Inside the Wonderful World of Hello Kitty Karaoke
Plus, your guide to pairing the right Sanrio room with food, drinks and tunes.
About 20 miles from Downtown L.A., Hacienda Heights is not only home to the biggest Chinese Buddhist temple in the west. It's also the only place where you can actually rent out official Sanrio-themed karaoke rooms.
Currently in the early stages of a two-year partnership with Sanrio, Energy Bistro & Karaoke is run by a pair of Hong Kong-born/Southern California-raised sisters: owner Loretta Wan and chef Cindy Wan, who designed the Sanrio-themed menu.
Personally, I consider Hello Kitty a lifelong friend: I've been to several of her birthday parties and even traveled with her on a 14-hour-flight from Taipei to Houston aboard the Hello Kitty plane. So when I heard about Energy Bistro & Karaoke, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to sing karaoke with her, too.
Throughout our enduring friendship, I was always aware that Hello Kitty wasn't just a character, but part of a brand — and while she helped launch Sanrio, she wasn't singlehandedly responsible for its rapid growth. After Hello Kitty's debut in 1974, she was quickly joined by her friend, My Melody, along with a pair of cherubic siblings, Little Twin Stars. Fast forward a few decades and 400-plus characters later, and one of Sanrio's more popular current figures includes an amorphous egg yolk who's seemingly incapable of coming out of his shell, both literally and figuratively. His name is Gudetama, which comes from the Japanese term for "lazy." There's also a new girl in Sanrio town: Aggretsuko, a red panda who works an unsatisfying day job as an administrative assistant, trading her compliant behavior for an aggressive attitude and karaoke mic at night.
Aggretsuko is the main inspiration behind the Sanrio partnership with Energy Bistro & Karaoke, aka Sanrio x Energy. The restaurant currently houses four various-sized Sanrio-themed rooms, with plans for two more featuring My Melody and Little Twin Stars, which should be ready sometime this spring. Meanwhile, Energy Bistro & Karaoke is also planning to Sanrio-fy its original, much bigger and more convenient location in Alhambra, just as Sanrio itself pursues other food and beverage opportunities outside California and gears up for Hello Kitty's 45th birthday next year. But for the time being, Energy Bistro & Karaoke in Hacienda Heights is still the only place where the public can actually experience Sanrio-themed karaoke, at least officially. With this in mind, here is a guide to pairing each character-themed room — not just with food and drink, but karaoke music, too.
HELLO KITTY CLASSIC ROOM
The Hello Kitty Classic Room embodies the original spirit of Hello Kitty, rendered in red and white and dotted with blue and yellow accents. The walls and seating area are bright red, and there's a giant milk bottle on one panel — a nostalgic nod to OG Hello Kitty's favorite after-school snack.
Food pairing: Just as the hot dog is a customizable quick bite in the U.S., okonomiyaki is a made-to-order staple of casual Japanese cuisine (the name literally means "how you like"). With the Hello Kitty Okonomiyaki Hot Dog, Chef Cindy brilliantly merges these two popular fast-food snacks with aonori (green seaweed), bonito, mayonnaise and the eponymous sauce, topped off with a Hello Kitty-stamped bun, trading French fries for fried tofu on the side.
Drink pairing: While it looks like Hello Kitty's palate has evolved a lot since the '70s, the Hello Kitty Classic Room still seems to call for Milk Tea.
Karaoke pairing: "Hello Kitty" by Avril Lavigne or any song by '70s Swedish disco sensation, ABBA. A nice option from ABBA would be "Waterloo," recorded the year Hello Kitty was born in 1974.
The yellow-and-white Gudetama Room is plastered with images of the "lazy egg" in action, or inaction, as the case may be. Either way, it appears Gudetama is not having a great time. With a few simple stokes, his expression expertly alternates between boredom and pain. (NYMag even raises the possibility he could actually be suffering from clinical depression, which leads to the unsettling idea that laziness and depression are indistinguishable from one another. Only Gudetama can say for sure.)
Food pairing: If the croque monsieur and croque madame had a baby, it might look something like the Gudetama Lazy Waffle Sandwich. Rather than regular bread, this unique recipe calls for a toasted waffle, served with honey ham and a side of maple syrup, along with deep-fried sweet-potato tots slathered with a tiny, vinyl-like blanket of American cheese.
Drink pairing: Gudetama seems too bored/lazy/depressed to drink, but if he did, he'd probably opt for the Yogurt Flavor Soju Cocktail.
Karaoke pairing: Anything sad and forlorn by, say, Leonard Cohen, or Dark Wave masters like Depeche Mode. Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" is an especially good choice, just because eating anything with Gudetama on it feels a little bit like cannibalism and that’s sure gotta hurt.
Designed to hold 12 people, the Aggretsuko Room is the size of the Hello Kitty Classic and Gudetama Rooms combined (each of the previous two holds about six each). The walls of this one are emblazoned with brightly colored cartoon fragments of Aggretsuko’s bizarre, hectic world. Real-life props include ergonomic tambourines, mini maracas, and inexplicably, a single pair of red boxing gloves. Apparently, Aggretsuko likes to treat karaoke like a one-woman fight club and sing-along.
Food pairing: The Aggretsuko Mini Rage Burger is actually served with two Angus beef burgers on brioche buns, with thousand island dressing, tomato, ketchup, and American cheese. Possibly in a nod to Aggretsuko's dual identity, a replica of her angry visage is burned onto each small burger's crust, served with pickles and garlic fries. It’s definitely risk-taking, considering that Aggretsuko’s trademark is screaming.
Drink pairing: Any Japanese beer, from Hite and Asahi, to Kiring Ichiban, Sapporo, and/or Tsingtao.
Karaoke pairing: Aggretsuko loves heavy metal, so any song filled with rage and a sense of isolation would be a good choice. For more specific pairings, there's Metallica's "Dyers Eve" and System of a Down's "Lonely Day."
HELLO KITTY STARRY ROOM
The Hello Kitty Starry Room is the largest one of all, seating a minimum of 18 people. The whole party is immersed in a spaceship-like atmosphere with color-changing, light-up tables and a galactic ceiling resembling outer space.
Food pairing: The room's ambience somehow calls for sweet over savory, and there are two Sanrio-themed desserts on offer. Hello Kitty Baked Ube & Ice Cream features purple yam and condensed milk, while the comparatively traditional Hello Kitty & Mimmy Waffle & Ice Cream comes with mini Belgian waffles, with a choice of vanilla or matcha ice cream.
Drink pairing: Sake has the potential to evoke some of the same sensations as being in this room, namely euphoria and dizziness. Energy Bistro & Karaoke's sake menu includes a variety of sakes, the most exclusive being the Kubota Sake Manjyu.
Karaoke pairing: For obvious reasons, this room calls for "Giants" by Lights, or maybe "Be the One" by Dua Lipa, and depending on the mood and weather outside, "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons. None of the traditional lyrical ballads or cheesy duets for this cosmic karaoke chamber, but when the My Melody and Little Twin Stars rooms are finished, that's all going to change.