The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is well documented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.
A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.
In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.
Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.
A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.
We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.
When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.
Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.
To learn more about the history of this neighborhood, be sure to visit the archival site for JANM’s 2002 exhibition, The Power of Place: Boyle Heights Project.