Shota Nakajima’s bar on Pike Street was born a kushikatsu spot, then traded its myriad fried skewers for karaage, Japanese fried chicken, earlier this year. Along the way, of course, Nakajima appeared on the latest season of Top Chef and emerged the fan favorite.
What this means: Taku has been busy. “Some days it’s crazy how much chicken we go through,” says Nakajima of the kitchen’s karaage output. Some people arrive well versed in this dish, a favorite from the chef's childhood. Then there’s the duo I overheard one recent Sunday evening, wondering why their order bore little resemblance to Korean fried chicken wings.
“It keeps evolving,” says Nakajima of his chicken. “Man, I thought it would be easier to just fry one thing.” He’s added a bit of rice flour to amp up crunch without transforming this tradition into the batter-coated chicken of the American South. Fryer temps can be tricky given the volume. And volume is a given most nights.
But he does have a few imperatives. Chicken should taste like soy sauce and ginger. “If it isn’t a thigh, it’s not karaage.” Taku coats these ginger- and soy-rich thighs with five different flavorings, from dry curry spices to teriyaki sauce. The bonito and soy do the best job adding nuance.
Taku doesn’t seat minors, but dining in does give you time to ogle the big design layered into this tiny space. This is best accomplished in the company of a highball, maybe the chicken curry sandwich that began as a Top Chef popup item and then earned a spot on the permanent menu.
Soon, if staffing allows, Taku will add a late-night menu Nakajima describes as “cozy food.” The kitchen will power down the fryers for the night and dish up, say, a little soup on top of rice with salmon flakes, he says. “Cozy simple things I like to eat at home.”
But if you’re in it for the chicken, here is some guidance for the optimal karaage experience.
1. Eat it fast.
Between the dark, marinated meat and the delicate fry, you’re racing time. This chicken’s at its best when consumed in the bar, outside at one of the handful of sidewalk tables, or not too terribly far from the walkup window that runs Taku’s considerable takeout orders. If you're taking food home—and home is not in Pike/Pine—that curry sandwich is a better traveler than straight-up chicken, given the crunchy cabbage and pickles.
2. Go all in on rice.
It should surprise nobody that this Japanese chef has opinions on rice. Nakajima pays extra (way extra) to stock his preferred grains of Tamaki Gold. While a side of rice might seem superfluous given the quantities of other food at Taku, those pearly little grains really do give that savory chicken a proper foil. Opt for the karaage rice bowl and you get rice aplenty, plus some great pickles.
3. Yes, the F*ck It Bucket is fun…
It’s three pounds of chicken—in your choice of a single wet or dry flavor—blanketed by furikake fries. Be advised: Three pounds is a lot of chicken. And if you’re splitting this up among a group, you might want more fries.
4. …But don’t overlook the Lil Snack
Two or three tiny pieces of chicken and a dab of fries offer a hit of fried food satisfaction minus any subsequent naps. Nakajima says some enterprising customers who want to try all the chicken flavors will order five Lil Snacks, one in each of the wet and dry coatings.
5. Rice pudding? Rice pudding!
Taku’s lone dessert isn’t Japanese, but it is a smart way to use up leftover rice. The flavors—cardamom and almond milk—are outside Nakajima’s usual repertoire. He borrowed some tricks directly from fellow Top Chef competitors Sara Hauman and Avishar Barua. “Sarah showed me a few tricks so I came up with my very first vegan recipe,” he says. “Well, the first one I’ve actually written down on paper.”