Dear Tony

Dear Tony,

This summer I am traveling to Vietnam, because you have written that it is your favorite place on Earth.  In the years since I first picked up Kitchen Confidential I have had the privilege of seeing much of the world through your eyes.  A devotee of your essays and memoirs and travel shows, I discovered distant cuisines and communities, and now places as seemingly remote as the Congo and Beirut have opened to me, a Jewish girl from the Bay Area, thanks to your thorough pursuit of knowledge—better yet, of understanding.

You are the guide that makes these parts knowable.  You can enter any room with your balance of acerbic wit, total respect and sincere curiosity, and disarm people, connect with them, truly see them.  You taught me that flavors are a gateway into other worlds, a bridge across continents and eras. 

You have introduced me to some of my very favorite tastes and most vibrant memories—Under Bridge Spicy Crab and roasted goose in Hong Kong, “carrot cake” in Singapore, fresh cheese with local honey in Sardinia (a stop on my honeymoon with the express purpose of eating what we watched you eat there).  An episode of “No Reservations” featuring an endless green noodle brought me, miraculously, (after attempts to communicate its whereabouts to two different cab drivers) to a noodle shop in Beijing, where I got to deploy my Rosetta Stone-practiced Mandarin, “two beers and one tea, please.”   

I am lucky to have had many food-lover influences in my life.  But it was you who saved me from inheriting my Mom’s germophobia (my brother got it, sadly), by showing me that a willingness to commune over a choice cut of “squeezle” or glass after glass of home-brewed Chinese moonshine will pay dividends in experience, even if it may wreak havoc on the digestive system.

Your veneration for other food cultures inspires me to want to taste the world.  Your humility in writing that the more you travel, the less you know fuels my curiosity and my sense of adventure.  I am proud to claim you as an American ambassador to other lands.  Your tough-guy persona belies a deep commitment to the values of respect, humility and kindness.

Before I had the terminology for what I was, (“foodie” is so obnoxious, anyhow), I was simply someone who had an insatiable hunger for travel, for chocolate almond croissants, galaktabourekos, lamb vindaloo and claypot chicken.  And you were my beacon, guiding me to the certainty that a life devoted to making a true connection over a shared plate was possible, even admirable.  You showed me that food is the universal language that tells our stories when words cannot.  Someday I hope to be half the explorer and translator that you are. 

With Love,

Jessica Jacobs

Guisados Redux

I've written gushingly about Guisados in Boyle Heights, which still serves my favorite taco in Los Angeles.  Follow me to this vibrant LA neighborhood just east of Downtown to see how tradition and family infuse the food at Guisados--and why they are building an LA empire, with additions in Echo Park and Downtown LA.

Tender Greens

Sometimes, I feel a little protective over my very favorite spots--those restaurants that I visit as often as once a week, places where I have to get my fix.  Something inside of me gets greedy and wants to preserve their familiarity, my feelings of ownership about these gems.  But today, I'm feeling generous.  So I'm sharing the latest episode of LA on 20's web series, and this time I am visiting Tender Greens in Santa Monica with my little brother, Sam.

I find that one of the most difficult things about being on a budget is being able to eat healthfully.  Fresh produce, especially organic and sustainably farmed/caught/raised fare just costs more to procure, and sometimes it can feel out of reach for those of us looking to get the most bang for the buck. 

Which is why I really treasure Tender Greens.  Seriously, it's a special place.  Because not only have they created a model where they can offer all of those things--seasonal, ethically raised, fresh, organic food--at an affordable price point, on a large scale, but they go above and beyond by also offering a consistently excellent, inventive specials menu each and every day.  I have had a beautifully cooked piece of cod with braised hen of the woods mushrooms for $12.  I have had delicious and light pea tendril ravioli with a side of arugula salad for $12 for dinner.  Free range beef and pork meatballs in a slowly simmered, rich marinara for $4.

It's cafeteria-style dining, because that's what allows them to offer these really elevated, well-executed, healthy, delicious dishes at that price.  But it feels like a nice sit-down restaurant--they have beer and wine on tap, and seasonal and decadent desserts, including some really good vegan ones.  There are multiple locations throughout LA and in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Orange County, so wherever you find yourself in California, this affordable and healthy option isn't far away.  I really cannot say enough about how cool this place is.  So I'll let the video do the rest of the talking.  Please enjoy!

Noodle Boy Redux

I've already written about Noodle Boy, a noodle shop in Rosemead serving one very special dish: Hong Kong style wonton noodle soup.  But now I am thrilled to invite you to share an afternoon with my friends and me, slurping noodles at one of my favorite LA spots!

