Just as every American kid grows up eating grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup, children in Japan eat karei raisu, curry and rice. On any given day, school cafeterias, company shokudos, casual restaurants and home cooks across the country sling enough of this comfort food to fill a supertanker or two with the brown, mild curry sauce.
Japanese chain CoCo Ichibanya set up their first location in the continental United States in Torrance this February with a formula different than the typically mild Japanese version. Their curry can pack enough spice to make your nose run, your eyes water, and regret ordering the dreaded number 10.
Curry wasn't a direct cultural import from India, Sri Lanka, or Southeast Asia. In a culinary game of telephone, the English are responsible for introducing their take on curry to Japan, where the heat levels and spice volumes were further turned down to fecklessly low levels. Until recent decades when serious foodies took an interest in authentic foreign dishes, most Japanese preferred their gastronomic imports watered-down in spicing and flavoring.
Not so at Coco Ichibanya. Theirs still has the Japanese curry flavor profile, but the heat level is customized to order, from mild, recommended for colicky babies and the infirm, all the way to 10. (So we made up that part about babies and the infirm.) The menu says they won't let you order a 10 until you've worked your way up from 5, which still warms you like a bowl of Texas chili.
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The difference between levels 7 and 10 was marginal to this spice-loving correspondent. Both carried enough heat to moisten the brow, but it's not remotely in the shirt-soaked-with-sweat league of a no-holds-barred Thai green papaya salad. Still, the curry carries an impressive level of flavor from a Japanese corporate restaurant. If you want to add more heat at the table, "Cocoichi" provides a big shaker of their finely ground blend of chili powder, black pepper and secret spices to suit your personal pain threshold.
The menu boasts a broad range of proteins to go along with the curry sauce and rice, starting with the top-selling tonkatsu, or breaded-and-fried pork cutlet or equally typical dishes like chicken katsu, stewed shredded pork, or spinach, or Japanese cocktail sausages. More ethnic variations indicate the chain is bringing authentic tastes of home to the many Japanese expats that live and work in the South Bay: deep fried gyoza, natto, and kimchee are all home-y menu items that survived the trip from the motherland.
Vegetarians should be advised that the curry sauce is manufactured by stewing beef. Ichibanya USA's Business Manager Katsuhiro Kawakami emailed to let us know there is currently not a meat-free curry sauce offered but, "based on customers' voices, we are going to judge whether or not we serve those curries in the future."
Future US store locations will also be based in part on customer feedback. The next two locations will open in Rowland Heights and Irvine, though the company is tight-lipped about the exact time frame. Kawakami says, "we plan to open 20 restaurants in 5 years. Based on situations of second and third stores, we are going to judge the pace and areas of opening restaurants. Regarding other states, we are going to judge based on situations of restaurants that we are going to open in California."