Fried chicken is sizzling-hot in the metro area right now, with places like the Post Brewing Co. about to expand with two GoodBird Kitchen concepts; Lou's Food Bar shining the spotlight on Nashville-style hot chicken; and Max's Wine Dive coming from Texas with a tasty plate of Southern-fried goodness. And while Denverites are flocking to Japanese eateries — mostly for ramen and sushi — there's a Japanese style of fried chicken called kara age that's worth crowing about, too. A couple of big openings in the past few months have us going kara-age crazy, and the crunchy, dark-meat nuggets aren't too hard to find if you look past the California rolls, gyoza and teriyaki on other menus around town. Here are three of our current favorites to get you started on the path to Japanese fried enlightenment.
The New Star
2611 Walnut Street and 2817 East Third Avenue
Chef-restaurateur Jeff Osaka opened two ramen joints this year, the first in neighborhood du jour RiNo, and the second in the more sedate Cherry Creek North. Both are minimalist dens of deep Japanese flavors by way of Los Angeles, where Osaka grew up. His take on kara age might get lost amid luscious basins of ramen and a dozen or so other small plates, but to skip it would be to miss out on some of the best hen in town. His not-so-secret technique (it's on the menu, after all) is bathing the thigh meat in citrus-soy marinade, upping the ante with garlic and ginger, and using a coating that's mainly potato starch so that the bite-sized chicken comes out of the fryer in a light, soft crust with textural similarities to streusel topping. A ramekin of spicy mayo adds tangy zing, but a cold beer is the best accompaniment.
Ototo's chicken sports a light, crackly crust.
Courtesy of James Florio.
New Tricks From Old Pros
1501 South Pearl Street
Toshi and Yasu Kizaki, the brothers behind the thirty-year success of Sushi Den on Old South Pearl, have reopened Ototo after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, reinventing the concept as a robatayaki (featuring traditional small plates grilled over charcoal). The place is as lushly appointed as its sibling across the street, but the vibe is a little more casual, and the menu is geared toward food that matches well with drinks. So a simple, crackling plate of kara age punctuated with a blistered shishito pepper and a lemon wedge is an understated but still alluring sample of the kitchen's charms. Think of it as an introduction to a world of other tastes, from thin slices of grilled beef tongue to whole squid cooked over mesquite.
Light cornmeal crust on Sakana's kara age.
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The Hidden Gem
Sakana Sushi & Ramen
7520 Sheridan Boulevard, Westminster
Sakana opened just over a year ago as a tiny twenty-seater stashed in a Westminster strip mall. Don't let the unassuming exterior fool you, though; inside is cozy, modern and enticing, with exquisite raw fish, rich ramen and a handful of seldom-seen small plates. Along with perfectly spherical takoyaki (octopus fritters) and geso-age (deep-fried squid), you'll also find a humble bowl of kara age so pared down to its prime elements — crunchy cornmeal and juicy chicken thigh meat — that it almost comes across as soul food. Touched with a squirt of lemon, it's a homey way to start before plunging into a milky bowl of spicy miso ramen.
Sakana Sushi & Ramen is easy to miss on Sheridan, but the kara age is worth searching for.