Special thanks as always to my fabulous crew, Ghostlight, and my unflappable producer, the lovely Hesley Harps.  And thanks to my wonderful friends Greg and Z, for being up for anything, especially sharing food!

Hungry Pocket Falafel House

The state of Israel turned 66 last week, on May 6. American Jews celebrate Israeli Independence Day in the same way Jews celebrate everything—we eat! And so it was with great pleasure that I sat down to a heaping plate of Israeli food on Tuesday night at the synagogue where I teach. Did you know I teach a Jewish cooking class to 7th graders? Salatim, the various little Israeli salads—beet salad, sauerkraut, purple cabbage, Israeli salad (diced cucumber and tomato with vinaigrette and herbs), hummus, babaganoush, and tahini—topped my pita stuffed with falafel. On the side, grape leaves filled with rice, and on top of everything, two Israeli hot sauces, or skhugs, one green and one red. This feast was catered by Ta-Eem Grill in Hollywood, and I was extremely impressed with the authenticity and flavor of the food. The hot sauce was hot, for starters. Polishing off my generously stuffed pita, I was transported back to the time I gained 5 pounds in a week in Israel. Israeli food is many things, but light isn’t one. And when I travel, I take my fill of everything—it’s not often I’m in Israel, so I leave no schwarma untasted on my short journeys to the homeland. I’ve never been to Ta-Eem in person, but I do have a favorite falafel establishment near me, a place that feels like an escape, a wormhole from Santa Monica to the Middle East. It is a humble stand-alone building on one of the more dilapidated Santa Monica blocks of Pico Boulevard. Hungry Pocket Falafel is located in a small strip mall next to a constantly rotating tenant—it’s been two different yogurt shops and a boba shop in the few years I’ve been aware of it—but Hungry Pocket stays steadfast and unchanged. The interior is tiled like a subway bathroom; there are a few tables in the small space, and a counter that opens to the schwarma rotisserie and flattop. There are freshly pressed juices—carrot and orange and beet, not the trendy kind; there are cubes of salty, crumbly house made feta; hand stuffed dolmas and potent house hot sauce, served in a communal bowl that is passed from table to table on request. There is fresh tabbouleh, one of my favorite versions of this grain salad, herbaceous and lemony. There is of course falafel, there is schwarma, there are gyros and kebab. A falafel sandwich here costs a whopping $4.75, and you can choose whole-wheat pita. I believe there are all-you-can eat falafel nights on Mondays and Wednesdays for $8.75, though I have never participated—I do attempt to practice moderation when I am not traveling.

It is the care taken with the little things here that make it special, and after I’ve consumed their wonderful babaganoush and chicken kebab, I turn my thoughts towards baklava. For $1.35 I can enjoy a small square of gooey, chewy, homemade baklava, all phyllo and nuts and honey and nothing else. Like Hungry Pocket itself, the baklava has no superfluous ingredients. Except maybe a little bit of love.



The Sausage Fest tradition began in college. We frequented a San Francisco eatery called Rosamunde that offered gourmet sausages in all varieties, from Knockwurst to Andouille to Wild Boar. That was a simpler time, when Rosamunde was a standing-room-only unless you want to eat in the bar next door, kind of a place. They have now expanded to four locations, including one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and they serve brunch. We were going there when the Mission location was still a little seedy, instead of being one of the hippest and most sought-after places to live in the country. But we’re trendsetters that way. We used to buy up a boatload of raw sausages from Rosamunde, bring them back to our apartment off-campus in Menlo Park, where we had furnished a 1000-square foot two-bedroom with one mini-futon from Ikea, a shoddy unfinished birch 4-seater dining table and a small charcoal Weber grill, and we gathered all of our friends for beer and grilled meat. It was a blast. And more importantly, it was a tradition.

In our quest for gourmet sausages worthy of The Fest when we moved to LA, we discovered a holy grail of exotic sausage. Wurstküche goes beyond your average elevated street dog and offers duck and bacon sausages, alligator and pork sausages, even rattlesnake and rabbit sausages. An adventurous eater can go wild here. They still have the classics, of course: a delicious hot Italian, Brats, and I love the buffalo, beef and pork with chipotle peppers. They have a few different tasty chicken and turkey sausages for the Kosher or health-minded among us, and like Rosamunde, they even offer vegan sausages, and not bad ones either. So everyone can get in on the action.

Wurstküche is also housed in a great space, open and airy and light during the day with a nice ivy-lined patio and fire pit, and clubby and hopping at night. The brick interior features a long bar with many, many taps of constantly rotating Belgian and German craft beers, a different glass for each and every one lining the wall. I asked my husband and our friend Mel to join me for an afternoon of sausages and beers at Wurstküche, and I brought my film crew along too so you could experience the delight of Belgian fries, Merguez sausage and Guden beer firsthand. Please enjoy!

