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Cross-cultural current runs through Little Osaka

The Sawtelle Boulevard neighborhood in West L.A. has seen sweeping changes in recent years, which makes dining and shopping all the more intriguing.

March 16, 2012|By Betty Hallock, Los Angeles Times
  • A row of restaurants on Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A.
A row of restaurants on Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Big changes have hit Little Osaka, the iconic Japanese neighborhood that runs along Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A. Take, for example, Plan Check Kitchen & Bar. The 4-week-old restaurant serving gourmet burgers, American comfort food and curated cocktails is Sawtelle's first gastropub.

The street has for decades been a Japanese restaurant row: sushi, curry, yakitori, Franco-Japanese small plates, izakaya fare and land-of-the-rising-sun snacks. In the days just before opening, Plan Check owner Terry Heller wondered half-jokingly, "Do you think I'm crazy not to open a sushi place here?"

Until recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a pizza, much less a short-rib pot roast with bone-marrow turnover pie and a cutting-edge cocktail made with chai-infused tequila. But that's changing as another generation of restaurants and cafes is sprouting between Olympic and Santa Monica boulevards — amid the new boutiques, salons and food trucks. The neighborhood is a magnet for the hungry and the restless (which also means parking hasn't gotten any easier).

Some of the latest wave of restaurants fits in with the cross-cultural culinary bent that has been one of Sawtelle's hallmarks. You can get whimsical red-bean-and-cheese-stuffed pretzels — but served with serious coffee — at Coffee Tomo.

More restaurant imports from Japan are moving in, such as Gottsui, purveyor of Osaka-style seafood-and-pork pancakes. Soon there will be not one but two pizzerias, including food-truck-goes-brick-and-mortar SliceTruck. And at Plan Check, the street gets a taste of Hollywood with a drinks list from mixologists Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix (of La Descarga, Harvard & Stone and the coming Pour Vous).

Thank (or shake your fist at) the march of real estate development. Mixed-use buildings are rising alongside — or sometimes in place of — '20s-era nurseries and post-World War II mom-and-pop institutions. Meanwhile, restaurants and markets come and go; publisher-entrepreneur Eric Nakamura's gr/eats dinette closed last month, the restaurant Orris has become Spaghetti House by Orris and nearby Safe-and-Save grocery shut its doors last year.

Sawtellers mourned when Yamaguchi, the 60-year-old sundries store at the corner of Sawtelle and Mississippi selling greeting cards and geta, rice cookers and robots, closed in 2006. Now they line up for the ramen at Tsujita in what the building's developer dubbed the Yamaguchi Center. The chain Ramen Jinya is expanding to Sawtelle too. And in place of gr/eats will be another Japanese ramen import, Miyata Menji, says Nakamura.

But some things stay the same, at least for now. Ask Granada Market co-owner Fujiko Mukai how long her store, a few doors down from Plan Check, has been on Sawtelle and she answers, "Too long!" She also says she's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Tsujita Come for lunch, because this new Tokyo-import noodle shop doesn't serve ramen at dinner. And that's what you're here for. There's the tonkotsu (pork-bone broth) ramen with springy noodles and tender, slow-roasted sliced pork. And there's the tsukemen — fatter firm noodles that are served alongside a thick, rich, concentrated pork and bonito broth. Squirt the noodles with a little lime before dipping them into the über-broth for maximum umami.

2057 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 231-7373,

Coffee Tomo Serious coffee meets quirky house-made pretzels at this Yamaguchi Center cafe. In the front window is owner Kibum Sung's cherry-red Diedrich roaster, and the coffee menu includes all the usual espresso-drink suspects, hand-drip coffee and specialties such as Spanish and green tea lattes. The pretzels are filled with combinations such as sweet potato and cheese, and red bean and cheese. The honey butter toast recalls a Rubik's cube, made of bread — topped with butter, honey and whipped cream.

11309 Mississippi Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 444-9390,

Gottsui The best seat at this mini-mall okonomiyaki specialist is at the counter, where you can see the spatula-wielding, headband-wearing cooks at work. The savory Kansai-region soul-food pancakes are made with a flour-and-egg batter but are dominated by their mix-ins: lots of cabbage, green onions, bacon, shrimp, octopus, squid and potato. There are a dozen variations; after all, okonomi means "whatever you like." And if what you like is cheese with spicy cod roe and bacon, you're golden.

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