Sawtelle’s Tempura House: What to Order and What to Avoid
When my friend Katie wrote about Tempura House back in October on Squid Ink, I was pretty intrigued. A 22 year old take out Japanese lunch counter, run by a married elderly Japanese couple, serving up authentic Japanese style bento boxes, all for under $8? Maybe intrigued is an understatement. It sounded downright awesome! Located on Sawtelle, a few blocks north of the Japanese intensive drag known as “Little Osaka”, Tempura House feels like a gem that is off the beaten path of an area that itself is considered by some to be off the beaten path. An island off an island.
As promised, I found Tempura House to be completely charming, totally homey, and most of all cheap. But not everything is great, and some stuff they serve is downright awful. But if you know how to navigate the menu, you can leave with a great lunch- and support a truly old school Sawtelle institution.
Even though it is a lunch place, Tempura House opens at 9:30am so people can stop by and pick up small, pre-prepared bento boxes to take to work. At $5.50 they’re easily the most popular item. But if a hot lunch, closer to Noon, is what you’re looking for they have a full menu of permanent and rotating specials to chose from.
Each day they have different hot items to choose from, which come with your choice of “fried” or steamed rice, noodles, and steamed veggies. Choose one hot item for $6, or two for $8.
My first visit was on a Monday so I went with the chicken hamburger and the spicy chicken wings. Available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Squid Ink said the chicken hamburger is their most popular hot special and it didn’t disappoint. Ground chicken patty, topped with a sweet sauce. How can that be bad? (Answer: It wasn’t.) Sadly, the chicken wings weren’t spicy at all and since I didn’t get there until close to 2pm they were completely soggy too. I’m guessing the earlier you get to Tempura House, the better the steam table specials will be. (Especially any of the fried stuff.) The noodles and veggies were just ok, and the “fried rice” is just flavorless rice with a bit of veggies in it (I think plain white rice might be the better choice.)
I felt compelled to return on Wednesday for their orange chicken (I know… I have a serious problem) and was kind of disappointed to discover that “orange chicken” just means fried chicken chunks with a few slices of orange on top. No sticky sweet sauce. No flavor of orange whatsoever. If they had called it fried chicken (or kare age, which is what it is), I probably would have been perfectly happy. But as orange chicken it was a disappointment. (Plus, it was soggy as well.) Thankfully the pork katsu, which they have every day just to the left of the steam table, saved the day. I had gotten there too late on Monday for the katsu (apparently it usually runs out) but they have it every day as an option, chicken, pork or fish, and it is definitely one of the best things they serve. In other words, katsu + chicken hamburger is the way to go.
If you’re a fan of oyakodon, their version (also available every day) is as homey as it gets. Made fresh to order in the back, the egg on top was borderline raw (good thing if that’s the way you like it, bad thing if it’s not) and you get a ridiculous amount of food for $5.50. The only downside was the rice, which could not stand up to the massive amount of food and liquid on top of it. If you’re picky about your rice, I’d skip this one.
But the biggest shock of the day was the ten-don (aka tempura don). You’d think a place that calls themselves Tempura House would do a great job on tempura, but it was completely inedible. Even though it was cooked to order, and I ate it right away, the tempura wasn’t crispy at all. In fact, the batter was still wet and falling off all the veggies, making it one big gloppy mess on top of the rice. I’ve been told that the tempura in a bowl of ten-don is supposed to be mildly mushy, because it gets briefly sauteed in sauce before being spooned onto the rice, but this was ridiculous. Avoid.
Even though it says take out only, there are a few seats inside and a small table outside if you want to just sit and quickly eat your meal. And despite the misses, I still have much love for Tempura House. As the city gets overrun by San Sai and Panda Express and Yoshinoya, it’s nice that real mom and pop places like this still exist, and it feels good to support them.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place will say)
- Home cooked, grandma style Japanese food for $8 and under? Awesome
- You get so much food for the price
- I drive by this place in the morning… so it’s perfect to pick up a lunch bento
- Nothing better than runny egg on top of oyakodon
- Stick with the chicken hamburger and the katsu and you’ll leave very happy
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place)
- If you show up late, the hot specials taste like they’ve been sitting around for awhile
- I don’t like runny egg on my oyakodon, and the rice is not that great either
- The side dishes (mushy noodles and boiled veggies) aren’t that great
- How is the tempura so bad?!
Tempura House, 1816 Sawtelle Blvd, 310-479-5989