Special thanks as always to my crew, the fabulous David and James Codeglia of Ghostlight, and my producer extraordinaire, Hesley Harps.

Cafe Bolivar

Every college town has its local favorite spots where students gather off-campus, seeking to settle in for an afternoon and an affordable meal, places where one could ostensibly get work done and still enjoy some atmosphere. In Palo Alto the choice hangout was inarguably Coupa Café, a large but cozy Venezuelan place serving arepas and sweet, creamy coffee beverages (coffee being the lifeblood of the college student). We would gather around the fireplace in the back room, sinking into couches and digging in to crêpes or arepas or tortas, gossiping, refueling, maybe even writing an essay or two. I wouldn’t say the arepas or the crêpes were the best I’ve ever had. But we went there for the vibe. Coupa Café actually has a location in Beverly Hills, and I admit I have yet to visit, perhaps for unfair reasons. You see, Coupa Café now has a location on Stanford campus, which is very nice for them—but they took over the space of a beloved campus coffee stand called MoonBeam’s, a small business type of place where I made many fond memories, and for that I begrudge them. Most likely you do not care a whit that Coupa ousted my beloved MoonBeam’s, and I don’t blame you. Feel free to try Coupa Café in Beverly Hills. I promise I will give it a shot soon.

I, however, have a more than suitable substitute right here in Santa Monica, which I happen to think is a pretty crafty find, considering the rarity of arepas on the LA food landscape. Café Bolívar has all the trappings of a college town hangout—free wifi, rotating art installations, cute little wooden bookshelf in the back, strong coffee. It even has that one table that is clearly superior to the others, nestled in an enclave by the window and equipped with the only comfy looking chairs in the café, two giant stuffed orange monstrosities with wings. This table is always taken, I suspect by Santa Monica College students who stake it out early. The arepas are better here, I find, than Coupa’s offerings, though that may be a grudge-based opinion. They are petite, made to order, with white cornmeal. Arepas are kind of like pupusas, but fluffier—they’re puffed up cornmeal pancakes that are split in half and stuffed like little sandwiches. Always crunchy on the outside with a soft, warm polenta-like inside, Bolivar’s little pockets of corn stuffed with stews or cheeses are hearty and filling.

The minimum order is two arepas, and they range in price from $4-$6. Two arepas are perfect to fill me up for lunch. My favorite is probably the pulled pork shoulder cooked in Caribbean spices for 8 hours. I find Caribbean spices are more sort of earthy or warm than Mexican spice, which has more of a bite. Caribbean spices include those Christmas-y flavors—nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and clove—so there’s more of a slow burn and less of a punch in the face.

I also love the simple black bean and fresh white cheese, and the very strange sounding but delicious tasting sliced mango with avocado, fresh white cheese, garlic confit and rosemary aioli.

Sidebar: Have you noticed that most other countries make cheese much better than we do? I have. Is it our penchant for sanitizing the shit out of our dairy that robs our cheese of flavor? Think about it—buffalla mozzarella from Italy is the gold standard by which all cheeses are measured, in my opinion, and we all know French camembert, pungent and assertive, kicks the ass of sad, mild American cheddar. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to eat “mild” anything. Israeli dairy is smooth and decadent—yogurt, widely considered a diet food in the US, is made there with full fat dairy, so a small container of rich, smooth unsweetened Israeli yogurt makes the perfect breakfast. I never understood what cottage cheese was supposed to taste like until I had it in Israel. Manchego from Spain is salty and earthy, and I love Mexican queso fresco and crema because it always tastes richer and stronger than other cheese. The fresh white cheese at Bolívar has a texture most similar to ricotta salata, and is sliced and piled liberally and stuffed into warm arepas with stewed black beans or mango.

All arepas here are served with a delicious green guasacaca sauce, a blend of cilantro, oil, vinegar and garlic. I always attempt to discard the ends of the arepa that don’t have any stuffing left on them, but invariably end up dredging them with guasacaca sauce and devouring them. Arepas and guasacaca sauce.  From the left: black bean and fresh white cheese, mango avocado, pulled pork

Bolivar also has the sweetened coffee beverages that seem to be a Venezuelan mainstay, my favorite being the Café Bolívar, a latte sweetened with condensed milk. They have a variety of smoothies and breakfast items, including a really nice veggie bagel, toasted and topped with cream cheese, tomato, avocado and red onion. The best part of their veggie bagel, that little touch that puts it over the edge, is the drizzle of fruity olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt and briny capers to finish. Veggie Bagel

I love a real neighborhood café that’s not fancy and not a hole in the wall either. Café Bolívar feels like a hidden gem, and it’s a welcome deviation from my usual lunch of a big salad or soup. Venezuelan cuisine is not a hot trend right now, and that’s what feels just right about Bolívar—it’s a discovery.

