By Jordan Ikeda
Rafu Staff Writer
Of course Japanese and Japanese American cuisine still make up the majority of restaurants, but look around and you’ll see pho, Korean barbeque, donor kebabs, frozen yogurt, loco moco, and even good old-fashioned American hamburgers.
While there are undoubtedly those who reflect on this development with a yearning for the past or perhaps even a touch of disenchantment, I suggest a move in the opposite direction.
Embrace the change.
In fact, bite into a big, juicy mouthful of it.
The best way to delve head first into a new culture or revisit a familiar one is through cuisine. Enter USC students, Jeff Okita, a half-Japanese, half-Filipino American and Alex Tao, a second generation Taiwanese American.
This dynamic duo brainstormed the idea of culinary tours throughout Los Angeles. They call their company Six Taste—a play on the idea of expanding through discovery the generally accepted fab five of sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. Their first tour, which began in August, guides the curious and the adventurous alike through the old and new tastes of Little Tokyo.
“We thought Little Tokyo would be perfect,” Okita told the Rafu Shimpo. “It’s one of the most pedestrian friendly areas and we really love a lot of the restaurants and food here. Our goal is to introduce people to Little Tokyo, show them that this place has a rich history, great food, great stores, and make it more accessible for everyone.”
There are two walking tours available. The Epicurious Tour is only two hours and focuses mainly on the edible while sprinkling on a bit of the historical. The 31/2 hour Gastronaut Tour is the full helping and offers a balance of history, culture and food along seven stops throughout J-Town.
Ever walk down First Street and wonder what that solid black line, the one with the 1942 dates running down the eastern sidewalk, is all about? Or have you ever been to Wakasaya, taken one look at the phonebook they call a menu and realize you have no clue as to where to even begin? Are you familiar with the mochi-making process or do you know what ninjas used to eat or what the ideal time is to steep a perfect cup of green tea?
After Six Taste’s Little Tokyo tour, all of those questions will be answered.
“We really are interested,” said Okita, “in conveying the most accurate information as possible and telling interesting stories.”
I was able to accompany Okita and tour guide Brian Takahashi on one of their Gastronaut Tours and found myself impressed with the amount of insight offered along the way. The team did their homework. In preparation, the Six Taste team took the JANM walking tour, talked to the owners of the restaurants, got information from Fugetsu-Do owner Brian Kito on the history of J-Town and also drew upon their own personal experiences (Takahashi grew up in Little Tokyo).
“Excellent,” said Sansei Kathleen Takaki of the tour. “I think they should be doing more of this. Even for your local people of Los Angeles who have never been to Japan Town. That was an eye-opener for me. I think it will bring in more people to shop here, to see what’s interesting.”
The beauty of Six Taste is in the purity of its purpose.
Obviously, the main course is food, while the historical and cultural lessons works well as side dishes, and shopping for goodies a tasty dessert, but it must be noted that the lingering aftertaste of the entire experience is of equal importance.
For those who frequent Little Tokyo, there is a buzz that simply wasn’t there a few years ago. While it’s true that more and more young people have followed this buzz and can be found filling the streets on Friday and Saturday nights, the reality of many of the restaurants and shops occupying First and Second Streets is that lunch remains the vital lifeblood of survival during the weekdays.
“The thing that really stands out to us is that we’ve managed to create a business that we believe helps the community,” Okita said. “It injects money into the community. The restaurants appreciate that because we’re giving people an intimate look at their establishment. We’re telling people what’s good and what we enjoy and then people are more likely to purchase.
“Places like Fugetsu-Do, we bring them there and talk about the peanut butter mochi or something like that and people will go and buy it. Our patrons love to be guided through the area, particularly the food, and they feel like they form a connection with the area, the restaurants that they wouldn’t get if they were just walking around. The owner takes their time, comes out. We tell them the history, the backdrop of the place.”
According to Okita, 80 percent of Six Taste’s clientele is made up of people from the Los Angeles area, an exact opposite contrast to normal food tours that usually consist of 80 percent tourists.
“I knew nothing about Little Tokyo,” said Susie Leio who came up from Long Beach for the tour. “I kind of dashed by it going to other places in Downtown L.A. Now, I’ll be sure to stop here and make it a destination. I’m happy to have been introduced to so many different restaurants. The food is delicious.”
In addition to Susie and her husband John, my tour group consisted of a family originally from Hawaii, a couple from Colorado, a mother and daughter from the San Fernando Valley, and a couple from Orange County. Just a handful of people under the direction of our personable and knowledgeable tour guide.
At the end of the 31/2 hours, a certain bonding had occurred, one unified through the fellowship of food.
And, of course, there was plenty of food to celebrate. From Japanese American traditional cuisine, to trendy Japanese fare, to Mediterranean (new wave J-Town). But be forewarned. The Gastronaut Tour is aptly named.
Ready yourself to eat. Pastries from Yamazaki Bakery and tea and scones from the Chado Tea Room located behind JANM ease you into the experience. A meal of negitoro don, miso soup and tea from Wakasaya followed by pita bread fries, lavash wraps and sangria samples from Spitz do the heavy lifting. All of this is washed down with a trio of desserts—mochi from Fugetsu-Do, imagawayaki from Mitsuru Cafe, and mochi ice cream from Mikawaya.
“Everything tasted good,” said Michelle who drove down from Orange County to take the tour.
“I wasn’t afraid to try anything.” In the end, that’s the whole idea behind Six Taste.
Releasing your fear of the unknown, and instead savoring the discovery.
Tours are on Saturday and Sunday. The Gastronaut Tour is $55, Epicurious $25. For more information visit www.sixtaste.com, e-mail [email protected], call (530) 902-4995, or visit www.yelp.com, www.tripadvisor.com, or www.goldstar.com to read testimonials and other reviews.