It's easy to stereotype Japanese food as a cuisine of all delicacy and lightness. But every culture must have its bar food, and so we have Horon, serving a barrage of skewered tidbits, all breaded, carefully deep-fried and lovingly arranged into architectural stacks.
There are fried chicken meatballs, fried pork belly, fried bacon-wrapped asparagus and fried lotus root. There are fried eel, fried meat-stuffed bell peppers and fried pumpkin. There are pitchers of beer, cups of sake and fruity cocktails. There are even fried ginkgo nuts. Horon is basically one endless, rolling, fully customizable happy hour.
"Everyone thinks Japanese food is crazy and expensive, but I don't think that's true to Japanese culture," says Hiro Miura, Horon's executive chef and show runner. Japan has its cheap, tasty chow, Miura says, but it's little known in the West. "I thought, we should make a Japanese restaurant that has real food and a real price."
Kushiage restaurants are about fried things on sticks, and beer. The frying doesn't give you tempura's crispy cloud of batter. Instead, kushiage frying uses a crunchy coating based on panko -- Japanese bread shards, sort of the airy, elfin cousin of those coarse Western bread crumbs.
Some of the stuff verges on a county fair's liberalness toward the boundaries of fryability. There's fried curry-filled bread balls, which are pretty much as gooey and crunchy as you might imagine. There's even the lunatic wonder of a fried mochi and cheese ball, which turns out to be a sort of cosmopolitan version of a mozzarella stick, with a chewy, al dente layer of mochi around a melty orange-cheese center.
And kushiage is cheap. Most of the menu is a dollar a skewer, with a few $2 skewers (fried skirt steak) and a couple of $3 skewers (including whole fried sweet shrimp, complete with crunchy, tasty head and legs). Each skewer is a single tidbit, and most reasonable people will probably want a whole skewer to themselves, though those maniacs who really have to try everything can split skewers, with a little cleverness and a borrowed butter knife. A beer and five skewers is a pretty hefty snack; 10 or 12 skewers will probably glut most normal capacities for fried stuff.
At Horon, deep-frying is not a way to drown bad ingredients in overpowering batter. And, despite the inevitable repetitiveness of an all fried-thing-on-a-stick meal, Horon is devoted to individual and idiosyncratic flavors. They fry to lock in and distill particular tastes, and magnify particular textures.
Fried scallop is a lone scallop on a stick, fried to concentrate the scallop juices into a single perfectly, succulently briny bite. It tastes like a fresh tide pool on a windy ocean day. Fried bacon-wrapped mushrooms are beautifully earthy, with the low funk of bacon amplifying the taste of forest.
Beef skirt steak skewer is excellently meaty, fried to accentuate the texture of the beef. Fried chicken tastes distinctly of lean chicken; fried chicken-and-cheese tastes much the same, only gloriously trashier.
Horon's fried eggplant with miso is so rich and meaty you could mistake it for a slab of pork belly on first bite. Then there's the eel. Typical Japanese-style eel is almost as tender as any flesh gets; Horon's fried eel is a step beyond to magically super-tender, almost liquefied inside its breaded shell. Just when you'd thought they'd reached the outer limits of tenderness and softness, there's tomato with beef tripe, boiled for four hours and then fried into a tripe-cloud.
But probably the single most wonderful skewer on the menu is chicken meatball, which is almost juicier than you could imagine. Have it fried as it is, or have it wrapped in a pepper and then fried, for a bit of sharp, green contrast. Miura says he borrowed the recipe from the cooks at Tsukune, a beloved Tokyo kushiage joint, famed for its ultra-juicy chicken meatballs.
"Kushiage is food for drinking," Miura says. "It's food for local people. If you have $10 in your pocket, you can have fun -- have a drink and a few skewers." In Japan, Miura says, a lot of kushiage places have no seating; you go in, grab your beer and your skewers and stand around with your buddies, chowing and chatting. They are popular around train stations, for a quick bite.
Horon, however, has chairs, rather nice chairs, in fact. It has tables and bar seating near the cook. It looks like a nice sushi restaurant, except for the glorious aroma of frying that gently clings to the air and the general aura of buzzed conviviality. Everything's clean and modern and über-Japanese, right down to the brush-work menu on the paper place mats. The place is about as genteel as possible for a place that's basically a festival of the fried.
Horon WHERE 2143 182nd St., Torrance. WHEN Open every day, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Beer, sake, mixed drinks. Credit cards accepted. Lot parking. PRICE Skewers, $1 to $3. Appetizers and other dishes, $3 to $6. CONTACT (310) 515-6147