Sunday, November 15, 2009

Unrealized Potential - A Tale of Two Specialists - Katsuhana & El Borrego De Oro

(Note: I was originally going to hold off on writing about these 2 places, but having received some e-mails asking about Tonkatsu and Barbacoa de Borrego in LA, I figured the time was right.)

When opening a new eatery, the decision on becoming a specialty restaurant - to really focus on one type of dish - is a huge boon. You already stand out from the crowd of more generalized, expansive menus, and what you lack in variety, you make up for in excellence in your specialty, at least that's the hope. For 2 specialists in L.A. - Katsuhana (specializing in Deep Fried Pork and Chicken Cutlets), and El Borrego de Oro (focusing on Slow-Roasted Lamb in Maguey Leaves) - the intent is there, but the execution falls short.

* Katsuhana *
(A Tonkatsu Specialist)

While the origins of Tonkatsu, or Deep-Fried Pork Cutlet, originated from a Japanese interpretation of the Western-style Cutlet from the Meiji Era, today, it's become an intrinsic part of Japanese cuisine. A great version of Tonkatsu usually involves a perfectly fried Pork Cutlet, with a satisfying crispy, breaded exterior, giving way to succulent juicy Pork. Add a bit of sweet and tart Tonkatsu Sauce (which tastes a bit like a thicker, alternative to Worcestershire Sauce) and a bit of plump, steamed Rice and you have a meal that brings a smile to your face each and every time. :)

It's hard not to love Tonkatsu, after all, what's not to like about Deep-Fried, Breaded Pork Cutlets? :) Tonkatsu has become popular enough that it's easy to find many Japanese and Hawaiian restaurants offering up the dish alongside many other items, due to popularity alone. Most Tonkatsu (and Chicken Katsu) dishes I've tried over the years in So Cal have ranged from horrid to good, but after having experienced a Tonkatsu specialist in Tokyo a while back (whose entire focus is just on the glory of the Deep-Fried Pork Cutlet in a variety of different grades of meat), it's hard to go back to versions that are offered out of popularity, and not because the kitchen can actually expertly execute the dish.

Katsuhana, located inside the Torrance Mitsuwa Market food court area, is one of the very few Tonkatsu specialists in L.A. / O.C. Their menu consists of 2 types of Tonkatsu, a Chicken Katsu (Cutlet), and a few other fried offerings to take advantage of their frying capabilities, namely Fried Shrimp and Crab Croquettes. Their combinations and extras revolve around their different Cutlets, and upon ordering I discover they actually serve their food in real utsuwa (earthenware) bowls and plates, despite being in a food court (which is definitely a nice touch instead of eating out of styrofoam).

Their lone Chicken offering is their Jidori Katsu Teishoku (Free Range, Natural Chicken Cutlet Set).

Besides the earthenware, the set comes with a Tonjiru (Pork Soup), Potato Salad, Cabbage, Pickles, Steamed Rice, and Hot Tea. The best part is that they actually serve all their Katsu (Cutlets) on metal racks, which helps prevent the bottom of the crispy cutlets from getting soggy and dreary (even some of the nicer Izakayas in So Cal I've been to don't do this, but should).

Taking a bite, there's a good, crisp crunch giving way to slightly dry, lean Chicken Breast meat. The Chicken itself tastes very fresh, but is a bit plain. But beyond the crunch of the breading, the oil itself tastes a little bit old (nothing really bad, but not as clean as it could be).

They also provide 2 different types of Tonkatsu Sauce, one is a straight Tonkatsu Sauce (more traditional), and the other one is a Sesame Tonkatsu Sauce blend. Their regular sauce turns out to be too sweet for my tastes, with the Sesame being my favorite of the two. Be sure to ask for some Karashi (Japanese Yellow Mustard) as well, if they forget to provide it for you.

During another visit, feeling a bit ravenous, I order the Large version of their Ro-su Katsu (Pork Loin Cutlet) Set, which is only $1 more than their Regular version.

In terms of value, this has to be one of the most absurd giveaways I've seen: For $1 more, Katsuhana serves you 2 large Pork Loin Cutlets(!), enough for 2 people.

The Pork Loin Cutlet itself is a bit leaner than most places, dense but still somewhat moist. The breading still has a crunch to it, but in terms of flavor, their Jidori is better, with this Tonkatsu lacking in juiciness and real porky essence.

A note about their complementary sides: Their Tonjiru (Pork Soup) is a bit too salty and gritty for my tastes. The Potato Salad is decent and straightforward, with a mild creaminess and chunks of soft potato throughout.

Finally, the last of their specialty Cutlets is supposed to be the best one: Hire Katsu (Pork Tenderloin Cutlet) Set.

