Just like everywhere else in America, it’s been hard for restaurants large and small in the Santa Clarita Valley to survive the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Newhall Refinery and King Kogy, once acclaimed as among the valley’s best places to dine, both closed within months of the first statewide lockdown orders last spring. Even supposedly invincible franchises like Round Table Pizza, PizzaRev, and Coco’s in nearby Valencia and Canyon Country have shuttered, at first temporarily, before quietly fading into oblivion. The legendary Saugus Cafe, the oldest restaurant in LA and a beloved breakfast spot that welcomed whistle-stop train tours from presidents a century ago, was forced to put up a GoFundMe page just to remain in its 135-year home.
Despite all the sadness, there has been room for some youth and innovation around the Santa Clarity Valley. One such scrappy newcomer is Tento, a new outpost for Japanese-Korean street food in the bustling Canyon Square Plaza, part of the sprawling Canyon Country neighborhood in the SCV. Tento joins recent arrivals like Teriyaki Rice Express in nearby Soledad Plaza and Waffle Love SoCal, built to serve dessert waffles from inside a retrofitted former poke shop, as recent arrivals willing to make a local splash.
Tento, as it happens, sits in the former location of the Flame Broiler chain, known for exceedingly sweet teriyaki chicken and massive rice bowls, though the food now is far from mass marketing. Tento is massively more aesthetically and flavorfully adventurous, with a sparkly, neon-lit Blade Runner vibe wrapping portions of the restaurant, and a menu that certainly doesn’t play it safe.
At one end, tourist posters from Izumo, massive ukiyo-e wallpaper, and gleaming manga covers dangle precariously, while the order and prep area in front sticks to deep red and searing yellow hues. Naturally, with social distancing regulations and indoor dining prohibited for the foreseeable future, the bombastic interior here comes second to the surprisingly clarity of the food, particularly for the Santa Clarita Valley.
Giant, 40-pound bags of Calrose Shirakiku rice — an important staple in California’s rice industry — and color-coded rows of yaki nori line the dining area. These make up a large part of Tento’s menu, which hovers almost exclusively between nine different styles of snacky musubi rice balls and Korean-style corndogs. There’s one option for takoyaki and a cooler of ice green tea and other soft drinks, but otherwise that’s it. This is refined restaurant simplicity, with a pared-down menu and comfort food at the forefront, perfect for third-party apps and seamless delivery ordering during the pandemic. Of course, it helps that the food is fantastic.
The musubi, each the size of a baseball, feature nori loosely wrapped around fresh Tabasco-spritzed white rice, with scallions, cabbage, and a sweet tamago omelet for crunch. From there, a lineup of fillings includes beef bulgogi with lots of vinegar, or crispy pork cutlets as a spin on traditional tonkatsu. The classic Spam musubi, naturally, is also a hot seller.
Tento’s signature offering (if such a thing can be said about a restaurant that only serves variations of two items) is the Korean corndog, which emerges from the kitchen not as a stiff, bready American concoction but as something else entirely. Here, the proprietary batter might come mixed with potatoes or sprinkled with breadcrumbs, creating a crunchier and starchier alternative to the norm. And at $3.75 a pop, these dogs are large, filling, and just varied enough to stay interesting (hint: try the exceedingly cheesy all mozzarella option sometime).
Owner Chris Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is no stranger to crafting a simple menu to big effect. Lee is also the owner of Newhall gem Deep Sea Poke, formerly known as Poke to Me, a microchain with locations in the Antelope Valley, Camarillo, and Midvale, Utah. Still, the public support for Tento in its three short months has been something to behold, as word of these intriguing eats and their unseemly portions spread quickly on social media, particularly the local 15-thousand-member “Santa Clarita Foodies” Facebook page, which holds an incredible amount of sway in the area. Now, during a typical lunch hour, lines frequently curl out the door and deep into Canyon Square Plaza, pandemic be damned.
Will Lee’s success with Tento continue into the new year, as outdoor dining begins to return to Southern California? Perhaps, though it’s worth noting that this small, inexpensive upstart has yet to meaningfully compete against the longtime names in Santa Clarita Valley dining. The true future of Tento, like so many restaurants, is unknown, but for now, customers keep coming, happy to queue up for unique corndogs in the often sleepy Santa Clarita Valley.
Tento is now open at 18519 Soledad Canyon Rd., Santa Clarita, CA 91351, keeping hours from noon to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.