Once the train pulls out of the Little Tokyo depot and leaves behind downtown's sushi bars and ramen-ya, it crosses the 1st Street bridge, dips underground for a couple of stops and comes up again after Soto Street, passing the burritos, cemitas and mariscos of Boyle Heights.
The scenery gives way to softly rolling hills, the Pomona Freeway overpass and, as you pull into the platform at the East L.A. Civic Center station, you see the canopies designed by Clement Hanami that look like huge California poppies. It almost feels like a theme park ride.
Except better. At the next stop, you find yourself directly across the street from a shop that makes some of the best tortas ahogadas in L.A., a sandwich of succulent pork stuffed into a crunchy-around-the-edges bollito, drowned in a sauce of tomato and arbol chiles, topped with slivers of red onion and served with juicy limes.
You have arrived.
Little Tokyo | Arts District
Little Tokyo has a lot more to offer than just sushi and shabu-shabu (and Señor Fish). Within a block or so of the Gold Line stop at 1st and Alameda streets, you'll find buttery baked goods, Hawaiian comfort food, innovative Japanese pub fare, smoky-juicy grilled chicken skewers and downtown's best bowl of chirashi.
Walk along Alameda to 2nd Street and you'll come to the Japanese-cuisine treasure trove of Honda Plaza. Along with sushi stalwart Sushi Gen and upscale shabu-shabu restaurant KaGaYa, the strip mall houses the quirkier Aloha Café. (For really quirky, there's also Tapas & Wine Bar C and its waitresses outfitted in maid costumes.)
Aloha, which relocated to Little Tokyo from Monterey Park last year, serves tender, smoky Kalua pork alongside other island favorites such as loco moco -- a carb-and-meat stack of rice, hamburger patty and two eggs smothered with gravy. Aloha does a brisk lunch business, but don't miss breakfast, which is served all day, including French toast made with extra-large cubes of sweet, fluffy Hawaiian bread.
Two doors down, any fan of viennoiserie and French-style chocolates will not be disappointed by Frances Bakery & Coffee, not disappointed at all. From its ovens come flaky croissants, not-too-sweet pains aux raisins, buttery coconut sablés and elegant banana cake. Its resident confiseur makes chocolates and even marrons glacés (candied chestnuts). And a cabinet in the back is filled with surprising sundries for sale, such as argan oil, Catalan olive oil and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. (Who knew you could find Moroccan argan oil in Little Tokyo?)
If it's evening, across Central Avenue you'll see plumes of smoke against the inky Little Tokyo sky, rising from the roof of the rustic yakitori house Kokekokko. Here, headband-wearing chef Tomohiro Sakata grills up skewers threaded with juicy chicken breast, soy-glazed chicken livers or crispy chicken skin. If you're a chicken skewer-loving regular, he may offer the fatty, flavorful meat from near the tailbone. A tip: You have to order a large soboro (seasoned ground chicken with rice) to be able to order the off-the-menu chicken ramen. That's just how it works.
The sidewalk in front of the Office Depot complex on the next block of Central Avenue is always jammed with the overflow of frozen-yogurt eaters who couldn't find a seat inside Yogurtland. Maneuver your way to the sleek, modern izakayaIzayoi. Don't expect the more rough-and-ready atmosphere of other Little Tokyo izakaya such as Haru Ulala. Here, chef Junichi Shiode works the sushi counter with decorum and serves updated pub fare: shiso-wrapped tempura-fried sardines; red snapper and amberjack carpaccio; or tomatoes in a vinegary gelée.
Back on 1st Street, near the Japanese American National Museum and on the same block as ramen favorite Daikokuya, Japanese diner Suehiro and traditional sweets shop Fugetsu-Do, the chirashi at Toshi Sushi may be chef Toshihiko Seki's pièce de résistance. It's a glorious bowl of sushi rice topped with sashimi (whatever's fresh that day): yellowtail, salmon, albacore, snapper, mackerel, toro (fatty tuna) and uni (sea urchin roe), as well as pickled vegetables and tamago (omelet).
Sushi Gen, 422 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles; (213) 617-0552
KaGaYa, 418 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles; (213) 617-1016; www.kagaya.dla.menuclub.com
Aloha Café, 410 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles; (213) 346-9930; www.eatatalohacafe.com
Frances Bakery & Coffee, 404 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles; (213) 680-4899
Izayoi, 132 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 613-9554
Haru Ulala, 368 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles;(213) 620-0977
Kokekokko, 203 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 687-0690
Daikokuya, 327 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (213) 626-1680; www.daikoku-ten.com
Suehiro, 337 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (213) 626-9132
Fugetsu-Do, 315 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (213) 625-8595
Toshi Sushi, 359 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (213) 680-4166
Pico | Aliso
Not too far from the 1st Street bridge across the Los Angeles River, the New York-style Purgatory Pizza is winning customers from across the bridge with thin-crusted vegan pizzas, hip toppings (goat cheese with pesto, Black Forest ham) and peppery Dante's Revenge pizza topped with pepperoni, jalapeños and its own El Diablo sauce. Sharing Purgatory's kitchen is Carmela, an ice cream maker that culls ingredients from local farmers markets, emphasizing seasonal creations: lavender-honey and salty caramel ice creams and lemon basil sorbet have been favorites. Purgatory serves Carmela by the scoop; flavors change daily.
