Sawtelle Tempura House: A Bento Unboxing

Tempura House Bento Box

     Along the length of Sawtelle boulevard home to West LA’s version of Little Tokyo, often dubbed “Little Osaka”, lies a take-out shop that doesn’t quite fit in with slick, modern restaurants that surround it. While others serve Kobe beef shabu-shabu and delicate soba noodles, Sawtelle Tempura House specializes in cranking out homemade bento boxes for a lunch crowd that runs the gambit from UCLA undergrads to Santa Monica executives.  Bento is Japan’s answer to the brown bag lunch, a combination of snack-able favorites that is often sent along as a simple meal for those headed to school or work.
     Every morning, Nobuo Anzai, age 75, and his wife, Mihoko, age 72, cook huge portions of portions of Japanese comfort food: chicken hamburger moist with brown gravy, crunchy panko-coated fried fish tonkatsu, shrimp tempura, and the perennial favorite tamagoyaki,a sweet egg omelet. These are then portioned out into morsels that are packed in along with an assortment of Japanese pickled vegetables such as sour-salty plums, lotus root slices marinated in soy sauce, and crunchy ponzu-spiked radish. Served alongside is a tray of white rice speckled with black sesame seeds, providing a starchy contrast to the bento’s wide array of flavors. True to classic form, these boxes can almost be described as art, though I’m sure the humble owners would politely disagree. The husband-wife team has been serving these bentos, at a rate of at least of one hundred a day, for over 20 years. In fact, a stern-looking woman in a power suited pick up an order for 10 bentos while I ate, remarking that it was her office’s favorite lunch time tradition. Their menu also features larger portions of teriyaki or chicken hamburger which can be paired with fried rice or noodles; but for $5.50 the bento remains the most attractive offering, serving as a way to sample whatever Mr. Anazia chose to cook up that morning. The food may not match the quality of more expensive variations found in LA, but for a quick and compact lunch it remains an excellent choice; allowing you to diversify your palate without pressuring your wallet.  I for one, sleep a little better at night knowing that while my days of eating a homemade meal out of a Power Ranger lunch box are long over, a reasonable and reliable alternative is always within reach.

A Mom-and-Pop Tempura House

Bonus Stop:
     A short drive south on Sawtelle will take you to Primo’s Westdale Doughnuts, one of my favorite stops in LA for times when a freshly baked maple bar is the best way to temper waking up at 6am. Though on this afternoon stop I was fortunate enough to stumble on a freshly baked batch of cinnamon butterflies, a flaky pastry that lies somewhere between a croissant and cinnamon roll topped with sweet bits of cake crumb. Less than a dollar will get you any type of you like, and from my experience its hard to make a bad choice in a place that’s been frying up dough for the past 52 years. Like most baked goods though, they are vastly superior when piping hot, and at Primo’s fresh doughnuts are snatched up with an urgency usually reserved for stock exchanges.

Doughnuts Galore at Primo's

Primo's Cinnamon Crumb Butterfly

Sawtelle Tempura House

1816 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 479-5989
$ – Cash Only

Primo’s Westdale Doughnuts
2918 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-6930

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