(Formatted with All Pictures here:
Having recently discovered a real, dedicated Japanese Tempura Specialist in Komatsu (located in Torrance, CA), I was happy to hear from Jotaru and Chowpatty that there was actually *another* Tempura Specialist in the South Bay area as well, an unassuming restaurant on Hawthorne Boulevard known as Inaba. I was finally able to pay Inaba a visit a few weeks ago, and was eager to see how it compared to Komatsu.
As mentioned in my Komatsu review, I've had so many bad versions of Tempura (deep-fried meats and vegetables in a batter) over the years in Southern California, that I had given up on that entire facet of Japanese cuisine unless I was in Japan. Komatsu renewed my faith in good Tempura, and I was hoping Inaba would build upon that.
We arrived at Inaba a few minutes before our reservation. There was a beautiful Kanji sign, underlit that set the mood for the restaurant and our dining experience. Upon entering, Inaba's decor was a step up from Komatsu, with simple, clean, and refined wood accents throughout. Surprisingly, the entire front half of the restaurant featured a prominent Sushi Bar, while the back half had the main Dining Room and then the Tempura Bar towards the very back.
We were seated in front of Chef Hiro, our Tempura Chef for the evening. Perusing the menu, Inaba serves a wide variety of Kappo-style small dishes, ranging from commonly found traditional Appetizers like Edamame to more exotic Appetizers like Ika Mentai (Sliced Squid with Pollack Roe). The menu also had a Sashimi portion, and a Yaki Mono (Grilled) portion with items like Gindara no Saikyo Yaki (Black Cod with Saikyo Miso). The menu continued on with an Age Mono (Deep-Fried) portion, and Gohan Mono (Rice Items) such as Ume Ochazuke (Rice Soup with Japanese Plum).
The final portion of the menu featured their Dinner Courses / Set Meals, where their specialty was prominently featured: From the Kaiseki Dinner Course to their Special Tempura Dinner Course, Tempura was a prominently featured item across 5 different Set Meals. Finally, they had their Tempura Menu (where you could order any Tempura that was in season, a la carte, which was what we opted for. :)
Like Komatsu, Inaba featured multiple specialized condiments for the Tempura, ranging from Arajio (Course Sea Salt), Matcha Shio (Matcha Green Tea Salt), Kare Shio (Curry Salt), and the standard Tentsuyu (Tempura Sauce with Grated Daikon). It should be noted that there's no "wrong way" to accent the Tempura you order, ultimately you should choose which flavor you enjoy the most. :) (Also, having tried all the flavors at Inaba, I would say Komatsu's condiments are definitely a step above, with their Yuzu Shio sorely missed at Inaba (the Curry Salt was too strong), and Komatsu's Tentsuyu was more refined.)
We began with Nasu Tempura (Eggplant). The Eggplant was perfectly cooked, extremely light and airy! The Tempura batter surrounding the Eggplant was very good, but Komatsu was better. As we found out throughout the evening, ultimately the choice of oil, type of batter mixture used, and the chef's skill all played a hand in what set apart Komatsu from Inaba. Hiro-san mentioned that Inaba uses a Kome Abura (Rice Bran Oil) for their Tempura, while Komatsu uses a different oil other than Kome Abura (Komatsu-san hinted that it was a special blend he used, but wouldn't go into details). But besides that, the Eggplant Tempura was definitely one of the standout dishes of the evening.
The next item arrived soon after: Ika Tempura (Squid). The Ika was disappointing, being overcooked, and very chewy (moreso than the Mongo Ika we had at Komatsu).
At this point, one of the Seasonal Dishes arrived (Inaba has a Seasonal Menu, unfortunately written in Japanese only, and I ordered a few items that looked interesting to sample). The first dish was Sake no Harasu (Broiled Salmon Belly) which our waitress mentioned was very delicious and recommended. Unfortunately, it was extremely salty (probably perfect with a good, cold beer or sake :), but by itself, it was difficult to eat. It was also overcooked, with most of the Salmon being dried out.
Our next dish from the Seasonal Menu was actually a Tempura item: Hamo Tempura (Conger Eel) flown in from Japan. Sampling a bit of it with the 3 Shios (Salts), the Hamo seemed hampered, but still tasty. But when combined with their Tentsuyu (Tempura Sauce), it was *the* perfect match, and really brought out the buttery goodness of the Hamo itself! It was so fresh and flavorful, and another highlight of the evening!
The Megochi Tempura (Flathead) arrived next. Presented with its tail fin uncovered, we were curious how this would compare with Komatsu's version. Taking a bite, this Megochi was fresher and less pungent than the version I had at Komatsu.