Purgatory Pizza,1326 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 262-5310
A gorgeous stone kiosk and bandstand donated by Jalisco state (the birthplace of mariachi music) is now the centerpiece of Mariachi Plaza, where local bands have long gathered to secure gigs at weddings or events. Local craftspeople and artists are responsible for this station's impressive decorative elements. Beloved neighborhood restaurant fixtures include La Serenata de Garibaldi, famed burrito depot Al & Bea's and Birrieria Jalisco, the 35-year-old, recently remodeled specialty house dedicated to the perfect roasted kid.
Lesser-known finds make this a neighborhood worth serious exploration. A few steps east of the plaza, Primera Taza offers fair-trade coffees, teas and marvelous pan dulce from nearby La Favorita Bakery.
Across the street, the signage at La Placita del D.F. would have you believe it's a mere sandwich shop, but the menu goes considerably beyond cemitasmilanesa and pambazos. Soul-satisfying huaraches (fried masa flatbreads) come topped with eggs or steak; sturdy corn quesadillas get folded over huitlacoche or half a dozen other fillings; and the outrageous taco pioneero, a tire-size tortilla rolled around cubed, sautéed steak and about a pound of cheese (served after 4 p.m.), proves the tiny kitchen's mettle.
Less than half a block farther east, Las Cabañas, a tiny sliver of a place, turns out delicate Texcoco-style home cooking: squash blossoms from the owner's garden fill hand-patted corn tortillas of rough-ground fresh masa. Borrego (braised lamb) and consomé come from her stove daily, as does wonderful sopa de hongos, a meal in a bowl heaped high with fresh mushrooms and meaty chicken legs cooked au point in a clean, rich-tasting broth.
Up on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue near White Memorial Medical Center, Las Brisas is the bargain marisquería of your dreams. High turnover means sparkling fresh campechana (mixed) cocktails that include oysters, clams, octopus, abalone and shrimp at $6.50; crunchy fish tacos drizzled with crema and an elegant soup overflowing with seafood highlight the classic menu.
La Serenata de Garibaldi, 1842 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 265-9732
Al & Bea's Mexican Food, 2025 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 267-8810
Birrieria Jalisco, 1845 E. 1st St. Los Angeles; (323) 262-4552
Primera Taza Coffee House, 1850 1/2 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 780-3923
La Placita del D.F., 1859 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 780-8232
Las Cabanas Restaurant, 1908 3/4 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 261-8384
Las Brisas, 1829 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 222-4686
After emerging from beneath Boyle Heights, look east down 1st Street to Otomisan, a sukiyaki standby and remnant of the neighborhood's Japanese past. If you happen to be riding a night train, seek out the group of street-food vendors recently uprooted from Breed Street (known as the Breed Street Food Fair). Their pop-up food fairs last only a few hours, but they're rich with excellent antojitos and more, including hand-formed quesadillas, steamed tacos, huaraches, pozole and fiery pambazos, chile-soaked sandwiches that are best at Nina's Catering, where there's a remarkable salsa of pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and peanuts.
In the shadow of Evergreen Cemetery is El Rinconcito del Mar. The airy mariscos restaurant has an attached bakery, plus all the dutifully consistent fish tacos you'd expect. There are some exceptionally cheap breakfasts for morning commuters; otherwise, order the tart, fresh ceviches of octopus, fish and shrimp alongside a cold beer or a cocktail from the bar.
A few storefronts away near the corner florist is Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita. The 1st Street restaurant spells out its specialty: There are more than a dozen varieties of cemitas here, oversized sandwiches stuffed with so much meat, avocado, stringy quesillo and either pickled jalapeño or chipotle chiles that they could conceivably feed three. Try the classic carnitas or perhaps pickled pig skin, called cueritos. There are also plate-straining huitlacoche quesadillas and tacos árabes, cross-cultural constructions of pork and chipotle salsa descended from the shawarma.
Otomisan, 2506 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 526-1150
Boyle Heights Food Fairs, twitter.com/breedstscene
El Rinconcito del Mar, 2908 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 269-8723
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita, 3010 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 881-0428
Follow the train tracks back onto 1st Street and into Tamales Lilianas. The menu is larger than you might think, but stick with the tamales -- soft blocks of masa stuffed with the likes of roasted chiles and cheese, pork slathered in salsa verde or a sweet treat of raisins and pineapple. Across the street is the mammoth El Mercado, a three-story emporium of all things edible and wearable. There are full-service restaurants inside, but go for smaller bites such as cups of esquites (kernels of corn cooked with epazote and chile powder) and shaved ice. El Mercado is about the experience -- visit for the mariachi grudge match played out on the third floor and take home some pre-made mole while you're at it.
