A Very Little Tokyo

Photo by Jack GouldUnless you run a brothel or the neighborhood crack house, you might actually look forward to the day cops begin frequenting your fledgling business. Thus with eateries: the regular appearance outside of patrol cars filled with hungry lawmen seems a sign that a new restaurant is here for keeps.

Which is why I was so happy when I walked into my favorite sushi joint—and found the place crawling with OC sheriff's deputies.

Little Tokyo has gained a solid following during the past several months—no small accomplishment in a location that seems jinxed. Jammed next to a tuxedo-rental shop and hidden behind a deceased KFC, the spot now occupied by Little Tokyo has changed hands three times in about two years. A vicious combination of a nearly invisible radar profile and a nasty menu sent previous incarnations spiraling into the restaurant netherworld. But its new owners have turned that around.

Because the little takeout-style restaurant is billed as a teriyaki house, few expect the delectable selection of sushi within. You won't find the truly exotic here: no sea urchin or raw sparrow egg, I'm afraid. Nor is there a sushi bar at which one can collapse and watch chefs assemble tuna rolls with a surgeon's accuracy. The dcor consists of three tables, a soda fountain and a few chairs. There's not much room for anything else.

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But what Little Tokyo lacks in exotica and ambiance it makes up for with its well-priced and consistently fresh fare. The menu starts at $1.50 for a side order of gyoza dumplings and climbs to the modestly priced salmon Bento entre ($7.45); save for two or three $16 family platters, the menu rarely strays beyond that.

And the selection is wide enough for even the pickiest eater. The basic teriyaki-chicken bowl clocks in at $2.55 and offers a saucy and sizable meal of teriyaki chicken and hot, fresh rice. An extra $2.10 will turn this basic bowl into a massive combo meal with chicken, beef, rice and salad.

But it's the sushi that makes this teriyaki house notable. The crunchy roll is actually a lovingly prepared shrimp tempura. You can get $2.25 for two pieces, or for $4.99, you can get between six and eight pieces—one of the better deals on the menu. There's a dragon roll cut from succulent eel. Baked scallops in a creamy sauce, poured gently over a California roll, make for a meal with an awesome flavor profile; the mix of creamy sauce and spicy wasabi combined with the hot and cold temperatures of scallops and sushi is a wild experience for the palate. The modest price of $5.20 will leave enough cash in your wallet for seconds, if there's still room in your belly.

Usually, I'd be a bit wary about raw fare at a new restaurant. But Little Tokyo serves salmon rolls and tuna rolls that taste so fresh they rival the best sushi houses in Orange County.

This is literally a mom-and-pop shop; the same pair of smiling faces greets the customer every time. And from all appearances, Ma and Pa's baby will grow into a formidable adolescent.

This is not fine dining. But it is good eating. And don't hang around if you're looking for trouble: lest you forget, the police like this place, too.

Little Tokyo, located at 3616 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (714) 628-0220. Dinner for two, $20, food only. No alcohol. amEx, MC and Visa accepted.

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