The Nuance of Nikkei: Why Los Angeles is the Epicenter of Japanese American Cooking

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Japanese American chefs (left to right) Ray Hayashi, Chris Ono, Niki Nakayama, Carole Iida-Nakayama, and Brandon Kida are continuing LA’s legacy of thoughtful experimentation and genre-busting cooking.

“I literally could do anything in Hollywood and it would be accepted,” says Brandon Kida, the Japanese American chef behind the restaurant Gunsmoke, which opened near the corner of El Centro and Selma avenues this past July. “And that’s what gave me the confidence to pull off this menu that doesn’t speak to one particular ethnicity.”

Kida and his team are drawing on their Angeleno upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and culinary training to dream up dishes that defy tidy categorization. This is Nikkei cuisine, a nod to the far-reaching Japanese diaspora (not to be confused with Japanese Peruvian fare). Tennessee country ham is shaved atop raw slivers of tuna like katsuobushi (bonito flakes) for a delicate hint of smoky savoriness. Pork gets swapped for lamb in the Filipino dish sisig, its flavors built from a Japanese dashi and finished with a French beurre monte; it’s served alongside crisp lettuce, fresh perilla, and tobanjan, a Japanese fermented bean and chile paste.

While Gunsmoke’s menu feels perfectly relevant in the current era of chaos cooking, this freedom to experiment beyond familiar foodways is a long-standing facet of Los Angeles’s Japanese culinary history. Aside from the cuisine’s evolution over time and across generations — as ingredients were substituted based on availability and flavors tweaked to fit changing tastes — Angelenos’ open minds and adventurous palates have made the city a center for innovation for over a century. Both mochi ice cream and California rolls trace their histories to Little Tokyo, while trailblazing chefs like Roy Yamaguchi, who fused Japanese ingredients with French techniques at his 1984 Hollywood restaurant 385 North, and Nobu Matsuhisa, who served Peruvian Japanese fare at his 1987 Beverly Hills restaurant Matsuhisa, introduced their Japanese-rooted cuisines with global influences to a local audience before helming their respective restaurant empires.

In recent months — with the opening of Ryla in Hermosa Beach, N/Soto in Mid-City, Hansei in Little Tokyo, and Gunsmoke in Hollywood — Japanese American chefs are continuing this storied legacy of thoughtful experimentation and genre-busting cooking. By now, it seems, chefs drawing inspiration from their personal paths is well-trodden territory, but the dishes emerging from these kitchens hit differently. The marrying of Japanese and American ingredients and sensibilities is more nuanced and intentional, redefining the American side of the Japanese American culinary landscape. The current rise of Nikkei cooking strikes a balance between tradition and innovation — deliberately invoking aspects of both cultural experiences and delighting diners with soulful histories and remixed flavors. Get a taste of Los Angeles’s Nikkei moment at these four phenomenal restaurants.

Ryla, Hermosa Beach

As a Japanese American growing up in the South Bay — first in Rancho Palos Verdes and then “down the hill” in Gardena — Ray Hayashi has been deeply immersed in Japanese, American, and Japanese American cultures since he was born. Frequent visits to Japan in childhood and adulthood imparted a deeper understanding of the country’s customs and cuisines, while attending Japanese school in America affirmed his knowledge along with language fluency. The beats of Hayashi’s second-generation Japanese experience were accompanied by a steady hum of suburban South Bay living – eating Lunchables at school, attending Easter egg hunts and Thanksgiving dinners at friends’ homes, and bodyboarding on the beach until sunset. Hayashi’s ability to deftly navigate generational and cultural differences throughout his life shows up in his fluid and confident cooking today.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

White sesame Caesar salad with little gem lettuce, anchovy, sourdough croutons, and Parmesan.

A meal at Ryla in Hermosa Beach, which Hayashi opened this past February with his wife, chef Cynthia Hetlinger, ought to begin with the white sesame Caesar salad and an order of the Hokkaido milk bread, still warm from the oven. An irresistible contrast between cool and hot, the starters provide a glimpse into Hayashi’s culinary point of view. “Caesar salad is my ultimate favorite salad, I grew up eating it all the time,” says Hayashi. At the restaurant, he layers little gem lettuces with sourdough croutons, marinated anchovies, Parmesan, and a white sesame dressing inspired by trips to Kyoto where his mother’s family resides. “Kyoto uses a ton of white sesame,” says Hayashi. “Going back to Japan a lot and eating white sesame really drove the idea behind this dressing — combining my Japanese background with this very American salad.”

