Lost but found in L.A.
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
Left-lane off-ramps, valet parking, Disneyland.
The city's a one-stop headache waiting to happen.
At least that was how I remembered the place.
Until I revisited the Land of La-la last year.
It was a trip over which I had no control. As part of the Cherry Blossom Festival, we went to Los Angeles to participate in the city's Nisei Week festivities, an annual weeklong event in August celebrating everything Japanese. Which I am. So we went.
I'll be honest: I wasn't looking forward to spending 10 days in SoCal.
So you can imagine my surprise that I actually found enough redeeming qualities about the place that had me thinking, just for a moment, "Yeah, I could live here. Maybe."
I don't have the fondest memories of L.A.: Waiting for a cab, alone, at midnight outside LAX for an hour; having to give directions to a confused Super Shuttle driver, who nearly took me to Compton instead of Claremont; suffering from a combination of food poisoning and motion sickness at Knott's Berry Farm.
To my mind, spending 10 days scrubbing kitchen floors and rearranging furniture would've been a better vacation.
I surveyed our itinerary with hesitation. Walking tour of Little Tokyo. Visit to the Japanese American Historic Museum. The dreaded Disneyland.
Breathe, inhale, deep breaths.
But aside from racking up an obscene credit-card bill, I did learn something during the trip: If you dig deep enough, you might find the reason why millions of people and flocks of Gen-Xers take up residence beneath the shroud of smog.
Thankfully, we weren't staying in Hollywood, or any subcultural 'hood thereof. We holed up in Little Tokyo, an eclectic little ethnic neighborhood in downtown, southeast of the Civic Center and near Chinatown.
Walking distance from bakeries, bookshops, restaurants and boutiques, we entertained ourselves for the four days we were there. Neoprint machines were never far away, and karaoke bars stayed open late enough for us to flaunt our diva selves.
The best part about Little Tokyo is its role as the community's cultural focal point. Though most Angelenos of Japanese ancestry live in suburban Gardena, Little Tokyo oozes Japanese culture, from hole-in-the-wall mochi shops to grand Buddhist temples.
The fact that it didn't feel like we were in Plastic Land scored the place some points as well.
(And bonus points: We found those fortune-telling Miracle Fish from small-kid time in some random store. My fish played dead in my palm. I thought it was a sign.)
First thing on our to-do list: Find food. Preferably Japanese.
So we asked around and found the oldest candy shop in Little Tokyo.
The 98-year-old Fugetsu-do Confectionery and Bakery at 315 E. First St. is a must-stop. With a delightful assortment of mochi and Japanese candy, the charming shop, recognizable with its red and white awning, serves up some of the tastiest Japanese treats in the West. The kinako mochi is the shop's best seller.
And owner Brian Kito, the town's all-around good guy, is as sweet as his sweets, making the splurge on his desserts which aren't cheap worth it.
Also in the neighborhood is Mikawaya Sweet Shop, the originators of the famed mochi ice cream. Aside from its trademark dessert, the store, in the Japanese Village Plaza, also sells an array of Japanese candies and cookies.
But c'mon, what are we really here for?
The assortment of mochi ice cream flavors green tea, red bean, plum wine, coffee triggered immediate salivation. A line of eager mochi ice cream connoisseurs formed from the counter and flowed out the door. They impatiently waited for their turn to answer the seemingly answerless question: "What flavor?"
Don't mess with a good thing was my motto, so I ordered chocolate- and coffee-flavored originals. To my surprise, they tasted nothing like the frozen version found in grocery stores. They were better. Amazingly so. My teeth sunk into the mochi shell before slipping into the creamy ice cream. On a warm afternoon, there was nothing better.
"Oh my gawd," squealed a short-haired Asian chick, savoring each bite of the mochi dessert, her eyes slipping back into her head. "This is SO good."
"Tourist," huffed a certified local to her Asian friend, who smirked knowingly and rolled her eyes.
Walking around the redeveloped neighborhood was like a stroll through Mo'ili'ili. Friendly faces, beauty shops, okazu-ya.
So not L.A.
"It's so cute," raved Luana Ogawa, one of my traveling companions. "The way they set up the shops gave me a feeling I was in Japan. There were shops and stores you would probably find in a little section of a little town in Japan."
