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10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

The Last Days of The Dandy Lion

On the second floor above a rowdy sushi bar and a brightly lit omiyage shop, The Dandy Lion was easy to miss. The only marker for the stairwell was a carved wooden sign swaying over the entrance, the yellow dandelions that had once bracketed the name long ago flaked away.

Stepping in from the rain, I shook my umbrella before climbing the rickety stairs. “Irasshaimase,” Kyoko-chan greeted me as soon as I rolled the door open on its metal rail. Inside, the overheated air was thick with the scent of simmering broth, pig fat, and moldering wood, reminding me of my childhood home.

“Oi, Ono-kun,” the noodle master called from behind the wall of steam rising from giant steel cauldrons.

“Oi, Sakai-san,” I replied over the hiss and pop of frying gyoza and the sumo blaring from the TV. I dropped the dripping umbrella in the bucket beside the door and weaved past the tables arranged haphazardly through the room. With only a handful of tourists scattered around the restaurant and a few LAPD cops by the door, the restaurant was even more empty than usual.

I walked up to the counter to watch Sakai dunk a strainer of noodles into the boiling vat, then with a practiced flick of his wrist, drain the water and slide the noodles into a bowl. “The usual,” I said though there was no need. He nodded without looking up.

Next to him was someone I’d never seen behind the counter frying a pan of gyoza. He looked too young to be a cook. “Who’s the new kid?” I asked.

“This is my son, Kevin,” he said, the pride in his eyes hidden behind the scowl on his downturned lips. “Thinks he wants to learn how to make ramen. Once he masters gyoza in a few years, he can start on fried rice.”

“Hi, sir,” Kevin said, wiping his fingers on his apron before reaching over the counter to shake my hand. His longish hair was tied back with a rubber band into a stubby chonmage. Around his forehead was a black bandana with a red Japanese sun he’d probably bought at the omiyage shop downstairs. He looked about the same age as my own son, a senior in high school, who had no interest in learning my construction business, or anything else besides playing video games all night.

“When’s the kid taking over?” I asked.

Sakai narrowed his eyes, turning his crow’s feet into deep furrows, and making me regret my joke. “Listen, Ono,” he grunted, “there’s something I gotta tell ya.” I waited, but he said nothing more as he arranged three slices of chashu into a perfect fan pattern in the bowl. After spooning in glistening red beni-shōga and sprinkling green onions on top, he looked up at me and said, “I’ll tell all of you later.” Then he dinged the bell for pickup though Kyoko was already waiting in front of the counter.

When I reached our booth in the back corner, George Aoki, the king of Little Tokyo real estate, saluted me with his sake cup. “Oh no, it’s Ono!” he greeted me with his usual refrain.

Fred Ueda, the vice president of the big Japanese bank on the corner, laughed at George’s joke for the millionth time. “Glad you could make it, Ono,” he said, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar. “I was afraid I was going to be stuck listening to George all night.”

“Where is everyone?” I asked. Most nights, there’d be five or six of us sitting around the booth, even more on Wednesdays after golf. But tonight, only George and Fred sat across from each other, looking lost at the big table.

George pointed up at the sky. “It’s raining, Ono, or didn’t you notice?”

He was a pompous ass, but nobody complained because he always paid for the sake—not the warmed-up crap from the big bottles along the back wall but the good stuff Sakai kept hidden in the refrigerator under the counter. Fred grabbed the bottle of Kikusui, condensation running down the cornflower blue label, and filled my small ceramic cup.

Kampai!” we shouted much too loud. The other diners turned to glare at us as we chinked our cups together.

I breathed in the aroma of green apple and honeydew before taking a small sip. The taste was as clean and clear as Niigata snowmelt with a touch of sweetness, only the faintest tinge of alcohol as the liquid slid down my throat. “Aah,” I said, starting to relax after a long day managing contractors. Fred refilled ours cups as Kyoko arrived with my ramen.

I slurped the firm and chewy noodles Sakai-san made overnight, and savored the tonkotsu broth creamy from pork bones left simmering for days, reminding me yet again why The Dandy Lion was the best ramen in ramen-obsessed LA. When I’d finished slurping every last noodle and had dug every last black mushroom and bamboo sprout out of the murky soup, I pushed the bowl aside. I took another sip of sake and asked, “Did Sakai-san tell you his big secret?”

