Sweater-Weather Food in Little Tokyo

by Amanda Armour

Yellowtail in L.A.

If you’re walking through L.A.’s Little Tokyo, you just may miss what’s quickly become my favorite poke spot. Every time I wander through that part of the city, the goal is nearly always a food mission: ducking into hidden sake bars tucked along 1st Street.

Quickening my pace while hurrying to storefronts where the line of patrons awaiting silky udon noodles drowning happily in curry flows onto the sidewalk. Imbibing some of the best coffee I’ve had – anywhere.

This trek, however, was dedicated to poke. On this particular day, with my boyfriend and a close friend in tow, we hurried past the ever-present mix of tourists and locals walking the blocks snuggled betwixt the Japanese Cultural Center and the edge of Downtown Los Angeles.

If you look over your left shoulder after alighting from the Gold Line at the Little Toyko stop on your next visit, you’ll note the tips of buildings peppering the Arts District rising just on the other side of 3rd. It’s easy to become entranced by the burst of murals lining the streets as the afternoon sun tickles your cheeks.

Glance to your right and there will await a more immediate food mecca. Too bad it never rains in Southern California. Deep, steaming bowls of lip smackingly-salted ramen broth – perfect sweater-weather food – abound.  We meander past at least three on our way to the corner of 2nd and San Pedro.

The entrance isn’t much.

In fact, the first time I went in search of Honda-Ya’s Poke Express, both the name and the outside façade left my expectations stoically underwhelmed.

Needless to say come this, my third visit, the food just keeps pulling me back.

My friend allows the faintest of disdainful nods towards the sandwich board and flame-red awning outside the entrance, raising his eyebrows at me with no effort to disguise his suspicion. “Just wait,” I announce, already moving to open the door.

Our feet cross the threshold. Narnia awaits.

To describe the décor as pristine hardly captures the essence. Soft, almost cherubic lighting glows from within.

A smiling cashier darts her eyes past the lunch rush swarming the counter to shout “Hello!” before turning back to finish the order. The tables, sleek, wooden, spaced to maximize both comfort and crowd, are so well chosen that I’m reminded that I hoped to learn the name of the decorator upon my last visit.

We begin by selecting menus, which conveniently double as checklists for our orders. Negotiations begin. Salmon? Obviously. My pencil pauses over Yellowtail, checking the accompanying box before wandering back up the list to Tuna, then making a sharp right to hover over Shrimp, Octopus, Squid, and Tofu. No, not today, I decide before selecting Scallops and bypassing Albacore.

It feels almost impossible to not press our nose tips to the glass and watch the staff deftly scoop cubes of glistening fish doused in yuzu ponzu sauce and slide the mixture into bowls. We all pause at the counter. Hands shoot out to secure spicy mayo, furukake, fried onions and garlic .

A slight stampede for our table to settle in for the meal.

My chopsticks tease out a scallop, twirling in bits of avocado, pineapple, and white onion. We all inhale before taking our first bites. Mouth magic.

The scallop is smooth and soft, its quivering round mass resting upon my tongue before I happily swallow. The salmon and yellowtail are equally perfect, and I’m happy to discover that the rice is plump, flavorful, and portioned for enhancement of the fish rather than as a filler.

Whatever conversation flew between us prior to entering the restaurant ceases as we each lift, delight, and chew. In what feels like only moments later, a busboy appears to remove our empty trays.

He smiles. “Hope you enjoyed your meal.”

We gesture at our bellies and laugh as we scoot slowly away from the table to rise. I’m already plotting my next combo.

Sidebar: have I mentioned my ever-present pie temptation from the shop a few blocks away? That’s a story for next time.