Thursday, December 3, 2009

Deep Fried Skewer Madness - L.A.'s New Kushiage Specialist - Horon

The crackle and pop of hot oil. The sizzle as meats and vegetables are placed into the deep fryer. There are few things that are as instantly appealing as something deep fried. :) Fried Chicken, French Fries, the list goes on. That belief has given rise to an entire Japanese sub-cuisine known as Kushiage (pronounced Koo-Shee-Ah-Geh (hard "G")), whose popularity in Osaka is second to none. But in the States, this sub-cuisine hasn't gained the popularity or foothold that other facets of Japanese cuisine have (such as Sushi or Yakitori), but with the opening of Horon in L.A., a true Kushiage Specialist, perhaps that might start to change.

Kushiage is a cuisine based on deep fried skewers of various meats, vegetables and seafood. It's almost like a more earthy cousin to Yakitori / Kushiyaki, which are grilled skewers of chicken, other meats and vegetables. With Kushiage restaurants being very rare in L.A., I wrangled some of my Kushiage-deprived Hounds and off we went to try Horon.

During my 1st visit, Horon was barely 1 week old (as of today, it's been open exactly 2 weeks), and the restaurant was already packed with the locals "Kanpai!"-ing away with their extensive Shochu drink menu.

Glancing over their menu, and it's impressive how inexpensive everything is: Over 80% of their Kushiage (Deep Fried Skewers) menu is $1 per skewer. We place an initial order and everyone's crossing their fingers hoping that the Kushiage will turn out good. :)

Our first item arrives on the recommendation of our waitress (who says it's one of the most popular items on the menu): Truffle Potatoes.

These are hefty chunks of Potatoes lightly fried once, so it's soft, and only barely crisped, topped with Blue Cheese and Truffle Oil. It seems like an out-of-place item for a traditional Kushiage restaurant, until one considers its head chef, Hiro Miura-san, a classically trained French Chef who had been working in Tokyo for over 10 years before heading to America to helm Horon. The Potato dish is interesting, a decent combination of Blue Cheese and Potato chunks with only light usage of Truffle Oil.

As our first traditional skewer arrives, we're provided 3 types of condiments to pair with the skewers throughout the evening: Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt w/ Lemon, Housemade Tonkatsu Sauce and Dijon Mustard.

Over the course of my 3 visits, I've enjoyed most of the skewers plain, or with a dab in the Lemon & Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt. The Housemade Tonkatsu Sauce is interesting, but a bit too watery and heavy on the Worcestershire for my tastes.

The first skewer to arrive is their: Kani no Isobeage (Crab Wrapped in Seaweed).

The breading (used for the majority of the Kushiage items) is a traditional mixture of Panko, Flour and Eggs. Taking a bite, there's a nice crispy crunch, with a fresh clean oil taste (Chef Miura uses Rice Bran Oil), giving way to the Crab wrapped in Nori (Seaweed). Unfortunately, the Nori overpowers the Crab, so you mainly taste some crispy batter and Nori.

Their Shiitake Tsukune (Shiitake Mushrooms and Marinated Ground Chicken Meatball) is much better, with a delicious balance of the unmistakable Shiitake Mushroom fragrance and a juicy blend of Ground Chicken.

Our next batch of skewers arrive at this point. (Note: In order to keep the Kushiage skewers as piping hot as possible, order in small batches; it's understood and welcome to keep adding skewers throughout the night.)

We begin with their Shishito Nikuzume (Shishito Peppers filled with Meat).

Miura-san takes fresh Shishito Peppers and stuffs them with lightly seasoned Ground Chicken. The balance is spot-on, with the lightly spicy Shishito and moist, juicy Chicken and good breading all coming together for a bit of crunchy, fragrant and meaty in one bite. Delicious. :)

Their Sake Ikura no Se (Salmon with a Dash of Salmon Roe) doesn't fare as well.

The idea is sound in principal - taking a chunk of fresh Salmon and deep frying it and topping it with some Salmon Roe - but in execution, the Salmon is overcooked, and the tiny dab of Ikura (Salmon Roe) isn't enough to spread over the whole skewer.

Their Ebi Shinjyo (Shrimp Cake) finds the right balance: Soft, fluffy, fresh-tasting Shrimp with just the right touch of the ocean.

