Tsubaki spread
Photos courtesy of Tsubaki

Letter of RecommendationLos Angeles

Tsubaki Is the Perfect L.A. Restaurant to Show Off to Out-of-Towners


When my boyfriend’s teenage sister came to visit us in L.A. last winter, she had one request: to eat well.

Naturally, I was excited to introduce her to the many culinary wonders of our city — the crispy watercress salad at Jitlada, burritos at Sonoratown, and uni nigiri at Echigo. It was also imperative, in my book, that we take her to Tsubaki, my go-to restaurant for impressing out-of-town guests. As our party of three ate our way through a Japanese Caesar salad, sweet potato and sprouting cauliflower tempura, charcoal-grilled prawns, pork jowl skewers, chicken oysters dolloped with yuzu kosho, and garlic crab fried rice, I watched as Yaffa’s eyes lit up with each bite. Bingo.

Thai Town mainstays and taquerias are more obvious choices to bring visitors than a California-inflected izakaya like Tsubaki. Beyond In-N-Out and $22 smoothies, Los Angeles is justifiably known for its excellent Thai, Mexican, and Korean food (among so many other things). There’s also a strong Japanese presence (we have a Little Tokyo and a Sawtelle) and many out-of-towners seek out sushi while here. 

Tsubaki is Japanese, but in contrast to the many hushed sushi counters, it’s izakaya-style, meaning you’re encouraged to chatter away, share, and zip across the menu of raw, steamed, and grilled snacks alongside plenty of sake. It’s also distinctly influenced by Los Angeles itself. Chef Charles Namba sources his seasonal vegetables from the farmers’ market and his pork from local favorite Peads & Barnetts. And while Tsubaki’s minimalist, serene interior nods to a Japanese aesthetic, it feels like a cool-coded Eastside spot, too, with its pops of royal blue, exposed brick walls, and a sceney outdoor seating setup.

More than anything else, the reason I put Tsubaki on a pedestal is because the food is consistently spectacular.

More than anything else, the reason I put Tsubaki on a pedestal is because the food is consistently spectacular, and so is the sake list. I have never had a bad meal there — not even a subpar dish. In a town full of good salads, Tsubaki’s Japanese Caesar, with frilly lettuces tossed in panko and creamy miso dressing, topped with a snowdrift of shredded bonito and nori, is my favorite. The chef’s selection of sashimi never fails to showcase what’s fresh and good. Everything skewered and/or grilled is phenomenal, from crispy-skinned branzino to snappy chicken gizzards. And the hojicha soft serve parfait with sesame-miso caramel and candied red walnuts — toasty, creamy, and laden with umami — is a showstopper of a dessert. 

A scene at Tsubaki
A scene at Tsubaki

Izakayas are abundant in Los Angeles, particularly as you head south toward Gardena and Torrance. Unlike most of them, however, which traffic in standard-issue fare, Tsubaki’s food registers as completely its own. Namba puts his own spin on dishes like potato pancakes, which he calls latkes and pairs with dry-aged salmon and yuzu-scallion crème fraîche; and adds pork ragù and fermented chile-and-bean paste to his yakisoba to make it more dan dan-esque. 

And then, there is co-owner (and Namba’s real-life partner) Courtney Kaplan’s sake list, which plays a huge part in Tsubaki’s charm. It’s divided into sections like fruity, funky, and seasonal, and includes detailed descriptors to make it easy to find something you’ll like. Kaplan is a sake savant and there’s simply nowhere better to drink sake in this town, save for Tsubaki’s next-door sake bar, Ototo, which recently picked up a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages. 

The icing on the cake is Tsubaki’s location: tucked off of the scrum of Sunset Boulevard, but within spitting distance of a highly walkable stretch of Echo Park. You could bring your parents to El Prado before, bless your friends with second dessert at Quarter Sheets afterwards, or post up next door at The Douglas for a nightcap.

Or just finish with the hojicha parfait, a sweet ending to a perfectly Los Angeles night.

Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.