MEET LITTLE TOKYO: Café Dulce – Creating Community One Cup at a Time

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Fans of Café Dulce’s delectable drinks, donuts and pastries may be surprised to know that though the café delights and serves countless guests today, it almost never came to be.

This doesn’t faze James Choi, Café Dulce’s humble owner, who strikes a seemingly impossible balance between wading through the entrepreneurial struggle and river of lessons this journey has sent his way and bathing in thankfulness for the support of the Little Tokyo community and hope for its future.

Read on to learn more about the priceless moments that have shaped James and Café Dulce into who they are today.

Meet James Choi, owner of Café Dulce.

James Choi started Café Dulce in 2010 and since then has become actively involved in the Little Tokyo community. “I think the biggest thing that makes Little Tokyo unique is the number of people that are behind the scenes making sure that Little Tokyo is protected and continues to be a cultural center,” Choi says.

How did you get your start in Little Tokyo?

James Choi: We got our start in Little Tokyo back in 2010 when my mom decided that she wanted to open up a bakery. We were actually supposed to be an ice cream and cookie sandwich store, but when I started doing the numbers on how many cookies we’d have to sell, it didn’t make sense. Then we were going to do a macaroon shop, but two weeks before my mom was supposed to open, the bakery operational partner split.

I put in my two weeks’ notice at Ernst and Young, where I used to work and said, “Okay, let’s figure out how to run a bakery,” and that’s how we got our start.

What is your most memorable experience in Little Tokyo?

JC: One of the most memorable experiences I had was when I was working alone in the shop really late because my mom was really sick. I was walking home, and I was really hungry, and I said, “If Kouraku is open right now I’m going to go eat.” So I ate a whole bowl of mabo tofu by myself at 2:30 in the morning. I was dead tired, and it was so satisfying. It was rainy and gloomy, and it just really hit the spot.

Another really amazing experience I had was when Roy [Kuroyanagi] from Japangeles took me over to the Go For Broke National Education Center. It was very quiet, really solemn and very heavy-hitting and gave you a glimpse of the history of why Little Tokyo is here.

If I had one hour to do something in Little Tokyo, what would you recommend?

JC: There’s a handful of restaurants that I really love here, but I think my favorite one is Kinjiro over in Honda Plaza. It’s small and very hard to get a reservation, but the food’s just delicious, and Jun [Isogai], the owner, is a really nice, funny person to talk to and get to know. Their uni risotto and beef tongue are insane and so is the skirt steak over rice. Their rice is so good. Dude, their rice is amazing.

Also, JANM and Go for Broke always have really good exhibits.  Go for Broke is extremely interactive. They have these kiosks that take you through the decision process of a Japanese American man who is trying to enlist and the different questions that they were specifically asked because they were Japanese.

They also do a good job at paralleling that to today and what is happening with Muslims. They have a wall that says, “Back in 1942 this was the face of the enemy,” and they have an image of a Japanese American family. And “2001, this is the face of the enemy,” and it’s Muslim people. Then they ask, “What are you going to do if history repeats itself?”

What makes Little Tokyo different from other neighborhoods?

JC: I think the biggest thing that makes Little Tokyo unique is the number of people that are behind the scenes making sure that Little Tokyo is protected and continues to be a cultural center. Most of the business owners don’t realize all of the efforts that are going into keeping Little Tokyo the community that it is.

We’re not Japanese at all. I’m a Korean business owner, and the name of our café is Spanish, but we’re in Little Tokyo and we’ve been embraced by the community because we love to see the community thrive. It’s a place for small business owners, independent entrepreneurs and people that want to make a social change and impact, and they are welcome to all those people.

What do you hope for the future of Little Tokyo?

JC: I hope that Café Dulce’s legacy is that we were always involved in the community. All of the legacy businesses that have been here for 20, 30+ years are reasons that people come to Little Tokyo. Without them, Little Tokyo wouldn’t be what it is today. You have a lot of the older generation of Japanese Americans that are transitioning away and retiring, so I would love be a part of the changing of the guard to see that Little Tokyo is continuing to be protected.

I think that’s the hope for the future of this neighborhood, that as an older generation moves on, there is going to be a group of people who are ready to take the baton and run with it and continue to keep it protected.

This interview has been translated, edited and condensed for clarity.

James Choi, Owner
Café Dulce
134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 346-9910

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