I remember reading an Eater LA news blurb about a new Tempura restaurant opening up soon, named “Carlos Junior” or something like that. It sounded intriguing and unique, as that name sounded more Latino than Japanese, focusing on the Japanese cuisine of Tempura. We ended up driving to the South Bay to meet up with friends, so we decided to stop by and see what this could be all about.
Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior is a new restaurant specializing in Tempura, the popular Japanese cuisine of Deep Fried Seafood and Vegetables, opened by Chef-Owner Carlos Pinto, Junior. Chef Pinto was stopping by the tables, greeting customers from time-to-time, and he told us of his story (it is also on the menu).
Born in Peru, he moved to Japan in his youth, fell in love with Tempura, and ended up learning how to cook it through working at the original branch of Nihonbashi Tendon Kaneko Hannosuke (日本橋 天丼 金子半之助) in Tokyo, the OG branch of the very same “Hannosuke” that Jonathan Gold wrote lovingly about in the L.A. Times a few years back. Neat.
Chef Pinto was then promoted to manager of the Torrance branch of Hannosuke when they finally opened in the U.S. Now he’s decided to open his own restaurant focusing on his love. (On a side note, we and our friend from Tokyo were chatting up Chef Pinto. He is completely fluent in Japanese and sounds like a native Japanese.)
The entrance was still packed with Grand Opening flower gifts given by the local Japanese businesses.
Complimentary Pickled Ginger and Pickled Celery:
The Pickled Ginger was similar to what you might get during a Sushi course, to cleanse the palate. I loved the fragrant Sesame Oil-infused Pickled Celery.
Matcha Green Tea:
I loved the fantastic jamming soundtrack by the Yoshida Brothers and other artists playing throughout our visits, Shamisen and Taiko Drums made it feel like you were in a Jidai Geki (Japanese period drama set in feudal Japan).
Edomae Tempura - Premium Tempura Plate (Conger Eel, 2 Shrimp, Kikiage (Mixed Seafood Tempura), Seaweed, Shishito Pepper, Half Boiled Egg, Miso Soup, Tempura Sauce with Radish):
It should be noted, Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior’s style is very much influenced by his time at Hannosuke. It has a thicker batter compared to Inaba / higher end Tempura Bars where there is a lighter, thinner batter that is crispier.
However, Chef Pinto’s version is wonderful: He talks about the Koromo (Batter), where the Water and Flour are precisely measured with a generous amount of Eggs, and the result is a crunchy, satisfying, fragrant exterior giving way to delicious Shrimp within.
He uses a combination of Vegetable Oil and Japanese Sesame Oil for the frying and it adds to the appeal and flavor.
Shishito Pepper Tempura & Seaweed Tempura:
The Shishito Pepper Tempura is very good, lightly peppery (not spicy), and the Seaweed Tempura is a marvel, a thin sheet of pure obsidian that somehow is super crunchy!
Kakiage (Mixed Seafood Tempura):
The Kakiage is filled with generous chunks of Baby Scallops mainly and is a bit softer than the other Tempura pieces but still delicious.
But it’s the Anago (Conger Eel) Tempura from Kyushu, Japan that shines: Simply outstanding! It is the largest piece of Tempura on the menu, and holds up so well with this thicker style of batter. There is zero muddiness (that sometimes afflicts Anago), just moist, delicate delicious Conger Eel within, and a great pairing with his Housemade Tentsuyu Dipping Sauce. Don’t miss this @PorkyBelly @J_L @attran99 @beefnoguy @Dommy @TheCookie @A5KOBE @Sgee and others.
Their Miso Soup is beautifully balanced, definitely not an afterthought, not overly concentrated, light, warming, just the right amount of Miso and Konbu, and a nice break while enjoying the Tempura.
The Hanjuku Tamago Tempura (Fried Half Boiled Egg) is outstanding (more on this later).
