Working in Little Tokyo comes with plenty of perks, one being that it’s home to lots and lots of restaurants. As a vegetarian (vegan for the most part) however, I don’t get to eat at many of these places, since they tend to focus on classic Japanese dishes such as sushi and teriyaki. I have to be more aware of what I’m ordering, and so something as simple as lunch can turn into a scavenger hunt of sorts.
Luckily, once I did some exploring, I found there’s plenty to eat around here for those of us who are trying to follow an animal-friendly diet. Here are just a few of the places I’ve frequented lately.
Teishokuya of Tokyo (T.O.T.)
345 E. 2nd Street
T.O.T. does offer a good number of vegetarian options on their wide-ranging menu, so it’s a great Japanese restaurant for vegetarians and omnivores to enjoy together. I always end up ordering the same thing though, because it’s that good!
The Tofu Donburi is a hearty bowl of rice topped with tofu fried in a rice-flour based batter and seasoned with a savory and very mildly spicy sauce. A generous helping of sliced green onions adds a crisp and refreshing element to the dish. This dish is a great choice for vegans too. Pro tip: ask your server to leave out the complimentary miso soup, which is made with fish.
134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Café Dulce is the hip coffee place where many JANM staffers like to get fueled up. They offer a number of delicious pastries, sandwiches, and salads, with several vegetarian options. My favorite is the peanut kale salad. This is a light and fresh yet surprisingly filling green salad, with a hint of spice thanks to the inclusion of diced serrano peppers! Kale can be a tricky vegetable to work with raw, but Café Dulce dresses it just right; their peanut sauce tenderizes the kale so the texture isn’t tough at all. Pro tip: to make it vegan, ask them to hold the Parmigiano cheese.
371 E. 2nd Street
I didn’t pay much attention to Turkish street food specialists Spitz at first, since they describe themselves as the “home of the doner kebab.” My bad for assuming kebab always has to mean meat! Now that I’ve familiarized myself with their menu, I know better and can order plenty. They even state that anything on their menu can be made vegan or vegetarian.
My favorite thing to grab from Spitz is the Falafel Street Cart Doner. Is it weird to say it’s “meaty?” Because it is! The vegetables are fresh and have loads of flavor. When you order it vegan, they bring you a side of hummus to dip it in. I normally don’t like falafel, but these are cooked nicely—lightly fried and not too heavy. Pro tip: vegans (and others) should try their crispy garbanzos, an addicting alternative to standard French fries.
124 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Let’s say you’re in more of a rush, or tightening your wallet a bit. No problem—Nijiya Market is close by and there are plenty of quick bites for a vegetarian or vegan at this Japanese convenience store. Just make sure you read the labels! Many items that may seem vegetarian contain things like bonito or fish broth. It’s those hidden surprises that keep us vegetarians on our toes.
While Nijiya carries lots of goodies like mochi, rice crackers, seasoned seaweed, sesame balls, and other things for munching on, one of my favorite items to pick up is the inari sushi, found in the pre-packaged foods aisle. Inari sushi is very simple, just fried tofu pockets stuffed with seasoned rice, but it hits the spot when you need a quick, tasty snack. This, and the kombu (seasoned kelp) onigiri are longtime favorites of mine, having grown up near a Nijiya. It’s nice to know I can get some of my favorite childhood snacks during my lunch break at work.
Sylvia Lopez works as Education and Public Programs Assistant at JANM.