OSAKA – When I heard there was a kushikatsu (deep-fried, skewered meat and vegetables) restaurant in Higashishinsaibashi that doubles as a shrine to the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, I promptly got on the train and made my way to the 10-seat basement restaurant on Hachiman-suji street to see for myself.
Rhythm and Kushikatsu Agatta! is owned by singer Haruko Sakuragawa, who opened the restaurant in 2015 after working at a tonkatsu (deep-fried pork) eatery for six years.
“James Brown has a lot of songs that contain the phrase ‘I got,’ such as ‘I got soul’ and ‘I got rhythm.’ When he sings, ‘I gotta,’ it sounds like the word ‘agatta,’ which means fried in Japanese,” says Sakuragawa, explaining the origin of the restaurant’s name.
“We also have live performances here every Friday,” she adds. “Get it? Fry-day.”
While many chefs are considered rock stars in the kitchen, Agatta’s chef, Yasuhiro Ando, is an actual rock star. Outside of the kitchen, Ando is also the lead singer of The Takosan, a popular soul, blues and funk band that formed in 1993 and is known for catchy songs like “Beanman vs. Zombies.” In 2009, 2013 and 2016, The Takosan even played at Fuji Rock Festival.
A talented artist, the walls inside Agatta are covered with Ando’s illustrations of his childhood musical heroes, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Bo Diddley, Rufus Thomas, Jimi Hendrix and Sammy Davis Jr.
I ask Sakuragawa how Agatta’s kushikatsu differs from older, traditional shops in Shinsekai, the part of Osaka where kushikatsu is said to have been invented in 1929. It’s no wonder that kushikatsu, which is served on bamboo skewers and dipped in a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce, is often referred to as Osakan soul food.
“In Shinsekai there is a tendency to use smaller panko bread flakes for kushikatsu,” she explains. “And lard is often used for frying. The kushikatsu is crunchy, but a bit on the heavy side.
“We place a lot of importance on crunchiness,” she continues. “So we bread our kushikatsu using coarse panko flakes, and fry them in a mix of sesame oil and shirashimeyu (refined vegetable oil). This results in a lighter, crunchier kushikatsu.”
I ask for six skewers omakase (chef’s choice) style. The food set starts off with three excellent standards: renkon (lotus root, ¥150), tori (chicken, ¥150) and gyū (beef, ¥80). I need a drink to go with this delicious food, so I order a “white beer” (¥600), a surprisingly good concoction of beer and Calpis.
Ando ends this first set on a high note with three somewhat experimental numbers: He hands me ingen bēkon-maki (string beans wrapped in bacon, ¥200), which have an amazing texture, followed by kabocha bejikushi (mashed pumpkin filled with vegetables, ¥200) and pīman nikuzume (bell peppers stuffed with ground pork, ¥200).
For an intermission, I order a cold tomato chūhai (¥400), and the fizzy shōchū cocktail is the perfect drink for a hot summer evening. As I sip, I hear the familiar opening chords to one of my favorite songs, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Ando points to my band shirt, saying, “I noticed you like The Ramones.” This is my kind of personalized service.
Ando continues with the three most popular items on Agatta’s menu: young corn (¥100), kotecchan (small intestine beef tripe, ¥150) and kakuteki (cubed daikon kimchi, ¥100). These proverbial chart toppers are meant to be eaten without any sauce and man, do they pack a punch! Ando ends this second set with two more crowd pleasers, uzura (quail) eggs and shishamo (smelt), both ¥150.
Ando surprises me with Sakuragawa’s famous pepper-flavored haru korokke (spring croquette filled with potato, onion and minced pork, ¥200) that completely blows me away. James Brown is on the stereo singing “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and I don’t feel like leaving.
Higashishinsaibashi 2-1-15, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0083; 06-6211-5515; open 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; average price per head ¥3,000; nearest station Nagahoribashi; cash only; nonsmoking; Japanese menu; Japanese only