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Review: Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar 

click to enlarge Little Tokyo serves ramen, sushi and small plates. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The very name Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar implies that you'll have a few options for assembling meals at this new Japanese restaurant. "Small plates" references the many appetizers that make up the bulk of the menu, while the "noodle bar" aspect comes from huge bowls of ramen noodle soups or stir-fries of yaki soba and udon.

  But what becomes clear only after entering is that there's also the option to begin dinner with a stirring rendition of a Queen anthem, a sentimental country ballad or even a falsetto send-up of a Beyoncé hit. Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar does karaoke, and it's not a mere sideline or Saturday night promotion. It's a fundamental part of the restaurant.

  Once a location of Cuco's Mexican Cafe, the interior of this building has been radically reworked and now the floor plan is roughly split between open dining room and a series of private rooms, each furnished with sofas, coffee tables and a karaoke rig. Groups can reserve the cozy chambers and page waitstaff with a call button to keep food and drink coming. There's another karaoke setup at the front bar for anyone inspired to croon for the entire dining room.

  The place is casual and seems focused on enticing students from nearby universities. The list of specialty shots and "sake bomb" beer cocktails is longer than the spare sushi menu, and the restaurant will stay open until 2 a.m. most nights if business is good. There's a different vibe here from any other local Japanese restaurant, and that's just as well. Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar is the fifth restaurant now operated by owner Yusuke Kawahara, and as restaurateurs build local empires it's a smart move to differentiate their ventures.

  You can still order familiar Japanese dishes like seaweed salad or gyoza dumplings, plus many of the named sushi rolls found at Little Tokyo locations, like the Causeway roll with soft-shell crab. But the emphasis is on bar snacks, from takoyaki (fried balls of batter and octopus) to chunks of yellowtail coated in spicy barbecue sauce to such Western standards as onion rings and sweet potato fries, albeit with wasabi dipping sauce.

  This is easy finger food for a karaoke party, though my own favorites here are the noodle soups. Ramen is commonly associated with bargain noodle packs, but more refined renditions are very popular in Japan, and the meal-sized bowls I've sampled at this Little Tokyo have been excellent. They combine springy-textured noodles, salty miso broth, varying levels of spicy heat, fresh additions of sprouts or bok choy, plus unusual elements like slices of mild, egg-like fishcake. I especially like the tonkotsu ramen, which has a cloudy, chowder-like broth rich from pork bone stock.

  The place is usually quiet at lunch, but it comes alive at night. Service is helpful but demure and low-key, which seems a wise posture for people who might be serving sushi in the midst of a Meat Loaf number.

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