Sitting at an Ikea folding table on a small patio beside Long Beach Boulevard, under rainy skies, my dining partner and I opened a bento box of Japanese deep-fried chicken from Torisho, a hugely popular deep-fried chicken franchise with hundreds of locations across Japan.
This small walkup counter, which opened Oct. 14, is actually the first Torisho location in this country. That’s a pretty big deal, especially if you’re trying to stay away from gluten and miss eating fried chicken, because here chicken can be made with potato starch rather than flour. Oh, but there is one thing, it’s not fried chicken, it’s karaage.
What’s the difference between fried chicken and karaage? When chicken is marinated for an extended period of time so that the meat absorbs the seasoning and is then dredged in potato starch, beaten eggs or panko, and deep-fried, it’s karaage. When the chicken is dredged in a seasoned coating that has, for example, eleven secret herbs and spices, it’s fried chicken. So it really comes down to how the meat is seasoned. (And by they way, the word dredge here refers the culinary term for coating a cutlet in flour before being fried, and not dragging the muck from the bottom of a river. Just in case there’s any confusion.)
I was instructed by Aki, the helper behind the counter to explain how to navigate ordering real karaage for the first time that the best way to get a real taste of what chicken from Torisho is (the name means Birdhouse, by the way) is to get the mix bento box ($9.99) because it contained both light meat and dark meat with chicken nanban.
Chicken nanban is when the karaage is dredged in potato starch, then dipped into an egg bath before being deep-fried, with a dollop of beaten egg poured on top while the frying is taking place. The egg-coated fried chicken is then dipped into a hot pan of nanban sauce, made from ginger, soy sauce, sake and sugar. Once saturated the chicken is served with a healthy dollop of house-made tartar sauce.
While this makes for a slightly soggy bite, that’s the point, it’s a filling, savory comfort food that’s easy to eat. The flavor of soy and ginger is sweetened a bit so it creates a hint of caramel that almost gives the chicken a flavor similar to tamagoyaki, a Japanese rolled omelet (which makes sense since they both contain soy and a bit of sugar).
If you’re looking for something that’s a little crispier try the katsu, where the white meat is dredged in flour, egg, and panko, the flakiness of the panko allowing for the texture to be lighter and crispier than traditional fried chicken.
Opened by Ken Harada, the first American Torisho location was just one of many projects he had planned. Harada is also a DJ and music producer whose goal was to launch “a Japanese music festival, but then COVID happened,” I was told by Aki Oba, who signed on to help Harada get Torisho off the ground.
“We’ve been friends for a couple of years; we’re friends from DJ’ing around,” Oba says, telling me that this is just her day job. New to Long Beach she too is a DJ who spins at clubs and bars around LA under the name DJ Neko (Instagram: @dj_neko_music). “He (Harada) had multiple projects, so [when COVID shut festivals down] he decided to do this,” Oba says. “But the Japanese music festival is hopefully coming up.” Until then she’s looking for a venue to spin at in Long Beach and she and Harada are spending their days making sure people understand exactly why karaage is so popular in Japan.
The menu offers wings five-piece ($8.49) to 12-piece ($15.49) as well as chicken sandwiches ($6.99) and teriyaki ($5.99). What’s nice about the bento box is it comes with a side of potato salad and steamed rice sprinkled with red shiso, adding a tangy plum note with a light herbaceous hint.
Torisho is at 730 Long Beach Blvd. 562-336-1389. Open every day 11 a.m.– 8 p.m. On Instagram: @torisho_usa