There are a few additional items that are only available A La Carte, so we decided to try…
Jumbo Shrimp Tempura:
What comes with the normal Tempura sets on the menu are a regular Shrimp Tempura, but they also have a Jumbo Shrimp Tempura, a la carte. It is fantastic, meatier, sweeter and more balanced than the regular Shrimp Tempura.
Maitake Mushroom Tempura:
So good! Nice crunchy batter, pure earthy, umami within from the tender, marinated Maitake Mushrooms.
Nasu (Eggplant) Tempura:
Tasty, soft center, crunchy exterior. Inaba’s version (at their Tempura Bar) is so ethereal it makes it hard to appreciate this one, but it is still very good.
Tendon (Take) - Special Tempura Bowl (“Bamboo”) (White Fish, 2 Shrimp, Kakiage (Mixed Seafood Tempura), Seaweed, Shishito Pepper, Half Boiled Egg, Miso Soup):
The Tempura Plates are quite enjoyable for those wanting the pure Tempura experience, but the other main draw of the restaurant (it’s also leading their name) are their “Tendon” selections. In Japanese “Tendon” means “Tempura Bowl”, not to be confused with the English word of “Tendon”.
And as you can see from these pictures, it is indeed in the vein of what Jonathan Gold loved at the Mar Vista branch of Hannosuke, before it went downhill.
Taking a bite: Crunchy Tempura batter (like in their Tempura Plate), however in the various Tendon Bowl selections, the pieces are kissed with their Housemade Tendon Sauce that is different than the Tentsuyu (Tempura Dipping Sauce). Their Housemade Sauce for the Tempura Bowls (Tendons) are slightly sweeter, but still savory, a bit thicker, and Chef Pinto is serving these with the perfect amount:
Giving each bite a lightly sweet, but still very savory note, but not dousing them, so the Tempura pieces remain crunchy and delicious!
The Kisu (Japanese Whiting Fish) Tempura was a particular standout, delicate, moist, flaky Fish, crunchy batter exterior, light kiss of sweet & salt.
This Tempura Bowl is what Hannosuke’s Mar Vista branch used to taste like (but even better), and before they went downhill. It’s lighter, crunchier, fresher.
Hanjuku Tamago Tempura (Fried Half Boiled Egg):
Per the cute illustrated instructions (on the wall), Chef Pinto recommends you break open the Hanjuku Tamago Tempura (Deep Fried Half Boiled Egg) and mix it with the Steamed Rice, and a bit of the Tendon Sauce. Eating this just brings a smile to your face.
On our way out, Chef Pinto mentioned that they were also starting to serve Oden (Japanese cuisine of Simmered Meats and Vegetables in Broth), so we had to see what that was about.
The various items for Oden were starting to be simmered as we arrived!
We noticed that Chef Pinto was unable to man the Oden counter, because he was still busy in the kitchen focusing on Tempura for the majority of the restaurant.
Matcha Green Tea:
Tamago (Egg) + Daikon (Radish) Oden:
Chef Pinto’s Housemade Oden Broth is made from a base of Katsuo (Bonito) and Konbu (Kelp). It’s nicely balanced, but a bit saltier (only a touch) compared to OG Torihei back in the day. The Simmered Daikon is tender, but still with some good density, and absorbed the Oden Broth the best out of all of the pieces we tried. Tasty, especially with a dab of the Karashi (Japanese Mustard).
The Egg is fine. It’s a Hard Boiled Egg, but manages to absorb some of the Oden Broth to help flavor it.
One key area where Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior is lacking is in the alcohol department: They have only 1 Sake on the menu right now (Bishamon Junmai Ginjo Sake) (technically they have a 2nd, but since it’s Sho Chiku Bai - the Bud Light of Sake, actually that’s giving it too much credit, let’s call it the MGD of Sake - we won’t talk any more of this. So it’s a perfect time for all our Sake FTC’ers to give the restaurant some suggestions as they build out their Sake menu (@beefnoguy @Sgee and others).
