By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
I love those moments when I can walk through a doorway, or turn a corner, and come unexpectedly upon a different world. That’s how I felt the first time I found Yuko Kitchen. It was a Friday night, three summers ago, and my friend and I had just come from listening to a live jazz band at LACMA. By the time the music ended, the sun had set and the marine layer had fallen, cooling the air. We wanted to find a place to sit and continue talking, so we turned left at the grove of lanterns and wandered, sure that we’d stumble upon the right place.
We walked past the tar pits, past the Japan Foundation. And then after about ten minutes, we saw it, a cafe just off Wilshire, surrounded by overgrown plants and illuminated by fairy lights. It was exactly the kind of place I always hope to find when I wander without a plan or a Yelp recommendation, and in the dark, with an old friend beside me, it felt a little magical.
This weekend, I went back to Yuko Kitchen after another LACMA visit and found it just as I remembered. From the museum, it’s about half a mile away—short enough to walk, but long enough that (especially during the summer), when you come upon Dunsmuir Avenue and see the overhead sign that points the rest of the way to the restaurant, it still feels like an oasis.
Behind a wall of bougainvillea and hanging vines, Yuko Kitchen is lined on two sides with outdoor seating. Abstract murals in 70s-inspired colors cover the outside walls, and a turquoise door at the top of a low-incline ramp leads inside. There, the mystery of Yuko’s namesake builds. Though she’s not in today, there is evidence of her everywhere. A three-panel painting of a carnival buggy is signed by “Yuko.” A pair of notes, beside bags of loose-leaf tea and a row of honey bottles, explains that her father is a tea-grower and a beekeeper. And her writing is all over the walls.
There’s a particular kind of handwriting common among people who learn to write English in Japan, both taller and rounder than American English handwriting. It’s meticulous and cute at the same time, and here it sets the tone just as much as the fairy lights do.
Yuko Kitchen is a whimsical place, but not in any manicured or trendy way. The paint on the walls is imperfect; the pastries look homemade and irregular. Above the main, unisex bathroom, a ladder leads to a men’s bathroom floating floorless on the second story. Does anyone use it? This is what I wonder as I eat my dinner.
The menu is fresh too, and healthy and reminds me of the kinds of foods I ate growing up—a mix of traditional Japanese (miso shiru, udon) and vaguely Japanese-inspired (vegetables stir-fried over rice, salad with ponzu dressing). I especially like the soups served with wonton chips instead of saltines and the wakame salad, one of the “vegetable tapas” in the display case at the counter.
Best of all are the desserts, which come mostly in different combinations of green tea and sesame. The green tea baby, a $1 sandwich cookie like a spongier alfajor, is as soft and delicate as its odd name suggests. The sesame cupcake is piled with the kind of light frosting you’d find on a Phoenix Bakery shortcake. The green tea-sesame cookie has the thick, crackly crust of a dinosaur egg, which gives way to a cakey center. Days later, I’m still thinking about these sweets and the little garden restaurant where I ate them.
Yuko Kitchen is located at 5484 Wilshire Blvd (at Dunsmuir, west of La Brea). Visit between 4 and 7 pm for boba happy hour.