>> Otomisan | Eat the World Los Angeles

Friday, 18 February 2022

Otomisan

JAPAN 🇯🇵
E. 1st Street facade

COVID-19 UPDATE: The tiny restaurant is open for indoor dining and does a lot of takeout/pickup business.
 
EDITOR'S NOTE: Part of the "Los Angeles Classics" series.

📍 2506 1/2 E. 1st Street, Boyle Heights, Eastside

It is difficult not to feel (and see) the almost 70 year history of beloved Boyle Heights institution Otomisan, the ghosts of history blanket every surface of the space just like the layers of dust. Even fifteen years ago the Times was lamenting how walking through the screen door is like "stepping into history." The restaurant could hold its own in Gardena or Torrance, but probably would not be talked about as much if it had operated in one of those cities.

This is partly because of the complicated history of Japanese and Japanese American people being placed into concentration camps during World War II, their resettlement into Boyle Heights after the war because of the neighborhood's availability to non-white people, and this restaurant being the last holdout of a population that has mostly moved elsewhere. Those stories have been told very thoroughly and beautifully for decades, worth learning about through non-food sources for those interested.

Fried gyoza with chili oil dipping sauce

While Otomisan can seem sleepy at times and busy at others simply because it is so tiny, try to grab a stool at the bar or tuck into a booth for the full experience of dining in. It is only while touching its surfaces and breathing its air that you can feel the Japanese-owned grocers, florists, and barbers that all operated in this space before it was converted to a restaurant in the 1950's.

As if cooked by a gentle touch, items like the pan-fried gyoza ($5.95, above) seem a bit lighter than usual here, six dumplings that are flipped to reveal their slightly charred bottoms. These are less dense and not oily at all like the run-of-the-mill gyoza, and would never fill you up before your mains arrive. A small vessel of chili oil comes with your dumplings, unnecessary but satisfying as well if you want to take your taste buds in that direction.

Tempura udon

You can sometimes get cold buckwheat soba noodles here and those are certainly a worthy order if you come before they are sold out each day, but this meal had the pleasure of taking place on a misty and windy day after the recent February heat wave came to an end. It seemed like the ideal lunch for an order of hot udon. This can be paired with vegetables, chicken or beef, or even served cold, but the best way to eat it is hot as the tempura udon ($14.95, above and below).

A simple but pleasantly salty broth serves as the background for their big, slippery noodles. Only a bit of seaweed and thinly sliced scallion is put on top, making it that much easier for the steaming bowl to warm you when it arrives.

Assortment of shrimp and vegetable tempura

Like the gyoza, the tempura is lovely in its delicateness. The fried batter almost shatters under the weight of your chopsticks and leaves absolutely no oily taste in your mouth. It even holds up surprisingly when briefly dipping pieces of these battered vegetables and shrimp into the hot udon broth. Sogginess is not on the menu.

As well as a couple pieces of snappy large shrimp, an array of vegetables always includes a good assortment of what is in season or fresh. The most interesting bites on the plate above were hidden upon arrival, two half moons of eggplant and lotus root, an interesting comparison in textures.

Spicy tuna tempura roll

When you are in the mood, Otomisan also makes some pretty serviceable sushi rolls. While this might not be the standard fare of an izakaya or sit down counter service Japanese restaurant, it probably speaks to having a clientele in Boyle Heights that generally is not seeking specialized fare and wants to eat from many parts of Japanese cuisine.

The spicy tuna tempura roll ($10.95) is on their small list of "specialty rolls" and is another way to enjoy their well made tempura as a thin piece of battered and fried shrimp is the in the center of the usual ingredients of a spicy tuna roll. While Otomisan is not necessarily a specialist in any specific dish, rolls like this prove that they make everything very special.

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