Discover fresh, authentic Japanese craft beer (it’s not what you think) at Harajuku Tap Room

By Richard Foss

Pair a skewer combo, rice and miso soup with the well-balanced flavors of a Baird ale stout or porter

Once in a while you come across someone who is too modest for their own good. Not in politics, of course, and rarely in entertainment, but it happens frequently in the hospitality industry. There’s a strange tendency among places with a unique specialty to not inform customers that they are in the presence of something truly extraordinary.

The latest example to catch my eye is the Harajuku Taproom, which recently opened on Sepulveda Boulevard. Though the food menu offers traditional izakaya small plate items, the pretty contemporary room doesn’t look at all Japanese. Most of the beers are from Baird Brewing, which is an unlikely name for a Japanese company. Nevertheless it is; Baird is brewed in Kanagawa Province, south of Tokyo. They’re one of the most famous craft breweries in Japan, and this is the only place in California serving the whole range of their products fresh on tap — 19 varieties, when I went.

I visited Harajuku Taproom with beer columnist Tomm Carroll, and he gave a running commentary on the beer list while I pondered the food menu. The Japanese beers we know in this country are generally light and undistinguished mass-market beers, as the superior craft brews are rarely exported. The dominant style is not the intensely hoppy and bitter West Coast IPAs that have captured the American market, but more subtle and balanced brews that are food-friendly.

To start I tried a short pour of Red Rose Amber Ale — a fruity, mild brew. Tomm had a Japan Tale Ale, which is brewed with Japanese plum juice. The Japanese, he explained, don’t particularly like the heavy, slightly acidic beers usually marketed in the U.S. as Belgian sours, but the gently tart and floral plum flavor in this medium-bodied brew suits their sensibilities. It suits mine too, though I enjoy funky, complex sour beers as well.

That plum beer was an interesting counterpoint to the surume, a slightly sweet squid jerky that I selected for a starter. Squid jerky may seem like a strange way to start a meal, but that’s what it is designed for — it’s part of a class of foods called otsumami, snacks designed to accompany drinking. The squid is cured with sugar, salt and citric acid, which is a popular trio in snack food seasonings everywhere. Here it’s served with a strangely addictive wasabi mayonnaise, which increases the appeal.

We also had skewers of chicken meatballs, pork belly, grilled squid (can’t have too much squid, I always say), scallops, chicken thigh meat with two different seasonings, and an order of gyoza. This may sound like a gargantuan amount of food that would generate an extravagant bill, but it was neither. The meat skewers were small but cheap, about $3 or $4 each, so we snacked and grazed and paired each with different beers.

There’s a lot more going on at Harajuku Taproom than meets the eye

Since Harajuku Taproom offers a quartet of four-ounce pours for $10, we could sample our way through the beer menu without greatly risking intoxication or poverty. My favorites were the Wet Hop Ale and a rich, slightly chocolatey Kurofune Porter — both a little milder and lower in alcohol than their traditional counterparts.

Tomm told me that this is the Japanese aesthetic, rounding off the more bitter, tart, hoppy and sour edges in search of balance. The fruity and floral effects reminded me of some light wines that I favor, and if you’re a wine drinker you might find Harajuku to be a good place to explore the world of beer. (They do serve wine here, as well as sake, but at most tables I saw beer.)

We had a little room left over for food so finished with a skewer of grilled Chinese yam and a bowl of soboro don, rice topped with ground chicken, scallion, sesame seeds and red ginger shavings. I hadn’t tried
the yam before and am going to search Asian markets so I can experiment with it. The thick slices were light and crunchy and had an agreeable vegetable sweetness with just a little smokiness from the grill. As for the soboro don, it’s comfort food — the traditional last item to order at a yakitori bar to make sure everybody goes home sated.

Dinner with a whole lot of high-quality beer ran $50 per person, a real deal for the expansive food and alcohol tasting experience. While Harajuku Taproom may look like just another izakaya, there’s much more going on here: beer you’ll rarely find elsewhere alongside expertly prepared traditional Japanese pub fare. It should be a destination for anyone who savors good beer.

4410 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City (310) 398-9000