It’s impossible not to smile around Atsuko Okatsuka. With her charming bowl haircut, eye-catching outfits, and disarming candor, the stand-up comedian, actor, and writer is fast becoming a household name following the smashing success of her debut stand-up special The Intruder, which premiered on HBO in December. Before lighting up the stage for millions of streamers with her unique brand of humor, Okatsuka was winning TikTok with the #DropChallenge, which she created with her grandmother last year.
When Okatsuka immigrated to the U.S. at age 10, she settled in West Los Angeles at her uncle’s apartment with her mother and grandmother. Coming from Chiba prefecture not far outside Tokyo, Los Angeles’s endless sprawl and less dependable public transit was something to get accustomed to. “I was on Colby Avenue near Barrington. I did think, ‘God, we’re walking a lot just to get to McDonald’s,’” says Okatsuka. “And then if we didn’t want to eat at McDonald’s, it was just Marie Callender’s right next door. So in my head, it was either McDonald’s or fine dining.” At home, meals were mostly cooked by her grandmother, who served simple stir-fried vegetables, steamed white rice, and “sweet slimy chicken” on cafeteria-style trays.
These days, Okatsuka lives in Silver Lake with her husband Ryan Harper Gray, an actor, director, and producer. When she isn’t on the road performing to sold-out crowds, the charismatic comedian can be found sipping mezcal on the rocks at her neighborhood watering hole or tucking into an entire hot pot solo at the Santa Anita mall.
Eater LA sat down with Okatsuka to hear where she likes to eat and drink in LA, why less is more when it comes to Japanese food, and what makes the Cheesecake Factory ideal for celebrations.
Eater: How has growing up in Japan influenced your palate?
Atsuko Okatsuka: As a kid, I didn’t really dabble in spices and things like that. It was very simple. I just went with whatever flavors the adults recommended. Japanese curry is probably the most flavorful thing that I was eating back then. When I’m eating Japanese food now, I want simple flavors. If I do get rolls, it’ll just be one fish in it. I won’t do the ones with three or four fishes, flakes of tempura, and drizzles of different things. I usually don’t go for the ones that are named, like, the Obama Roll.
Does this preference for more straightforward flavors extend to other cuisines?
It doesn’t, because with Korean food or Caribbean food or whatever, I’m like, “Make it as wild as possible. Put all the spices in there. If you have tzatziki sauce, garlic sauce, and hummus, can you just put it all on my plate? Yes, I know it’s an extra $5.”
You’ve been touring a lot lately. Have you encountered anything delicious while on the road that you wished existed in LA?
Richland Center food court in Chicago’s Chinatown — it was really amazing. They have northern Chinese food that’s really good: potato noodles and hand-pulled noodles with a very specific flavor that we haven’t tried or seen before. It almost made me into a foodie where I was actually reading stuff and Googling, which I never do.
When we were in Edinburgh, Scotland, the foods by the immigrants there were by far some of the best I’ve ever had. I mean, the Malaysian food in Malaysia, you can’t beat that. But for Edinburgh? I was like, “What even is the population of Malaysian people here?” It was called Kampong Ah Lee. And then there was Tajore, this South Indian restaurant where they had this type of curry that I’ve never had in LA. I have tried to find Chettinad Village curry in LA and I haven’t quite found it.
When you’re home in Silver Lake, where are you eating and drinking?
Edendale is very walkable for us. And we are about convenience, and that’s where my husband and I went on our first date, too, so it’s kind of nice and sweet. For a sit-down, we have really been digging this place called Izakaya Osen if we want to maybe impress a friend in town or have a nice meal with my manager or something. For breakfast, if you want to grab something really fast, we’re near Atwater Village and Ryan really loves Tacos Villa Corona. It’s just a window and they make breakfast burritos. I get the steak breakfast burrito with no papas.
You’re often lunching in the San Gabriel Valley with family. Where are y’all eating?
We go to Arcadia a lot; that’s where my grandma and my mom live. We eat a mix of independently owned and chain restaurants. Sushi Kiyosuzu is a Japanese restaurant in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, but they do well. It’s a wife-and-husband couple, their daughter Mirai [Nagasu] is a friend of mine and a former Olympic ice skater.
I go to Meizhou Dongpo which is in the Arcadia mall. It’s chaotic going over to Grandma and Mom’s, you know? We have to help them set up a Google Home device or figure out why their phone isn’t working, or pay the bills and stuff. It’s nice during lunchtime on a weekday at Meizhou Dongpo. It’s so spacious, I swear it’s like a banquet hall. We like to go there to have some space and eat delicious Chinese food. I like to get this hot pot that has Spam and quail eggs.
What under-the-radar spots are you currently loving?
Chang’s Garden in Arcadia for Sichuan twice-cooked pork and water-boiled fish. The clam soup is really good there; it’s a lighter flavor and offsets the Sichuan flavor. They have this fried rice in an egg omelet — you open up the egg omelet and then there’s the fried rice in it.
And what are Grandma’s favorite spots?
She’s the one that was like, “Let’s go to Chef Tony.” We like eating gold leaf sometimes to be like, “Wow, are we rich now?” And they put gold leaf on a lot of their food. I always love sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. I also really like tripe with radish, but they do not have that there, so I’ll just get the shu mai. It comes with a little caviar on top so you feel fancy again. She loves this Korean place in Arcadia, too, Myung Ga Haejangguk; they have good galbi-tang.
Are there any restaurants or neighborhoods worth braving LA traffic for?
I get really excited when I get to go to Little Tokyo. I love getting the broiled mackerel at Suehiro Cafe. That’s a mom-and-pop shop that’s doing really great and I’m so proud of them. Also, Marukai Market. Their sushi is really, really good. I can eat that a lot, the hand rolls, and sometimes I’ll even get a curry with katsu. We use their microwave, get a seat in the little plaza, and just take a moment. That’s our picnic time. We don’t hike and stuff, so that’s us going outdoors. I haven’t gotten to do that in a while because of the tour, but when I can, that’s a fun Sunday activity.
When you’ve got something to celebrate, where are you headed?
Cheesecake Factory — go big or go home, you know? I don’t really eat that typically day to day, so we’re like, “Where do people go or used to go before they got all cool? The Olive Gardens, Cheesecake Factories, Red Lobsters.” I really like the jambalaya there. When it comes to American or Western food, I get really into the creamy, the ranch, the cheese. So that’s a time for me to get gluttonous. You can barely make it out of there alive but I kind of like that. Hey, it’s my birthday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.