Perhaps one of the tastiest little snacks to order at an Izakaya (Japanese Pub) is Kara-age (or Japanese Fried Chicken). These are usually cut into smaller chunks than the entire quarter pieces of Chicken we get with American Fried Chicken. A great version is crispy-crunchy and piping hot, and one more way to enjoy with some Sake (or Beer).
So when Eater LA wrote about a big Japanese chain that specialized in Kara-age opening up in L.A., our interest was piqued. My first thought was, could you make an entire meal out of Kara-age? We would soon find out.
Karayama has stores all across Japan, and has expanded into Hong Kong and Thailand as well. This Little Tokyo branch marks their first expansion into the U.S., sitting next to Shin Sen Gumi in Little Tokyo.
Walking in, it’s definitely a Fast Food-type of restaurant where you order at the counter and the food is brought out when ready. You get your own drinks and condiments.
Our 1st visit was during the Grand Opening week (a few days after), and it was a mad house. Firstly, we won’t have to worry about any bait & switch (@Ns1 @Sgee and others) because the entire staff was American except a couple people. Many of them looked like they might’ve been working part-time and still in college.
Their menu is basically broken up into variations on getting some Kara-age (Japanese Fried Chicken chunks) or Fried Wings, a Fried Chicken Sandwich (which was just made up of the chunks of Kara-age (not a whole piece)), or Curry.
Crunchy Wing & Kara-age Set:
Probably the easiest way to try both of their main items, their Crunchy Wing & Kara-age Set featured both items, along with a bowl of Miso Soup and Rice.
The most disappointing part of their Fried Wings was that it was without the Drumette (the meatiest part). So unlike a place like Howlin’ Ray’s which features the entire Chicken Wing (all 3 sections, including Drumette), Karayama serves up only half of the Wing with any meat on it.
To make matters worse, the Wings were lukewarm, not crispy or crunchy and just mediocre.
Their Kara-age was much better, thankfully: These arrived piping hot, with a slight crunch and was generally moist. However, the actual flavor within the crust and meat was rather one-note (basic).
Karayama’s menu offers their Kara-age plain or you can dab them in sauces like Goku-Dare and Shio Goku-Dare Sauces. The Shio was basically a Salt based version of the Goku-Dare Sauce (which tasted even saltier and heavier). The Wasabi Mayo didn’t really have much Wasabi taste and was more creamy Mayo than anything.
At $9 (+ tax) for 2 pieces of Kara-age and 2 tiny Wings that were mediocre, I’m not sure this was such a bargain.
Red Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich Set:
In a shocking twist of unexpected, Karayama’s Red Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich tasted like the ultimate homage (or ripoff) of Howlin’ Ray’s Level 3 Medium Spice flavor profile, except much hotter. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Karayama U.S.A. nailed it. It seriously tasted like someone reverse engineered many of the same flavors as Howlin’ Ray’s Level 3 Medium (there’s a bit of sweet, spicy, Paprika, some aromatic Chili flavors), but then doused it with extra Chili Oil to make it much hotter (but not in the Hell Inferno way that Howlin’ can get at higher levels).
Given that, it was rather tasty but really, really hot.
Also, it was just their Kara-age chunks put together between 2 slices of White Bread. Not really an entire Chicken patty of meat, so it was a bit uneven and even had gaps in the Sandwich as you ate it.
The Mixed Green Side Salad tasted like a mass produced, flavorless type (not bright, rather dull).
Their Fries were more like Potato Wedges, and arrived cold.
We mentioned it to the cashier, who then was nice enough to go back and ask the kitchen staff to fry up another batch for us.
These were much better (hot, right out of the fryer). Crisped, with a fluffy interior.
Spicy Shrimp Curry Set:
In chatting with the server, he mentioned that their Curry is not made from scratch, unfortunately, but is using a pre-made Curry base, but then cooked up with additional seasonings and veggies, etc.
It doesn’t taste mass-produced, and is of the thinner variety. It reminded us more of a very spicy Indian Curry rather than the usual Japanese Curry you might expect (@bulavinaka). The Shrimp were fine (not overcooked), but of the frozen variety (which is expected at this price point and fast food setup). The Curry was quite layered and nuanced, which was nice, but at $13 (+ tax) for 2 Small Shrimp (with the rest of the Curry), it felt a bit pricey.
Crunchy Wing (1 Piece):
I wanted to give Karayama another chance on this 2nd visit, so we ordered their Crunchy Wing again. First off, what happened to the frying?! This was so pallid, I thought it might’ve been frozen and not yet fried yet.
Thankfully it was cooked, and it was quite hot (great), but clearly fried at the wrong temperature as it was really greasy.
Kara-age (Fried Chicken) - 5 Piece Set:
Their Kara-age (Fried Chicken) was similar to the first visit: Slightly crunchy, piping hot (thankfully), and moist, using dark meat Chicken. This was a decent Kara-age that is sadly better than the the Kara-age at Honda-ya.
You can ask for their 2 main Sauces (Goku-Dare and Shio Goku-Dare), or get other condiments near the back. The Shio Goku-Dare and Goku-Dare Sauces do enhance the flavor a bit, but they both felt unnecessary in the way of enjoying a good Kara-age.
While this is a fast food type of restaurant, it has to be noted that during our 1st visit, the table tops were filthy. The kids running this restaurant were probably still getting used to running it, but they failed to clean off table tops after customers left so everyone looking for a table had to buss the tables themselves, and wipe down some of the spilled liquids / food with napkins themselves, etc. During our 2nd visit it got slightly better (still some oily, “slick” table tops from leftover spilled food / sauces).
Karayama (Little Tokyo) is effectively a Japanese fast food chain delivering a decent version of Kara-age (Japanese Fried Chicken) in many variations. We would avoid their “Crunchy Wings” which were neither crunchy nor delicious, but for Chili Heads out there, you might want to consider their Red Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich or the Spicy Shrimp Curry, which feature a distinctive spiciness (nuanced with various spices and flavor profiles).
But ultimately, you would go to Karayama for their Kara-age, which was consistently OK, slightly crunchy, with basic seasoning (almost one note), but at least it was piping hot and tasted fresh. It doesn’t sing and lacks the brightness of great versions of this dish, but if you’re in the mood and in the area, it might be worth a quick stop for a snack.
Karayama (Little Tokyo)
136 S Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 265-7358