Asian American-Owned Restaurants Are Breathing New Life Into Sacramento’s Historic Japantown

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Clouds of sugar float in the air like fog over the California Delta. Linda Nakatani stands in front of a stainless steel worktable, talking while she deftly rolls and then flattens small balls of sticky glutinous rice between flour-caked palms. She takes one and, using a small icing spatula, spreads a layer of black bean paste across the center before closing the edges around the sweet filling. The finished piece of still-warm coffee-flavored mochi goes into a tray filled with five neat rows of five nearly identical copper-colored mounds.

“There used to be blocks and blocks of Japantown,” Nakatani says. Born and raised in the famously tree-filled Northern California city of Sacramento, Nakatani still remembers when the streets around her family’s Japanese confection shop, Osaka-ya, bustled with shoppers frequenting the area’s Japanese-owned businesses. But by the time her parents bought the sweet shop in April 1963, it was just one of a handful of remaining AAPI-owned businesses in Sacramento’s post-World War II Japantown; all of the others have since closed. More than 60 years later, Nakatani and her two sons keep the family business — one of the last remaining independently owned manju shops in not only Sacramento, but all of California — alive, shaping thousands of traditional Japanese manju and mochi by hand every day. “It was really a Japantown,” Nakatani recalls with a nod, “and then they all started moving out one by one.”

These days it’s easy to find parking on the quiet streets around Osaka-ya, a strip of 10th Street between V and W, just a block north of the cars and semi trucks hurtling down the Capital City freeway. The small handful of storefronts scattered throughout the surrounding blocks include a comic book store and a thrift shop. But for the most part, the neighborhood is a shadow of the vibrant commercial area Nakatani remembers from her youth, and from the stories her parents told her about Sacramento’s original Japantown, which was razed about 70 years ago to make room for the Capitol Mall. But in the past few years, a steady trickle of new Asian American-owned restaurants and food businesses has begun to reinvigorate the community, in turn creating one of Sacramento’s most exciting dining destinations.

In the late 1890s, Japanese immigrants to California established Sacramento’s original Japantown between Third and Fifth streets and L and O streets, just a few minutes’ drive from Osaka-ya today. Many came to the city to work in the agricultural fields that surround the city — known as California’s Farm-to-Fork Capital — particularly to the north, west, and south, where rice paddies and almond orchards stretch out to the horizon. By the 1920s, Sacramento housed the fourth-largest Japanese community in the United States, according to a 2017 exhibit at the California Museum entitled Kokoro: The Story of Sacramento’s Lost Japantown. The area became known as “Ofu,” or Sakura City, to the issei, or first-generation, Japanese immigrants and their American-born nisei children. It eventually grew to encompass hundreds of Japanese-owned businesses, including fish markets, jewelry stores, pharmacies, and beauty parlors. “Japan Alley,” once located between Third and Fourth streets and L and Capitol, served as the heart of the community.

Everything changed on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i. The act of war heightened anti-Japanese sentiment across the country. In Sacramento, FBI agents and local police entered Japantown to pick up and interrogate community leaders and remove items including firearms and radios, according to the Kokoro exhibition. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which cleared a path for the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American families at internment camps across six Western states and Arkansas. Families and business owners across Sacramento, including those in Japantown, had just a few days’ notice to pack up and store their belongings or try to sell them at deeply discounted prices. By mid-May that year, Japantown was a ghost town.

When the U.S. government closed the incarceration centers for those of Japanese ancestry in 1944, some families returned to the Sacramento neighborhood and began to rebuild: By 1954, approximately 300 Japanese American-owned businesses, or about 80 percent of the city’s Japanese-owned businesses and homes, thrived once again in the city’s original Japantown area, according to Sacramento’s Historic Japantown. But in the summer of 1954, the city announced plans to redevelop Sacramento’s West End, an area that included Japantown and was largely occupied by non-white residents. Despite pushback from the community, almost all of Sacramento’s Japantown disappeared into a pile of rubble between 1956 and 1960 to make way for the Capitol Mall, a six-block landscaped parkway running from the Sacramento River to the California Capitol. Some former Japantown residents relocated to 10th Street between W and V, where Osaka-ya continues to do business today. But the new, smaller Japanese American enclave would never rival the breadth and diversity of the original.

Today, one block south of Osaka-ya, diners settle into chairs at a low counter, behind which a pair of cooks survey an armada of skewers. With patient consideration, the cooks study and then carefully flip the delicate sticks, laden heavily with negima, tender chunks of chicken thigh; pieces of crunchy knee cartilage called nankotsu painted in tare glaze; and plum-colored dates swaddled in a layer of soft mochi, sourced from up the street. The scent of caramelizing meat wafts from a long grill fueled by super-hot binchotan charcoal. The grill is the heart of Binchoyaki, the groundbreaking izakaya-style restaurant owned and operated by chef Craig Takehara, born and raised in Sacramento, and his wife, pastry chef Tokiko Sawada.

The couple met while attending Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, and before opening Binchoyaki in 2016, they spent time cooking and managing restaurants across Southern California. Then Takehara suggested they move back to his hometown, a smaller, more affordable city where they could eventually start a family and someday open a restaurant of their own. They moved to Sacramento in 2009, and seven years later, when they heard a space would be opening up in what was once the city’s post-WWII Japantown, Takehara knew it’d be the perfect place.

