Do You Know the Way to East LA?

Posted on May 16, 2011


Do You Know the Way to East LA?
by AnneLise Sorensen

While it aimed to skewer stereotypes, Cheech and Chong’s bong-fueled 1980 “Born in East LA” lingers in the minds of some as synonymous with the neighborhood. (Cheech: I was born in East LA. Chong: Oh yeah…? Let`s see your green card. Cheech:  Huh? Green card? I`m from East LA.)

Yes, East LA is the largest Hispanic community in the US – click here to see my earlier post on celebrating Mexican cuisine, Eat Your Way through East LA. But, as one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it also has a remarkably rich history in other cultures, including Japanese and Jewish.

The sun-baked, forlorn little corner of East 1st Street in Boyle Heights doesn’t look like much, but it’s where you’ll find Otomisan, one of LA’s earliest Japanese restaurants.

Open the squeaky screen door to Otomisan, which is hardly bigger than a sushi roll, with three booths and a row of counter stools leftover from its days as an ice-cream parlor. Highlights are the spicy tuna bowl and the miso soup, floating with fresh, springy tofu. Otomisan, which originally opened in 1956 and is one of the last remnants of Boyle Heights’ once-thriving Japanese community, is a quirky blend of the last five decades: Linoleum and pleather; Kabuki masks; a cheap calendar from a local realtor hanging askew; and one of those good-luck cats with the big painted eyes and battery-powered waving paw.

Pay a visit to the elegant Japanese American Museum (Metro: Little Tokyo/Arts District), which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010 with exhibits like American Tapestry, featuring 25 works from the permanent collection, including a poignant handful of dusty marbles. In the 1940s, a boy named Toru Saito buried his marble collection in the desert in front of his barracks at a Utah Japanese Internment camp. Decades later, Saito returned, and, with nostalgic curiosity, began digging. The marbles were still there. They were dusty and scratched, but when rubbed, the marbles’ colors – swirls of green and dusky orange – were as bright as before.

Courtesy of Toru Saito and the Japanese American Museum

Posted in: Los Angeles