Highs and lows are part of the human condition. One minute you’re leaving your house, well-rested and with the exact right amount of coffee pulsing through your veins, the next you’re sitting in your car with a flashing check engine light and a text from your boss saying you guys need to talk when you get to the office. Like it or not, things change in a hurry.
The same can be said for a meal at Ototo, a Japanese restaurant and sake bar in Echo Park. Here the highs and lows don’t just come quickly, they’re often intertwined - making a complicated experience out of one that could’ve been incredible.
Let’s start with the highs - Ototo has one of the largest and most interesting sake lists in town, and there’s also some very good food to match. Chicken katsu sandos are all over LA these days, but this is our favorite version in town. The chicken itself is perfectly crunchy, and the housemade tonkatsu sauce adds a major punch of sweetness that somehow doesn’t overpower the rest of the components. There’s kara-age with a distinct floral flavor that’s unlike any Japanese fried chicken we’ve ever eaten and goes great with any of those aforementioned sakes. You’ll assume one order of the panko-dusted fried oysters will be enough, but after watching it vanish within seconds, you’ll quickly be flagging your server down for more. When Ototo is good, it’s very good. But unfortunately, there are lows that weigh it down.
Even if you’re an experienced drinker, an encyclopedic sake menu broken down by chapters is probably going to arouse some questions. Unfortunately, Ototo doesn’t offer much help in that department. There’s a casual standoffish-ness here that’s a bit isolating, and often results in a lot of panicked orders of sake you might not even be interested in. Being asked “What do you want to drink?” two minutes after you open a sake guide with 15 different sections in it is alienating, and frankly, makes you feel a little dumb. That’s not great, considering you haven’t even looked at the food menu yet.
Speaking of, for every dish you love here, there’ll be another one you could’ve done without - and that’s a problem when there are only 10 things on the menu. The Ode to Mos Burger pays homage to a popular fast-food chili burger from Japan, but it’s so overly salted the only thing you’ll remember about it is how many times you asked for water. The oden hot pot has pork ribs, octopus, and pork tendons in it, yet tastes completely flat and disjointed. Also, there’s a $13 basket of bread and truffle cheese that simply doesn’t need to be on the menu.
All that said, we still like Ototo just fine. It’s just that, after navigating the highs and lows of a meal at this neighborhood sake bar, you can’t help but walk out feeling somewhere in between. If only life could have such an average.
If you’re only hungry enough for one dish at Ototo, make sure it’s this. Perfectly fried katsu chicken, house tonkatsu sauce, and slaw on griddled milk bread. It’s a tremendous sandwich and one that you in no way should plan to share.
The vegetable dishes at Ototo are a bit hit or miss, but this bowl of haricot verts in creamy sesame sauce is easily our favorite, and perfect for sharing with a big group.
This chili burger is one of the biggest misses on Ototo’s menu. It’s an homage to a popular fast burger burger from Japan, but nothing - except the very fluffy bun - works here. Both the patties themselves and the Japanese chili don’t pack much flavor, save their obscene amount of salt.
If you’re with a big group, ordering this savory cabbage pancake is a must. Filled with white corn and cheese, and topped with thick okonomi sauce, mayo, pickled ginger, and katsuobushi (fermented tuna flakes), there’s absolutely nothing subtle about this dish -and that’s exactly why we like eating it while we drink.
On paper, this hot pot seems like the ideal thing to put in the middle of the table at a big group meal. But ultimately, it falls flat. Filled with daikon, pork ribs, octopus, and beef tendon, the whole thing is a bit disjointed, and its small portion makes it awkward to share with more than one person.
We could very well be losing our minds, but every time we eat this deep-fried chicken we’re hit with a huge wave of lavender that makes this dish downright addicting. The chicken itself comes in tiny bite size pieces, making it the perfect drinking food and one that absolutely needs to make it onto the table - then into your stomach.