Ainoko’s Mexican-Japanese Tasting Menu Celebrates the Beauty of Being Biracial in L.A.
John-Carlos Kuramoto embraces the word “fusion” at his West Hollywood omakase counter.
John-Carlos Kuramoto is a Mexican-Japanese chef who grew up in Monterey Park, a community with an abundance of Chinese restaurants in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. So his culinary influences run deep.
At Ainoko, his new Mexican-Japanese omakase counter in West Hollywood, Kuramoto pours hot oil, flavored with sweet garlic and chile de árbol, over hamachi that he serves with togarashi peanuts, shiso and a citrus emulsion.
“I love the profile of sweet, salty and spicy at the same time,” Kuramoto says. “I think it’s super addicting. You can’t use it all the time. But in a tasting menu, you can use it here and there for a dish that will really pop off.”
Ainoko’s hamachi is a beautiful dish that no doubt has Mexican, Japanese and Chinese influences, but it’s also inspired by the hamachi tostada with peanuts that Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal serves.
For Kuramoto, Ainoko, which means "half-breed" in Japanese and is a word that’s often been used with a derogatory connotation, is about celebrating what it means to be biracial. It’s also about celebrating the wonders of L.A.’s diverse food scene.
“Whatever food we want now [in L.A.], it’s going to be a half-breed, it’s going to be a mix of cultures anyway,” Kuramoto says. “We embrace food from all different cultures. That’s what L.A. is.”
Ainoko is also about embracing the word “fusion,” a word that makes many other chefs cringe in 2018. Kuramoto is refreshingly earnest about what he does. Ainoko is the work of a chef who loves seeing how different kinds of food connect people in L.A. Ainoko was created with the knowledge that what makes L.A. food so remarkable is the mixture of cultures that treat acid and heat and umami in different ways.
“We always said that Los Angeles is a melting pot, and it’s even more of a melting pot now than it has been,” Kuramoto says. “So many diners are used to tasting so many different types of food. Fusion is really great because you can bring people together. You can show them different flavors and philosophies with every bite.”
So Ainoko’s frequently-changing $85 tasting menu includes about a dozen courses that might include banchan featuring persimmons and butternut squash. The banchan is a tribute to the little dishes that start most meals in Koreatown, of course, but it’s also a showcase for whatever looks the most gorgeous at the farmers' market.
On the night I visit, the tasting menu also features an ahi tuna tostada and a nori blini topped with caviar. Then I’m dazzled by how both a guajillo purée and an epazote beurre blanc add depth, including smokiness and herbaceousness, to perfect Hokkaido scallops. Other standout dishes I try include a pork “toro” jowl taco inspired by the grilled fatty pork neck that Thai restaurant Night + Market serves. Ainoko’s version is a lettuce wrap with a kimchee-apple salad that helps cut the richness of the pork.
Kuramoto also serves me a spot prawn aguachile with Indonesian green curry. The curry is inspired by the green curry noodles that Kuramoto ate while he was interning at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Massachusetts. Ainoko’s cilantro-infused aguachile and galangal-laden curry is a potent and pleasing pairing.
Kuramoto is just 30 years old, but he’s already had a long and impressive career. He started interning at Long Beach’s Renaissance Hotel as a teenager before going to culinary school. He spent about a year cooking under Mark Peel at Campanile. Then in 2011, Peel connected Kuramoto with Michael McCarty of Michael’s Santa Monica. McCarty was looking for a new executive chef. Kuramoto got the job after impressing McCarty with a 12-course tasting menu. That’s how Michael’s ended up with a 23-year-old running its kitchen.
Kuramoto would go on to open West Hollywood’s The Nice Guy, known for its red-sauce dishes and celebrity clientele, in 2014. The Nice Guy is part of the H.wood Group, a nightlife/restaurant operator with hot spots where Drake, Justin Bieber and assorted Kardashians and Jenners have held court. Back in 2014, Kuramoto started telling H.wood Group co-founder John Terzian about his idea for Ainoko.
When Terzian decided to open a Mexican restaurant, Petite Taqueria, in West Hollywood, he called Kuramoto. And now Petite Taqueria, which debuted in October 2017, is a buzzy Mexican restaurant where Kendall Jenner recently celebrated her birthday with tacos, tamales, nachos and family members like Kris, Caitlyn, Kim, Kanye and Kourtney.
Petite Taqueria is also where you’ll find Ainoko, where the jovial Kuramoto chats with guests about every course and where he has a little shelf behind the counter with cookbooks from the chefs who run Night + Market, State Bird Provisions, Nopalito and Pujol. Kuramoto is totally doing his own thing at Ainoko. (Ainoko’s menu is handwritten every day. Kuramoto also gives guests an “open letter” about his background and the origins of Ainoko. The first sentence: “Food transcends unlike any type of art.”) But he’s proud to tell customers how the work of other chefs has galvanized him.
There’s been no bigger driving force than Ming Tsai, who taught Kuramoto something he’ll never forget: “Respect the origin of a dish and then you can do whatever you want.”
