Thanks to Little Tokyo and Little Osaka, Los Angeles has a thriving Japanese culinary scene, which is probably best evidenced in its many delicious ramen shops. We’ve tried many of these restaurants in Sawtelle and Little Tokyo, and think the two best choices for ramen are Tsujita LA and Daikokuya.
It would seem that many other locals agree with us, as these two ramen spots perpetually have the longest lines, with waits during busier times clocking in at around an hour. This does not deter ramen fiends like us–in case our reviews of two separate ramen museums weren’t enough to let you know we’re pretty obsessed with ramen–as these delicious noodles more than justify the waits.
Ramen is something a lot of Americans don’t understand, so if you’re thinking of a bowl of microwaved noodles you ate in the solitude of your dorm room when you were a broke college student, think again. Today’s ramen scene bears about as much in common with instant noodles as a bag of frozen Gorton’s fish sticks have in common with freshly-caught lobster in Maine…
Daikokuya is the grand-daddy of Los Angeles ramen. It’s one of the first places to eat we heard about in L.A., and is one of the oldest and most renowned ramen shops in Southern California. With its great reputation has come growth, and multiple locations throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
You’d never guess it were a chain when visiting the original location in Little Tokyo, which is very much like an authentic, family-run ramen stall you’d find buried down a side street in Tokyo. From the cash-only policy to the quaint decor to the intimate vibe of the restaurant, Daikokuya does not feel like a stereotypical chain restaurant.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a meticulous level of “theme” on the part of the restaurant, or just the natural result of a Japanese mom and pop operation opening in Los Angeles. I’m inclined to believe the latter, simply because it seems like a weird way to go about theming a place. Seriously, though, if you want an authentically Japanese experience without traveling to Japan, this is it. This is exactly what ramen stalls feel like in Tokyo.
The Little Tokyo location is also the most popular Daikokuya location (at least of the ones at which we’ve dined). By contrast, the Sawtelle/Little Osaka spot feels a lot more polished, with a stylized interior that evokes the spirit of a bygone era of mid-century Tokyo. This location is deliberately themed, and while cool, it lacks the charm of the Little Tokyo location.
With significant competition from other Japanese restaurants in Sawtelle, this Daikokuya is also much less popular. So, what you lose in vibe you gain in instant gratification. (Not only did we not find a line there on our last visit–we were one of 3 parties in the restaurant!)
As Daikokuya has expanded, so too has their menu. You can find a variety of items on there, including poke bowls and various combos that combine varieties of ramen with other dishes. I’ve experimented with these a couple of times to pretty good results, but what they’re famous for is the ramen, and that’s what you want (need) to order.
I like going the straight-forward, classic route and getting the Daikokuya Ramen. The broth here is a wonderful indulgence: heavy and fatty. It’s also (perhaps) a bit salty, but this comes with the territory. (Ramen has a way of making you feel bloated.) There’s nothing inventive about this dish, it’s just good from start to finish.
Sarah prefers the spicy miso ramen, and while I like this one, the spiciness coupled with having my face hovering over a bowl of hot noodles leaves me in an unpleasant sweat afterwards. The fried rice here is also worth ordering, and is surprisingly good even if it is far overshadowed by the ramen.
Tsujita LA is a different kind of ramen shop. It has the same popular demand and reasonable prices, but everything about it and Tsujita Annex (literally an overflow location across the street added due to the main restaurant’s popularity) just seems more chic. It’s still a traditional ramen shop, but you get the sense that Tsujita wants to be viewed as a serious player in the Los Angeles culinary scene, and not “just” a hole in the wall.
Sawtelle Boulevard has a growing cluster of dining spots, ranging from conveyor-belt sushi to ramen to dumpling shops, and in this competitive row of restaurants (which has been dubbed “Little Osaka”), Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle and Tsujita Annex are the most popular. This is for good reason.
Of all the ramen dishes we’ve had in Los Angeles, Tsujita LA serves both of my favorites. The tsukemen is unparalleled, an intense and rich dish of thick noodles that are hard by ramen standards, but perfectly prepared. While noodles are the heart of ramen, it’s the broth in Tsujita’s tsukemen (try saying that 10 times fast) that is the real standout.
This broth is so rich that it borders on creamy sauce; in fact, it’s condensed when first delivered to your table. This broth is slow-simmered for 60 hours and has a strong seafood undertone (I don’t even know if that’s the right term since the seafood flavor is pretty blatant) that makes it quite distinct.
The presentation here differs from traditional ramen in that you dip the noodles into the broth, slop them up, and repeat. Once finished with the noodles, your waiter will take your broth to dilute it with soup wari for soup-consumption. Alternatively, you can opt for a refill of noodles for only $1.50. I’m a pretty big eater, and I cannot fathom getting a refill here. It might put you into a permanent food coma.
Tsujita’s tsukemen is not for everyone. Sarah fond the fishy flavor too intense for her liking, and thought the entire dish was too heavy. While I vehemently disagree about the seafood flavor, that’s a matter of personal preference. There’s no doubt it’s a heavy dish, and all I wanted to do after finishing mine was hibernate for about 3 days. If you need to be productive after your meal…perhaps the tsukemen is not the best idea. On the other hand, this tsukemen will teach you just how satisfying sloth can be.
Equally delicious, but less inventive is the Char Sui Ramen. This is like the standard ramen, but loaded with braised pork. The broth is flavorful but lighter than Daikokuya’s. The noodles are boiled to your specification (the restaurant recommends hard, as do we), making for a perfect take on traditional ramen. The char sui is also exceptional, and this is a point where even some otherwise delicious ramen shops stumble. It’s nothing short of amazing, and you’ll soon understand why so many Angelenos willingly wait in line for these dishes.
If you’re new to the ramen scene, I’d strongly recommend going for the char sui ramen here. While the tsukemen is my favorite ramen dish in Los Angeles, it can be intense and might be overwhelming. Standard ramen is a good ‘gateway drug’ to the more intense stuff. Realistically, if you have never had good ramen, either one of these restaurants is an excellent starter option. If you’re a visitor to Los Angeles, I might even recommend opting for the Sawtelle Daikokuya for a way to try amazing ramen without the wait. Both of these Sawtelle locations are located on the west side of Los Angeles, near Santa Monica. They’re easy to access off of the 405, and are a good lunch option when visiting the Getty Center, or other points of interest near Santa Monica.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you tried the ramen at Daikokuya or Tsujita? If so, what did you think of it? Is one of these your favorite ramen shop in Los Angeles, or do you have a different top pick? Are these restaurants worth the wait? Any additional order recommendations to add that we didn’t cover? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!