Hire Katsu (pronounced "Hee-Reh") is usually the most expensive of all the general Katsu types, but at Katsuhana, it's the exact same price as their regular Pork Loin Cutlet.

The breading is just odd for this one: The battered coating is crispy thin and is sadly separated from the meat, so that picking up a piece of the Hire Katsu results in the crispy shell, falling away from the meat, with you having to put both separate pieces in your mouth at the same time if you want the proper bite.

The Pork Tenderloin is definitely more tender and juicy than the regular Pork Cutlet, but it's also a bit tough in parts (not consistently tender throughout). Add to that, the fall apart fried batter, and a general plainness and it's another disappointment.

Service is pretty basic since this is a food court stand: You order at the register and wait for your number to be called. There are plenty of tables inside the Torrance Mitsuwa food court, with an overflow area with tables on the side as well. Prices range from $4.60 - $15.90.

From the limited, focused menu on 3 types of Katsu (Cutlets), to the real utsuwa (earthenware) serving dishes, to the metal racks to prevent the Katsu from getting soaked in its own oil / juices, Katsuhana has all the makings of a good Katsu specialist. Unfortunately the reused frying oil, average breading, and lack of quality Pork undermine the well-meaning intentions of this little eatery. To be fair, this is a simple eatery inside of a food court, but even with its humble location, it had the potential to be a great specialty restaurant, but it falls short. If you find yourself in the area and don't feel like Ramen (from the neighboring Santouka stand), then you might give Katsuhana a try. Otherwise, the search continues for a standout Tonkatsu specialist in L.A.

Rating: 6.0 (out of 10.0)

(inside the Mitsuwa Market Food Court)
21515 Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 782-0335

* Cash Only *

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

* El Borrego De Oro *
(A Slow-Roasted Lamb Specialist)

I first fell in love with the Mexican specialty dish of Slow-Roasted Lamb in Maguey Leaves - Barbacoa de Borrego - early last year at El Huarache Azteca in Highland Park. While it may not have been the most authentic version of the dish (they use a combination steam and roast method), it was flavorful enough to get me hooked, and ignite a search for the best version I could possibly find. :) El Huarache Azteca only serves their Lamb on the weekends, so when I heard about a specialist in L.A., that serves it 7 days a week(!), and that's their main focus, I couldn't wait to try it.

El Borrego De Oro (literally "Lamb of Gold") opened its first location along Whittier Boulevard in 2003 and has been serving their Lamb dishes on a daily basis ever since. Looking over their menu, it's shockingly expansive, with Wet Burritos, Enchiladas, Tortas, Mole Poblano, Crispy Tacos (all with a choice of Carne Asada, Chicken or Barbacoa) and much more. Undaunted, we order their specialty, the Hidalgo-style Barbacoa de Borrego (Slow Roasted Lamb in Maguey Leaves).

As we wait for our order, an enthusiastic musician enters the restaurant to sing to everyone and take requests.

We're presented with the condiments for the Lamb, with 2 types of Salsas - a Salsa Rojo and a Salsa Verde. The Rojo has a light smoky element, a type of roasted chili, but lacks the depth of a great Salsa Borracha. Their Salsa Verde has good notes of fresh Tomatillos and Jalapenos and is the spicier of the two. Still, after having experienced 2 outstanding specialists in Mexico and Chula Vista, with their array of 4 homemade, dynamic Salsas, these 2 selections here feel a bit underwhelming.

Finally our Barbacoa de Borrego (Slow-Roasted Lamb in Maguey Leaves) arrives. According to our waitress, their Lamb is slow-roasted in an underground pit (the traditional way) at an offsite location in the Chino Hills area (they feature pictures of this on their takeout menu).

And they surprisingly serve it with Rice and Refried Beans, and don't allow a choice of what part of the Lamb to order. Unlike the other specialty Barbacoa places I've tried (where you can choose the part of the Lamb you prefer: Costilla (Lamb Ribs), Maciza (Regular Lamb Meat from Shank and Shoulder), Faldita (Lamb Skirt), Cabeza (Head), and more), here, you're stuck with whatever's next in the bag. During each of my visits, I took a peek at their open kitchen and could see gigantic plastic bags that are filled with the Lamb meat. The kitchen members dutifully reach inside and grab the right amount per order and off it goes.

Unfortunately, while their intentions and origins are great (underground pit cooking for 7-8 hours), the transportation and final preparation fails: The Lamb is really dry and stringy. It lacks the depth of flavor of both Aqui es Texcoco and Barbacoa Ermita. Lamb that sits in a large plastic bag for hours at a time can't be doing good things for developing flavors.

