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A place to belong: East Los Musubi serves up culture and community in LA

Hear more from the restaurant owners as we take a deeper dive into their stories.

East Los Musubi serves food reflective of the owners’ multicultural family—Japanese and Mexican cuisine infused with Hawaiian vibes and dusted with Los Angeles street food staples like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. This taquero-stye popup restaurant grills food to order right in front of the customer, bringing musubi (a slice of grilled Spam on rice wrapped in seaweed) front and center.

Owner Doreen Nakama grew up in LA, where hot summer days always meant a trip to the ice cream man and grabbing a bag of Cheetos from the convenience store. It also meant gathering with her multiracial and multicultural family, cooking up a range of cuisines that most people might be surprised to find at the same backyard barbecue. 

While this blend of cultures was normal for Doreen, being of mixed descent made her feel like she never fit in with any one group. It wasn’t until she started cooking when she felt her unique blend of cultures truly resonate with the people around her, giving her a deep sense of peace within herself and a stronger connection to her Boyle Heights community. 

Repping Mexican, Japanese, Hawaiian, and Los Angeles cultures, the food served up by this scrappy popup restaurant feels less like spam in your inbox and more like Spam for your soul.

Hear from Doreen about how East Los Musubi provides a space at the table for everyone, especially those who have never felt like they had a place to belong.

What makes East Los Musubi more than just musubi?

When people would come to our family parties, the musubi was the first thing to go. We could never make enough. So we started East Los Musubi in 2014 as a side project with some friends just for fun. Then years went by and more people started finding out about us, and musubi was really something that hadn’t hit the viral scene yet.

One day, we were in Boyle Heights for a popup and a man came up to us. He was an older gentleman, maybe in his sixties. And he said, “I remember eating these at a temple when I was a kid, when everybody came back from the internment camps.”

That really hit me, knowing there’s more to musubi than just my family gatherings. I didn’t even really know how connected the Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo communities were until maybe a year in. Learning about it on the street from people in the neighborhoods was an eye opener for me. For a lot of people, that history [of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II] was not written.

My grandpa [who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II] didn’t really talk a lot, even to his own kids, about what happened in the war. He never accepted medical help for his shrapnel, never got the Purple Heart, because his pride told him, “I can’t. My friends didn’t make it.”

And so I was like, this is a whole different level and reason why I’m doing it. It switched the game up for us in being able to share why at first it was just friends having fun and this is a fun snack food to, “No, you know what? We’re gonna tell this story.”

How does your culture influence your business?

I grew up eating musubi, and I just wanted to share it. It wasn’t normal for me to walk around with rice balls in my purse and for people to know what they were. Every generation in my family had that feeling of being embarrassed to take their food to school, so being able to share it with people and tell the story was really cool. And the more we were able to, the more we actually had people reach out who were also Latino and Japanese, or of Hawaiian descent and Latino, or just transplants from the islands here in LA.

So when we hear things like, this brings me back to being a kid, walking to the liquor store and buying it in the islands, or being in LA and going to their grandma’s house and getting food—that connection is really what drives us.

The most accepted way for people to understand you is through food. It’s so hard to wanna be American, wanna be Latino, wanna be Japanese. It’s always like, where do I fit in? I always tell people I felt like I didn’t have a place until we started cooking, connecting with people in the community who also grew up here and are searching for their culture and getting it back.

A Japanese family came to one of our popups and brought their grandnephews because they are mixed like us, to meet us, take pictures with us, and to talk about cooking because they wanna cook when they get older. For them to have that representation is everything because I didn’t have that growing up, and I didn’t have a cultural connection to anything outside of our family unit. Nobody else knew what we were talking about when we were talking about food or our traditions or how important New Year’s Day is to us. So it’s been a really cool journey for that aspect of tying culture in and having a reason why we do it.

How did you get people to believe in Spam?

When we first started, people were so horrified that we were cooking Spam. This lady came up to us and said, “Good luck with that,” and just scoffed and walked away. We live in LA, so it’s a really big health food community. There’s so many alternative diets. So we do get creative and have options for everyone—gluten free, vegan, everything that we can try to do to accommodate LA-style living. My cousins in Maui, when they saw me post tofu, they were like, “What in the heck are you doing?”

But it pushes us to be creative. LA definitely has the most outspoken people on what you cook and how you cook it. We tell people we’re LA-style Hawaiian food because I grew up in LA, but my grandfather’s family taught my grandma, who was from Mexico, how to cook. She didn’t really cook a lot of Mexican food. But she learned from [my Japanese and Hawaiian family] because she was young when she got married and didn’t know how to cook. So it was really cool to know that the recipes passed down to her were from my grandpa’s family.

I always say: This is LA-style food. This is what we ate here [growing up]—carne asada, teriyaki, tamales, curry. We had so many different things at our family gatherings that for me, it’s regular. I didn’t even know what fusion was. So back then, it was just our normal food, but friends would come over and be like, “Oh my god, what is this? I love this.”

What do you hope to achieve by sharing your cooking and culture with others?

When I was really small, I was embarrassed about my food. And then, in my teenage years, it hit me like, okay, people think this is cool now. I feel like I have power now, like I took that power back that was taken from me at that age, and now I’m able to make these new generations of kids feel at home.

