There’s a semi-serious joke in Los Angeles: “Don’t go east of 110 Freeway.”
When I took my brother and friends up Mt. Hollywood and we stood by the cliff gazing down into the vast landscape of Los Angeles, I pointed out the different areas to them easily. See those skyscrapers over there? That’s downtown. See those nice buildings over there on the west? That’s Century City, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. See that bleak plot of nothingness over there on the east? That’s where the “lower-class” people live.
It’s a stereotypical joke, but it’s also pretty much true. East Los Angeles is someplace completely different from the Westside and the valleys. It is not at all like the neat houses with trimmed lawns and cute “rustic” cafes that dot the clean streets west of Route 110, even though they are only several miles away. [Edits to this paragraph: Seems like I pissed some people off. Sorry about that. Please don't take the language seriously. I was merely stating general stereotypes. The focus of this post was to point out that East L.A. deserves more positive recognition than it gets. I'm sorry if my language came off racist or classist. It was not my intention. I sincerely apologize for my off-handed writing.]
Unsurprisingly, East L.A. is sorely ignored from tourist guidebooks. Well, perhaps some of the better ones would mention it in a sneak section or two, but otherwise, it’s pretty much invisible to the masses outside of Los Angeles. Heck, most Angelenos themselves hardly venture out of their little Westside bubble.
Well, they’re missing out. Because I live right between the east and the west, half a mile away from the 110 Freeway, I visit both places equally. And I love both sides for their distinct characteristics.
When it comes to history, there is no place more fascinating and rich than East L.A. It really defines the true spirit of Los Angeles as the place of gold and the grand American dreams, to which thousands made the pilgrimage in search of success and opportunity.
Take Boyle Heights, for example. It’s a 6.5-square-mile plot of land teeming with cultural artifacts and living history. Once a Jewish center in the 1920s crowded with kosher delis and synagogues, Boyle Heights then shifted into L.A.’s first little “Japantown” as many Japanese Americans moved out east to escape from racial discrimination. Jewish community centers and markets were replaced by Japanese diners and Buddhist temples.
And now, Boyle Heights home to a new flood of immigrants—namely, Mexicans (or Mexican Americans).
I learned about this historical treasure while I was interning at the L.A. Times. My recruiter was Japanese American and he used to visit Boyle Heights and he commented to me over lunch one day on how it has changed. Few Japanese people live there anymore; they have since moved up north (and west) to Torrance and Gardena.
Of course, I had to investigate. Thanks to my car and an incentive spurred by my school column, I traveled past the 110 into East L.A. territory…not for tacos, but for Japanese food at Otomisan, one of the rare Japanese food establishments still standing in Boyle Heights.
Otomisan is a small mom-and-pop Japanese diner situated in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know how it still survived drowned out by obscure insurance offices, but it’s preserved exactly the way it was about 56 years ago. Amazing.
It’s teeny—just three faded booths and five little stools—with all sorts of fabulous, dusty ornaments decorating the interior.
The first thing you’ll probably do as you walk into this antiquated eatery is gaze around. It’s almost a little historical monument in itself.
Everything is just so cute and tiny…so…Japanese. It’s exactly the image I have for a village diner in rural, 1950s Japan. And in a way, it is, because it’s left the same way it was 56 years ago when Boyle Heights was basically Japantown.
I wonder about the story behind this family business. Why did they stay, when the whole Japanese community migrated up west? Why did they not remodel or relocate? How many generations have maintained this venue…and what’s the story behind the first owners?
So many questions. The place filled up pretty quickly (after all, it’s really small) and the owners got busy bustling around (the whole place was run by just one family), so I didn’t get to ask.
But it seemed to me that this place is still running precisely because it’s the only remaining Japanese shop in town.
For the sparse older generation who still lived around this area, Otomisan is a place of nostalgic memories and tastes. And I’m so fortunate to be able to taste it myself.
I visited Otomisan for dinner with a couple of friends, Mimi and Erica. Otomisan’s menu is pretty basic Japanese comfort food like donburis, udon soups and tempuras. All of us are pretty well-versed with Japanese cuisine, so few things on Otomisan’s menu were novel to us.
But we did find something that neither Mimi nor Erica have ever tried: natto.
Per my encouragement, Mimi ordered a side dish of natto to explore. It came in a little bowl, topped with toasted nori flakes and minced scallions. My knowledge of it is that you eat it with rice, soy sauce and raw egg, but they just served it as it is to us.
Natto is a gooey, pungent fermented dish made from whole soybeans. It’s not very popular outside of Japan for obvious reasons—it’s soy, and it’s stinky and slimy. Not the most appealing combination.
To be honest, I’m not a fan. I once bought a three-pack because I was lured by the sticky texture of natto. I was so sure it would be delicious, as I thought that viscosity was from caramelization. You know, like the candy.
Not. I should have done my research before investing in a three-pack. The natto was more slimy than sticky and it tasted kind of foul. I forced myself to eat 30 percent of one and then threw the rest of the pack out.
Thankfully, the one at Otomisan was milder in taste so Mimi could eat it without gagging. Boo. I had egged her on to order one hoping to get a hilarious response from her (I know, I’m a crappy friend, hee hee hee).
We were pleasantly surprised by the generous portion of salmon in the bowl. Usually restaurants are stingy and give a pile of rice with midget-sized protein. Not Otomisan.
For less than 10 bucks? This was more than decent.
I went with a classic Japanese dish that is one of my favorites: an Oyakodon.
Oyakodon (親子丼 which literally means “parent and child” rice bowl) is a homestyle comfort bowl of steamed rice smothered with a mixture of chicken and egg. Chicken and onions are simmered in a savory sauce and at the very end, lightly beaten eggs are poured on top and barely left to set before leaving the pan.
It is basic and plain, but the flavors are gorgeous. I love Oyakodon so much, especially because of the velvety blanket of runny eggs. Otomisan made this dish brilliantly, with a good load of tender chicken thigh pieces and perfectly-heated eggs. Not at all like the Koreanized version Joanna and I had at Koreatown Galleria.
Otomisan is a bit far out from my reach so it’s not going to be a regular dining spot for me, but I’m glad I made the trip out there at least once. It’s really such an adorable place. The toddler son of the owners patters out to help with serving tea and handing out fresh chopsticks, and the customers are obviously regulars who have grown immensely fond of the place.
They may say “Don’t go east of 110 in Los Angeles,” but historically rich places like Otomisan should make at least one good reason why East L.A. deserves a chance, too.
Question of the Day: Can you tell me about a historically rich restaurant/eatery in your neighborhood?