls, pickles and two types of seaweed. The bentos must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance. The restaurant will deliver them to surrounding offices and hotels.

The bentos are fun, but I prefer the chef's specials. One day the main dish was nuggets of perfectly fried chicken, not a spot of grease on them, with a spaghetti and ham salad, marinated spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds, green salad, rice, miso soup, pickles and an orange wedge. Another time I had sanma, a slim fish of the mackerel family, accompanied by chow mein, lovely soft mountain potato balls, fish cake, soup and rice.

Still another day's main course was fried squid with cabbage. Accompaniments included stir-fried eggplant and carrot and bean sprouts in a sweet, slightly peppery miso sauce (wonderful). There were soba noodles with beef, carrots and onions, too, and the sides were rice, soup, bright red pickled ginger and daikon pickles. This sounds like a lot of food, but the meals are so well balanced that you do not wind up feeling stuffed.

The management constantly experiments with new dishes, and you may get to sample and comment on these. On my last visit, I was handed a seaweed-wrapped ball of rice stuffed with Spam, seasoned teriyaki-style, and cucumber. This is Spam musubi, a popular dish in Hawaii, and it's going on the regular menu.

Lion coffee from Hawaii has recently been added: $1 with unlimited refills (but iced or hot tea is free). Each table is equipped with a soy sauce bottle because most of the food is salt-free, since it's prepared with the health needs of seniors in mind.

The place is always making little changes. Chinese sweet-and-sour chicken has just come on the menu; the restaurant's four chefs were taken to top Chinese restaurants to study the dish. Aesthetics also are considered. The flower-printed black Japanese bowl used for my beef and rice bowl replaces a wide-open bowl that was not considered appropriate. There's music now also--jazz, not traditional Japanese melodies.

Reikai's Kitchen is open for lunch on holidays, except Thanksgiving and Christmas, to ensure that seniors have a place to go. This secluded spot is a treasure for people who work downtown or for anyone touring Little Tokyo. Westsiders will be cheered to learn that the management plans to open a branch in that area, perhaps by early next year.

BE THERE

Reikai's Kitchen, Tokyo Towers, 455 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 680-0776. Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays; dinner 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, $8 to $10.

What to Get: Chef's daily special, tonkatsu curry plate, oyako-donburi.

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