I feel like it’s healing that inner child, and I’m filling in this gap that [my family members] all had because we weren’t Mexican enough. We didn’t speak Spanish. We didn’t speak Japanese. We really didn’t fit in anywhere. So now I feel like I’m stepping up for all those kids who don’t have anywhere. There’s this whole new generation of mixed babies that can be proud of everything. And I tell my kids: “Don’t let people laugh at your food ‘cause later on they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, can you make this for me?’” 

But honestly, in my head, I always think, “Oh my god, I have so many people that I have to make proud,” but I wanna do it for myself as well. And that’s the hard part—reeling it in and doing this for yourself as well, not just for everybody else. 

How did your community uplift you during the pandemic?

The plate lunch actually came about because we couldn’t find Spam. It’s like apocalypse food to people, so there was no Spam in our area. Once people started seeing the plates and knew we didn’t have Spam, they were going to Orange County for us and dropping it off at our house. I had someone who’s like, “I work at Costco. I’ll tell you when the Spam gets here. Just bring me dinner, and I’ll get you your stuff.” Our community literally pulled through for us. Out of everything in the last few years, the amount of love that was shown to us has been incredible. We made a lot of friends in the community.

And then the prices started rising, and we were just like, “Oh my god, we don’t wanna charge people more. People don’t have money. No one’s working.” So we just did it. Like, if we break even, we’re good. Our people are happy and fed, and that led into us being able to do so much more. We were able to feed families who didn’t have homes. People would donate every week so that we could feed people who didn’t have money, who lost their jobs. It was really eye opening to see how much our community embraced us but also were there to support other people. We also did fundraisers. We got to feed frontline workers and send money to shelters for women who survived domestic violence all during this crazy lockdown.

So we’re always going to feel really blessed that we were able to even have food on the table during that time because a lot of people didn’t.

How do you avoid burnout and set expectations with customers?

It’s hard because people don’t really understand that it’s just two of us. People are used to these huge popups that have a full staff, but for years, it’s just been me and my husband and whoever we can find to help us at the time. So sometimes if we’re running late, we’re always like, “Oh no, someone’s gonna say something.” I wanna do things perfectly all the time. That’s the only thing I think is my obstacle, is getting in my head.

We’re all in this weird world where our lives are online. Everybody knows who we are. It can get a little crazy sometimes because there’s so much criticism and people watching everything that you do. So we always try to make sure that people know we do this for our family. If we need time to take care of somebody or we just need a day off, please understand. “I need a few days. I’m sorry, I can’t answer emails.” And that’s how we handle it, just being truly open with people. 

I feel like I’m always putting disclaimers in our captions. Like, “Hey, please pick up your orders on time. We have a family too. We need to go get dinner.” So I think people knowing that we are a mom-and-pop shop and we do this out of love and from the heart helps people to be more understanding.

What’s your secret to keep customers coming back?

We just treat everyone like family. That’s what has gotten them to be so loyal to us and to treat us like family. I get tagged in so many photos of kids’ birthdays or them eating food, and I’m everyone’s auntie. It’s really just loving people. And you know, that’s what our food does. That’s how it makes people feel. So that’s all we really needed. For the last seven years, it’s really just been about that connection to the people. We hear everyone’s stories. We remember who they are. We remember their names. We know our regulars.

We just take that time to listen and say, “Hey, you know what? You had a rough day. Come and pick up some food.” We feed people. We don’t always charge if we have extra. We give. And that’s really been what’s kept people coming back in, the word of mouth. We have a fan on the East Coast in Buffalo who drove 500 miles to pick up musubi.

You know, there’s the fun stuff, the art shows and the cool-shaped food, but really, it’s just us feeding people.

What are your hopes for your restaurant and your community?

My last name, Nakama, means “a close friend” in Japanese, so it’s weird how that’s just who we are. We’re always feeding people. Our goal is never to be super viral or anything. It’s just literally to be that mom-and-pop shop that people come back to over and over again because they love our food—and just to be a staple in our community. That’s what makes us happy.

I always see [our restaurant] as a place where people come to be with their families. I would love it to be an art space as well, where people can come and do workshops. So having a big, open patio with grass and tables and stuff like that, that’s definitely what I have envisioned [for the future]. 

What do you wish you’d known before starting your business?

In general, when partnering with people, the commitment to food really has to be from the heart. Because if it’s just for monetary value or fame, it’s not gonna work. And it’s hard labor sometimes—back-breaking labor—but it’s a labor of love, blood, sweat, and tears. I wish I could explain that to people before they [decide to start a restaurant]. It’s not always what you think. There’s a lot of behind the scenes. I think sometimes TV can mislead people about what [is involved]. They win a show, they get some money, and it looks so easy. But it’s not always that easy for people who are starting from scratch. 

What is your advice to aspiring business owners?

Just do it from the heart. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely worth it once people see what you’re doing and then share it with other people. That snowball effect is really cool to watch happen. Some people cook because this was their favorite hobby or they were inspired by a dish on a vacation. That love sparks amazing aspects of what [that dish or cuisine] could be. So always follow your heart and make sure you take time for yourself.

Photos from East Los Musubi

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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