“I thought it would be a great idea to have another Japanese business in Japantown since there were, at the time, not very many,” he says. “It was a way for me to pay homage to the Japanese American community here.”

Takehara, whose family has been in Sacramento for four generations, says beyond the significance of the location, he also hoped Binchoyaki would add another dimension to the city’s sushi- and ramen-centric Japanese dining scene. Having previously cooked at a yakitori restaurant and having studied the art of Japanese barbecue in Japan, Takehara fell in love with the grill. “There was no business like this,” he says, “no restaurant like this up here. And this is a big part of Japanese cooking as well — as much as people associate sushi with Japanese cuisine, it’s just one small part of it.”

When it opened in 2016, Binchoyaki was an instant hit, thanks in part to positive critical reception, including Takehara’s recent recognition as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: California award. Still, both Takehara and Sawada, who was born in Japan, say diners sometimes struggle to understand the Binchoyaki menu, which focuses on yakitori but also includes sashimi and chubby triangles of onigiri, small plates like fried tofu and shrimp tempura, and rice-based dishes such as pork katsu don.

“We are one of the only Japanese restaurants, still to this day, that doesn’t serve sushi,” Sawada says. “We wanted to show that Japanese food is not just about sushi and teriyaki.” The chefs have also put their decidedly Californian flair on the menu, sourcing locally grown organic rice from a farm about 30 minutes north of the restaurant — “which is unheard of for lots of people,” Takehara notes — and featuring seasonal produce in daily specials such as persimmon kimchi, fried corn ribs, and grilled peppers.

Both owners and chefs say they’re grateful to have settled in Sacramento, where they enjoy a tight-knit, supportive restaurant community. “In Los Angeles, it was always a constant fight for who’s better, and I get that that’s competition,” Takehara says. “But here in Sacramento, we’ve had a lot of people reach out and help support us and we’ve tried to do the same as well. It’s ultimately created a great food culture, a great scene. And, yes, Sacramento does seem to be one of those cities that seems to be overlooked a lot because we are a smaller city. We’re not Los Angeles. We’re not San Francisco. We’re not New York. But I think we’ve made some headway.”

Andrew Calisterio

A hungry Sacramento resident or visitor need venture only about two blocks north from Binchoyaki to experience what Takehara is talking about. There, on the corner of 10th and V streets, sits Southside Super, a long and narrow restaurant where business partners Phuong Tran and Seoyeon Oh serve dishes inspired by their Vietnamese and Korean identities: pushing steaming bowls of chicken pho across the counter and rolling sheets of seaweed around seasoned rice, carrots, pickled radishes, perilla leaves, egg, and fish cake to make kimbap.

Though neither Tran or Oh is originally from Sacramento, they’ve both called the city home for more than a decade. They’d been talking about opening a restaurant together for some time when, in 2022, the space that housed June’s Cafe — a storied 18-seat Japanese American diner — became available. Tran immediately knew she wanted it.

“It’s a space that I’ve loved ever since I moved here,” Tran says, recalling how impressed she was with the mom-and-pop business run by Dennis O’Sullivan and his wife, Junko, or “June.”

“There’s no way I would be able to do this for 100, 200, or 300 customers,” Oh says. “But 50 customers a day? I can cook like I do at home.” That means they offer dosiraki, or Korean-style lunch boxes, packed with spicy pork bulgogi, rice, noodles, and a tiny quail egg; galbi-tang, a hearty short-rib soup; and Vietnamese meatballs in a sweet-spicy tomato sauce, called xíu mái. “I live in the area, and I’m aware of the history,” Tran says of the neighborhood’s Asian roots. “I think we both were really excited to come in as Asian, female owners and bring that type of food back — not Japanese, but there’s similar flavors, different cuisines. That feels nice to be able to bring that back to the neighborhood.”

They’re not the only ones creating a bright future for modern Japanese cooking in the area. During the sweltering Sacramento summer, customers flock to Osaka-ya’s walk-up window for cool Japanese-style shave ice topped with sweet red beans or mochi. But since November, a hot new pop-up, Mecha Mucho, has operated out of the window, tempting lunchtime crowds to the tree-lined sidewalk of 10th Street with the promise of Spam musubi sandwiches and miso sesame chocolate chip cookies. Chef Ryan Ota, another native Sacramentan, recently launched Mecha Mucho to honor his Mexican and Japanese heritage. The small menu mostly leans toward the latter — think pillowy milk bread and egg salad sandwiches, and thick pieces of pork katsu layered with Kewpie, napa cabbage, and sunomono pickles.

“When I was a kid, it wasn’t as cool to be Asian,” Ota says. Now he’s reclaiming that identity through food.

Ota still remembers when the streets around Osaka-ya, where he’s been going for fresh mochi since he was a kid, housed a robust collection of Japanese-owned businesses. The neighborhood had seafood market Senator Fish, which opened in 1962 and closed in 1995 when owner Akito Masaki retired, and Sakura Gifts From Japan, which shuttered in 2021. After March, Ota will have to find a new home for Mecha Mucho, but he’s got a narrow focus as he hunts for a permanent space. He’d like to be somewhere near where he’s operating now, he says, out of a business that represents one of the last remaining vestiges of Sacramento’s Japantown. He says he’d like to see the neighborhood return to its former glory. “I want this to be like when I was a kid.”

Andrew Calisterio

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