Japanese is one of the most popular cuisines in North America, thanks to the proliferation of sushi (now sold even in grocery stores) and ramen (the ultimate dorm room food as well as the focus of an ever-growing number of restaurants both plain and fancy). But there’s a lot more to Japanese food than sushi and ramen, of course — and one specialty that’s becoming increasingly popular in both the U.S. and Canada is karaage, Japanese fried chicken.
It’s said that the technique of deep-frying in hot oil was brought to Japan by Portuguese Catholic missionaries in the 1500s. In fact, tempura was inspired by the Portuguese, and may have gotten its name from a Latin phrase — “ad tempora quadragesima” (“in the time of Lent”) or “quattuor anni tempora” (“the four seasons of the year,” referring to the quarterly Ember Days) — both describing periods when eating meat was forbidden to Catholics and deep-fried vegetables took its place. (Speaking of cooking vegetables, these are 9 vegetables you should never eat raw.)
The term “karaage” occasionally refers to other kinds of meat, but these days almost always means chicken — usually thigh meat, marinated before frying. Unlike tempura, karaage is a fairly modern invention, first popularized in southwestern Japan in the 1920s. While American-style fried chicken is typically coated in seasoned flour or a flour-based batter before frying, karaage uses potato starch, with the chicken often fried twice to give it extra crunch. (If you’re craving the homegrown version, these are the best fried chicken places in America.)
To find the best Japanese fried chicken in North America, 24/7 Tempo reviewed a list of the top karaage spots across the U.S. and Canada published by Yelp. Some of the places on the list specialize in karaage; others feature it on menus that might otherwise concentrate on ramen, izakaya fare (Japanese bar food), or Japanese-style barbecue dishes.
One restaurant on the list, Vecina in Phoenix, is a modern American place with Asian menu accents. Another one, Pony Up in Denver, is known for its variety of French dip sandwiches but offers a well-regarded “country karaage” as an appetizer. Poke-chan in New Orleans adds Japanese fried chicken to its poke bowls. Whatever the context, these places serve the best karaage in North America.