We went at the best time. Nisei Week celebrates all things Japanese, with parades, traditional Ondo street dancing, taiko performances, even a tofu fair. The highlight of the week is the town's queen pageant, where judges select from six young women of Japanese ancestry a queen who will represent the community. The women perform odori (Japanese dance with fans), deliver a prepared speech in evening wear and answer an impromptu question in kimono. Strangely similar to Hawai'i's own Cherry Blossom Festival, with which I am exceptionally familiar.
But as our days in Little Tokyo whittled away, I couldn't help but dread the impending excursion into the city. And for four more days. How was an implantless, cell-phoneless twentysomething going to survive?
Shopping on Melrose
After spending a night at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott (5855 W. Century Blvd.) recovering from our cultural adventure, I was ready to hit the asphalt in search of fun.
We took off down West Century Boulevard, swerving through the worst driving in the world to find an open Trader Joe's. (We have an affinity for their whole-wheat pretzels.) Instead, we stumbled into Fox Hills Mall at Slauson and Sepulveda, less than three miles from LAX.
Imagine a Pearlridge crowd at Windward Mall. That's Fox Hills.
It had enough department stores (Macy's and JCPenney) to make me feel at home, but those key stores (Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret) to make the trip to the Mainland so worth it.
But who wants to shop suburban when there's Melrose?
The avenue of obscure, obscene and obtuse, Melrose is the definition of eclectic shopping.
In all its warped wonder, Melrose is still the champion of cutting-edge. Hip restaurants and funky boutiques line the avenue between Fairfax and La Brea.
Melrose is all about shopping. Or pretending to shop. Or eating while talking about shopping. Whatever scenario, shopping is the operative word here. And there's lots of it.
It's one of the only true pedestrian neighborhoods in L.A., making it an ideal locale to see and be seen. But even this historically outlandish and exceptionally quirky avenue has softened its edges: one landmark, a fast-food stand called "The Burger That Ate L.A.," recently was converted into a Starbucks.
But with shops named Red Balls, Wasteland and Aardvark's Odd Ark, Melrose clings to its distinct charm, despite the inevitable mainstream encroachment. As one online reviewer described it: "If you can't find it on Melrose, it hasn't been thought of yet."
But Melrose isn't the only place for a memorable shopping experience.
The Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica (Broadway to Wilshire Avenue) is a wide, open-arm shopping area packed with classic chain stores, funky boutiques and trendy restaurants.
Must-stops for any hipster: Anthropologie (homewares inspired by flea markets and antique shops in Europe and the Far East), Urban Outfitters (trendy, hip threads for Gen-Xers) and DOM (a funkier version of Crate & Barrel think inflatable furniture).
There's even entertainment by street musicians who line the promenade. From mimes to a woman belting "The Greatest Gift of All," the performers provided a very L.A. contrast to the upscale boutiques, the kind of contrast that put two pierced punk-rockers with no socks and red hair next to lost tourists from France.
But Third Street isn't the place to go for entertainment.
Cab driver, Sunset, please.
Sunset Boulevard is considered one of the most famous streets in America, where kitsch meets seedy and isn't afraid.
It begins at Olvera Street, the oldest street in L.A., and winds its way through a cross-section of the city, ending at the Pacific Ocean. Just driving along Sunset is a lesson in human nature. From prostitutes to movie stars, from immigrants to hippies, this is the place to see and be seen.
Against my better judgment, I went to House of Blues (8430 Sunset Blvd., www.hob.com), a theme-park restaurant frequently ridiculed as a rock-ish "Country Bear Jamboree" venue. But the L.A. natives I was with convinced me that this was a must-see show. Super Diamond, in concert.
A Regular at L.A.'s House of Blues, Super Diamond is the epitome of cover-band greatness. For the past seven years, the six-member band, led by "Surreal Neil," has been performing everything Neil Diamond. And mostly to a generation that's never seen Nirvana live.
An hour before the show, about 80 people started staking out the best viewing spots on the wooden dance floor fronting the stage. The crowd was as diverse as the scenery on Sunset: Older men wearing their white hair well mingled with cowboy-hat-wearing Asian hotties in leather pants.
Everything about the House of Blues, from the cocktail waitresses carrying neon-purple trays to the patchwork curtain emblazoned with the words "Unity in Diversity," was uncanny. The bathroom attendant wore a sweatshirt that shouted "Enjoy LA." I tipped her a buck.