It's always nice to be able to find good Korokke (Croquette), so I was pretty excited to see how a skewer version of a Korokke would turn out from Chef Miura, with their Mentai Jyaga Korokke (Potato Croquette with Spiced Cod Roe).

The Potato within is finely pureed, but sadly, there's almost no perceptible Mentaiko taste; it tastes mainly like a plain, deep fried Potato Croquette.

Their Hotate Bata- (Scallop with Butter) forgoes the usual Panko breading, and is the better for it: A fresh Scallop with a very light Butter marinade, it's a pleasurable, deep fried bite of sweetness.

One of their signature items is the Buta Bara Negima (Pork Belly and Welsh Onion).

On the 1st visit, it's stunningly delicious: A perfect bite of buttery, delicious Pork Fat, Skin and Lean Meat, very fresh and satisfying. :) During my 3rd visit, it's a bit more inconsistent, with one chunk of the skewer being all Lean Meat (and slightly dry), with another chunk being 100% Fat. If they can get each skewer more evenly balanced, this will be a must order.

Another one of the items from their signature menu arrives at this point: Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs).

It's perfectly fried, crispy batter with tender, juicy, Marinated Ground Chicken, nicely done, but in the realm of "Tsukune" interpretations, I prefer a Yakitori / grilled style more.

Their Buna Shimeji no Nikumaki (Buna Shimeji Mushrooms Meat Wrap) arrives next.

The Shimeji Mushrooms seem to get lost against the salty, smoky Bacon. The other problem is that the Bacon is steamed in the batter, instead of getting crisped, which results in a soft, savory, juicy skewer that's delicious, but clashes with expectations on what Bacon in a deep fried dish would taste like.

The last of our items appear at this point: Jidori Ume (Jidori Chicken with Plum Sauce).

I adore Ume (Japanese Plum), and was hoping to get a good burst of the fruity, tart, aromatic Ume with this skewer, but like the Ikura (Salmon Roe) problem earlier, there's just not enough of the Ume to spread around for the whole skewer. The Chicken itself is fine, still juicy and lightly seasoned.

During my 2nd visit, we start with their Aburi Atsugiri Chashu (Grilled Chashu BBQ Pork, Thick Cut).

Besides the Kushiage menu, Horon also features a few Small Plates items, and their Chashu seems to be pretty popular. The Chashu off the grill looks a little menacing, cooked with deep, obsidian char marks throughout each piece. Unfortunately this "Chashu" turns out to be the unevenly balanced Pork Belly from earlier, with all of the pieces being almost all Pork Fat only. It's a little off-putting, but looking beyond the balance issues, the heavy use of Shichimi Togarashi (a blend of 7 spices) and Salt mutes the potential buttery charm of this dish.

Our first batch of skewers arrive now, mostly from their vegetables skewer menu.

The Naganasu Miso (Eggplant with Miso Flavor) features soft, silky, tender portions of Eggplant with a wonderful Miso paste that's so earthy and savory it should be used in more of their skewers (but sadly, it isn't).

Their Ingen Mame Be-kon (Green Beans Bacon Wrap) exhibits a strange earthy funkiness, with the smoky, salty Bacon dominating the skewer (not that there's anything wrong with more Bacon, but just noting). :)

But then on their Mini Tomato Be-kon (Mini Tomatoes Bacon Wrap), the sweet and lightly tart Tomatoes are just perfect with the Bacon and breading.

And then with their Guri-n Asupara no Be-kon Maki (Green Asparagus Bacon Wrap), another classic pairing shines through: A strong, but pliable Asparagus stalk stands up well to the Bacon wrapping, and makes for a one of the better Kushiage skewers on the menu.

The next batch of skewers arrive soon after, and I start with their Marugoto Ninniku (listed as "Garlic Garlic" on the menu).

As you break open the crust, you're quickly reminded of why it's known as "the stinking rose," as a pungent burst of trapped Garlic funk comes pouring out. :) It's tasty, but the trapped / steamed within Garlic and Breading is a bit overwhelming at times.

Their Unagi Katsu (Eel) is another skewer I was looking forward to.

The Unagi itself is soft and moist, but their Housemade Tare Sauce is too heavy and sweet.

Some items sound much better in writing than in execution, like their Kobe Harami (Kobe Beef Outside Skirt) from Kobe, Japan.

