All photos courtesy of Food’s Eye View
At first glance, driving through Torrance—located nearly 20 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles in an area called the South Bay—is a rather mundane experience. There’s little in the way of noticeable design or aesthetics, and the whole area can seem to blend into one large, indistinguishable stretch of strip malls. But take a closer look and you’ll notice an unusually high volume of signage featuring Japanese kanji characters. There’s good reason for this: Torrance has the second highest percentage of Japanese people in the country (now only surpassed by its northward neighbor, Gardena), prompting former LA Weekly writer Willy Blackmore to famously dub it, “Japan’s 48th prefecture” back in 2009. Its transformation into a mecca for Japanese food and culture began to take shape in 1982 when Toyota (yes, the automaker) moved their headquarters to the otherwise unknown city. Other companies followed Toyota’s trail, and Torrance soon experienced a surge of growth thanks to an influx of Japanese immigration. The effects were palpable. As of 2010, it has the eighth largest population of any city in Los Angeles County—a giant among bordering cities like Redondo Beach and Carson.
In terms of food, the South Bay has largely remained off-the-radar (save for the occasional praise of Jonathan Gold) despite being a bonafide Japanese epicenter. You could chalk it up to geography, for starters. Little Tokyo in DTLA and Little Osaka on the West Side are much sexier for tourists: neat and self-contained corridors that don’t require serious exploration. Much like how San Gabriel Valley preserves Chinese food traditions better than any other place in California, the South Bay—specifically focal points like Torrance and Gardena—similarly can be seen as the front lines for a diverse array of authentic Japanese cuisine, including bossed-out variations on classics and other hard-to-come-by grub. From raw chicken sashimi toriwasa to unagi soba, here are five dishes LA food blogger Food’s Eye View thinks are worth the haul to the South Bay.
Kanitama udon at Sanuki No Sato
Address: 18206 S. Western Ave, Gardena (310-324-9184)
As far as noodle soups go, udon has always loomed in the dark shadows cast by the almighty ramen. But udon certainly deserves a shot at glory, and the bowl from Sanuki no Sato—a longstanding noodle and bento house tucked into the back corner of a Gardena strip mall—may just do the trick. Their kanitama (translates to “crab-egg”) udon is a unique creation that I’ve yet to encounter anywhere else. The soup arrives with a fluffy layer of soft omelette, topped with a sheet of nori and tiny mound of crab meat (the real deal, no imitation here). Underneath lie tangles of thick, slippery off-white udon noodles that are made in-house and perfectly suitable for full-on slurping—especially in a dashi-base broth that thickens slightly as the egg starts to break down. I’d have to imagine that the origin of this dish most likely draws from Chinese tradition, as it is texturally similar to egg drop soup.
Unagi Soba at Ichimi Ann Bamboo Garden
Address: 1618 Cravens Ave, Torrance (310-328-1323)
In Torrance, there is certainly no shortage of top-notch soba houses cranking out fresh noodles daily. In a neighborhood with plenty of competition, Ichimi sets itself apart by importing the buckwheat for their soba (and flour for their udon) directly from Japan. Even if you’ve only had soba a handful of times, you’ll immediately notice the difference here. The noodles are more toothsome (think something similar to an al dente spaghetti) with a slightly nutty flavor. The unagi option is a rare treat, combining the meaty, sweetness of eel with the firm noodles and tasty broth. The debate over whether to order your bowl hot or cold really comes down to personal preference (or the weather), but the cold option allows the flavors to really shine through.
Toriwasa at Torimatsu
Address: 1425 W Artesia Blvd, Gardena (310-538-5764)
Torimatsu just might be the most authentic yakitori-ya aside from Little Tokyo gem Kokekokko, but without all the attitude and favoritism. The modest space is centered around an open kitchen where skewers are tended to by a quiet, bespectacled gentleman. All of the yakitori items are solid—including the yaki-onigiri (grilled rice ball) filled with bits of salmon—but it’s the toriwasa (raw chicken sashimi) that makes this spot a must visit for adventurous eaters. At Kokekokko you can ask for your chicken breast to be cooked medium rare, but at Torimatsu you can order it tataki style, with a lightly seared outside and completely raw interior. The texture of the chicken resembles a seared albacore, soft, but with the slightest bit of resistance to remind you that it is in fact meat you’re eating. The flavor of the chicken is pure, yet subtle, not at all what you’d expect consuming it raw, and is further enhanced by a light soy-type sauce and mitsuba (Japanese parsley).
Grilled Clams at Torihei
Address: 1757 W Carson St, Torrance (310-781-9407)
There’s a handful of really good yakitori-ya’s in the area (see Torimatsu), but the grilled clams at Torihei really set this place apart. A vertical grill is placed tableside, topped with a metal rack over an open flame. On top sits a clam on the half shell—the large, meaty morsels basking in puddles of their own natural juices. As the clams quickly cook, the juices evolve into to a broth that’s entirely slurp-worthy after you dig into the plump and meaty flesh. Clams, especially the asari (also known as manila) variety, are a common sight at Japanese places, but I’ve yet to come across any this big in size or flavor. Get there early to ensure an order (or two).
Uni at Maruhide Uni Club
Address: 2130 W Redondo Beach Blvd, Torrance (310-323-2864)
Uni, which was once nothing more than a delicacy seldom seen outside the confines of your local sushi bar, has now become a common fixture on menus, showing up in sauces, pastas, or on top of crostinos. Still, for the true urchin connoisseur, the yellow-orange lobes are at their best in their purest state, as fresh as possible, and without anything to distract from the clean ocean essence. At Maruhide Uni Club you’ll find uni prepared just about every possible way, sure to please long-time fans and neophytes alike. The restaurant operates as an extension of their larger wholesale operation that supplies both the United States and Asia, and the company claims that this opening marks the first dedicated uni specialist in the U.S. Do yourself a favor and order the bowl featuring salmon scallops, and sea urchin in three ways: fresh, boiled and marinated. For pristine uni in all of its glory, you can’t do much better.