The Country Kitchen

Lately I’ve really been falling in love with Malibu. This beach town that seems isolated from the rest of LA, easy to dismiss as an enclave of affluence and snobbery, truly offers more than meets the eye. Of course it is an absolutely beautiful place to be, and when I drive up the PCH, each time I turn a corner and see a breathtaking vista of hills and ocean, I am reminded that yes, there is some natural beauty to be found in this sprawling, smoggy city. I know we are very lucky to live in a place with perfect year-round weather and a long stretch of Pacific coastline, but I do think it’s easy to forget how lovely this city can be when you’re driving back and forth to Hollywood or Downtown every day, staring at taillights on the 10 or construction on La Brea. The drive up to Malibu is free, and it’s really a welcome retreat. Another thing I love about Malibu is that it’s actually quite eclectic. Certainly, Malibu is home to Nobu and Geoffrey’s and the swank Malibu Country Mart, the most luxurious mall I’ve ever visited. But Malibu is also home to Cholada Thai and Malibu Seafood, two wonderful casual dining spots with beach shack vibes and relatively cheap, delicious eats. I love that over the span of one lazy afternoon spent lounging, reading, surreptitiously people watching outside of the excellent Cafecito Organico, one will probably spot at least two celebs, most likely sipping a juice or a smoothie from the popular health food spot Sun Life Organics, followed by a bunch of shoeless teenagers eating breakfast burritos from Lily’s, followed by a couple of crazy people screaming about the day's headlines. You will probably witness someone trying to get his or her script to one of the celebs, and a really hot, expensively swathed mom striking up a conversation and planning to meet up later with a young aspiring model guy. I have had a couple of delightfully strange afternoons eating my dragon bowl from Sun Life and watching it all go down.

But this is a blog about cheap eats, and I am not going to suggest that you shell out $10 or more for a Sun Life smoothie (even though I do think they’re worth it). Instead, I have a Malibu offering that will never break the bank and always over-deliver. Country Kitchen is a roadside walk-up counter under a blue awning that serves breakfast burritos all day, and you will be blown away by the deliciousness of these $5 burritos. On my first venture to Country Kitchen I ordered the burrito with egg, cheese and potatoes, and added avocado and salsa. Boy did I get a pleasant surprise when I bit into my burrito to find that the potatoes were in fact some sort of hash brown incorporated into the filling. The result was a salty, slightly spicy, eggy, cheesy, crunchy, savory breakfast of the Gods. The salsa is perhaps not spicy enough for my fiery tastes, but it is flavorful and chunky and the big pieces of tomato add a needed freshness to the burrito. The creamy avocado is the perfect foil to the crunchy potato.

There is something respectable, I think, about the fact that this place is selling coffee that is considerably worse than anything I have had off the free beverage cart on an airplane. I wouldn’t recommend buying the coffee, but I like that Country Kitchen does not have one bit of snobbishness about it. It is a legit beach shack with some old school, homestyle eats. They also offer burgers, grilled cheeses, etc. It may stick to your ribs, and you may want to wait until after you hit the beach to hit Country Kitchen. But some things are just worth a calorie splurge. And for $5, you will be full and happy for quite some time.

Incidentally, it was a student who originally suggested Country Kitchen to me, and when my husband first tasted his breakfast burrito there, he proclaimed that whoever told me about this place should get his Golden Aleph (a prize we award students with much ado when they learn every letter and vowel in the Hebrew alphabet). That’s an endorsement! Egg, cheese and potato breakfast burrito

Son of a Bun

I am extremely excited to announce the launch of LA on 20 a Day’s webseries! I’ve created a series of short videos to help you get a better feel for my favorite places to eat on a budget, and to tell the story of LA’s food scene right now. And of course, to tantalize your taste buds with some moving food porn! Our inaugural episode introduces a new food truck that I am really pleased to have discovered. The concept is simple—good food that everyone can recognize, done right. No strange fusion or spiral foods on a stick. Everything you want between two perfectly buttered and toasted buns can be found at Son of a Bun. I’ll let the video do the rest of the talking! Please watch, enjoy and share!

Many thanks to my incredible production team, David and James Codeglia of Ghostlight, and my multitalented friend and producer, Hesley Harps.


