Welcome to the first edition of SILVER, a celebration of businesses in Los Angeles that have been open for 25+ years. Tien Nguyen takes you inside spots which have helped define our city, even if they are hidden gems whose influence extends to the neighbors they’ve served for a generation…
Over in Boyle Heights, on First Street, in the few blocks between Al & Bea’s and El Sarape, is Otomisan, a compact Japanese diner that opened in 1956 and, as any weekday at its lunch counter will tell you, is still going strong.
That generations of Japanese and Japanese-Americans have considered Otomisan a diner of choice is not surprising once you recall that the community has a long history in Boyle Heights, with First Street connecting the neighborhood to Little Tokyo as far back as the 1920s. In fact, before World War II — when the government authorized what George Takei recently characterized as “an act of pure, irrational, mad, racist hysteria” and sent Japanese residents to “camps” — the area was home to a large population of Japanese-Americans.
Otomi Café, as Otomisan was originally called, has changed hands twice since it opened, most recently to a relentlessly cheerful woman named Yayoi Watanabe. She’ll likely be the one who greets you when you walk in and gesture towards any open seats, of which there aren’t many: three worn red booths and five stools at the counter. If you’ve called in your order for take out, you’ll probably wait at one of the folding chairs in the front.
Around you are shelves crammed with Mickey Mouse and Snoopy figurines, framed photos, a passel of maneki-nekos. On the walls: newspaper clippings, a calendar from a local realtor. Behind the counter are pots of tea, a rice cooker, a huge refrigerator and a small television. The TV, by the way, is often tuned to NHK, the Japanese news network, though during the baseball season, the game might be on. Should Zack Greinke win the Cy Young Award? Someone will have an opinion.
Like Suehiro and Pann’s and other great old school diners in the city, Otomisan specializes in the generalities of comfort food — Japanese comfort food. Among the starters, then, you’ll find things like edamame, small salads and, perhaps best of all, plump, oval potato croquettes, fried to a beautiful crunch. A squeeze bottle of Bulldog, the thick, brown sauce that is good with most everything and is ubiquitous in most every Japanese home kitchen, will arrive alongside. Dip away.
As for your mains, there is something here for everyone: udon and soba to satisfy your noodle craving. Sushi rolls should the mood strike. Teriyakis (chicken, beef, salmon), curries. There’s donburi (rice bowls), too, including an intensely gratifying oyakodon, a bowl of rice capped with a sort of omelette of braised chicken and scallions. If you’re paralyzed by indecision, look to the combination plates: why decide between the chicken teriyaki and the California rolls when you can have both, with rice, miso soup and a salad?
The standout, though, is Otomisan’s tempura, which appears to be so popular that most everyone orders it either as a standalone appetizer or as part of a combo (one recent night, every occupied stool and table at the restaurant had an order of tempura before them). Once you try it, you can appreciate its popularity: the batter is terrific, and the shrimp and vegetables (recently, onions, lotus root, broccoli, zucchini, sweet potato) are fried to an utterly beautiful, light, delicate crisp. This is tempura that can go toe to toe with the best tempura specialists in the city.
It’s probably a good time to note (or warn, depending on where you fall on the Myers-Briggs test) that no doubt owing to the fact that there’s often just one person in the front and often just one person in the kitchen, service can sometimes be a little slow. But it is caring. It’s hard not to be forgiving, especially as you’re taken in by the warmth of the place, the knickknacks on the shelves, the booth full of folks who have clearly been coming here for decades. Indeed, by the time your tempura arrives, you may have an urge to give the place a hug. And you know? It will hug you back.
Otomisan, 2506 1/2 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90033