Hidden Gems in the San Fernando Valley

SuihoEn (“Garden of Water and Fragrance”) in Van Nuys
SuihoEn (“Garden of Water and Fragrance”)  |  Photo:  Yuri Hasegawa

To the north of the Los Angeles Basin lies the San Fernando Valley. Once known as a
stereotypical bastion of suburban living, “The Valley” is today more diverse,
complex, and cultured than ever before. It boasts iconic network and movie studios, as
well as eclectic art galleries, parks, shopping centers, innovative theme parks, countless restaurants collectively offering almost every global cuisine. (Sushi, anyone?) So, here are some great under-the-radar dining, recreation, and cultural gems that can help visitors get a sense of what the 21st century San Fernando Valley is really all about.

Sashimi at Asanebo
Sashimi at Asanebo | Photo courtesy of Asanebo, Facebook


Like most Studio City sushi joints, Asanebo is easily overlooked in a nondescript strip mall on Ventura Boulevard. However, humble location is no indicator of quality or price when it comes to sushi. In Asanebo’s case, a considerable financial commitment proves fully justified, as this former Michelin star holder has survived more than 30 years in the super-competitive LA sushi market for good reason. Inside its unassuming dining room you'll find both traditional and innovative, fusion-style Japanese cuisine overseen by Chef Tetsuya Nakao.

Eclectica Vintage
Eclectica Vintage | Instagram: @livinonluv

Eclectica Vintage

Since opening in 2010, NoHo’s Eclectica Vintage has become a popular go-to for motion picture professionals and casual browsers alike. Whether you’re shopping for a bike, furniture, clothing, camera, or classic I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it decorative items, this is the place in the Valley. Located on “secret antique row” – a strip of stores popular among L.A.’s seasoned set decorators – its oodles of vintage fashion, funky housewares, antiques, and oddities spill out onto the sidewalk. Owner Mike Fitch has himself worked in film and theatre, and you’ll often see items from his carefully curated store on TV and in movies, with recent clients having included Planet of the Apes, Hawaii Five-O, and Modern Family.

The Great Wall of Los Angeles in Valley Glen
The Great Wall of Los Angeles | Photo courtesy of The City Project, Flickr

The Great Wall of Los Angeles

How many walls have their own website? But the 2,754-foot long Great Wall of Los Angeles is far from your average brick-and-mortar barrier. Decorated with one of the longest wall paintings anywhere in the world, this half-mile mega mural is recognized as one of America’s largest monuments to interracial harmony. Designed by Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) co-founder Judith Baca, (a National Medal of Arts recipient in 2023), it was created by artists, community members, and over 400 youth between 1976 and 1983. In 2021, SPARC received a $5 million grant to begin extending the mural to one mile, continuing its historical narrative to include the 1960s-2020.

Sleepy cat on a ladder at Iliad Bookshop
Photo: Iliad Bookshop, Facebook

Iliad Bookshop

So-named because the original location was next to Odyssey Video, the Iliad
offers over 150,000 titles at its home on Cahuenga Boulevard, where the 20-year-old bookstore has been located since 2006. Specializing in used literature and arts titles, Iliad buys and sells hundreds of copies daily, including a bargain table of $2 specials. It also carries rare books, including autographed first editions that can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. It’s easy to lose track of time in this literary paradise, amidst kindred spirits scouring the stuffed shelves for hidden treasures of the written word.

Lake view at SuihoEn (“Garden of Water and Fragrance”) in Van Nuys
SuihoEn (“Garden of Water and Fragrance”)  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Japanese Garden

Three years in the making before being dedicated in 1984, the Japanese Garden at Van Nuys’ Woodley Park offers an oasis of serenity in the very heart of the Valley. Designed by late UCLA lecturer Dr. Koichi Kawana, this exotic 6.5-acre escape is ranked tenth out of 300 public Japanese gardens by the Journal of Japanese Gardening. A true hidden treasure, of which even locals are often unaware, the Japanese Garden features a dry Zen meditation garden; chisen or “wet strolling” garden with waterfalls; an authentic tatami-mat teahouse; plus, multiple evocative bridges, lanterns, and islands. Events here were paused for the pandemic, but have previously included haiku workshops, Zen flute meditation, and bonsai shows.

Cherry blossoms at Lake Balboa
Cherry blossoms at Lake Balboa | Photo: City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation & Parks

Lake Balboa

In 2007, part of Van Nuys was renamed the Lake Balboa district. The following year, its 80-acre Anthony C. Beilenson Park, formerly Balboa Park, received a million-dollar revamp. Today, it boasts a huge kids’ play area complete with slides and jungle gyms; picnic pavilions; a workout area; and boating – actual and remote-control – on the 27-acre lake itself. During springtime, enjoy a stroll around the peaceful water with cherry blossoms in full bloom, and don't forget to explore the miles of trails that branch off from the lakeside path. Biking is also permitted, with Wheel Fun Rentals offering an array of options including tandems, cruisers, and shaded four-wheeled Surreys.

Outside view of Salsa and Beer

Salsa and Beer #2

Salsa and Beer has four locations in NoHo and Lake Balboa yet remains a local secret outside of the central Valley. Mysterious, because it serves huge portions of exquisite eats inspired by the cuisine of the north-central Mexican city of Zacatecas. Salsa and Beer isn’t cheap, but you’ll leave satisfyingly full and the leftovers will feed you at least once more at home. Its NoHo location, on Sherman Way near Lankershim Boulevard, has a colorful interior and relaxing patio. The parking lot behind is free but gets packed at peak times, with a line of cars – a testament to the warm welcome and fine fare within.

"The Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard" at Tonga Hut Tiki Lounge
"The Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard" | Photo: Tonga Hut Tiki Lounge, Facebook

Tonga Hut

Los Angeles’ oldest tiki tavern, the Tonga Bar - including much of its current decor - dates all the way back to 1958, when it was opened by brothers Ace and Ed Libby at the height of the mid-century tiki craze. After a period of neglect, it was lovingly restored to its former kitschy glory in 2005. Today, the original fountains are still running; there’s new but period-appropriate artwork; and enduring, eclectic vintage tunes in the jukebox. If you're a local barfly, you can join The Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard by ordering everything in the Tonga Hut’s 78-drink Grog Log within a year. Add that to your resume!

Outside view of Vitello's


New York baker Sal Vitello opened his eponymous Studio City eatery, initially as a sandwich shop, in 1964 – long before Tujunga Village became hip. It’s changed hands a couple of times since, but this former Rat Pack hang has survived, in part thanks to industry types from nearby studios who swing by for authentic pasta dishes and well paired Italian and Californian wines. You'll also have good reason to stop by, with Vitello’s Cali-tinted contemporary Italian menu lately focused on lighter, fresher, and healthier fare including vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Keep an eye on the Upstairs at Vitello's calendar for live performances on select nights, including first-rate jazz and comedy.