The curry first hits you in a rush of spice as persistent and irrepressible as the heat of a desert afternoon. It wells up in your eyes and trickles down your nose before emanating out to your extremities. But this is a controlled burn, calibrated as precisely as possible to each diner's quest for fire. At CoCo Ichibanya in Torrance, traditionally tame Japanese curry is made into a heat-seeker's dream.
The curry house is an international import. CoCo Ichibanya opened its first restaurant in 1978 on the outskirts of Nagoya, Japan. Even then the company had greater aspirations, quickly popping up in prefectures across the country. The chain finally went global in 1994 with a branch in Hawaii before more recently expanding to Shanghai, Seoul and elsewhere in Asia. The company's new Torrance location — a still-glistening space mottled with metallic tiles that shimmer in just the right light — is its first in the continental U.S.
Japanese curry is globalization ladled onto a plate, a dish that seeped into the Japanese cookbook not from curry-rich South Asia but from the United Kingdom. There, of course, curry is part of Britain's adoptive identity, still the culinary Indian jewel in its post-colonial crown. Japanese curry is a peculiar hybrid, relatively mild and as thick as gravy yet as recognizable as any from the subcontinent.
There's comfort in CoCo Ichibanya's convenience. As in Japan, curry here is a fast food, something to be spooned over rice and a crisp chicken cutlet. And though the restaurant is designed for maximum quickness, its efficiency is endearing: Plates of hot curry appear almost before you can set the menu aside, pitchers of water are provided for every party, and a button is embedded in every table to signal your server.
There are some 40 preset plates, the same curry poured over fried pork katsu (cutlet), a vegetable croquette, stewed chicken, tofu and okra, squid, natto (fermented soybeans), eggplant and on and on in endless combinations. CoCo Ichibanya's curry, however, is a singular sauce — other than an adjustable spice level, there is little deviation from the restaurant's main recipe. This is curry at its bare minimum, a smoky mélange of flavors that point back to a healthy helping of curry powder. It's nowhere near as complex or sophisticated as the curries that flavor Thai Town or Little India, nor is it meant to be.
But unlike most Japanese curries, CoCo Ichibanya's can seriously sting. The restaurant's regular curry has a noticeable bite, but step up to the second level of spice and you'll find a couple of beads of sweat on your brow. Each level advances incrementally with a few extra units of heat. It's at the fifth level that things become uncomfortable, the plate before you less a pleasure and increasingly a chore. Your stomach roils, your lips go numb — it's paralyzing. The restaurant reserves spice levels six through 10 for those with truly masochistic constitutions, each of which can be ordered only after you've proved you've finished its predecessor. (You'll be subject to a sincere questioning by a server.)
CoCo Ichibanya isn't only about the burn. The chicken and pork katsu are panko-crusted cutlets fried to a sturdy mahogany. Cubes of tofu take to the curry without hesitation, as do stewed shrimp and clams. The curry-covered gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) won't match those kneaded and stuffed and pinched by hand, but nobody here expects them to. Concern yourself instead with the wealth of extra toppings for the curry: tomato, asparagus, hard-boiled egg, fried squid and sautéed eggplant, which sops up the curry with custodial efficiency.
The restaurant also takes on Indian tradition with its interpretation of keema, a curry consisting here of ground chicken, bell pepper and zucchini. It's about as accurate a rendition as anything at CoCo Ichibanya, where appropriation and reinvention get a Japanese spin.