With such a prominent Sushi Bar area, and a rarer fish featured on their Seasonal Menu, we decided to try one order of their Sanma Sushi (Mackerel Pike) from Tokyo, Japan. There was no tendon/gristle (a good start :), and the Sanma itself tasted like a milder, mellower version of Saba (Mackerel). Not bad, but nothing noteworthy.
Our Tempura orders continued after that, with Kisu Tempura (translated as "Whiting" on the menu). Like the Megochi, it was nicely presented with its tail fin unbattered. The Kisu was best complemented by the Arajio (Sea Salt), which really helped to highlight the delicate flavors of the Kisu fish.
Also, by this point, the choice of Tempura Oil and type of Batter was definitely starting to show its importance: At Komatsu, my companion and I were able enjoy each piece and we had to stop only because of the sheer volume of food. But here, we were starting to feel full from the taste of the oil and batter itself (in addition to the volume of food).
Continuing on, the Shiitake Tempura (Shiitake Mushroom) arrived, fragrant and lightly-battered. This was an excellent version of this dish, with the fragrance of fresh Shiitake Mushrooms pervading each bite. Very nice. :)
Next came the Ebi Tempura (Shrimp). This was probably the most disappointing dish of the evening, with a very heavy batter, and the Shrimp tasting very typical, like something you'd find in many of the Tempura dinner specials around L.A. There was simply no comparison to Komatsu's White Shrimp Tempura, which really showcased Komatsu-san's Tempura skills.
Our next 3 Tempura orders arrived at the same time. We began with the Kobashira Norimaki Tempura (Bay Scallops wrapped in Seaweed). Sadly, this was overcooked as well, with the Kobashira being tough, but luckily we softened up the entire dish by dipping it into the Tentsuyu.
The next item was the Jidori Shiso Maki (Natural Chicken with Shiso Herb). (It should be noted that all 3 of these items were prepared in the kitchen, rather than by Hiro-san at the Tempura Bar.) The Jidori Shiso Maki was just too heavy. From the inherently leaner Chicken Breast meat that was used, to the improper frying temperature (each piece soaked up too much oil), this was a disappointment.
Finally, we had the Renkon Shinjo (Stuffed Lotus Root). This fared much better than the other 2 items from the kitchen, with the nice crispness of the Lotus Root being a great foil to the ground up Shrimp sandwiched in the middle. The Tempura batter was still a bit too heavy for my tastes but it was good.
Our last Tempura item arrived at this point, Anago Tempura (Sea Eel). It was nicely fried, and the Anago itself tasted fresh. The inherent oiliness of the Anago was cut nicely by the Matcha Shio and Arajio condiments. I preferred Komatsu-san's version of this dish, but it was a nice way to end the Tempura Bar experience.
We ended the evening with an order of their Zaru Soba (Cold Soba Noodles). Since Ichimian is Inaba's sister restaurant, all of Inaba's noodles are supplied by Ichimian every day. I confirmed this with our waitress who mentioned that Ichimian (Honten) makes the Soba fresh in the morning and delivers some of it over to Inaba. My companion had never tried Ichimian's amazing fresh Soba, so we ordered some to try. :)
While ostensibly the same buckwheat noodle as Ichimian, the cooking skill of the kitchen and the passage of time played a factor in the final taste at Inaba: The Zaru Soba was very good, but eating the Soba fresh, earlier in the day at the place of origin (Ichimian) definitely makes a difference. The Soba here was still fresh, but lost some of its lustre and was slightly overcooked, making it too soft. Still, very good compared to most L.A. restaurants' store-bought version.
One advantage Inaba has over Komatsu is the larger waitstaff. There were at least 2 to 3 different waitresses (in addition to Hiro-san) tending to our needs, which was nice, compared to the single waitress taking care of all the tables at Komatsu (but it was never a problem, just a more leisurely pace at Komatsu for getting refills on drinks, etc. :). Our total came out to be ~$67 per person (including tax and tip).
Overall, Inaba is an excellent Tempura specialty restaurant, featuring a wider selection of meats and seafood than Komatsu, and in a nicer setting. However, in terms of pure Tempura execution, I would return to Komatsu over Inaba due to Komatsu's lighter tasting oil and batter, and just better execution overall. Add to that, a better Tentsuyu, having Yuzu Shio (Yuzu Citrus-infused Salt) instead of the overpowering Curry Salt at Inaba, and Komatsu gains an even greater edge. But in the overall picture, both Inaba and Komatsu are levels ahead of the majority of Tempura offered in Southern California, and the South Bay is lucky to have *two* Tempura Specialists to choose from. Recommended.
*** Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0) ***
20920 Hawthorne Blvd.
Torrance, CA 90503
Tel: (310) 371-6675
Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
20920 Hawthorne Blvd, Torrance, CA 90503