Tsai “is the foundational piece of what Ainoko is,” Kuramoto says. “He’s the number one chef when it comes to fusion. He did it the correct way. He was basically born and raised in a Chinese restaurant, and then he went to Le Cordon Bleu in France and cooked all over France. When he opened his own restaurant, he cooked with French technique while staying humble to his Chinese background. Ming was great to me in terms of talking about what fusion means: Stick to the origin of the dish and then expand upon it.”
One of Kuramoto’s favorite Monterey Park restaurants is Tokyo Fried Chicken Co., so he riffs on that experience by serving Tokyo fried quail with honey ponzu. It’s a refined take on what’s essentially bar food, and it’s definitely the only time I’ve eaten quail with my fingers a few feet away from the exact spot where a Jenner danced and pounded a piñata.
But this is L.A., where unlikely combinations thrive, where the last savory course I eat at Ainoko is a DIY A5 wagyu taco that has elements of shabu shabu, sukiyaki and a French dip. You swish the beef into a broth made with Kuramoto’s grandmother’s sukiyaki recipe. Then you put the beef into a tortilla and can freely re-dip the taco as many times as you want.
My dessert courses include butterscotch budino, which is inspired by a dessert Kuramoto likes at Pizzeria Mozza. Ainoko’s version includes yogurt sabayon and Japanese whiskey.
Ainoko is part of the H.Wood Group’s major push into restaurants. The hospitality company recently hired culinary director Lord Maynard Llera, a chef with Filipino roots who previously cooked at Bestia. The Ainoko counter might be used for some pop-ups as H.Wood works to develop restaurants, which could include a Filipino place. Meanwhile, L.A. meat lovers are eagerly anticipating this year’s opening of H.Wood’s Slab BBQ, the restaurant debut of backyard pitmaster Burt Bakman.
Terzian says H.Wood is working toward launching something like a dozen “concepts” in the next five years. And despite his nightlife success at Shorebar and Bootsy Bellows, Terzian’s all-in when it comes to food. H.Wood isn’t abandoning bars and nightclubs, but Terzian says almost every new idea he has is a restaurant.
“I’m a huge believer in helping chefs grow, being the impetus for their growth,” Terzian says. “I feel like nobody gives a shot to people who are under them. When we decided to open a Mexican concept, I didn’t want to do it without John-Carlos. My role is almost like a producer of movies. It’s about spotting the right talent in different places.”
It helps to be in L.A., where personality-driven restaurants like Bestia dominate the dining scene and where audacious upstarts like E.P. & L.P. prove that you can merge aggressive flavors and hot nightlife crowds. Food in L.A. connects all kinds of people, even A-listers.
If H.Wood does open a Filipino restaurant, it won’t be because Terzian and his crew are trying to chase L.A.’s modern Filipino moment. Like with Kuramoto’s food at Ainoko, Llera’s Filipino cooking is based on the love he has for his heritage and its flavors. Another possibility for H.Wood, Kuramoto says, is an izakaya-style, State Bird Provisions-like version of Ainoko, where servers bring around trays or carts of food and interact heavily with their customers in a party-hearty atmosphere. That would be the type of place where Kuramoto could reinterpret dim sum while Terzian, who says he’s “a maniac” about perfecting the look and feel of his venues, could let the lights dim some.
“These chefs, they have a passion,” Terzian says. “And my whole thing is getting that passion out of them while also catering to what guests want. That’s the ultimate balancing act, the hardest thing.”
Terzian deserves credit for giving Kuramoto creative freedom. Ainoko offers the type of inventive, experimental tasting menu that would probably draw big crowds at a cash-only pop-up space inside an industrial loft on the edge of a hard-to-find neighborhood. Having Ainoko inside a prime piece of West Hollywood real estate is an unexpected delight.
During my dinner at Ainoko, Kuramoto tells me I must be having a good time eating around L.A. these days.
It’s been fun, I say, and that’s largely because there are many chefs who are really digging into their heritage and serving exactly the food they want to make.
Kuramoto asks if the nation’s political climate is part of the reason behind this.
So we talk about how both preparing and consuming food can seem (as GQ’s Brett Martin wrote when he named L.A.’s Salazar one of the country’s best new restaurants in 2017) like an act of defiance and how it makes sense that chefs and restaurant owners want to take back their heritage and celebrate it unconditionally. I tell Kuramoto that I believe a big part of what’s happening in L.A. is also about how the dining scene is maturing, how L.A. has become a confident city that does things on its own terms and doesn’t worry about what the rest of the world thinks.
Kuramoto brings up the fact that it seems like every prominent chef in New York is opening in L.A. simultaneously. This is that moment in time, when everything is changing. If nothing else, Kuramoto says with a smile, he knows that chefs like him will always have a job.
Something about our conversation gets Kuramoto amped as he thinks optimistically about the pure possibility of the future, a world where food and nightlife and celebrity and culture and art overlap, a world where boundaries matter even less than they do now in L.A.
“We don’t even have to be tied down to restaurants anymore,” Kuramoto says. “We can do anything.”
Ainoko, 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-855-7223