With most local restaurants serving "Kobe Beef" that's American or Australian Kobe, it's a pleasant surprise when actual Kobe Beef from Kobe, Japan is being served. Sadly, while there's a nice distinct beefiness and standout fattiness from the juices, it's been deep fried to well done, with a batter that seems far too rustic and rough for something as delicate as real Kobe Beef.

Taking a break from all their fried items, we try their Nana Shurui no Guri-nu Salada (Salad with Seven Kinds of Greens).

Ostensibly, it looks like a large plate of a pre-mixed Field Greens, but it happily turns out to be only some Field Greens, mixed with fresh Italian Parsley, Dill, Kaiware (Radish Sprouts), Arugula and chunks of Mandarin Orange. It's heavily overdressed, but looking past that, the actual Salad is engaging, refreshing and a nice green surprise at a deep fried skewer restaurant (just ask for them to go easy on the dressing).

Another unexpected, happy discovery is their Meibutsu Tezukuri Nameraka Tofu (Homemade Softer Tofu).

Chef Miura takes the time to make this Tofu dish from scratch, and the results couldn't be more wonderful! :) The Tofu is a thick custard consistency, reminding me of some of the amazing Yuba (Tofu Skin) creations in Kyoto than regular Tofu. The dollop of Uni on top complements the Tofu nicely.

Another of their Signature items arrives at this point: Motsu Tomato (Beef Tripe with Tomato Sauce).

The Motsu (Tripe) is just cooked through, leading a good textural contrast between the crunchy exterior and the soft, pliable Tripe itself. The Tomato Sauce is lightly sweet and just a touch spicy.

Their "Unigiri" (Sea Urchin Onigiri (Rice Ball)) arrives warm (nice touch), but sadly, the Rice itself is just a bit too dry (using a mediocre grain of Rice), and with very meager Uni portions within the Rice Ball itself.

Another of their interesting-sounding dishes is their Kare- Pan (Curry Filled Bread).

Traditionally, a Kare- Pan is a decent-sized, Fried Bun with Curry inside. So at Horon, they interpret that into a bite-sized portion of a Bun, which sounds like a great idea, but falters, with an overly dense Bread, and flat, salty Curry within.

We finish up this 2nd visit with their Kisetsu no Konpo-to (Compote of Seasonal Fruits).

Featuring Kaki (Persimmon), the Compote is decent, but nothing to write home about. The Vanilla Ice Cream seems like a throwaway in this dish, and its sweetness overwhelms the natural Kaki's sweetness.

For my 3rd visit, their Uzura ni Tamago (Quail Eggs) makes for an excellent starter. Creamy, earthy and simply delicious. :)

Next up is their Ginnan (Gingko Nut) skewer.

The Ginnan is so fragrant, smelling of wild fields, slightly nutty and delicious! :) But the one complaint I have is that 1 order comes with 2 absolutely *tiny* Gingko Nuts (smaller than a Peanut out of the shell). While it's understandable that the restaurant has to manage their costs for these $1 skewers, it feels really paltry in this case (most of the other skewers are just fine with their portions).

The Mentai Chikuwa (Chikuwa Fish Cake with Spicy Cod Roe) is another dish that reflects a bit of the excessive frugality of the restaurant.

Like their Mentai Korokke earlier, with this dish, you taste the base flavor (here it's the Chikuwa (Fish Cake), in an average, dense interpretation), with no taste of the Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe) at all.

But things bounce back nicely with their Ebi no Ippon (Amaebi Sweet Shrimp).

If Shrimp Heads leave you queasy, then feel free to skip it, but otherwise, bite into a perfectly deep fried, crispy creation that's intensely oceanic and delicious. Then getting to the body, it's really fresh and sweet, and a great skewer overall.

Their Lobusta- Tsume (Maine Lobster Claw) sounds like another winner.

The Maine Lobster meat is pure and fresh, but the breading overwhelms the delicate meat unfortunately.

What has to be the strangest dish that on paper sounds like it would never work, the Yamaimo Uni (Japanese Mountain Yam with Sea Urchin) arrives at this point.

But taking a bite, there's an immediate crispness from the Yamaimo (Japanese Mountain Yam) with a suppleness, with the Uni blending surprisingly well, creating this slightly creamy, succulent, crisp bite of happiness. :)

Their Renkon Uni (Lotus Root with Sea Urchin) suffers the same fate as their Gingko Nuts earlier: Surprisingly meager portions really take away from this dish. I realize Renkon is a bit pricier than other vegetables, but serving 1/5 of 1 thin slice of Lotus Root sounds like it's part of a satire on a bad fancy restaurant with minuscule portions. I'd rather they move this to the $2 menu and increase the portion size to something that's at least ~1/2 a bite instead of a tiny nibble the way it is currently.