Thankfully they had an alternative, so in honor of @J_L, we ordered some Sapporo Beer on Draft.
Atsuage (Deep Fried Tofu) Oden:
It turns out about half of the rather expansive Oden Menu (22 Oden Items) are not made from scratch, in-house, but that’s understandable considering the size and scope of what they are trying to do. The Atsuage (Deep Fried Tofu) is one of those items.
It’s decent, tasty, and a great way just to enjoy some Oden feels with your friends on a chilly evening, but for Atsuage, places like Shoya have it beat.
Tsumire (Fish Ball) Oden:
Their Housemade Tsumire is fascinating: At first we thought they served us a Pork Meatball instead, but biting into it, it’s diced up Fish with bits of Vegetables, in a Shoyu based marinade (hence the dark color). It was totally unique, but a bit too loose / falling apart.
Butabara (Pork Belly) & Kyabetsu Maki (Cabbage Roll) Oden:
The Simmered Cabbage Roll was wonderful: The outer Cabbage leaf had fully absorbed the wonderful Oden Broth, and the inside of the Cabbage was stuffed with a Marinated Ground Pork.
The Butabara (Pork Belly) was also very good: A lighter savory infusion, it was tender yet meaty, with a nice balance of lean and fatty Pork.
Hanpen (White Fish Cake) & Hotate (Scallops) & Iidako (Small Octopus) Oden:
The Hanpen (White Fish Cake) Oden was OK. Very tender, airy, it was great with the Sapporo, but it wasn’t close to the amazing Housemade version at the original Torihei.
The Scallops were meaty, a bit overcooked, but still enjoyable.
But it’s their Iidako (Little Octopus) Oden that was another highlight: Our Oden server said it was her favorite Oden item from back in Japan, and this version was actually quite tender with a nice delicate chew (not overly so), with the Oden Broth really infused in each bite while also imparting a pleasing oceanic wave.
Tsukune (Chicken Meatball) & Ebi Shinjo (Shrimp Ball) & Enoki Mushroom Oden:
Their Housemade Tsukune had good flavor in the Ground Chicken seasonings, but it was a bit too delicate, easily falling apart.
The Ebi Shinjo (Shrimp Ball) seemed a bit strange / laughable: It was a manufactured item on the menu, and it was served as just 1 tiny orb (about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of most of the Oden items). Our server mentioned she also thought it might’ve been a mistake (that the serving size is just this 1 tiny Shrimp Ball). Regardless, the actual flavor was rather mediocre. Avoid.
The Enoki Mushroom was very good: Wrapped in a Fried Tofu exterior and the whole thing simmered in their Oden Broth, it was the perfect bite of Enoki that you could hope for while enjoying Oden.
Satsuma-Age (“Vegetable Tempura”) Oden:
This was mistakenly translated on the menu in English as “Vegetable Tempura”, but it’s clearly a Fish Cake with bits of Vegetables infused within. This was not made in-house, but was a huge portion of Simmered Fish Cake with a nice, light chew.
We found out that it was only the 2nd night of Oden, so they were clearly still working out the kinks.
During the day, the Oden Bar is also available for Tempura seating if the main restaurant gets too full:
Tempura and Soba Set (Cold) (3 Shrimp, Pumpkin, Shishito Pepper, Buckwheat Soba, Tokyo Negi, Wasabi):
We asked ahead of time if their Soba Noodles were made in-house or not (they aren’t), but we still wanted to try out the Soba Set for the experience.
It tastes like standard, mass-manufactured Soba Noodles. It’ll hold you over in a pinch, but considering Inaba is in the same city, and you’re better off enjoying their Handmade Soba and Tempura when you’re in the mood for that combination.
However, their Tempura remains excellent: The Shrimp Tempura was still as crunchy and bright as before, a very good version. The Pumpkin Tempura was earthy and sweet and a great foil for the bolder Tempura batter that Chef Pinto uses here.
