A Leimert Park diner preserves memories of a once vibrant Japanese American community
To find Tak’s Coffee Shop in Leimert Park, follow two things on Crenshaw Boulevard and 39th: the trail of Bonsai trees and the scent of fried rice with a tinge of freshly brewed coffee.
The Hawaiian-style diner is tucked inside the sparsely occupied Crenshaw Square Plaza, an ’80s strip mall with shades of weathered Americana. An oversized neon sign of a pawn shop and an immaculate row of ’80s Ford pickup trucks in the largely empty parking lot greet me. Subtle Japanese architectural references, like the plaza’s billboard that resembles a traditional Torii gate, reference the roots of the mall.
The restaurant is small and homely, like any other classic American diner, except for one major difference: A row of Japanese “lucky charm” cats looking down on the diners from the wooden counter atop the cash-only cashier.
“We have been here for 23 years. Things come and go. We’ve remodeled the place and the owners changed numerous times, but the cats have stayed. It’s like our mascot,” says Stephanie Budino-Bravo, who manages the hall with her mother.
Budino-Bravo’s parents Angie and Florentino Bravo own Tak’s Coffee Shop after years of working as a waitress and dishwasher at the old Holiday Bowl — a bowling alley and coffee shop built in the 1950s that served as a social hub not just for Leimert Park’s Japanese Americans, but also for the area’s black and Latino communities. The Bowl’s popular coffee shop served a range of dishes from cheeseburger to udon.
When Mary Shitsu, a cook at the Bowl’s coffee shop, opened Tak’s, the Bravos also worked at the new restaurant as her employees. And as Shitsu decided to retire, they purchased the restaurant from her.
The menu at Tak’s is not confined to American breakfast classics. For breakfast, diners can order fried rice with char siu pork, or the signature “Moco Loco”- a runny fried egg and hamburger patty covered with gravy and sautéed onions, all gloriously sitting on a plate of fluffy white rice.
Tak’s Coffee Shop has been a social hub for aging Japanese Americans in Leimert Park, a South Los Angeles neighborhood that has seen different communities settle in and out over the years. Its early opening hours still attract the remaining handful of old timers, who come in before the lunchtime rush begins about 11 a.m.
“It’s just like the Bowl,” says Ed Tanaka, a long-time Japanese American customer in his 80s, who now lives in Culver City. “Sure, it was Japanese American, but just about anyone in the neighborhood was there.”
“I remember people who pretty much spent their entire day there. All they would do is bowl, eat and shit all day long. That was their routine,” laughs Tanaka.
He has been coming to the coffee shop ever since it opened more than 20 years ago.
“I drive early in the morning just to eat here, so I don’t have to face the morning traffic,” Tanaka said.
The Japanese American community has been in Los Angeles since the 1940s as a major minority group due to their successes in agriculture and retail, with more than 112,000 Japanese Americans living in the West Coast by 1940, according to census data. After the internment of 1942, which drove most Japanese Americans from their L.A. homes to camps, they would resettle in different suburban neighborhoods across the county. They would never enjoy the pre-war prosperity and assimilation in Los Angeles.
“I mean, the internment of 1942 drove a good number of Japanese from Los Angeles altogether,” says Tanaka.
The biggest reason for the community’s decline, however, is time.
“Most of the old-time customers have passed away. The Japanese American customers have moved out to the Valley,” says Stephanie Bravo. “Ed [Tanaka] here is one of the few left.”
Even the original Tak’s owners, Fuyo Horii and Mary Shitsu, left the coffee shop to retire. Now, the neighborhood only has a handful of Japanese American businesses. The Japanese American Community Credit Union is a few blocks away on Jefferson Boulevard. A barbershop and a jewelry repair shop are in business right next to the coffee shop, mainly frequented by the same old customers who might be around after another decade.
But the spirit of the Bowl remains in the diner.
Stephanie notes how the Holiday Bowl was founded by Japanese Americans who were just released from the Manzanar camp in order to give their community somewhere to reconnect with each other and heal.
“The Bowl was about a second chance, living the American Dream. My dad began at the Bowl as a dishwasher and met my mom. They got married, had kids and worked hard to become the owners of this place.”
“If that’s not an American success story, I don’t know what is.”