Their Ika Uni no Se (Squid with Sea Urchin) suffers none of the problems of the previous dish.

There's a reason that Calamari is so popular, and in Kushiage form, the Ika is a perfect match. The Squid is fresh, properly cooked to a tender, slight toothsome quality, and the Uni lends a buttery, creamy aspect that really elevates this dish. Wonderful! :)

The last item from the Signature menu is the Jidori Chi-zu (Jidori Chicken with Cheese).

Using all-natural, free-range Chicken with Mozzarella and then deep frying the whole thing, it creates a beautiful mixture of gooey, cheesy, tender Chicken with a crispy coating.

Unlike their Potato Korokke earlier, the Panpukin Korokke (Pumpkin Croquette) shines with a lightly sweet, good Pumpkin puree balancing out the savory, crunchy crust. I'm normally not a fan of Pumpkin, but this works well.

The daily special for our 3rd visit is the Mu-ru Gai no Sake Mushi, which is Chef Miura's interpretation of the classic Moules Frites but without the Frites.

The Mussels themselves are briny, bright, but a little overcooked and tough in some pieces. It's also a touch salty, but to be fair, Chef Miura is probably taking into account the vast amounts of Shochu, Sake and Beer being consumed by most of the clientele (to balance out the saltiness). Still, it's a bit saltier than I had hoped, but otherwise a good dish.

Their Washugyu Tataki (Washugyu Super Prime Beef Tataki) is another disappointment, like their other Beef dish.

Another example where the idea is sound, this American Kobe Beef is too thickly cut, with every piece having 1-2 pieces of gristle that had to be spit out.

But perhaps the biggest surprise on the menu is something that seems the most out-of-place at a Kushiage restaurant: Tonkotsu Ramen (Tonkotsu (Pork Broth) Ramen).

Whatever the reason that motivated Miura-san to add his Homemade Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Broth combined with thin, straight Hakata-style Noodles, I'm just thankful he added it. :) Miura-san's intensely porky, pungent Tonkotsu Broth is creamy and mouth-wateringly delicious, in many ways eclipsing some of the local Shin Sen Gumi Ramen broths.

The Hakata-style Noodles are overcooked, though, too soft at this point, but I'd imagine you can ask them to make it "Katamen" (hard noodles) when you order it.

The other detraction is their Chashu (Roasted Pork Slice) that comes with this Ramen: It's slightly undercooked, needing 1-2 more hours of slow roasting / braising to conquer the slight toughness of the Chashu as it was presented. It has a good, hearty flavor, with Shoyu (Soy Sauce) and Mirin flavors coming through, but the toughness made it fall short.

But I'd imagine with slightly more firm Noodles and that amazing Tonkotsu Broth, this is one mini bowl of Ramen that's worth seeking out. :)

Horon occupies a small retail space, with an L-shaped Bar area as well. For each of our 3 visits, they averaged ~2 servers per night, and Miura-san (or his assistant) at the Bar area. Service was adequate: Just flag down a server for whatever you need; I just wish they would make the rounds more often and check in on each table for refills on drinks / needs from time-to-time.

Prices are very reasonable: ~80% of the Skewer menu is $1 per skewer(!), with the remaining skewers being either $2 or $3. They have an Ippin menu that ranges from $1.80 - $4.80 for the most expensive item on the menu. We averaged about ~$17 per person (including tax and tip).

Horon represents a new Kushiage (Deep Fried Skewer) specialist in L.A., that features a wide variety of meats, vegetables and seafood in deep fried skewer form. While there are some missteps - some skewers have very "precious" portions; some items are overcooked; or some skewers' flavors just don't work - there are also quite a few dishes that shine, like their Asparagus Bacon skewer, Japanese Mountain Yam with Uni, Ika Uni no Se (Squid with Uni), and Tonkotsu Ramen.

