Even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s still a challenge to argue that Los Angeles has a deficit in access to any particular international genre or style of cuisine. Name it, find it.
This distinctive blend of Japanese and Peruvian influence that originates from Peru’s long-standing generational community of Japanese expatriates has arguably been represented here since the late ’80s. Nobu Matsuhisa opened his flagship namesake Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row in 1987.
Arriving on a wave of national sushi mania, Matsuhisa stood apart with its subtle Peruvian influences. That said, it never fully embraced Nikkei cuisine as it exists in Lima. Now, more than 30 years later, some of the most-renowned restaurants in Latin America—notably Maido and Central Restaurant in Lima—specifically dedicate their menus to Nikkei preparations and technique.
For all of its vibrant dining diversity, Los Angeles has been notably late to the international Nikkei fiesta—until now.
The September 7 opening represents a notable and refreshing new addition to Downtown’s ever-changing spectrum of dining choices. While the sushi enthusiast will easily find all the favorite sashimi, nigiri and maki roll combinations, the more adventurous Downtown gourmand will find a truly unique selection of Peruvian ceviche, Nikkei-style tiraditos, yakitori/anticucho skewers, as well as more-traditional Peruvian entrees, like lomo saltado. Lomo saltado combines marined strips of sirloin with onions, tomatoes and French fries.
The fact that this authentically curated Nikkei menu has been engineered by one of our own beloved Tijuana-style taqueros makes the Downtown arrival of MiKaza all the more fascinating.
“Nobu is mainstream now,” Danny Rodriguez, the mastermind behind the breakout taco sensation Pablito’s Tacos, ruminates over how his popular taco pop-ups led to this formal tribute to Peruvian Nikkei cuisine and culture.
A Peruvian native who moved with his family to Burbank at age 10, Rodriguez graduated from Burbank High and studied film production at UC Santa Barbara. His experience as a film producer matched him with attorney and his managing partner Wayne Little, who busily presided over the opening-night mania.
“I’m about people. Danny’s about the food. Together we’re a pretty good team” Little said.
Rodriguez opened Pablito’s Kitchen in Burbank five years ago as an informal cafe featuring traditional Peruvian ceviche and entrees like pollo a la braza, and lomo and chicken saltados.
“I started having conversations with my chef at Pablito’s, Flor Oropeza,” he recalled. “‘I said, ‘What if we do a little taco stand with a Peruvian touch?’” Rodriguez began sampling tacos all over town and determined that Tijuana style combined the necessary, basic elements for his own unique take.
“I came to the conclusion that there were three elements that make a great taco: handmade tortillas; the meat must be grilled, charbroiled with mesquite; a slab of guacamole, automatically. That was the TJ-style taco,” Rodriguez said.
Peruvian green “crack” sauce—a house specialty—topped off his version, soon to wide acclaim. Beginning in his parking lot with “a grill and a trompo, we launch it and it just goes crazy.” After managing to negotiate a standing pop-up at the coveted and iconic Circus Liquor in Burbank, two roving trucks and two more ongoing pop-ups ensued over the next year.
The dramatic runaway success of Pablito’s Tacos led Rodriguez to begin grooming the MiKaza concept. “It was during this time I was developing the MiKaza brand to go after the Nikkei cuisine. … It was virgin territory in LA.”
He began working with a broker to scout sites for the restaurant in January. Settling on the Broadway-facing side of the Spring Arcade building between Fifth and Sixth streets, negotiations started when the pandemic lockdown arrived and the deal collapsed. By June, the landlord approached Rodriguez to reconsider a deal, and soon MiKaza was on a fast track to open.
“I got the keys three weeks ago,” Rodriguez said. “What should have taken two to three months, we did in two to three weeks.”
In the meantime, chef Miguel Torres—an Argentinian star chef, Nikkei expert and long-time friend—contacted Rodriguez from Hawaii. The lockdown left him stranded there, unable to return to Argentina. Rodriguez previously attempted to work with Torres, but onerous visa complications prevented the collaboration. Ironically, the lockdown provided a pathway to opening MiKaza with his chef of choice (not to mention the employment of a staff of 30). The remaining piece of the puzzle—the critical role of sushi chef—was solved by his original chef and partner in Pablito’s Tacos, Flor Oropeza.
Oropeza’s sister, Elizabeth Valencia, is a rarity: a female sushi chef taught directly by a Japanese master. An 18-year veteran helming Hama Sushi in Venice Beach, most recently she wielded the knives at Wabi on Rose.
MiKaza has outdoor distanced tables located in the breezeway of the Arcade building, next to the small indoor dining room and bar. It affords a haven and a vantage point to observe the bustling street action of Broadway.
On opening night, the arcade’s breezeway is abuzz with activity. The ever-congenial server Jasmine Yee arrives with a bowl of gently fried Peruvian corn nuts tossed with thinly shaved curls of fried sweet potato, all tossed with savory togarashi seasoning. The menu begins with a section titled “Izakaya/Tapas,” which features a variety of small plates that include Nikkei standouts like entrana buns, steamed buns stuffed with skirt steak confit, anticucho sauce and topped with red pepper aioli ($12), or sticky passion shrimp, lightly battered and fried tiger shrimp with a passion fruit citric glaze, topped with chopped almond bits ($14). Continue on to the ceviche.
Ceviche is the national dish of Peru. It is distinguished from Mexican and Central American versions by its longer marination time in “leche de tigre,” the spicy citrus-based marinade that defines this national dish. The Ceviche Diablo ($18) at MiKaza delivers the expected punch of devilish heat that its name implies, but it is also gorgeously presented in a shallow bowl scattered with marinated kernels of Peruvian corn and slim slices of sweet potato. It will very likely expand on anyone’s notion of what local ceviche can be.
Tiraditos ($15 to $18) are subtitled “Peruvian sashimi” and are small rolls of raw fish basking in various calibrations of leche de tigre and Nikkei citrus reductions. There is also a list of nine Nikkei-style nigiri sushi preps ($11 to $18), including halibut topped with acevichada sauce, serrano pepper and “micro cilantro,” as well as yellowtail belly with anticuchera sauce “topped with escabechada and a drop of Huacatay.” Huacatay? It’s the creamy green “crack” salsa that tops Pablito’s tacos and a standard condiment to many Peruvian dishes. Peruvian black mint is the secret ingredient. Don’t worry, there’s a spicy tuna roll on the menu, too.
Pro tip? On Tuesdays, the Pablito’s Taco Truck may well be parked just outside on Broadway. A lomo saltado taco could be the perfect complement to a Pisco-infused cocktail at magic hour.