Los Angeles is having a fried chicken moment. New fried chicken restaurants have been popping up all over the city. Howlin' Ray’s, the city’s hottest (literally and figuratively) fried chicken restaurant, commands three-hour-plus lines for their Nashville chicken—but the fried chicken trend is not just limited to Southern fried chicken. Well-known restaurants from around the world have thrown their hats into the mix, and Karayama is serving authentic Japanese fried chicken, known in Japanese as karaage, to Los Angeles.
“We love being part of the chicken movement that’s happening right now,” says Sky Whitehead, CEO of Karayama USA. “It’s a great time to be in LA. Every country has its own fried chicken, but what’s unique about ours is that we use our own proprietary marinade and a special potato starch that we searched all over the world (for) and found in France.”
Karaage is typically made by marinating chicken in soy sauce, sake, ginger and garlic. The chicken is then coated in potato starch and fried. When the chicken is fried, the potato starch turns into a crispy shell that keeps the inside of the chicken moist, juicy and flavorful. Unlike flour, potato starch creates a thin, crispy shell that is extremely light and holds its crispness for hours. The result is a snack that can sit out for a long time without getting soggy and still taste good. Many of the dipping sauces and the breading are imported from overseas. As Whitehead mentions, Karayama’s special starch (a very fine, processed potato starch) is imported from France.
The biggest difference between karaage and Southern fried chicken is the marinating process. When you cook Southern fried chicken, you marinade the seasoning and flavor the flour before the chicken is fried. You also add the ginger, garlic, and soy sauce on the chicken before you bread it. Japanese fried chicken is savory with a hint of sweetness. Although traditional Japanese fried chicken uses garlic and ginger, Karayama does not. Instead, the restaurant developed their own sauces and marinade.
“Garlic and ginger can often be used to mask the flavor and quality of the chicken itself. We want to show off our chicken. By using a low fermentation process, the flavor of the chicken is brought to the forefront, which in turn makes it very juicy,” says Whitehead.
Karayama may have a large following around the world, but the famous fried chicken shop started as a tiny 100-square-foot, takeout-only storefront in Asakusa, Japan, in 2014. The popular shop had lines that went around the block and sold out of its karaage every day. Today, Karayama has dozens of locations around the world, including in cities like Hong Kong and now Los Angeles.
“We really wanted our first U.S. outlet to be LA because it’s a culinary destination where new and different convene. We have an audience of people that want unique and authentically Japanese cuisine. And those who are unfamiliar with our food are adventurous in wanting to try something new,” says Whitehead.
“We want to show off our chicken. By using a low fermentation process, the flavor of the chicken is brought to the forefront, which in turn makes it very juicy.”
Karayama has an open kitchen, allowing guests to watch all the action go down. The staff begins preparing the chicken two days out for marinating. The chicken is marinated overnight and then breaded.
“When you let the starch absorb some of the moisture from the chicken, and that moisture combined with the starch reacts with the hot oil, it produces something that is really crispy and soaks the entire piece of chicken and locks the moisture in, so you also get something tender, juicy and flavorful,” explains Whitehead.
Karayama’s chicken comes with rice, salad and miso soup, and is mixed into stir-frys, curries, or stuffed into Japanese shokupan sandwiches. Japanese shokupan is a pillowy white milk bread that is light and chewy. Karayama’s shokupan bread is sourced locally from the famous Yamazaki bakery across the street.
Karayama dipping sauces are made and imported from Japan. The most popular sauces are the Goku-Dare and Shio-Goku-Dare, which are umami-based sauces. The Goku-Dare sauce is made using garlic, soy and sesame sauce, has a hint of sweetness and is very savory. It packs a punch and is especially fitting for those who like garlic. The Shio-Goku-Dare is made using low-temperature fermentation and processed using grated fruits and vegetables like apple, onion and carrot puree, which give it a more floral and fruitier flavor. There are also Wasabi Mayo, Red Hot and Sweet Chili sauces.
New menu items and limited-edition dishes are released every few months. So, what is the Karayama CEO’s favorite dish? Whitehead gushes about the Kara-Tama Don—a butterflied chicken thigh that is first deep-fried and then simmered with egg and onion in a light soy broth and served over rice.
“It’s the best. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Sweet, savory and the sauce soaks into all the rice,” he says.
"We’re excited to be in food halls, and other locations too, that don’t necessarily have the Asian-leaning demographic like Little Tokyo, so we can expose more people to Japanese fried chicken."
Whitehead also hinted at other possible future Greater Los Angeles locations where Karayama may be popping up soon.
“We’re excited to be in food halls, and other locations too, that don’t necessarily have the Asian-leaning demographic like Little Tokyo, so we can expose more people to Japanese fried chicken. Keep a lookout for locations ranging from Orange, Riverside and Ventura counties,” he shares.
Don’t forget to admire the shokuhin sampuru (wax food replicas) showcasing the most popular menu items at the entrance! In Japan, shokuhin sampuru are considered an art form. The extremely realistic plastic representations of the dishes offered by the restaurant is part art gallery, and makes for an easy way to visualize what your meal will look like.
Karayama is located at 136 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012.