The team behind n/naka announces a new bento and izakaya operation, n/soto

An assortment of bento boxes
n/soto will begin with takeout service only, offering an evolving bento that continues Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama’s collaborative and fundraising Ekiben bento series from n/naka.
(Alicia Cho)

Set an alarm: The team behind n/naka is opening a new restaurant, and the reservations go live on Friday.

When the two-Michelin-starred kaiseki destination paused dine-in service due to the pandemic, chef-owner Niki Nakayama and her sous chef and wife, Carole Iida-Nakayama, turned to bento boxes to keep n/naka running. Reservations for the colorful, intricate to-go meals consistently disappeared in the blink of an eye — and now those bento are helping to inform Nakayama’s first new restaurant in a decade.

Located in West Adams, n/soto will begin with takeout service only, offering an evolving bento that continues Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama’s collaborative and fundraising Ekiben bento series from n/naka. Then, n/soto will expand to patio dining with a more izakaya-inspired a la carte menu and, eventually, open for indoor dining.


On the full izakaya menu, guests might find one section heavily devoted to izakaya classics, and another devoted to an exploration of diaspora cuisine and items previously found in the to-go bentos, bending and blending the notions of what Japanese food is, what it can be, and what the shared experience of generations of Japanese Americans can taste like in Los Angeles.

“There’s this idea that a lot of people really respect Japanese food and what it is, and we’re very honored and grateful for that,” says Nakayama. “I think on the opposite end of that, Carole and I sometimes think, ‘What does Japanese food look like when it meets other types of cuisines, but to really be able to do it in an authentic manner by learning from chefs who do other cuisines.’ And I think that was an exciting idea for both of us to explore because it’s so different from what n/naka is.”

At n/naka, the to-go bento relied on the traditional kaiseki method and format, in keeping with the full-service, fine-dining experience. Later, the bento evolved into the Ekiben series: a collaborative bento involving L.A. chefs, first with Minh Phan of Porridge + Puffs and later, dosirak pop-up chef Susan Yoon. At n/soto the collaborations and the genre-bending items will continue, while the original, more kaiseki-inspired bento will return at n/naka.

This week will go live. Every Friday at noon the site will release reservations for the following week’s bento pickups, available from Wednesday to Saturday between 4 and 7 p.m. Each iteration of n/soto’s bento will run four to six weeks, each with a different theme and inspiration, each benefiting a different cause.

The first bento, priced at $65 and called Taste of Home, will focus on Nikkei cuisine and draw from historical documents, photos, cookbooks and research done by Nakayama, Iida-Nakayama and the Japanese American National Museum. The museum’s December 2020 event, A Taste of Home, felt like kismet to the chefs and gave the duo’s new project more focus.

Poring over the museum’s archives and the history of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles — and especially their stories of returning from incarceration camps, finding their lands reappropriated and being forced to relocate to new neighborhoods — Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama found patterns of hope in even the bleakest circumstances.

“There was such a wonderful, rich history of Japanese Americans living side by side with other ethnic groups, “says Nakayama, “and how for the most part everybody was working together and getting along as neighbors and helping one another. I think that was such an uplifting and inspiring message, given all the things that we experienced in 2020 with so much separation and so many cultural divides. The idea of exploring that was something that Carole and I were really passionate about.”


The first bento will contain roughly 20 items and involve a rainbow of influences: A 1965 recipe from a community cookbook called “East West Flavors” helped the duo create their shrimp foo young and represents the cultural bonding between Chinese and Japanese Americans at the time. Another recipe pulled from history, for a lemony braised eggplant Nasu Ni, comes from Natsuye Fujimoto’s 1930 cookbook, which was shared by the museum.

Miso lobster will sit alongside salmon teriyaki and Spam musubi, while desserts might involve coconut cake (inspired by another “East West Flavors” recipe) paired with a crunchy cornflake cookie.

Nakayama says n/soto will offer 100 to 150 of these bento per day, but might increase the volume as the team becomes acquainted with the new n/soto kitchen.