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Little Tokyo, Los Angeles: Getting the flavor of the place

Feast your way to a new understanding of Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.

By Staff writer / April 21, 2010

‘Little Tokyo’ guide Betsy Matz points to the ‘wall of shame’ in a restaurant window.

Stephanie Diani/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

The fortune cookie was invented by a 19th-century Japanese immigrant, chopsticks stuck upright in a ball of rice are considered a death omen, and it's possible – though not recommended – to eat 231 gyozas (dumplings) in 10 minutes as Joey Chestnut did during last summer's annual Nisei Week.

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Those are just a few of the morsels of information served up on one of the food and walking tours run by Six Taste Food Tours in Los Angeles. The 3-1/2-hour excursions offer foodies a window on both the cuisine and cultural life of various ethnic neighborhoods that many rarely explore.

"We wanted to show people a more interesting narrative sitting right inside their own city," says Jeff Okita, a fourth-generation Japanese-American who started the company last year.

The food entices the gastronomically open-minded to come, says Mr. Okita, "but we choose the restaurants based on their story and what they add to the understanding of a neighborhood, its people and its history."

We begin our tour of Little Tokyo huddled inside a reproduction of a Kyoto temple, located in front of the Japanese American National Museum. Our guide, Betsy Matz, a self-professed lover of all things Japanese, passes around a platter of Japanese pastries from the famed Yamazaki Bakery nearby. We nibble melon pan (a sweet flour pastry) and green tea mochi, made with glutinous rice.

Ms. Matz regales the group of 15 with examples of the differences between Jap­a­nese and Western pastries. "We in the West are obsessed with sugar," she says. In contrast, many traditional Japanese confections are sweetened with red bean paste.

Fortified, we head for the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Honda Plaza. The well-tended gardens – replete with elegant curving bridges and carefully designed waterfalls – are a favorite site for weddings.

We will make seven stops, our fast-talking guide tells us – "four sweet ones, three savory." By journey's end, we will: learn proper chopstick mechanics (hold the bottom one stationary, articulate with the top), discuss the fine points of sushi bar service (don't ask for more wasabi paste, says Matz, as this suggests the chef doesn't know his craft), and nibble mochi (this is basically pounded, very sticky rice, she explains) everywhere.

We will also learn about Little Tokyo's population shifts as a result of US policy toward Japanese-Americans in World War II.

Matz points out the 2nd Street Jazz club as we stroll. "Before the war," she says, "this area had 30,000 Japanese-Americans." So many were sent to internment camps that a mere 1,000 remained after the war. The area was resettled during that time by African-Americans, who founded the jazz club in 1942. "They saved the neighborhood from going downhill," she adds, "so the club is a local landmark."

Moving on to Wakasaya restaurant, a "savory" stop, we see the "wall of shame" – photos of customers who took the restaurant's challenge to consume a giant bowl of fish roe, salmon, tuna, sea urchin, squid, and 15 toppings within a quarter-hour. ("Finish in under 15 minutes and it's free. Otherwise: $44.80," say signs.) We eat bowls of donburi (rice with other foods on top) and sniff bottles of wasabi so strong that even the wasabi lovers among us say, "I'll pass."