Otafuku: Soba House
Style: Soba Noodles
Address: 16525 S. Western Avenue, Gardena (Los Angeles), California 90247
Otafuku Noodle House is on a nondescript street in an average working class neighborhood in South Los Angeles. The only hint that it might be a good place to eat or drink comes from the smattering of other “authentic” Japanese landmarks in the area. There’s another soba house on the corner, the Okinawa Association of America headquarters across the street (a grandiose title for a windowless single story building), and Marukai Pacific Market a few blocks away – a massive Japanese grocer.
Otafuku itself faces the street with an unassuming storefront and a single word sign . No additional advertising in the papered over windows. The interior is simple with an open kitchen facing a bar for solo diners, a few tables in the main room, and another room off to one side. There’s street parking out front and a parking lot around back.
The food is simple – soba or udon noodles. Hot or cold – with a variety of accompaniments such as tempura. A handful of small dishes are also available, but the entire menu fits on a single page.The food is also delicious.
Their “house special” soba is made with highly polished buckwheat – and the light flavor you’d expect from a noodle made with the hearts of a grain. Their whole grain varieties have a nice texture and more pronounced flavor. We ordered two simple dishes to get a sense of their basic style.We had the cold dipping house special soba with vegetable tempura ($11.50). The soba was extremely light and flavorful – wasabi and chopped green onions make for a nice compliment in the lightly seasoned dipping sauce. The tempura was crispy, though a bit greasy – but not in an unpleasant way. It’s pretty clear they used quality oil for their frying. The tempura was piping hot when it arrived and remained warm throughout the meal. Surprisingly, it included a deep fried shiso leaf. Sadly, the light elegant shiso flavor did not survive its visit to the fryer.
We also had a hot whole grain soba soup, which we ordered with chicken on the waitress’ recommendation ($9). The chicken, which we’d expected to be pan fried and a bit dry as usually happens, was poached, pink, and miraculously tender and juicy. It was, in short, a revelation as to how chicken could be served in a bowl of soup. The whole grain soba complimented this nicely, but the chicken was clearly the star of this dish.
But why would Otafuku earn “izakaya” status if its just a noodle shop? There’s a hint to this on the bar in front of the kitchen. No fewer than 12 types of shochu and a couple sake choices are available. Further evidence sits out back – a fridge full of beer near the restrooms.
And the absolute proof is in the second dining room. Nine shelves on a wall unit hold at least 150 partially finished bottles of shochu. This is a place people come to drink and eat and make merry. In short, it’s an izakaya. Well, in reality, many traditional sobaya (soba houses) are full service bars despite their modest interiors.
The Verdict: Highly Recommended
We’ll definitely be back here. Probably on our next trip to LA. In the meantime, if you have the chance, you should make the trek to working-class Gardena for a fine bowl of soba and a tipple of shochu.