When my husband and I traveled to Tokyo for the first time in November, we feasted on a vast array of Japanese delights, from soba to sushi, yakitori to Yamazaki (read all about the trip in great detail here). One delight perhaps unrivaled on the trip was to be found at breakfast time, in the lovely dining room of our hotel. We stayed at the Park Hyatt, where the film “Lost in Translation” was shot, a luxury we certainly couldn’t have afforded but for the fact that we have a lot of flexible travel points. The hotel was the epitome of refinement, and the staff, like everyone we met in Japan, was beyond polite. Once at breakfast someone on the wait staff noticed I had opened a packet of Vitamin C powder and was pouring it into my water glass. I opened my mouth to say to my husband, “I need a—" when the man appeared at my side with a small spoon on a napkin. It was unreal. Breakfast was included in our room rate at the Park Hyatt, and they had a lovely buffet as you may imagine, as well as a variety of menu items available, but the real treat was the Japanese Breakfast. A dazzling array of different delicacies—smoked salmon filets with a wedge of lemon and a tiny bite of sweet potato in a perfect cylinder; miso soup; steamed Japanese vegetables with sesame sauce; tamago; tiny fish (eels?) with salt and lemon; burdock and carrot salad; steamed rice, and my favorite part, two varieties of fresh tofu and boiled spinach, meant to be spooned out of their broth with a small grate provided to each diner and dipped in a ponzu/soy sauce soup. The tofu was heavenly, the consistency soft and delicate. Every item was preciously plated, light and delicious. This breakfast was a meal that made you feel…spoiled.

Japanese Breakfast at the Park Hyatt
Japanese Breakfast at the Park Hyatt

I have always thought that Japanese breakfast as we know it was perhaps a hotel invention, or at least something rarely found outside of hotel dining rooms. I know I have seen it offered at many hotels in Hawaii, and now in Japan, but had yet to find it on a restaurant menu in LA or elsewhere. You may imagine my delight at discovering Fukugawa in Gardena. Tucked into a back corner of a large strip mall, Fukugawa is a large but cozy feeling restaurant, the décor featuring paper lantern light fixtures and sliding wood paneled doors, a tatami room, and some sort of Japanese history diorama behind glass. For lunch and dinner Fukagawa is a very decent soba/udon/tempura/shabu shabu spot, but every morning from 7-11 it offers what I have so long sought out—a refined, light, and delicious Japanese breakfast. And for quite a bit less than the Park Hyatt.

I can’t resist a meal that consists of many different little dishes—variety excites me. The Japanese breakfast combinations at Fukagawa, with their endless options and variations (see dizzying chart below), provide that special experience of tasting and choosing bites. I love to opt for combination C for $10.95: grilled mackerel or salmon, marinated tofu with scallion and bonito flakes, Japanese pickles, steamed rice, seaweed, egg (4 choices for how you like your egg, I highly recommend Dashimaki, the sweet omelet I know as Tamago at sushi restaurants,) and miso soup. The miso soup is a variation on the norm, with that spongy, almost tripe-textured inari type tofu and a lot of onion cooked down in the broth. The mackerel is moist, salty, and flaky, the salmon is meaty and moist with crispy skin. There are meatless combinations for less $ on offer as well (though not vegetarian, dashi and bonito are fish products), or you can select Spanish mackerel or steak with your combo C. I’m not generally a one-meal-a-day type of person, but if you arrive at 10:50 and have this breakfast for brunch, it will really fill you up without feeling heavy.

Fukagawa breakfast menu
Fukagawa breakfast menu

I know I have perhaps favored Japanese cuisine in my selections for this blog; I could say that’s because we have an embarrassment of riches in LA when it comes to Japanese food, with Little Osaka on Sawtelle in West LA, Little Tokyo downtown and Torrance/Gardena in the South Bay all offering dozens of authentic, specialized restaurants. More truthfully, it is most likely because I find that Japanese food is probably the best cuisine on Earth. I think the sheer variety, the fact that you could probably eat 50 completely different bowls of ramen in LA alone, is incredible. In Tokyo we had dinner at a Michelin starred soba restaurant, and I had a kind of soba I’ve never seen before, the buckwheat noodles flat and wide like Tagliatelle. There is no doubt that I will be posting many more Japanese recommendations this year and in the years to come, but to start off 2014, I am happy to pay homage to my highlight of last year, the delightful five days we spent in Tokyo, by sharing Fukagawa. I hope you enjoy an opportunity to indulge in that elusive treat, the Japanese breakfast.


To celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I fulfilled a longtime dream and traveled to Japan in November. We spent five marvelous days in Tokyo (and I mean that literally, as we marveled at the endless curiosities the city has to offer) before moving on to visit Singapore and Hong Kong. (We couldn’t resist a stop in Hong Kong, our all-time favorite city, since we were already flying out to East Asia.) It was our first time in Singapore, and the food was incredible, a unique blend of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine with a twist, but a discussion for another post. Tokyo was a wonderland to me, every corner of the city offering a glimpse into a world I knew I could not fully comprehend. No, not even close. From the meticulously polite and self-effacing culture to the seemingly infinite variations on the food we know as “Japanese cuisine,” e.g. soba, udon, yakitori, Japanese BBQ, to the beyond strange experience of certain Tokyo nightlife attractions, I made a feeble and wide-eyed attempt to absorb it all. Each and every alleyway, every tiny yakitori joint or 8-seater bar, every small boutique or coffee shop we passed seemed like a can’t-miss. We did a healthy mix of walking around the Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku areas, exploring whichever shops and bakeries we came upon that looked intriguing, and visiting our designated points of interest, including the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro, of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” fame. Yes, Jiro himself hand made and placed each piece of nigiri in front of us. It was a pretty incredible experience. And a fast one! We were in and out in 25 minutes. We ate 19 pieces of sushi, beginning with a firm and flavorful sole fish and ending with that unrivaled Tamago that plays such a featured role in the documentary. The piece of Tamago, an egg cake of sorts, was revelatory. Sweet and fluffy and truly unlike anything else we’ve tasted. We had Sea Eel the consistency of custard, and Ark Shell, a clam I had never even heard of before. I'm a little excited outside of Sukiyabashi Jiro

We also had some incredible meals under $20, most notably those we found wandering down Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku, an alleyway near the train station dotted with tiny yakitori restaurants, each one similar in its coziness and offerings. We had no way of knowing which was a good one, our only guide being our noses and an intentional passing over of anywhere boasting “English menu.” We pointed. We ate. We drank cold Asahi Super Dry and feasted on chicken meatballs and whole salted coal-roasted fish. It was a delight. Yakitori Alley

We were pleasantly surprised to find that an artisan coffee culture has blossomed in Tokyo and there are now dozens of wonderful coffee houses to rival Intelligentsia or Blue Bottle here in California. Easily the best coffee experience we had was at the wonderfully cozy Chatei Hatou in Shibuya. Tucked away in an alley, with only a small sign featuring a decorative bird to indicate its presence, Chatei Hatou is both lavish and quaint inside, a little sanctuary of deliciously strong pour-overs, chiffon cake, and mismatched gilded china. An oversized vase bursting with flowers and branches that reach the beamed ceiling tops a wooden table adorned with small art nouveau style lamps. The wall is lined with different glassware and hundreds of pretty teacups, no two alike. The sign for Chatei Hatou Coffee

Enticed by the photos on the restaurant sign next door, we ventured downstairs to a Japanese BBQ restaurant. The host quickly ushered us to a back room, our own little stone cave with a sliding door shielding us from view (perhaps the foreigner treatment)? We removed our shoes and slid onto bamboo mats in front of a grill built into the table. As in most worthwhile establishments, the menu was again all in Japanese and we pointed to our selections from a plate of different raw meats the server brought to demonstrate our options. We asked for beer and he delivered two steins of Kirin the size of our heads. The marbled meat sizzled on the grill, curling and dripping and developing delicious sear. It was fatty and chewy and meaty, and we dipped it in thick Worcestershire-esque sauce and ate it over rice. The lunch also included a fresh side salad with tofu, and the entire thing came out to around $10/person. Japanese BBQ

We did more than just eat in Japan, surprisingly enough—we visited some lovely gardens in Shinjuku and Bunkyo, and walked for hours around Yoyogi Park, saw the Meiji Shrine there, and came out the other side to shop in Harajuku. We contemplated purchasing a small monkey from a pet store near our hotel, but settled for a video of him hopping around in his little cage and emitting tiny howls. We also stopped into a number of Tokyo’s famously tiny bars and sampled cocktails and Japanese whiskies. At one such establishment, a refined and intimate underground bar in Ginza known for its mixology called Star Bar, we passed an hour drinking G+T’s with fresh pear puree, chatting with the bartender about Tokyo and comparing its bars to those in the US. At one point, the bartender had come out from behind the bar to help a businessman who had been sitting next to us with his coat. I felt his hand on my shoulder, and when I turned he said, “Excuse me, but this gentleman would like to say something to you.” The businessman, who spoke too little English to participate in our earlier conversation, smiled and said, “I hope you enjoy your time in Tokyo.” That was all.