George shrugged. Fred’s eyes lit up, eager for fresh gossip. But neither of them knew anything. I looked over to the bar, but Sakai was busy explaining something to his son.

Even after all the other diners were gone, we continued downing cup after cup of sake while moaning about our work and kids, debating the Dodger’s chances in the upcoming season and plotting how they could snag Shohei Ohtani away from the Angels to guarantee the pennant. Our voices grew animated, our laughter ever louder until suddenly, Kyoko shut off the tv. “Time to go home boys,” she declared. “We’re closing.”

Fred groaned. George protested it was still early. Kyoko ignored us. We put on our coats to leave.

“Wait!” Sakai hollered. He stepped around the counter with a bottle of Johnnie Black in one hand, four highball glasses in the other.

Sitting down beside George, he poured two fingers of the amber liquid into each glass and pushed them across the table. He didn’t even wait for a kanpai before taking a big gulp of his whiskey.

“What’s up” George asked, but Sakai wouldn’t be rushed. He held the glass in front of his face as he looked at each of us in turn. “Got bad news today,” he finally said.

Cancer, divorce, or bankruptcy I guessed—it had to be one of the big three.

The noodle master took another gulp of whiskey, then looked down at the table. “The Dandy Lion is closing,” he grunted.

We sat with mouths hanging open. This restaurant, this booth, had been our home for ages.

“When?” Fred asked.

“End of the month.” He held up his glass to salute us. “Just wanted to say thanks.”

I sipped at the honey-colored fire, enjoying the burn in the back of my throat. “Why?” I asked.

“Lease is up. Landlord won’t renew.”

Baka,” Fred muttered, then turned to king of real estate. “You can talk to the owners, can’t you, George, get them to change their minds?”

“Don’t waste your breath,” Sakai said, shaking his head. “The sushi bar downstairs wants the space. They’ve got money to burn.”

“Can’t you find another place? What about all the vacancies on 2nd? Or that new plaza they’re building on Alameda? Parking would be better there, too.”

Sakai stared into the glass as if there were answers trapped inside the amber liquid. “It’s over. My time is done. This place is empty.”

George laughed. “Don’t be such as downer, Wes. It’s just LA. Nobody goes out in the rain.”

“We’re empty every night. Even the weekends. Can’t compete with all the new places.”

How could The Dandy Lion—the best ramen in bustling Little Tokyo—not be packed with diners? “Aren’t we in the middle of a ramen craze? YouTube is full of kids talking about their favorite ramen.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem. Kids don’t know shit. They want to hear a story of a family recipe handed down for generations, some bullshit about water flown in from Fukuoka or chashu made from free-range pigs. Not some old guy from Culver City whose family grew beans before the internment.”

We tried to tell him he was wrong, that The Dandy Lion could be saved. He turned and whistled at his son scrubbing pots in the sink. “Hey Kev-kun. Get over here.”

Kevin looked up, surprised to see all of us watching him. He shut off the water, dried his hands on his apron, and walked over to stand in front of the booth. With a pimpled face, crooked teeth, and a tattoo on his forearm, I guessed he was neither studious nor popular, but his expression was gentle, perhaps even a little lost. He seemed more like me in high school than my son with his daily training regimen for esports domination.

“Tell these guys what you always tell me,” Sakai ordered.

“About what?”

“About everything! About those stupid reviews.” His face was blotchy from the alcohol.

“Uh, sure, Dad,” Kevin said without guile. “Well, uh, our Yelp! score is 2.7. Not so good.”

No wonder the place was empty. But a 2.7 score made no sense. “What’s their problem?” I asked.

“Mostly stupid stuff. Like one gave us two stars because she wanted udon and we only have ramen. Another gave us one star because we don’t have anything vegan.”

Sakai banged his glass down. “This is a tonkotsu restaurant,” he shouted. “Don’t they understand ‘tonkotsu’ means pig bones? If you want vegan, go somewhere else!”

“Another complained we didn’t have Thai iced tea.”


We nodded in sympathy at the unfairness of it all.

“You know, Dad,” Kevin said quietly, “maybe we could have Thai iced tea?”

His father’s face turned a brighter shade of red. “Thai iced tea at a ramen restaurant?”

“Sure, why not? I like Thai iced tea. I could make it, easy.”

“Because, Kevin, this is a ramen restaurant. A real ramen restaurant, not some stupid Americanized version. Have you ever seen Thai iced tea at a ramen restaurant?”