Tempura Teishoku (Take) - Special Tempura Plate (“Bamboo”) (White Fish, 2 Shrimp, Kakiage (Mixed Seafood Tempura), Seaweed, Shishito Pepper, Half Boiled Egg, Miso Soup, Tempura Sauce with Radish):
As with our previous visit, the Tempura here still tastes very fresh (clean oil), the Japanese Sesame Oil adds a subtle nutty, aroma to each bite. The thicker batter yields a crunchy bite, and the Shrimp Tempura is fantastic!
Kakiage (Mixed Seafood Tempura):
The Kakiage Tempura is similar to the first visit, a bit softer, because of numerous chunks of Scallops spread out like a netting almost, and still delicious.
Kisu (Japanese Whiting Fish) Tempura:
A highlight, consistent as our 1st visit: Lightly flaky, moist Kisu Fish meat within, lovely crunchy exterior.
Still as awesome as the 1st time.
Thankfully on our 3rd visit, their Miso Soup is still as delicate and thoughtfully prepared as before (not just a Miso mix thrown together and stirred). There’s a real depth of flavor in this bowl.
Hanjuku Tamago Tempura (Fried Half Boiled Egg):
Their Fried Half Boiled Egg is truly a delight to finish off your meal, break it open, mix with a splash of the Housemade Tendon Sauce and the Steamed Rice and enjoy!
Service was good, considering their Grand Opening period and the entire operation still working out the kinks. No major hiccups. It was interesting to note that 100% of the front of the house were Japanese. With Chef Pinto being completely fluent in Japanese as well, and him greeting all of the clientele in Japanese, thanking them (we were the only Non-Japanese during the 1st and 2nd visits), this was essentially like dining at a local Japanese neighborhood eatery.
Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior has made a strong debut, showcasing a bolder, tastier version of legit Tempura, in the vein of Hannosuke at their peak. The Tempura here is crunchier (not crisp like the Tempura Bar specialist Inaba), but it’s still a very satisfying version that shines with a nutty flavor from the Japanese Sesame Oil (plus Vegetable Oil) combination. Each piece tastes fresh (not greasy), and Chef Pinto’s version of Anago Tempura might be our favorite version in town currently.
Add to that excellent versions of Kisu (Japanese Whiting Fish) Tempura, Jumbo Shrimp and Regular Shrimp Tempura, Maitake Mushroom Tempura and the awesome Hanjuku Tamago (Half Boiled Egg) Tempura to mix with your Rice, and you have a great reason to visit.
But then Chef Pinto brings in his homage to the excellent Tendon (Tempura Bowls) of Nihonbashi Tendon Kaneko Hannosuke (Original Branch) in Tokyo, and you have even more joy: The judicial use of their Housemade Tendon Sauce, lightly splashing the freshly fried Tempura pieces over a big bowl of Rice, gives each bite a sweetness that offsets the pure savory flavors, and the amount keeps each piece of Tempura from getting soggy. It is excellent and I’d like to think Jonathan Gold would’ve loved this version if he were still with us.
And perhaps one of the best aspects of Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior might be its affordability: Tempura Plates range from $11.98 - $18.98, and their Tendon (Tempura Bowls) range from $10.98 - $17.98. And the portions are generous. We were absolutely stuffed, and I could see myself stopping by for a delightful standard Tempura Bowl for $10.98 and being totally happy and quite full.
Their Oden menu at night is still a work in progress with a few fun highlights (like the Iidako (Small Octopus), Kyabetsu Maki (Cabbage Roll with Ground Pork), and Daikon, but they’ll need to do more to overthrow Torihei (even in it’s 2.0 state), and old-school Shoya. But considering Chef Carlos Pinto, Junior’s dedication so far (moving to Japan, learning their language, culture and how to master Tempura), one can hope that the Oden menu might shine soon enough.
Tendon Tempura Carlos Junior
1510 Cabrillo Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (424) 488-2313