Before we left, I had scoured chowhound for casual, but good places for dinner and drinks in the downtown area. Two of the more promising places I came up with are right next door to each other: Pete's Cafe and Banquette Cafe. We stopped in at Pete's first, but just weren't feeling it.
Next door at the Banquette, we felt right at home. Friendly, relaxed staff, a nice, reasonably priced wine list and an eclectic local crowd. The food was good too. We had a plate of bresaola, which was a generous portion topped with caramelized onions and hunks of parmesan. We also shared a "Ham-Pan" sandwich. Nice bread, hot from the panini press and filled black forest ham, crispy fried prosciutto rounds, greens and cheese. Great place, and definitely recommended. The folks at the Banquette told us that the neighborhood has been changing rapidly over the past few years (for the better). We felt very comfortable walking to and from there from our hotel (apart from the inhospitable weather).
The next night, it was cold and raining. Based on a recommendation from chowhound, we decided to go to an izakaya called Izayoi in Little Tokyo. After a nice stop to dry off and have a glass of wine at the Banquette (it was about half-way to Little Tokyo), we arrived at Izayoi. At that point it was pouring down rain, and we were soaked. The waitress that seated us was nice enough to bring Sherry a towel to dry off her hair. We quickly had a pitcher of Kirin in front of us, and were happily perusing their very interesting menu.
In addition to a full complement of sushi, they had a huge number of intriguing dishes - most very reasonably priced in the $6-$10 range. We started with a bowl of miso soup each (one standard, the other with red miso and tiny mushrooms).
The dishes we tried were:
- A sauteed duck and eggplant dish - very attractively arranged in alternating slices. The eggplant was fantastic, and the duck, while chewy, had great flavor.
- Vegetable tempura, which was nicely fried and included potato, green bean, shitake mushroom, lotus root, red bell pepper, and a few other items I can't recall.
- A beef tongue dish - slices of tongue marinated in miso and served lemon to squeeze over.
- Squid legs that came with shishito peppers. The chiles were lightly charred and had a mild, pleasantly bitter flavor.
- Steamed clams in sake broth. This was a great way to end the meal - a small bowl of clams in an intense broth.