L.A. is no stranger to excellent bowls of ramen, but a few restaurant newcomers are bringing Japanese comfort food to a new level. Look beyond the broth to find the next wave of hearty Japanese classics, including rich curries, crispy kara-age, fresh-fried tempura and thick, hand-pulled udon noodles made right before your eyes. Here are a few of Japan’s fast-casual comfort-food heavy hitters who’ve recently made a home in Los Angeles—and who are already making a splash in the food scene.
It’s taken more than 20 years, but Japan’s largest takoyaki chain finally landed in America—and we’re the lucky diners who get to feast on the fluffy, crispy dough balls filled with octopus. Think of takoyaki as part comfort food, part ideal street food: The octopus balls come eight to a tray, easily poppable and shareable, and can come topped and filled with a range of spices, seafood, meats and sauces. Gindaco, with more than 470 locations throughout Japan, is king of takoyaki, and just planted its North American flag in Gardena’s new food court at Tokyo Central (formerly Marukai Forum). Stop by for these snackable, creamy, umami-packed bites in a handful of flavors: spicy scallion and Sriracha; original, with bonito flakes, tangy sauce and aonori seaweed; egg-topped teriyaki; and cheese and mentaiko. Want more? There’s also iced matcha, takoyaki party packs and yakisoba.
Little Tokyo’s just been graced with a Karayama, the kara-age giant whose fried chicken and special sauces are so popular that the brand built 50 Karayama locations within the first few years of its existence. Now it’s our turn, and our fast-casual spot uses the same techniques you’d find in its Japanese counterparts: low-temperature fermentation and marination, providing the chicken with a light umami depth, before the meat gets coated in potato starch and rests for four to six hours until it finally gets tossed in the fryer. You can order the kara-age by the piece—for as little as $1.29 per wing or thigh—or by the "set," a meal that includes cabbage, rice and miso soup. But this crispy, lightly breaded fried chicken arrives in more than solo form: Find it in sandwiches—both a classic and a spicy variety—as well as curries and stir-frys. Opt for sides such as fried tofu with eggplant; fried shrimp; kimchi; edamame; and soft, chilled tofu.
Pull up a tray because you’re going to want a little bit of everything at Marugame Udon, the cafeteria-style udon emporium. The Sawtelle-by-way-of-Japan restaurant recently headed east, opening a new location that’s tucked within the Beverly Center. The newest noodle hub offers option after option: You can accompany your fresh-stretched, Sanuki-style noodles with 12 types of à la carte tempura veggies, or proteins like meat and eggs, before adding additional, chilled accoutrements. (We’re talking tempura options like pumpkin, shrimp, shishito peppers—you name it.) Simply grab a tray, declare your udon bowl, then pick and choose. Not looking to mix and match? You can always stick with one of the restaurant’s custom, basic bowls, such as the Nikutama Udon in kakejiru with sweet beef and poached egg—but you might as well grab some of those à la carte musubi or inari while you’re at it.