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