That's when it hit me: House of Blues. Super Diamond. Perfect.
The surprise that night was the opening band, another group of cover geniuses. Pop Rocks took over the house, belting out classic '80s bubble-gum metal songs that took you back to eighth-grade school dances. The lead singer, a ringer for Bret Michaels, pranced around the stage in what looked like a wrestling singlet, an aqua vest and big bumble-bee shades. They wore bad wigs and worse outfits. And I loved them.
The crowd went wild, flailing to "Walk This Way," "Here I Go Again" and "Jump." The audience forgot how to dance, but they didn't forget the words.
By the time Super Diamond took the stage at 10:30 p.m., the crowd had inflated to a few hundred, sweaty and ready. The disco ball switched on. The lights dimmed. The show was on.
"Play it now, play it now, play it now," the crowd sang along with Surreal Neil, donned in sequins. He owned the house.
Drinks spilled, women shoved, men groped.
"Hello" sent lighters and bottles of Corona swaying above the crowd.
"Red, Red Wine" confused everyone.
But "Sweet Caroline" brought everyone back as red lights flooded the audience.
"So good, so good, so good."
Helpful information for planning your Gen-X-inspired L.A. trip:
Where to start
The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 366-6116 or (213) 624-7300, should be your first stop for information. The bureau runs a Visitors Information Center at 685 S. Figueroa St., between Wilshire Boulevard and Seventh Street. Many neighborhoods have their own information centers and Web sites, including the Beverly Hills Visitors Bureau (www.beverlyhillscvb.com) and the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.santamonica.com).
Pick up a local publication. The quickest way to get in the know find out what's hot, what's not, where to go, where to blow is to pick up local newspapers and magazines. Publications like L.A. Weekly (www.laweekly.com) and the Los Angeles Times' Calendar section (www.calendarlive.com) dish out up-to-date info on happenings around town, from cultural events to dining to nightlife.
Where to hang
Billy Blanks Training Center (14708 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks, Calif.): The sign "We are more than conquerors" greets you as you enter the first-floor workout room, larger than most high school cafeterias. Along the walls are framed magazine articles about the world-famous Billy Blanks and his Tae-Bo workouts. For $12. you can take a class from Blanks himself. Just be prepared for an hour of pain.
C & O Trattoria Ristorante Italiano (31 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey): Oh, the garlic rolls. They'll make you come back. Waiters in red aprons deliver warm rolls (and sometimes calamari) to waiting patrons sitting on benches under twinkling lights outside, a distraction from the hourlong wait for a table. Once inside, you're greeted with one of the friendliest staffs you'll ever see in L.A. The wine is free-flowing, on an honor system, and the crayons at the paper-covered table are great for leaving messages to cute waiters. Half-sizes of every pasta dish are available. The roasted eggplant lasagna ($9.95) and ravioli ($9.95) are both winners. But stay long enough for the hourly entertainment, when the entire staff, including the restaurant owner, invites everyone to sing "That's Amore." They pass out laminated song sheets and clink glasses with you. Feel the love.
Saddle Ranch Chop House (8371 Sunset Blvd.): Dark, noisy and ranchy. Not your typical Sunset bar. But the mechanical bull in the heart of the restaurant makes the joint oh-so-very L.A. With cameras focused on the bull riders are televised outside for everyone to watch the live, amateur entertainment is worth the overpriced hamburgers. A curly blond got on, screaming as the bull swung her around and eventually off. Friends and strangers gathered around the ring, holding up their beers in encouragement. "Roll your hips," said the bull's controller, who always started the women off slow, moving them in a highly sexual way, up and down, up and down. "Relax. Relax." It was like being in a strip club but without the overt nudity. It was obvious people didn't come for the food.
Groundling Theatre (7307 Melrose Ave.): L.A.'s version of Chicago's Second City, The Groundlings have been around for more than 20 years, keeping the neighborhood in stitches with their innovative all-improv antics. The house seats about 100 people uncomfortably. The crowd of mostly twentysomethings laughed at the six-man show, which featured "Mad TV's" Michael McDonald. A skit about three elders escaping from their nursing home en route to Vegas, and one about the morning after the prom, nearly floored the audience.