That moment really stuck with me as an indication of the extreme kindness, politeness, and humility we encountered throughout our short stay in Japan. I had about a thousand questions I wished I could ask about the culture there, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to explore them. For someone without any knowledge of Japanese, navigating Tokyo is not easy. But the city offers so very many rewards for your efforts. Rigukien Park

Mitsuwa Marketplace

Inside a Japanese supermarket in an unremarkable stretch of West LA there is a very special, wonderful place. I go there when I feel a cold coming on, have had a taxing day, or just need something wholesome and soothing and delicious, and it invites me into its world of delights. It is a food court, florescent lighting illuminating such décor elements as a community bulletin board, an early 90s-era TV bolted to a corner of the ceiling, and glossy faux wood tables. I generally find it has a cure for whatever ails me. A visit to Mitsuwa begins with a selection—will it be udon or soba from Sanuki? Tempura from Hannosuke? Or ramen from Santouka? You will order, pay in cash, receive a stub with a number, and search for an open table. You will wait, listening to a steady roll call of orders from the different restaurants being called over a loudspeaker. Your number is finally called—your time has come! You rush over to retrieve your cafeteria tray with steaming bowl of one or another Japanese comfort food.

Before my first visit to Santouka, I was under the impression that ramen broth was much like pho broth—clear and smooth, a thin but flavorful vehicle for the slurping of noodles. As it turns out, I was mistaken. This Hokkaido style ramen broth is murky and gritty, and unbelievably rich and fatty and flavorful. I could hardly believe my taste buds when I first sipped the salt ramen broth. This broth is no mere vehicle; it’s the epitome of comfort food, it warms your body and coats your mouth with its rich, deep pork flavor. After a long day of teaching, it’s the first thing I crave.

Santouka offers a variety of options—spicy miso broth, soy broth, and salt broth, small/medium/large bowls, and combination dinners that include pork on rice, fermented soybeans on rice, or salmon roe on rice and all come with a soy sauce tinted hard-boiled egg. I’ve had them all, and I am compelled to steer you towards the salt ramen. While the others are delicious, the salt ramen is unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. It comes topped with two precious slices of the tenderest, meatiest pork you could hope for, a pink-swirled fish cake, some delightfully rubbery dark brown mushroom pieces, a few root vegetable slices and a pile of chopped scallion. The noodles are spindly and springy and chewy with a bit of a bite to them, the perfect noodle texture.

Salt Ramen and Roe combo

You also have the option to spring for the “special pork,” a few extra pieces of even fattier, meltier meat, if you can imagine that, but rather than spending extra for the pork, I would recommend spending an extra few bucks for a combo with the salmon roe on rice. Even if you can only manage a few bites of the salmon roe after downing a most perfect bowl of ramen, it’s worth it. The plump orange pearls of salmon egg are bursting with briny flavor. It’s a treat that’s worth at least trying. Even with the salmon roe rice and the egg, a small ramen combo is only $11.50. One word to the wise: if your palate is like mine, somewhat unaccustomed to what the Japanese may consider mundane, the fermented soybean on rice (natto) is one of the worst things you’ve ever tasted. Perhaps you’re not like me, and you enjoy the taste of slimy rotting soy sauce. Still, I feel obligated to give you fair warning on such things.

Next to Santouka you will find one of my favorite spots for udon and soba. Sanuki is probably the cheapest of the Mitsuwa restaurants—as in I always get change for $10 and leave stuffed—which is only a minor part of why I find myself there so frequently, eagerly dipping in to a huge, steaming bowl of delicious fish broth.

Soba with mushroom and egg

It is a matter of personal preference, but despite my unequivocal love of Japanese food in its many varieties, I often find Japanese broths to be too fishy tasting for me. I’ve never been a devotee of miso soup, for example. So even though I do certainly worship at the temple of udon and soba noodles, the one stick in my craw is that amongst the extremely complex layers of flavors in Asian broths, I sometimes encounter one that strikes a slightly unfavorable note. The point I am getting at here is that the flavors of the broth at Sanuki are beautifully harmonious, without a hint of dissonance—the broth is translucent and the flavor is deep and complex, a little bit sweet, and not very fishy. It is fish based, but it doesn’t taste quite so much of kombu as the more upscale udon broths I’ve tasted. Just saying. A big bowl of Sanuki’s broth with their chewy, squiggly udon noodles is heaven on earth if you feel a little under the weather. I usually go for the chicken or fried bean curd on my soup. Do yourself a favor and whatever you order, get a side of the fried bean curd, (warm please). Even if you’ve ordered the bean curd udon, you will want more. I always do. It’s so sweet and fluffy and has that uniquely spongy inari texture.