Head north on Lorena Street to Los Cinco Puntos, an institution that sells its meats, masa and tamales practically by the truckload. Los Cinco Puntos also makes terrific tacos. While the carnitas is particularly good, these tacos are more a study in tortillas, presented here as chubby discs molded out of handmade masa and blackened right before your eyes on a gargantuan comal. Top your tacos with the works: guacamole, three kinds of salsa and sticky strips of nopales. (A few steps away is Cemitas Tepeaca, a truck that parks at the triangular intersection of Cesar Chavez Avenue, Indiana Street and Brooklyn Place. Stop by for huge cemitas, memelitas and other Pueblan essentials.)
Farther east on 1st Street is Birrieria Chalio. In a stretch of neighborhood markets and corner stores, Chalio is a bastion of goat so dedicated to its delicacy that taxidermy is its primary source of decor. Pile some of the supremely tender and finely spiced goat (served on the bone or in pre-chopped chunks) into handmade, Frisbee-sized flour tortillas with onion, cilantro, a dash of habanero salsa and a squeeze of lime.
A few more blocks eastward is Teresitas, a decades-old favorite built on a menu of solid staples and excellent daily specials such as pork short ribs in black chile sauce.
Tamales Lilianas, 3448 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 780-0829
El Mercado, 3425 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 268-3451; www.elmercadodelosangeles.com
Los Cinco Puntos, 3300 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 261-4084
Birrieria Chalio, 3580 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (323) 268-5349
Teresitas, 3826 E. 1st St.; (323) 266-6045; www.teresitasrestaurant.com
Maravilla | East L.A. Civic Center | Atlantic
As the Gold Line train pulls into its last few stops along 3rd Street, we find ourselves in a bit of a food quandary. The Maravilla and Atlantic stops are close together, and bookend the East Los Angeles Civic Center station. Following one of the great laws of cuisine in America, the presence of government buildings seems to repel good food from the immediate vicinity.
But in a strip mall immediately north of the Maravilla stop, there's the East L.A. branch of La Chiva Loca, beloved vendor of tortas ahogadas. That's a sandwich soaked in tomato sauce, a Guadalajaran specialty. It's dense, chewy, crusty bread, plopped into a plastic-lined basket and drenched in a beautifully tangy tomato sauce. We're not talking a mild dressing here -- it's as if you dropped your sandwich into a bowl of soup and decided it was better that way. The tortas ahogadas are best had with Chiva Loca's equally dense carnitas, maybe accompanied by tacos dorados de requesón -- thick, crispy tacos, also submerged in the tomato sauce.
At the Atlantic stop, the end of the line, you can chill out at Maria's Corner, cater-cornered from the station. The restaurant offers a full menu of homey dishes and snack foods. As you wait for your train in the hot afternoon, munch on some camarones aguachiles -- a platter of raw whole shrimp, covered with tons of lime, cilantro and green chiles, served with tostadas for your crunching pleasure.
Third Street may be pretty quiet around here, but it's right in between two stupendous food thoroughfares: Cesar Chavez to the north and the great, heaving central strip of Whittier Boulevard to the south.
From the East L.A. Civic Center stop, head north on Mednik Avenue. The next major street is Cesar Chavez; turn left, and you'll find several restaurants along a relatively sleepy stretch of the road. Maybe the most important is Moles La Tia, offering the widest selection of traditional and experimental moles in town. Duck with tamarind mole? You got it. Scallops with hibiscus mole? Done. The restaurant's hidden genius: chayote soup, blended into a lush purée. It's a surprisingly deep, but delicate, experience of this Mexican squash.
From the Atlantic stop, go south on Atlantic until you get to the corner of Whittier. You are now at the center of the East L.A. universe. To the west stretches the busiest shopping stretch in East Los Angeles, populated by any number of bakeries, taquerias and snack shops, at least half of which are excellent. But a block to the east is one of East L.A.'s culinary treasures -- Tacos Baja, formerly Tacos Baja Ensenada and still the reigning champ for fish tacos. It's about a mile from the end of the line, but it's worth the hike for a bite of textural perfection -- tender fish, even more tender tortillas, silky crema and crisp cabbage, all sweet and aromatic and juicy. On weekends, you can sometimes get excellent skate tacos too.
La Chiva Loca, 4555 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 264-4595
Maria's Corner, 5100 E. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 262-2199
Moles La Tia, 4619 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 263-7842; www.moleslatia.com
Tacos Baja, 5385 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 887-1980