What Is Wafu Spaghetti? Here Are 5 Places to Try It in LA

The classic Italian dish is reimagined with Japanese preparations and ingredients.

spaghetti
Pasta e Pasta by Allegro | @lindathefoodie
Pasta e Pasta by Allegro | @lindathefoodie

When Tadashi Kimura, owner and chef of Akane Chaya, decided to open a restaurant in the United States, he first came with the intention of opening an izakaya. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of bringing Japanese soul food stateside, and in particular, a comfort food he made for nearly 12 years at his coffee shop in Osaka’s Tanimachi neighborhood: wafu spaghetti.

“For me, spaghetti is soul food,” Kimura says. "I wanted my diners stateside to experience the kind of comfort food that I served, ate, and loved in Japan.”

Wafu spaghetti was invented at Tokyo-based restaurants Kabe no Ana and Hashiya in the 1950s, with the intention of transforming a dish that had become associated with military rations into something that would be palatable to Japanese customers. It falls under a style of yoshoku, or Western-influenced Japanese cuisine, and is made with ingredients that are commonplace in Japanese kitchens. For example, aglio e olio that’s peppered with finely chopped shiso leaves instead of parsley; spaghetti alla bottarga that’s tossed with bright-pink cod roe, a shoyu-butter sauce, and sprinkled with thinly shredded nori flakes; tagliatelle ai funghi made with dashi-imbued spaghetti noodles and stir-fried with butter, bacon, and shimeji, shiitake, and enoki mushrooms, plus a splash of shoyu. The dish is as expansive as it is inventive—a product of an era of post-war cooking and experimentation that defines Japanese comfort food today.

But wafu spaghetti is much more than a Japanese twist on Italian cuisine—it’s an entire ethos. “For me, wafu spaghetti is the product of a certain Japanese sensibility toward food,” Kimura says. “It’s not just the ingredients—it’s the subtleties in the taste, it’s the way it’s prepared and served, it’s the way it’s consumed. All of these things define wafu spaghetti.”

Kimura’s eclectic menu—ranging from classic cod roe spaghetti to hamburger steaks—was a hit with the local Japanese community when he first opened his doors in Gardena’s Pacific Square Plaza in 1991. At the time, he was one of two restaurants (the other being Spoon House Bakery and Restaurant across the street) serving Japanese-style spaghetti in Los Angeles. But, while Kimura developed a loyal base of Japanese regulars, he noticed that wafu spaghetti was still perplexing to some of his American customers.

“My menu is tailored to a Japanese palate,” he notes. “It’s definitely a lighter taste than what is offered in American or Italian restaurants. I was warned by someone at the time, ‘Mr. Kimura, this is Los Angeles. Your food isn’t spicy. It’s not greasy or salty. It’s steaming hot and your portions are small. You won’t get any customers!’ But, I stood my ground and resolved to make my spaghetti my way.”

Thirty years later, the times have finally caught up with Kimura: LA’s food scene, propelled by a new generation of chefs from the city’s diverse immigrant communities, has become a scene defined by hyphens—a forever expanding, experimental smorgasbord of colliding cultures, tastes, and histories. And, as the food scene has evolved, Kimura says, so too have the city’s restaurant-goers, who now venture across freeways to get a taste of steaming hot spaghetti noodles sauced with briny shoyu-clam emulsions or sour pickled umeboshi.

While Japanese food in Los Angeles is more or less dominated by sushi and ramen, there are a handful of restaurants across the city that serve wafu spaghetti. As Kimura says, word of mouth is everything, and these five restaurants have made a name for themselves:

Kimura’s menu at Akane Chaya is a culmination of his years as both a coffee shop owner and a self-proclaimed student of food, featuring a wide variety of yoshoku, from hamburger steaks served with an in-house demiglace sauce to, of course, wafu spaghetti dishes. Akane Chaya serves mouthwatering plates of clam, tarako, and tomato sauce spaghetti dishes, but if you want to try a Japanese childhood classic, get the Napolitan spaghetti, which Kimura makes with ham, fresh bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and a tomato ketchup sauce.
How to order: Walk in or order takeout by calling 310-768-3939.

A fixture among Japanese expats and local foodies since the 1980s, the late Jonathan Gold even gave the restaurant his stamp of approval in 1991, writing “once you get past expecting anything here to taste like Italian food, some of the Spoon House specialties are actually delicious.” Spoon House serves a mind-boggling variety of wafu spaghetti on its menu, from a classic tarako butter sauce spaghetti topped with chiffonade shiso leaves, to pasta tossed in tuna, daikon radish, and lemon soy sauce, to spaghetti topped with creamy fermented soybeans, or natto. The expansive menu even has classic non-spaghetti items, such as doria, which is a Japanese take on a rice casserole served baked, covered in a layer of white cream sauce, and topped with another layer of meat sauce or seafood. What distinguishes Spoon House from others on this list is its signature boil-to-order “al-dente yudeage” system—which you can glimpse if you sit at the bar counter. All of Spoon House’s spaghetti noodles are cooked to order, which means that when your spaghetti dish hits your table, it will always be served the right way: al dente and steaming hot.
How to order: Walk-ins only.

Ducks Restaurant

San Gabriel

With walls adorned with faded family pictures of trips to Japan and a stacked bookshelf of worn-out manga, walking into Ducks feels like walking into someone’s home. Located in San Gabriel, this unassuming family-owned restaurant has been around since 1995 and made a name for itself serving classic Japanese comfort foods. While Ducks is famous for its set meals with gleaming bowls of udon noodles and crispy tempura, it also boasts a mean plate of Japanese-style meat sauce spaghetti, made with thin spaghetti noodles imported straight from Japan. Duck’s meat sauce is made from scratch, stewed with a sweetness that is typical of Japanese-style bolognese sauce. The result is a perfectly portioned plate of bouncy ramen-like spaghetti noodles dressed in an addictive salty-sweet tomato meat sauce.
How to order: Walk in or order online for pickup.

Pasta e Pasta is the newest of the bunch, having opened in 2017 as the first US location of Osaka-based Japanese-Italian group, Allegro. Pasta e Pasta’s menu runs the gamut, boasting everything from wafu spaghetti classics such as uni cream and cod roe spaghetti, to tried-and-true Italian recipes such as arrabbiata and nero di seppia—all served with a side salad and bread. Part of Pasta e Pasta’s charm is the diversity in the menu alone, which features a mix of wafu and Italian spaghetti dishes, as well as appetizers. But the real star of the menu is the crab meat rigatoni gratin, which is served cooked in a bubbling hot Bechamel sauce with a cheesy roasted top straight from the oven. And yes, for all you TikTokers out there: there are plenty of cheese pulls to be had.
How to order: Walk in or order takeout via Yelp.

Bistro Beaux

Torrance

As a comfort food staple, Japanese spaghetti is generally a low-key affair, but if you want a sophisticated experience, Torrance’s Bistro Beaux is your best bet for a date night or a night out with friends. The menu boasts all the wafu spaghetti classics and a full bar (try the frozen Kirin beer!). If you’re feeling decadent, Bistro Beaux is famous for its crab butter spaghetti and spicy cod roe mochi pizza. What also distinguishes Bistro Beaux is the option to choose between penne, linguine, farfalle, and angel hair for your spaghetti. If you’re looking to experiment with tarako farfalle pasta or Napolitan with penne pasta, go crazy—no judgment here.
How to order: Walk in, make a reservation or order takeout by calling 310-320-5820, or order delivery via Yelp.

Anthony Berteaux is a Thrillist contributor based in Los Angeles.