For people who don’t often find themselves in Gardena, this city — where Japanese immigrants played a large part in the area’s early farming community — is known for its myriad strip malls filled, among other things, with many Japanese restaurants. Also a huge Marukai market (you know, the one with the huge Ramen Iroha-shaped hole, where you can sometimes find ramen burgers, or at least the long lines for them). And the Hustler Casino. (Google it.)
But there’s more to this South Bay city than ramen-yas and blackjack. And for those in search of a great meal or cheap drinks — a lot more. Here’s six of our favorite spots.
Dat Moi market — If you have to get your hands on some goat, oxtail or beef neck for a recipe, this is the place to go. It’s also the spot for red palm oil, every Goya-brand product ever produced, fufu flour, dried nchanwu leaves, and any number of Jamaican spices. The market also carries Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Filipino products. 14415 Crenshaw Blvd., Gardena, (310) 973-5181.
Donna’s — Hiding on Western Avenue, behind a plain white wood facade is Donna’s, one of the best dive bars in Los Angeles. On Monday nights, there’s complimentary food provided by bar manager Erin Lopez, who sometimes buys tamales and sometimes makes Japanese curry. There’s a pool table, video poker and darts. If you get hungry while drinking an $11 pitcher of Bud — or in between your Fireball shots — you can buy a bag of corn nuts or order tacos. Or Spam sliders from Chenin Aglipay, who runs the kitchen at the back of the bar. And it wouldn’t be a dive bar without proper shots. Lopez makes her Shakka shooter with Ketel One Citroen and li hing mui powder she gets from Hawaii. 15121 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 538-8216.
El Antojito taco truck and paleta shop — There’s no shortage of taco trucks in Los Angeles. But it’s not often that a taco truck comes with killer, spicy barbacoa — and a paletas and aguas frescas shop next door. At the El Antojito taco truck on 168th Street, you can buy one of six or seven rotating aguas frescas to go with your plate of $1 tacos, torta Cubana or shrimp ceviche tostada. And for dessert, fresh paletas and chocolate-covered bananas, made in a small building near the truck. 168th and Figueroa streets, Gardena, (310) 769-6915.
Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop — If the show “Cheers” had been set in a Hawaiian-themed cafe just off an old bowling alley, this would be it. The family-owned restaurant knows the names of most of its counter customers, their grandchildren and the names of their last boyfriends. There are big plates of Spam, rice, eggs and rich gravy; house-made sausage; and bowls of sukiyaki. And the cafe’s soundtrack is on a never-ending loop of rolling bowling balls and crackling pins. 15707 Vermont Ave., Gardena, (310) 324-1244, www.gardenabowl.com.
Restaurant Shu-Chan — This restaurant, run by Shuji and Mariko Hisataka, is what happened when Mariko left the much-loved Marukai ramen stand Ramen Iroha last summer. The couple, who’d run local restaurants in the past, opened Shu-Chan, serving ramen, takana fried rice, onigiri, teriyaki combination plates, chorizo ramen and even tacos. If you’re in for lunch, expect a full house, but the tables turn quickly. On a recent visit, two businessmen in suits scarfed down their ramen and fried rice lunch special in eight minutes. And don’t be fooled by all the variety on the menu: This is still a ramen joint. The tonkatsu ramen broth is rich and luscious, and the slices of pork in the bowl nearly melt into the broth. You can slurp a steaming bowl at a table, or the noodle bar. 15915 Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 719-7102.
Sea Empress — This Chinese restaurant is a popular spot for weekend dim sum. The carts weave through the sprawling dining rooms carrying shumai, har gow, various bao and most dim sum items you’d find at a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s loud and the service is mediocre — but when you can’t fathom going another Sunday without shumai, then Sea Empress, and its hot, fresh dumplings, is a godsend. 1636 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena (310) 538-6868.
Gardena has a lot more than these to offer — let us know which of your favorite places we overlooked and we’ll add them to the list.
Every hour should be happy hour. Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_