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Hokkaido milk bread with tobiko nori spread.

The plush rolls served with a tobiko nori spread are influenced by Hayashi’s mother. “When I was a kid growing up, my mom used to have these dinner parties, and she used to make that cream cheese spread and serve it on little rye breads that you could get at a supermarket,” he says. While the version served at Ryla still uses cream cheese and folds in “a ton of fish eggs,” it’s also “jazzed up a little bit” with yuzu juice, yuzu kosho, shallots, and white pepper. Instead of serving “little brown mini loaves” alongside, Hayashi bakes Parker House roll-shaped shokupan, a traditional Japanese white bread, with added malted milk powder to give it funk and depth. The combination tastes familiar yet novel, a timeless starter that works for ’80s dinner parties and modern-day feasts alike. “I feel like me being Japanese American and getting inspiration from my upbringing here is innate,” says Hayashi.

N/Soto, Mid-City

Chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama are very familiar with balancing Japanese tradition with careful innovation. At their highly-acclaimed, 11-year-old restaurant N/Naka in Palms, the chefs prepare a multicourse menu that tightly adheres to traditional kaiseki principles using local ingredients and Japanese American flourishes. This teetering of Japanese and American influences continues at the duo’s second restaurant N/Soto, a lively izakaya that opened in April 2022. While the second-generation Japanese American chefs wanted their restaurant to be unmistakably Japanese in its bones — to that end, half of the menu features very traditional izakaya fare — both Niki and Carole embraced taking a less rigid approach with the restaurant’s ambiance and multicultural riffs.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Crudités with mochi flatbread, creme fraiche, and eggplant dip.

The chefs knew they wanted a shareable bread on the menu, even though it veers sharply from the genre of Japanese “pub grub.” Inspired by the small plates restaurants they’d dine at on days off, Niki and Carole landed on a mochi flatbread served with seasonal crudités and an eggplant dip. While the nibbly nature of the vegetables harkens a traditional zensai course, the combination of flatbread and eggplant feels distinctly Mediterranean. Niki says that aside from adding lemon juice and garlic to the eggplant dip, “Everything about it is so Japanese: It’s roasted Japanese eggplant blended with dashi, mirin, and soy sauce.”

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Carrot tartare with pickled fennel, chickpea miso, and chips.

The chefs’ deep appreciation for Mediterranean cooking carries over into the carrot tartare. At first glance, most would agree with Niki that there’s nothing intrinsically Japanese about the dish, which comes with pickled fennel, chickpea miso, and a trio of chips (lotus root, Okinawa sweet potato, and rice paper crisps). But unravel its components to find that there’s more than meets the eye. While the dish’s burnt butter miso sauce was inspired by a humble delicacy eaten during an impoverished time in Japanese history — “In order to satiate hunger, people would cook miso and butter together and just spread it on rice,” says Niki. “It was a way to satisfy that craving for meat” — pureed chickpeas were added out of a mutual adoration for hummus. “We love Japanese food, but we also love all these foods that we’ve been exposed to that aren’t Japanese,” says Niki, who grew up in South LA, Koreatown, and the San Gabriel Valley, while Carole spent her formative years in Gardena, Arcadia, and West LA. “I think that luxury comes from having grown up outside of Japan, especially in a city like LA where there’s so many authentic restaurants representing individual cultures,” says Niki. “Having the ability to experience that, it becomes part of your palate just by osmosis, like natural evolution.”

Gunsmoke, Hollywood

It’s hard to say what generation Japanese American chef Brandon Kida belongs to exactly. His father was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. in 1974, which makes him second-generation on his paternal side. But on Kida’s maternal side, he’s considered fourth-generation because his mother and grandmother were both born in LA. “It’s always complicated,” says Kida, “but pretty interesting at the end of the day.” Growing up, Kida’s family was the only one of Japanese descent living in Koreatown. He found his place among Mexican and Salvadoran classmates and even had a pseudo Korean name to help him get by in certain situations. “It was a working-class neighborhood and very diverse,” says Kida. “I spent a majority of my time with an Irish family and a Colombian family.” At home, Kida’s father made every effort to indoctrinate his son in all things Japanese by preparing traditional breakfasts on weekends, taking frequent trips to Little Tokyo, and enrolling him in a Saturdays-only language program. Kida is now drawing inspiration from his “two lives” at the restaurant Gunsmoke.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Lamb sisig with pickled jicama and tobanjan.

