Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CoCo ICHIBANYA: Pan-Asian Chain Curries Favor with South Bay Foodies

When Francie Neely, the plucky protagonist of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” was tired of her family’s monotonous diet of bread and potatoes, she would have a “pickle day” at a nearby deli. In 1943, Betty Smith apparently understood the meaning of “umami” before foodies latched onto it 70 years later. 

Although my diet is widely varied - perhaps too widely, sometimes. Despite the cornucopia of food choices that I am faced with daily, my palate also suffers from ennui. When I need a “pickle day,” I turn to things like meatball sandwiches, soondubu at BCD Tofu, or Japanese curry.
When I was growing up, the South Bay was a culinary wasteland when it came to Asian food. Now, with a decided change in demographics, residents are blessed with nearly every cuisine of the Pacific Rim: Vietnamese pho, Thai food, and hitherto unknown to the area, Chinese and Taiwanese sweets and savories.

A welcome surprise in the ever-widening ethnic food landscape of Torrance is CoCoICHIBANYA, an East Asian chain of Japanese curry restaurants. When I first heard about it, the LA Weekly noted that U.S. Marines really favored the spot: the company’s two highest performing stores are in Okinawa near the USMC’s Camp Foster and the USAF’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The menus proclaim that last year, the Guinness Book of World Records named CoCoICHIBANYA the largest curry restaurant chain in the world, with 1,200 locations in Japan alone. The rest of the stores are located in Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Hawaii, and Southern California.

Semper Fi: The favored chow of Marines stationed
in Asia, CoCoICHIBANYA’s logo beams out like a
benevolent god hovering above Sepulveda Boulevard,
and in the high-ceilinged dining room.
This style of curry – introduced to Japan by the British during the Meiji Era and charmingly quieted down as only the Japanese can do – is a lot milder than Thai or even the Indian curries from whence it came. However, CoCoICHIBANYA's version can still do a number on the taste buds. The menu's Fire-O-Meter starts at “regular” and “mild” before it even begins to count to 10.  I opted for 1, which on this secondary scale meant "mild," and even that provided a satisfying burn. Ordering level 10 should only be done with 911 on speed-dial.

The cuisine at CoCoICHIBANYA reflects the restaurant’s pan-Asian reach, with additions to the traditional Japanese curry sauce such as kimchee, potstickers, okra, and fried chicken. Thai iced tea and red velvet cake from the good old U.S. of A. sweeten the international bill of fare. Typically Japanese ingredients, such as vegetable croquettes, natto, and “hamburg” are available as toppings. Even curry’s Indian roots are saluted with cheese or chicken-topped “pizzas” on crusty naan.

I opted for the chicken cutlet, although pork is the more traditional base for kare raisu. The need for something green on my plate led me to choose the okra and tofu topping, which was tasty as well as healthy and colorful. Carb-conscious diners will appreciate the restaurant’s unusual pricing scale, where they can take off fifty cents to $1, by reducing the amount of rice served. But health nuts are charged an extra dollar for brown rice – or in my case, fifty cents – I asked for a “small” portion.
A crispy panko-coated piece of pork or chicken katsu, moistened with curry sauce and pillowed with a bite of fluffy rice is one of those perfect storm moments of eating, where texture, temperature, and flavor all come together in one amazing bite. The garnish of pickled daikon indeed, “keeps the appetite,” as my server told me. This is a dish best eaten hot, as soon as it hits the table, and I did so, quite greedily. The brown rice made me feel a little less guilty about the carbo-licous indulgence. 

Chicken katsu with okra and tofu curry are a symphony
of texture and flavor.

Francie Neely would have loved pickled daikon, crispy panko-coated anything, and the mysterious spice of curry. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is full of wonderful food references, poignantly written because of the extreme poverty in which the characters live. But they make the most of things, and demonstrate a wonderful sense of curiosity, as in a scene where the characters enjoy a dish of “alligator pears” – our now common, everyday avocado.
As a prodigal daughter of the South Bay, I am grateful that returning to my old stomping grounds now yields a wider range of choices to tempt my jaded palate. Although I miss living nearer Sawtelle, Chinatown, and Thai Town, there are more Asian food options in not only Gardena, but Torrance, Palos Verdes, and the Beach Cities.

The world of food has gotten smaller, and even the most dyed-in-the-wool mall rat can cultivate more worldly tastes. The foods that my sisters and I experienced as “exotic” while growing up in the ‘burbs was fairly limited back in the day - I remember how Jolene and I loved the naan at The Clay Pit in the South Bay Galleria - she always said it like like eating bread that was made just for you.

Things like naan, sushi, chicken soup with matzo balls, were delicacies that were almost diary-worthy when we were younger and developing our palates. It was an occasion to eat such fare, as a departure from our everyday menu of solidly American food like burgers, spaghetti (made at home with Lawry's seasoning packet), and random Filipino dishes. Although I like to think that our palates are way more sophisticated today, there is still something about"rebooting" the tastebuds with something like Japanese curry - or a really good pickle.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks to this great article my family and I tried Coco Ichibanya last night. Here are a few awesome things I wanted to point out:

    While we were waiting they took our order so when we were seated there was minimal wait time.

    Every table has a picture of water on it, especially important if you go spicy with your curry.

    There is a button on the table to call your server- not that we needed it as all the servers were incredible attentive. Just make sure the adults sit by the button, it is very tempting for little ones.

    Enjoy your visit.