This brings me to the tempura portion of the evening. In general, I’ll be honest, I try to not to make my dinner entirely out of deep fried things. It doesn’t seem prudent, longevity-wise. But the tempura at Hannosuke is so unique as to be a must-try and will definitely have you hooked. The most intriguing feature of this Tokyo transplant’s fare is that the tempura sauce is fried into the batter, miraculously. No dipping required. It’s like those Eggo waffles with maple syrup crystals inside the waffles. Well, it’s nothing like that, because this doesn’t come out of your toaster somehow simultaneously dry and soggy. But it’s the same idea.

Ten-don bowl

The tempura battered shishito peppers, white fish, squid, shrimp, prawn, sweet potato, seaweed and poached egg (yes, a tempura-fried poached egg to crack over your rice bowl), come out crisp and crunchy and sweet. They’re all served over a large bowl of white rice, which contains a delicious surprise—thick, sweet sauce hiding below the surface.

These three gems comprise my happy place, my go-to when nothing else feels right for dinner. There is a fourth restaurant in the food court, and it’s perfectly fine. They serve bento boxes with standbys like katsu and teriyaki. It’s not bad at all, it’s just that the other three places are perfect. I ritualistically end my meals at Mitsuwa by browsing the endless wonders in the candy aisle of the supermarket. From gooey aloe flavored gummies to shrimp chips to green tea flavored Kit-Kats, I can’t even begin to list the vast array of unfamiliar sweets in that grocery store. There are probably thirty completely different things just shaped like pandas. Here’s to someday exhausting all the possibilities that aisle has to offer.

The candy aisle

I have never been to Japan—I plan to go this fall and I can’t wait—but for now, this place feels pretty close.

800 Degrees

It was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I first walked into 800° Degrees, an assembly-line style create-your-own pizzeria. I have no problem with cafeteria style eating—I happily frequent Tender Greens—but the lofty claims made by the founder, Anthony Carron, in this somewhat hilarious video featured on their website made me cringe uncontrollably. The video absolutely makes me want to eat pizza, but the founder’s persistent claims like “this is the way that pizza was first invented in Naples, Italy” and “we wanted to capture the spirit of Napoli,” had me raising an eyebrow. He mentions “Naples” or “Napoli” at least four times. That’s more than once per minute. I hate to sound snobbish, but I did have the extreme pleasure of eating authentic Neapolitan pizza in Naples last fall, and I certainly did not spot any Chipotle-style assembly lines. Neapolitan pizza is crafted austerely—there are two options at Da Michele, the Naples pizzeria made famous in the movie “Eat Pray Love” (don’t let that deter you)—one may choose pizza with tomato sauce, garlic and oregano (no cheese!) or pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella di buffala, and basil. Both are incredible. Toppings quibbles aside, let’s just point out that the soda machine Anthony touts as being designed “by an Italian design company” doesn’t look like it would quite fit in in a corner pizza joint in Napoli either. I also take issue with the fact that the name of the restaurant is clearly “Eight Hundred Degrees Degrees.” Choose either to use the symbol or to spell it out, but you can’t have both.

I am humbled to say that when I finally did visit 800° Degrees, the aroma alone upon entering was enough to make me eat my words (and a whole lot of thin crust pizza too). I looked down the assembly line at my possible topping options, and my appetite was whetted by lovely looking fresh mushrooms, olives, eggplant, Calabrian chilies, soppressata and prosciutto, among many other selections. There was oregano on the stem, applied by shaking onto the marinara-sauced pizza dough. I ordered the simple pizza margherita (the same thing I ordered in Naples) and by the time we had paid and gotten our drinks, the pizza was ready, just like Anthony promised.

The flavor: it’s good. It’s not Naples. You have no doubt heard legends of the unique “00” flour and the special flavor of the water in Italy, and those legends are true. Nothing will ever taste like the pizza crust at Da Michele, and unfortunately 800° Degrees is no exception. But the pizza does taste really good. It does come out of an 800-degree oven bubbling and chewy and thin and edible only with a fork and knife, which is pretty authentic. Everything on the menu is unbelievably cheap—a basic margherita pizza is only $6.45. You can get a delicious salad of creamy burrata cheese with roasted beets or cherry tomatoes and pesto or eggplant caponta for $5. I still can’t believe that. They have wine and beer in addition to their space-agey soda machine.

The bottom line is, the place is really cheap—like Naples cheap—and it’s tasty too. Sure, it is over-crowded with loud UCLA students and the preparation method smacks of Subway. But I applaud the fact that this restaurant has designed a business model where they can successfully offer a dish that goes for $20 on some of my favorite menus around town for $7 instead, and the concept works. They are a chain, and they are slated to open 10 new locations this year. Normally that kind of rapid growth would turn me off, but I am coming to appreciate more and more the turn towards fast food with real ingredients and a pleasant dining experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the restaurant reminds me of Italy, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on eating there either.