Though the chef initially planned on serving his personal take on Japanese American cuisine at the restaurant, he broadened the vision to include the cultural diversity on his team of cooks. “Nikkei represents more than just Japanese Americans,” says Kida. “It represents a group of people that are descendants from another country, that have a palate that represents the time and place that we’re in right now, but still has this deep-rooted palate from their parents, from their families, and from their neighborhoods that they grew up in.” The idea of Nikkei resonated with the back-of-house staff so deeply that Gunsmoke’s menu came together in just a month and a half. Each dish was approached as an organic collaboration. What began as a traditional Filipino sisig, full of pig parts and calamansi zing, evolved into a skillet of Colorado lamb with a Japanese dashi backbone and a buttery French finish. Served with lettuce for wrapping and a spicy fermented bean paste, the finished entree feels a little Korean, too. “This one dish represents so many different cultures, but it comes naturally because you had a bunch of second gens [in the kitchen] that are descendants of these different flavor profiles,” says Kida.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Local tuna with country ham.

If there’s one dish on Gunsmoke’s menu that speaks to Nikkei in its purest sense, Kida thinks it’s the local tuna with country ham. The first time the chef tasted Benton’s country hams was at chef David Chang’s Ssäm Bar in New York’s East Village years ago. “It’s so intense, smoky, savory, umami, and salty. The first thing I thought of was soy sauce,” says Kida. Gunsmoke ups the flavor ante by further aging its Smoky Mountain hams before dusting it atop pristine cuts of tuna sashimi. Finished with olive oil and sea salt, “it’s surprising how much it mimics tuna and soy sauce,” says Kida.

Hansei, Little Tokyo

Chef Chris Ono is on a mission to define Japanese American cuisine at his culinary residency Hansei at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) in Little Tokyo. After spending years training in fine dining kitchens, including at RyuGin in Tokyo, Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Providence and Mori Sushi in Los Angeles, Ono is now dedicated to preserving Los Angeles’s intrinsic Japanese American food culture. Many of the legacy Japanese American restaurants that Ono grew up eating at, like Kenny’s Cafe in West LA and Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop in Culver City, have shuttered this past decade as owners retired without family members willing to take over the businesses. And while Little Tokyo still boasts many Japanese American-owned establishments, it’s become a shadow of its former self in recent years. “It is slowly diminishing to become just a part of Downtown LA,” says Ono. “It’s really important to try to put some energy here, so that it doesn’t fade.” The chef’s deep sense of responsibility to “carry on the torch” and to champion the city’s Japanese American culinary contributions is on full display at Hansei, which debuted in August.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

Foie gras bonbon.

The foie gras bonbon, which is the third dish during the eight-course dinner at Hansei, pays homage to a beloved childhood staple of cornflake-crusted chicken. The original dish, which Ono’s mother learned from her mother, consisted of combining raw chicken wings and crushed up cereal in a vigorously shaken plastic bag before baking in the oven until crisp. The weekday dinner standby was served with a teriyaki glaze, a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and a cabbage slaw topped with dried ramen noodles. Though Ono, ever the perfectionist, contends that the bonbon could use further refinement as the residency progresses, diners seem amply satisfied.

food, the nuance of nikkei: why los angeles is the epicenter of japanese american cooking

California roll.

There’s a giddiness among the intimate group of diners seated along Hansei’s L-shaped counter when Ono serves his souped-up California roll. The chef’s rendition includes a battered, fried, and dehydrated seaweed base layered with fresh Dungeness crab and Santa Barbara uni, along with locally grown avocado and cucumber; toasted sesame seeds and a wisp of wasabi add the finishing touches. The overwhelmingly positive reaction comes from diners’ familiarity with the popular dish. The chef takes a lot of pride in the California roll and often looks to it for inspiration as he’s tinkering in the kitchen, transforming other Japanese American standards beyond their recognizable origins. “I don’t necessarily like the word ‘fusion’ because it doesn’t go anywhere. You could say anything’s fusion, but you’re not progressing the history or the people,” says Ono. “It’s time to push that Nikkei term into the ‘American’ part of the American history of food.”

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