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This Karaage-Making Taco Fiend Is Bringing Japanese Street Food to a Mar Vista Sidewalk

Taisei Yamada at Munchies Buddies.   Photos by Vitaly Belousov

Taisei Yamada at Munchies Buddies.   Photos by Vitaly Belousov

[dropcap size=big]Y[/dropcap]ou don’t see the likes of Taisei Yamada every day in L.A. street food; a solitary figure making Japanese chicken karaage in a dual tank deep fryer on a Centinela sidewalk.

And you’ll be hard-pressed to find another fried chicken like his plump, boneless chicken thighs rolled in a batter of crushed, dry ramen noodles, a unique recipe borrowed from his mother back in his hometown of Fukuoka, Japan.

Yamada opened his stand, Munchies Buddies, in front of Mar Vista’s Mitsuwa in January; another pandemic-led pivot to food entrepreneurship prompted by a shift in employment.

The 26-year-old chef has long been steeped in the food business, spending his early teen years in Japan preparing yakisoba at local festivals and holding down a job at legendary Hakata Ikkousha Ramen.

Just as that famous name in noodles has gravitated to a few locations in L.A., Yamada did too. The dedicated hip-hop fan moved to the States in 2015, with a professional switch to the music scene on his mind.

But food has a way of pulling you back in.

Yamada would soon find himself in a management position at the Marugame Udon chain, travelling to its various locations to train new kitchen workers. A couple of years ago, he departed to oversee the yakitori post at the widely hailed Beverly Hills address of Aburiya Raku in Beverly Hills.

Cue the inevitable entrance of Covid-19.

An ownership change and the subsequent closure at Raku set the chef on a new path to poultry glory. One that may have not happened at all, if not for our own favorite obsession among L.A.’s street food landscape.

“I love tacos, and go to taco stands often,” Yamada tells us. “I wanted to bring more food diversity here, as well as the culture of where I grew up.”

He received additional encouragement from his wife, Karen—the other titular munchie buddy—who helped push Taisei out onto the street.

“Street food in my city of Hakata is very popular, but more like ramen,” he says. “So, I was looking for what I could do on the street myself. Karaage is a common street food in Japan. And everybody loves fried chicken in America.”

Yamada initially established a location near his own South Central neighborhood of Hyde Park. He enjoyed those early days as part of a thriving vendor scene at Crenshaw and Slauson that was popping with visitors in the wake of Nipsey Hussle’s death.

Younger crowds were friendly, but a fight with an older gangbanger and ensuing threats forced him to seek out a new location. Opening within reach of a Japanese supermarket was a no-brainer.

And there is where Munchies Buddies is taking off. Shoppers tend to park for the store or nearby taco table, glimpse Yamada at work, stop by for a taste, and soon find themselves returning for his chicken.

His repeat customers are what really makes Taishei happiest, appreciating that Angelenos out there understand and love what he’s doing without hype.

It’s easy to see why they do.

Yamada’s fried chicken stands among the juiciest, crispiest karaage we’ve bitten into in L.A. The batter of crushed Baby Star ramen—a popular after-school snack in Japan—over a thick coat of potato starch—which yanks lingering moisture out of the chicken’s skin—gives it an insane crunch, the craggy shell shattering into the hot, succulent dark meat within.

A customary overnight marinade with sake and soy leaves ginger and garlic echoing through the palate long after your last bite. The chef also fries his tender thighs in soybean oil, adopted from his time with the tempura-rich Marugame empire.

You can order your fried-to-order bird in the traditional, unadorned style. Or with a sesame seed-sprinkled glazing of teriyaki sauce—regular or spicy—directed more towards sweet-favoring U.S. tastebuds. He also offers sliders with his chicken between Hawaiian buns or served over French fries.

Dips include lemon-pepper, ponzu, cheese, Kewpie mayo, and a sweet-and-spicy sauce inspired by frequent childhood trips to his father’s homeland of Korea.

Until recently, Munchies Buddies was a two-fold Japanese-Mexican concept. Yamada offered his chicken alongside snacks prepared by Karen, who was raised in Mexico City. Unfortunately for all of us, her chicharrón preparado and tostilocos tended to go overlooked for his karaage, causing them to part with that model.

Yamada may yet bring some of these items back in the weeks ahead, maybe the fresas con crema and platanos machos that were the biggest hits.

Looking further to the future, he hopes to someday open a truck or restaurant dedicated to Japanese street food, where he could broaden the menu with tonkatsu and tamago sandos, as well as Japanese twists on U.S. fast food.

Until then, all of you karaage maniacs and fried chicken fiends can unite at Munchies Buddies, where Taisei Yamada will be set up every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings in front of Mitsuwa.

And trust us, he'll be happy when you come back.

Munchies Buddies ~ Tues. Fri., and Sat. evenings @ 3760 S. Centinela Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90066

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