Thankfully, their Consome (Lamb Consomme) fairs better, with a good depth of flavor and a surprisingly extremely spicy edge. The Garbanzo Beans are just cooked through and still have a good firmness to them, but with the overspicing, I prefer the Consome at Aqui es Texcoco over this version.

They offer a variety of Aguas Frescas, and on one visit, we try their Agua de Sandia (Fresh Watermelon Juice). It's pure Watermelon Juice (with maybe a touch of Sugar), but it's refreshing and delightful on this sunny day.

Their Mixiote (Marinated Lamb in a Special Spice Mixture (usually) cooked in Maguey Leaves) is a better offering than their namesake Barbacoa.

Opening up the foil covering, you're treated to a stark vision of deep crimson, with the Lamb covered with Guajillo Chili and their proprietary spice recipe.

The Lamb from the Mixiote is much more moist than their famous Barbacoa, due to the spice marinade covering it and the insulated foil wrapping. The spice blend is sharply incendiary and is tasty enough, but it's unfortunate that they don't use the traditional Maguey Leaves to cook this (using Aluminum Foil instead).

On a later visit, we notice that they do offer the Espaldilla de Borrego (Lamb Shoulder) in its entirety as a separate order, so we try that to see how it compares to the regular Barbacoa.

Sadly, since it's part of the same offsite cooking method, it's also transported the same way (in plastic bags) and it tastes only slightly better than the Barbacoa. The Shoulder meat is a bit more moist in some parts, partly due to the meat not having been pre-shredded into smaller chunks (as it is with their regular Barbacoa), but it tastes just as flat and grey as the regular Barbacoa with only moistness separating the two.

Service is what you'd expect from a simple, humble hole-in-the-wall restaurant: When you're seated, you flag down a server when you're ready to order, and for any other needs. Seating is quite crowded - you're usually elbow-to-elbow with other neighboring tables - in a very informal setting. Prices range from $12 - $13 for the Lamb, depending on if you want it with bones or without. Consomme is $2.75 for the regular, $3.85 for the large.

El Borrego De Oro represents another specialist that has so much potential but falls short due to distance, storage and seasoning issues. While it's encouraging to see pictures of their Barbacoa slowly cooking underground in a pit at some offsite location, the final dish given to the customer tastes like it could've been overcooked in their own ovens in the kitchen. While sheer volume must play a role in the resultant quality (they serve so much Lamb they pre-shred it and fill them up in large plastic bags to store before serving), places like Aqui es Texcoco (who serve it 7 days a week as well), prove that you can be a specialist and still maintain excellent juiciness, flavor and quality without having to compromise.

Rating: 5.5 (out of 10.0)

El Borrego De Oro #1
2403 Whittier Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90023
Tel: (323) 780-4213

* Cash Only *

Hours: Mon - Fri, 8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 6:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.


Alex said...

Looks like you felt the same way as I did:

For someone who has also been to Ermita, Aqui and Oro - I am glad you feel the same way

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Alex,

Yah, I had the exact same sentiments as you. And thank you again for the great recommendation on Aqui es Texcoco. :) Love that place.

MaryRuth said...

Awwww..I like Katsuhana! Although I have to admit I do agree with some of your comments, like the breading separating from the meat, I still like to go there--I even like the freaky fruit cocktail! The people are nice and friendly too.
I have seen that restaurant Kagura has added "tonkatsu" to their sign...wondering if they are changing their menu? I still haven't made it in there yet. =(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi MaryRuth,

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a fine place for a quick lunch - much better than most places in So Cal for Katsu :) - it's just that it could do so much more at the same location (perfecting the breading / keeping the oil fresh, etc.). For a food court eatery, it's enjoyable. :)

Thanks for the info on Kagura, very interesting. I'll have to see what that's about next time I'm in the area.

streetgourmetla said...

Borrego de Oro is a disaster.Aqui es Texcoco is a model for all specialist restaurants to follow.It's such hard work, but Paco makes it look easy.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi streetgourmetla,

Definitely. It's unfortunate about El Borrego De Oro, but after the great Borrego places I've tried (thanks again :), it's hard to go back to the disappointing product here.

Anonymous said...

Despite your warnings about the lamb here i tried it because it was just to darn close to my house not too. I enjoyed the first time(granted it was my one and only experience with lamb barbacoa) but the second time it was "on". Very tender, and juicy. I will being heading to Chula Vista soon but Borrego does have its moments.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the report back. I'm so glad you enjoyed your time at El Borrego De Oro. It's not "horrible" by any means, but it has the potential be great.

Let me know what you think of Aqui Es Texcoco (love that place! :).

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