The original Harajuku Taproom in Japan is known for pairing creatively modern craft brews with traditional Japanese small plates. Now, the newly opened Harajuku Taproom in Culver City is replicating the formula, combining the intricacies of Japanese craft beer and pub foods.
Los Angeles already has a number of these Japanese pubs called izakayas, where sake is a central drink, but this is the first one in the area to double as a beer taproom. In other words, it’s the first United States showcase floor for Baird Brewery, a leading craft beer company that was founded in Japan.
“This is the only place outside of Japan where you can have access to the full breadth and depth of their product line on tap,” said owner Adam Guttentag. Harajuku Taproom offers 19 selections from Baird Brewery on tap, several of which are seasonal and will rotate throughout the year.
Including a few guest beers from California, the taproom has a total of 22 taps, offering flights that let you sample four brews at a time from 4 oz glasses. The bar also offers a customary sake menu with hand-crafted selections from small Japanese breweries that you can try in a triplet of 2 oz tasters.
For Adam, the LA launch of this project was born from his long-time friendship with Bryan Baird, founder of Baird Brewery with his wife Sayuri. The couple both studied the essence of beer brewing in California before setting up shop in Japan. Since opening its first taproom in 2000, Baird Brewery has become one of the largest craft breweries in Japan, where it has five taproom restaurants similar to the one in Culver City.
Baird Brewery leverages Japan’s produce and characteristic flavors, incorporating ingredients such as locally grown figs, plums, pumpkins, and wheat, which help distinguish the brand as uniquely Japanese. Its flagship beer, Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale, is brewed with green tea and wasabi.
“So the idea is that when you drink the beer, you’re getting a multitude of flavors,” Adam said. “It’s very multidimensional. It changes as you drink it.”
To complement the flavors of the craft beer, look for the two specialties of the house: gyoza and skewers. The pan-fried gyoza are housemade dumplings filled with beef, pork, shrimp, mushroom, or Impossible meat, which is a plant-based product designed to mimic meat from the Impossible Food company. The taproom also has an Impossible meat stuffed shishito pepper.
The grilled skewers are also a must-have Japanese pub dish, commandeering a full page of Harajuku Taproom’s menu. Here you can choose from seasoned chicken, beef, pork, seafood, and vegetables, such as shishito peppers and mushrooms. Intrepid carnivores may opt to try the chicken parts, which include gizzards, hearts, skin, and the tailbone meat known as bonjiri.
Among the appetizers, you’ll find a few items that get a special taproom treatment. The edamame is sauteed in a reduction of the house’s own stout beer, and the karaage is a Baird beer-battered fried chicken. The full food menu also includes rice bowl dishes and rice balls filled with salmon or vegetables.
For dessert, the yaki banana sundae leads the list, served in a style that’s perhaps a nod to the restaurant’s namesake. Harajuku is a district in Tokyo well known for its risk-taking fashion trends. The Culver City chefs of Harajuku Taproom similarly gamble with the integrity of a banana as they cook it on the grill with the skin on. Precisely timed, the banana is warm but not mushy, cushioning several small scoops of vanilla ice cream with corn flakes layered in to add crunch. The sundae is topped with whip cream and pineapple chunks, then drizzled with chocolate sauce.
The restaurant’s street-facing wall of windows rolls up like a garage door, giving you the option to enjoy dining in the open air. Sports fans may elect to huddle around the bar to watch the TV screens flanking each end, or you can settle in the main dining area where the walls bear enlarged reproductions of the Japanese wood prints used to create Baird Brewery’s beer labels.
While other izayakas in LA are only open at night, Harajuku Taproom is open for lunch as well as dinner. Because the staff arrives early to prepare the food, offering lunch service was a sensible decision for Adam, and plans to start delivery are also in the works. Keep an eye out for $10 set menu specials, which includes a main item, soup, salad, and rice.
Having spent five years living and working in Japan, Adam recognizes that the izakaya experience is a different dining concept with a flexibility that he hopes will continue to gain momentum.
“It’s a type of eating where you don’t have to order everything at once,” he said. “You can order as you go.”