Appreciating the Far East Cafe

Far EastLos Angeles mystery writer Naomi Hirahara, whose best-known character is Japanese American gardener Mas Arai, will be giving a private walking tour of Little Tokyo mystery sites later this year. She posts at the Murderati blog that a certain stop will be the newly restored Far East Cafe, which reopened on First Street this month as the Chop Suey Cafe and Lounge. Some Asian Americans take offense at the name, she says, but "every Japantown throughout the Pacific West Coast had its own landmark chop suey house, and in Los Angeles from the 1960s until its closure in 1994 due to the Northridge earthquake, Far East Cafe was ours....This was the comfort food of Japanese America and mainstream America at one time. During one period of time, probably 90 percent of all Japanese American wedding celebrations and funerals luncheons took place at a chop suey restaurant."

Housed in an 1890s Beaux-Arts building in the Little Tokyo Historic District, Far East Cafe opened its doors in the 1930s. Besides its exterior neon sign, the most distinctive feature of the eatery is the maze-like wooden stalls that divide the diners. There’s also a balcony where groups ate and children like myself blew paper from our straws into unsuspecting diners below....

This past Monday an aspiring mystery writer, Elaine Yamaguchi, and I met for lunch at the Chop Suey Restaurant. I made a mistake and ordered the House Chow Mein instead of the Chicken Chop Suey under the Wok Classics section. I wanted that nostalgic taste that would take me back to my childhood and heyday of Far East. In another stall, I saw a group of elderly Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) men and women ordering the old classic dishes. In time, I smelled that pungent scent of homyu, nasty and familiar at the same time.

You can never go back home again, but then again, it felt good to be in a place where my beloved mystery genre and my personal history collide. I’ll definitely be back again to check out the old-school menu as well as try something different–the chashu sandwich with wasabi fries perhaps?

Hirahara, the former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, also lists some of the noir films and stories that set scenes at the Far East.

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