Fans of the Initial D manga, anime, video game, and film series have a new place to gather in greater LA. El Monte’s Fujiwara Tofu Cafe opened on January 20 to massive crowds that showed up with Japanese sports cars, excitedly waiting upwards of six hours. The store had already tripled its inventory in expectation of strong demand, but still fully sold out thanks to fans. Fujiwara Tofu Cafe is named after the fictional tofu store owned by Bunta Fujiwara and his son Takumi in Initial D; in the real world, the cafe comes from owners Vincent Chan and Cheri Kyoo, and is the latest in a long line of San Gabriel Valley theme restaurants.
In years past, restaurants like the Magic Restroom Cafe (with “golden poop” curry and toilet bowl seats) and the older (and problematic) Uncle Yu’s Indian Theme restaurant operated in the SGV, though both have now closed. Fujiwara Tofu Cafe, while not formally endorsed by Initial D’s creators, is a fresh shift into something more appealing, especially for car and anime aficionados ready to enjoy boba and hang out in the expansive strip mall parking lot.
Chan and Kyoo grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and began doing Initial D-themed pop-ups at 626 Night Market and Asian American Expo in 2017, serving boba drinks, flavored soy milk, and tofu pudding. After more than 20 events, Chan and Kyoo got the chance to serve at a Formula Drift competition in 2019. This, says Chan, was when he and Kyoo realized the dream of serving Initial D-themed snacks and drinks could become a full-time operation. They began looking for locations across the SGV and found a somewhat hidden but expansive strip mall just off the 10 freeway in El Monte, where they’ve spent the past year adding stark white walls, two Initial D arcade machines, endless memorabilia, and a neon sign that reads, “Everything Starts With a Dream.” Their Youtube channel shows the details of converting the storefront into Fujiwara Tofu Cafe.
For those wondering what Initial D even is, the whole subculture is centered around car drifting in Japan, beginning in the 1970s with legendary underground racecar driver Keiichi Tsuchiya. Dubbed the “Drift King,” Tsuchiya was the inspiration for Initial D, a manga series by Shuichi Shigeno about a boy named Takumi Fujiwara who learned to drive fast and drift while delivering fresh tofu from his father’s store to a hotel in Mount Akina. The hotel’s remoteness required the younger Fujiwara to navigate winding mountain roads in a Toyota Corolla Sprinter Trueno.
The Toyota became a legendary model, dubbed the AE86, because of its rear-wheel-drive platform and near-50-50 weight distribution, ideal for drifting. The quick but unflashy car was no match for the sports car heavyweights of the time — the Mazda RX-7 and Nissan Skyline GTR — but in the series, Fujiwara successfully beats all his competitors with the AE86. The Initial D series gained worldwide fame because of its relatable coming of age story, ‘90s style Euro-dance tunes, and influence on car culture. Movies like Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, shows like Netflix’s Hyperdrive, and greater interest in drifting likely wouldn’t exist without Initial D. The legendary Toyota in the show became so highly regarded that even Toyota’s current sports car still carries 86 in its name. The numbers 86 play into the lore of the series — and at Fujiwara Tofu Cafe, all of the prices end with 86 cents.
Outside the LA area cafe, owner Chan makes sure to park his well-preserved Toyota Corolla Trueno AE86 in front of the shop. He sees similarities to Takumi Fujiwara’s coming of age, as he admits he didn’t have many passions in life until he saw the series and fell in love with cars. Outside of operating the store, Chan sells car parts full time, seeing this tofu cafe as a side job. “I never thought it would become this big,” says Chan, who is routinely greeted by fans (along with girlfriend Kyoo) while at the shop, some of whom have even driven in from as far away as Las Vegas.
As for the menu, it really comes from Chan growing up making tofu with his family. “When I was a kid, my family used to make tofu and soy milk every other week,” says Chan. “I know which ones are good and which ones are bad. Once we started this idea, we tried to make everything on our menu tofu and soy-related.” That means most of the menu is non-dairy, with options like ovaltine mochi soy milk, taro boba, red bean matcha, black sticky rice coconut, and salted caramel chestnut as the special drinks (priced at $6.86). Soy cream-topped teas include green tea, black tea, earl grey, and oolong ($5.86), while bottled soy milk only comes in plain soy milk, sweetened or unsweetened, and black sesame, though the menu promises more flavors to come. The black sesame soymilk is really smooth and delicious, clearly something handmade with care. Finally, there’s a trio of ultra silken tofu puddings, served either hot or cold, with brown sugar, red bean, or black sesame paste. These tofu puddings are also crafted really well, with a nice balance between the ingredients for a snack that isn’t too sweet.
Chan hopes that customers and car fans will use Fujiwara Tofu Cafe as a gathering place, though ideally without any aggressive revving or showboating. He also hopes to one day gain the approval of the show’s creators and become the world’s first official Initial D-themed cafe. “Everything starts with a dream,” says Chan. That’s our slogan. It’s a simple and dumb idea, but if it’s your dream, then just do it. Work your ass off and just do it.”
Hours are currently Wednesday to Sunday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.