If there is one thing that could deter from Kushiage really exploding in popularity, it's that, in general (for this whole sub-cuisine), nearly everything is coated in the same batter and deep-fried. As a result, everything has a familiar taste foundation, the same crunchy batter, and then, the inherent flavors of the rest of the ingredients start to come through. While I enjoy the succulent skewers of Yakitori more, I'm glad to have a Kushiage specialist as a dining option for some good variety. Add in the very reasonable prices, and the festive ambiance with free-flowing alcohol, and Horon is another great addition to the neighborhood. :)

Rating: 7.5 (out of 10.0)

2143 W. 182nd Street
Torrance, CA 90504
Tel: (310) 515-6147

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch] 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 6:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. (12:30 a.m. Last Order).


Noah said...

Some of that stuff looks really delicious. Hopefully this inspires more chefs to open up good kushiage shops.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Definitely. :) Even here at Horon, if Chef Miura polishes up a few of the weaker dishes, it'll make Horon a strong mainstay.

weezermonkey said...

What a fried fest!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Let me know how your dinner turns out if you end up trying Horon. Thanks. :)

Gastronomer said...

I think my arteries clogged up a little just reading this post ;-) As usual, a great round up EK!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Hehe, thanks. :) Yah, as much as I like Kushiage once in a while, I prefer the "other skewer cousin" to this: Yakitori. It's nice to have an alternate once in a while, so I'm glad we're getting more options in So Cal. :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Thanks for the write up Exile Kiss. I agree with you in the comment you left for Gastronomyblog, while I like yakitori more, this type of cuisine (fried food, how can it not be good?) definitely hits the spot once in awhile. I'm looking forward to trying this place out soon!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

A fellow Yakitori lover! Nice. (^_~) Please let me know how your visit goes to Horon. Thanks~

Peter said...

I love kushikatsu. I made it a point to eat some on my recent trip to Osaka (at a restaurant called Mogami) since there are very few opportunities to enjoy it in Southern California. Reading your post about Horon was thus a pleasant surprise! Another place I need to check out thanks to you. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thank you. I hope you like the meal. I didn't get to try a lot of Kushikatsu / Kushiage restaurants in Kansai, so I'm curious what your thoughts on Miura-san's cooking will be. Let me know how it goes. :)

Anonymous said...

I love hearing about all the places you visit but I wish it wasn't always 80% negative. It takes away most of the fun of your blog.

Is kushinobo still open in Little Tokyo? Wonder how they would compare.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your thoughts. I can only be honest about my experiences with the meals I've had. I feel it's a bit unfair to claim that my blog is "always 80% negative." I wish that every restaurant out there could be 100% Perfect for everyone (not just myself), but that's not the reality.

For any restaurant I visit, I always go in hoping for the best, and striving to visit it multiple times (when possible) before writing about it, to get a better picture of the establishment.

I think most of my reviews are pretty positive, but apologies if you think my blog is "always 80% negative", that's not my intention.

As for Kushinobo, I've never been, but thanks for the 411. :)

Food, she thought. said...

Despite the fact that a lot of the dishes look the same, there dies appear to be a decent amount of variation. I will go in spring when I have gastrically recovered from the holidays!!! Please remind me!!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

There's definitely some variations in the menu despite the breading for everything as you say. I'm glad to have Horon add to our variety for dining options in L.A.

And yes, I'll have to send you a reminder after the Holidays. :) Thanks~

Peter said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

I hit up Horon this weekend. I enjoyed the meal and think the restaurant is a welcome addition to the panoply of Japanese restaurants in Southern California. While I think most of the kushiage was competently executed, it is not quite up to snuff when compared to kushikatsu/kushiage restaurants that I've eaten at in Tokyo and Osaka. That's not a dig however; it's like stating some of the better ramen-ya here simply don't compare to noodle shops in Japan.
Thanks again for your review!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your follow-up and thoughtful insight. It's good to know how it compared to places in Osaka / Kansai area. The one Kushikatsu place I tried in Kyoto had better breading and execution as well.

But, as you said, it's nice to have a Kushiage specialist in the South Bay now. :)

Peter said...

Exile Kiss, your blog is a continued source of enjoyment. Again, I'm grateful for your thoughtful reviews, truly. Horon is a welcome addition to the Southern California repertoire of Japanese restaurants. My friends and I are grateful for your intrepid exploration of the local food scene.

gourmetpigs said...

Looks like another good find. Some of the dishes I must try, like the yamaimo uni and the homemade tofu. I hope it'll get better over time.

Once again, thanks for finding and reviewing these places for us!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Thank you. :) I loved their Homemade Tofu; definitely give that a try. Let me know how your dinner goes overall. :) Thanks.

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