When done properly, chicken karaage are wondrous things. Though you think you've never had them, you probably have: On some poorly translated menus, I've seen them called sesame chicken, even though sesame doesn't always figure into the list of ingredients. Essentially, karaage are Japanese McNuggets—bite-sized, battered pieces of boneless chicken that are crisp on the outside, juicy inside. But unlike McNuggets, they're almost always composed of thigh meat, never breast. And since they're packed with flavor, you never have to dip them into any sort of sauce.
The flavor is all in the marinade, a concoction whose basic components are so simple, I can list the entire recipe I use at home here: sake, ginger juice and soy sauce. I prefer to soak my chicken in the mixture for about six hours; some cookbooks suggest somewhere between 30 minutes to overnight. But ultimately, karaage lives and dies by how you cook it. It requires a mastery of the double-fry method. The first fry, at low temperature, cooks the meat through and through. The second fry, at a high temperature, turns the outside crispy. It has taken me years of trial and error to achieve decent results, yet I still can't say I've mastered it. Somewhere between salmonella and overcooked meat as chewy as burlap lies the elusive karaage sweet spot—one the new Tenkatori in Costa Mesa hit every time I've had the dish there.
The chefs at Tenkatori are masters of karaage, Michelangelos of the chicken-fry arts. The Costa Mesa location is new to OC, opened about a month ago, but the chain landed in Gardena earlier this year with a story that started in Oita, Japan, circa 1962. And though nearly every ramen shop in Costa Mesa already makes excellent karaage as side dishes, Tenkatori's specimens are a different species altogether. Every piece of chicken is cooked to order. As such, there's always a 10-to-15-minute lag between when you pay the cashier and when your food shows up in the rectangular opening that separates the kitchen from the takeout counter. And unless you want a scalded tongue, it's best to wait a beat or two before biting into one. But when your front teeth finally breach that craggle-crusted, golden exterior, the chicken will burst juice and a flavor that matches the sweet-sweet aroma of sake.
Although I've seen customers order a big box of karaage and eat it plain, the best way to enjoy Tenkatori's karaage is to take advantage of the generously portioned bento boxes, which are immaculately constructed despite the Styrofoam container. For every bento, you choose a main protein from a list of different karaages, teriyaki chicken, or stir-fried strips of beef called “BBQ.” Included are plenty of rice and a miso soup, and then a choice of either two more karaage, two mashed-potato croquettes or a serving of tempura. But the box doesn't end there: There are still two rolls to pick from and a brisk salad or steamed vegetables that features perfectly crisp yet tender broccoli, carrots and baby corn.
The California rolls, by the way, are reason enough to visit. With a creamy krab center surrounded by avocado and sushi rice that's never mushy or dry, they're easily one of the best non-sushi-bar California rolls I've had this year. In fact, every sushi roll I've ordered à la carte has been exemplary. There was a crunchy roll with tempura, a spicy tuna that didn't overdo it on the Sriracha, even a karaage roll that managed to contrast the hot, crispy chicken with the cooled sushi rice.
But when you're here for the first time, start with anything made of fried chicken. The menu is plastered with pictures of different hen parts turned golden brown and delicious. And the karaage is just the springboard to these other chicken-fried masterpieces, which include teba (whole wings that count double since each piece includes a drum and flat) and butsu-giri (random pieces of bone-in chicken that could be breast meat but often isn't). For the nose-to-tail eater, there's sunagimo and nankotsu, fried gizzard and chicken cartilage, respectively, which are both sold by the ounce or pound. If you still insist on good ol' breast meat, there's the $5-per-piece gaburi mune, an entire hunk of deep-fried poultry as big as the Colonel's, but not nearly as greasy.
You should, however, probably skip the karaage that Tenkatori shellacs in sauce. It's overkill and adds nothing but sodium to chicken pieces that are already highly seasoned. Plus, these sticky-sweet sauces seem to obliterate the tenuous texture of the crisp outer crust, an essential part of the finger-lickin' experience of karaage . . . even if you're actually eating them with chopsticks.
Tenkatori, 3001 Bristol St., Ste D, Costa Mesa, (714) 641-7004. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $10-$15, food only. Beer and soju.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.