“Uh, yeah, Dad, they all have it now. Some even have boba.”

“Boba?” he spat.

“Matcha boba would be huge. We could bring in people in the middle of the day when we’re always empty.”

“For boba?”

“And snacks.”

“Ramen snacks?”

“You know, manju or something.”

“Nobody wants manju except those old tea ceremony ladies.”

“Manju ice cream. It’s popular now.”

“That’s not manju.”

“So what? All my friends hang out at the boba place after school. It’s doing really well.”

The boy made sense, even if his father didn’t like it. “Maybe the kid has something,” I suggested.

“Yeah, rocks in his head.”

“Why not give it a try?”

“Because our lease is up, that’s why. That’s it. We’re done.”

“You’ve got thirty days. Why not see what happens? What have you got to lose?”

“My dignity,” he muttered as he downed another gulp.

I looked at Kevin. “What else would you do?”

“Well…uh…Dad’s going to hate this…”

“What now?” his father grumbled.

“The name.”

“What name?”

“The Dandy Lion.”

The three of us gasped. Sakai banged his glass on the table. “No way.”

“But, Dad…”

“But what? For thirty-five years, The Dandy Lion has meant something—the best damn ramen in America.”

“But it’s a stupid joke from an old movie nobody’s watched in years.”

I cringed. The kid was entering dangerous territory. Nobody called Tampopo just another old movie. Itami’s masterpiece about a ramen shop was the greatest Japanese movie ever. For years after it came out, every new ramen restaurant was named Tampopo, or in English—Dandelion. A yellowing headshot signed by Ken Watanabe still hung proudly next to the register.

But perhaps the boy was right. Thirty-five years was long ago. Maybe it was time for a change. “What did you have in mind?”

He rushed to the storeroom to grab a notebook to show us his sketches of a remodeled restaurant. In place of the old booths were long stainless steel tables to eat standing up in an airy, open space. The wood paneling was gone; bare walls were hung with artwork and lit with spotlights. “Nice design,” I said, handing him back the sketchbook. “But the artwork’s too expensive.”

“No, no, that’s the whole point, Mr. Ono. We’re right next to the LA Arts District. I was thinking we could make this into an exhibition space for local artists.”

“Art in a ramen shop?” his father said, incredulous.

“Why not, Dad? We’ll have coffee, too, and cocktails at night. He pointed to the area where we were sitting. “We can put a stage right here for a D.J. on the weekends.”

Sakai shook his head sadly, but I thought the kid’s ideas were worth trying. Except, of course, removing the booth where our crew always hung out. “Okay, son,” I said. “I’m in.”

“In what, Mr. Ono?”

“I’ll do the construction. At cost. You can pay me back in a couple of years.”

“But we only have a month.”

“Well, you’re in luck.” I pointed at George. “Mr. Aoki here is going to get your lease extended. Aren’t you, George?”

“I don’t—”

“You’re going to show everyone what the king of Little Tokyo real estate can do, right George?”

Convincing the landlord to extend the lease wouldn’t be easy, but George always bragged how he twisted arms to get deals done. Now was his chance to prove he was more than bluster. Far tougher would be getting his father on board, but I was confident Sakai would come around to help his son continue his legacy once we’d fleshed out the plans.

“Ito can do the plumbing,” Fred suggested. Ito was a better golfer than a contractor, but he’d do the job at cost. “Maybe Akiyama can set him up with a small business loan? And Sugimoto can do the signs.”

Fred was right—rescuing The Dandy Lion, or whatever the restaurant’s new name would be, had to be a community project. Everyone who’d been sitting in this booth for years needed to help out and save our home.

I pulled out my phone and started calling the crew, told them to get over here. From Pasadena and the Valley, Santa Monica, and Torrance, bankers and lawyers, designers, and journalists, they all agreed to come. Despite the late hour and the strengthening rain, there was work to be done in Little Tokyo.


Actor Greg Watanabe read “The Last Days of The Dandy Lion” by DC Palter live at the 10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Award Ceremony on May 20, 2023. Organized by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM's Discover Nikkei project.


*This is the winning story in the Adult English category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 10th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2023 DC Palter

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Little Tokyo ramen restaurants restaurants

Sobre esta serie

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On May 20, 2023 in a celebration moderated by Tamlyn Tomita, noted actors, Greg Watanabe, Mika Dyo, and Mayumi Seco performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.



*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>