The city's Japanese food revolution has led to such triumphs as the Japanese hot chicken sandwich, fully loaded tsukemen, sizzling uni, and baked potatoes with yuzu kosho sour cream.
Credit: Courtesy Karayama

Sometimes—actually, a lot of times recently—eating Japanese food in Los Angeles has made me hear music in my head. It can be quiet or it can be loud, restrained or over-the-top, at times austere or shambolic. It’s surprising and unpredictable and often the result of combining popular ideas in ways that seem brand new. It feels like a Japanese food revolution in L.A., with restaurants simultaneously hewing to tradition and forging their own paths as they find new crescendos and grace notes.

The first United States outpost of Karayama, a born-in-Japan karaage specialist that launched as a 100-square-foot takeout spot in 2014 and has rapidly grown to 50 locations in Asia, opened in L.A.’s Little Tokyo last week. Karayama’s fried chicken, coated in potato starch, is marvelously crispy and juicy. It’s also an umami bomb with a marinade that’s made in Japan and involves soy sauce and low-temperature fermentation. You can enjoy layers of big flavors by dipping the chicken in two also-imported-from-Japan sauces: goku-dare with garlic and sesame, and sweet-and-salty shio-goku-dare. Sauces made or sourced locally include wasabi mayo, sweet chili, and a “red hot sauce.”

Credit: Courtesy Karayama

The “red hot sauce” adds spiciness that amps things up beyond typical Japanese levels but isn’t an overwhelming dose of heat. There’s even a hot chicken sandwich with a fried chicken thigh dredged in the spicy sauce and served between slices of shokupan (Japanese white bread). It turns out that the intersection of karaage and hot chicken is a great place to be.

At the new Okiboru in Chinatown, chef Hyun “Sean” Park is focused on tsukemen, the popular ramen dish that involves a bowl of noodles that you dip in a separate bowl of broth. Park, who previously worked at WP24 by Wolfgang Puck and also at L.A. sushi spots, is sweating all the details in all the right ways: The thick noodles are housemade. Preparing the broth, made with pork and chicken bones, takes about two-and-a-half days from start to finish. The creamy broth also includes shiitake, kombu, bonito, vegetables, and mackerel. It’s seasoned with shoyu tare. This all means there’s soul-warming layers of umami here.

Japanese food LA Okiburu
Credit: Okiburu

If you want a fully loaded tsukemen meal, ask for the signature Okiboru bowl, also known as “the big bowl,” which comes with an egg and also chashu pork ribs that are brined for a day and then braised for four hours before being grilled. The tender ribs are a nice balance of sweet and savory. Tsukemen and ribs, what a great idea.

You know what’s another great idea that I’ve only just encountered in L.A. but seems like it should have been here forever? Tsukemen and katsu. Menya Musashi, which has 14 restaurants in Japan, recently opened an outpost on L.A.’s Sawtelle Boulevard that serves bowls of tsukemen topped with both pork katsu and chashu, plus an egg. Get a large order with the “rich” broth and you’ll have an ultra-porky meal you can easily share with a friend. Both the crispy katsu and the glisteningly fatty chashu are delightful.

On the fancier side of things, we’ve had some tremendous meals at Umeda, which Nobu Matsuhisa protégé Takuya Umeda opened last year. Chef Umeda is running a restaurant that plays homage to the Japanese Edo period by using old-school techniques (everything from fermentation to arrangement of seafood) and creating elegantly presented food. There are kushiyaki skewers grilled over binchōtan charcoal. There are, of course, pristine pieces of raw fish.

Credit: Justin Schuble

But Umeda also has a lot of fun riffing and coming up with new combinations. Umeda serves uni and mushrooms drenched in olive oil, a Hollywood blockbuster that comes to your table while it’s still sizzling. It’s a dish that’s as delicious as it is dramatic, just like the dazzling miso-and-soy-milk clam chowder. And because Umeda is a Japanese restaurant that celebrates seasonality, the chef has been buying Egyptian spinach from a L.A. Japanese market, Nijiya, and using the okra-like superfood to make a beautiful cold soup. The soup is topped with caviar. Japanese food in L.A. is about nuance, but it’s also about exclamation points!

Inko Nito, a modern robatayaki that debuted in L.A.’s Arts District last December, will open a bigger flagship restaurant on West Third Street in Beverly Grove next weekend. Like the Arts District location, the forthcoming Inko Nito will weave together Japanese open-fire, binchōtan-powered cooking with all kinds of delicious influences. New additions at dinner will include sticky prawn crackers with sweet chili and nori, as well as baked potatoes with yuzu kosho sour cream. Yakitori chicken will come with smoked teriyaki sauce, and there will be short rib skewers with peanut chili oil. Inko Nito’s version of steak frites will feature a spicy minute steak.

And the West Third Street location will be the first Inko Nito that serves lunch: Expect a fried chicken sandwich, a spicy beef salad, a veggie “poke” bowl (grilled broccoli, avocado, kimchi, crispy garlic, and spicy miso dressing), and a riff on Caesar salad that includes romaine lettuce, fried chicken, pork belly “crumble,” nori, soy aioli, and Parmesan. Nori, soy, and Parmesan will be a lot of umami all at once, which seems to be exactly the point.