Sunday, July 21, 2013

ROC: Honda-Ya - As If It Were a Direct Transplant from Japan

I've been meaning to write this review for a while but now finally got the chance to. Honda-Ya is an amazing institution over LA County and OC as they have locations throughout those counties. Why is that so? They have pretty much introduced Southern California to Izakayas which are essentially Japanese pubs. Although there are plenty of types of Izakayas in Tokyo where they range from traditional to "modern" themes as I've actually been to a pirate-themed one and my first one being a mizugi bar (lit. swimsuit bar) where female waitresses dress in very skimpy outfits and serve food of a typical izakaya, Honda-Ya seems to have managed to recreate the traditional izakaya here in SoCal with its various food offerings and atmosphere as they have wooden bar tables, tatami mats with cushions to sit on without shoes and plenty of uniquely Japanese decorations inside the restaurant.

They have a large menu filled from the range of traditional Japanese offerings as takoyaki, sashimi, and tempura to more fusion with carpaccio and Americanized rolls. In addition, they have various seasonal specials regarding food items and a great drink list composing of beer, sake, shochu and of course chu-hai (refreshing shochu-based cocktails mixed with soda water and a choice from a variety of flavoring syrups). Chu-hai in my opinion is the drink to mainly get at an izakaya as it's uniquely associated with it and a huge part of the izakaya culture.

The location I'm covering for this blog post is the one in Tustin, CA. With hours ranging from 5:30 to 1AM (kitchen closes around 12:30am), there is usually a line throughout as not only is it a dinner spot but primarily is viewed as an amazing place for late night dining. Besides the late hours, what really makes it special for late night grub is that their menu mainly comprises of many small dishes to share. The following are photos spread out from two visits: one from sitting at the wooden bar and one with a friend sitting at the tatami mat area.  I do apologize for the poor picture quality as the setting composed of dim lighting during both visits.

When you first sit down, they offer you complementary cucumbers marinated in brine but aren't exactly fully pickled as with typical pickles here in the US. With the refreshing taste from the cucumber and the tang from the brine, it's sure delicious to nibble on before taking on their many dishes. I also went for a double Lychee Chu-hai as I wanted something to quench my thirst that's very refreshing. It definitely has that sweet lychee flavor but another chu-hai that I do recommend that's equally refreshing but more on a sour note is their Yuzu (Japanese Lemon) Chu-hai.

Definitely a great starter is simple Tuna Sashimi. Granted, it may not be as finely cut as by a sushi chef. However, elegance isn't really expected at an izakaya. Be that as it may, the tuna tasted clean and delicious. Sitting on the tatami mat, having tuna sashimi with sake is a great way to enlighten the experience.

My friend was really hungry so he got the sashimi bowl for himself. Looking at the picture, it appears it contains tuna, salmon, hamachi, red snapper, ikura, and a shrimp along with a square of nori. He said it was pretty good.

 He then ordered the White Peach Chu-hai. I've had this before and like others, very delicious. Not only is it sweet but there's a slight tang from the white peach flavoring as well.

My Green Apple Chu-hai came as well. Out of all the chu-hai flavors, this easily lands on my top three as not only is it refreshing but it has the flavor of apple Jolly Ranchers.

Along with the drinks, the rest of the dishes came together. In my opinion, the dish you absolutely have to get is their Crab Shumai. Even though I wasn't sure if the crab was imitation or not, it was loaded with it which makes it very delicious and loaded with shellfish flavor. The spicy Chinese mustard on the side is an amazing complement to the shumai as I feel that it doesn't really need any soy sauce to go with it.

Another must order dish is their Takoyaki. Cooked in a batter, it's loaded with octopus pieces and topped with bonito flakes, seaweed flakes, and an okonomiyaki sauce. On the side came condiments of Japanese and ginger to go along with the pieces. Soft on the inside from the batter and chewy from the octopus pieces, it was loaded with savory, umami flavor.

The Seafood Tempura definitely is something to order when wanting to get a variety from Honda-Ya's menu. It contains tempura of shrimp, squid, whitefish and a shiso leaf. It came with a dashi-loaded tempura sauce. Even though it was delicious, I wish that Honda-Ya would also offer it with some grated radish to go with the sauce as to provide a refreshing acidic contrast to the fried, yet delicate batter of the tempura.

Although the following diverges from the sushi I usually eat, this is one of those very few exceptions where I venture into the darkness of American-style sushi. This is their Blue Crab Hand Roll in soy paper. It also has an avocado slice in there as well. I have to say that this was alright for what it is.

The following pics are from my other time I sat at the bar. This is their Monkfish Liver (Ankmo). It came with the standard garnishes of mentaiko, green onion and ponzu. The flavors of the Ankimo were very creamy and, no doubt, very delicious especially with the citric ponzu and the garnishes bringing a refreshing counterbalance.

Not sure of the exact kind of oysters that were given, they had the same ponzu and garnishes as with the ankimo with the addition of a lemon wedge even though I felt it wasn't needed with the ponzu already being citrus-based. These oysters were fresh of course. Most likely because I grew up eating oysters of this style, I prefer the Japanese preparation of raw oysters with ponzu and the garnishes of green onion and mentaiko vs. the French version with the mignonette as the ponzu incorporates strong umami flavors that go extremely well with seafood while maintaining a harmony with the acidity from the yuzu juice component.

This is Ginza no Suzume, a shochu made from barley, on the rocks. I highly enjoy drinking shochu as is on the rocks. Although only about half the alcohol concentration of vodka, I feel that shochu tastes more refined and indeed it's smooth, especially with Ginza no Suzume. Rather than drinking it straight as I find it rather unpleasant, the water from the melting ice opens the true flavors of the shochu while essentially diluting out the unpleasantness.

Afterwards, I also got a Kyoho Grape Chu-hai. While much lighter and refreshing and it'll give you a buzz, it has the flavor of artificial grape soda. I'm not implying that the artificial flavor isn't inherently bad, just like I prefer that unique, artificial green apple flavor to that of real apples. 

Honda-Ya also has an extensive yakitori list as the have the charcoal grill in the back. Yes, the yakitori's good. However, I prefer Takaya Yakitori Izakaya or Shinsengumi when I go out to eat primarily yakitori. The following is chicken skin with salt and chicken thigh with green onion and sauced with tare. I wished that the chicken skin was cooked a little more as it was soft in the center in which I find to be a bit of a turn off as a huge portion of it was all bunched up. Be that as it may, the chicken thigh was delicious while having a good amount of tare.

Even though I prefer the other previously mentioned places for yakitori, Honda-Ya definitely beats them in regards to shrimp. Not only is the shrimp properly cooked with the right amount of crisp and char, the cook also manages to retain its moisture. This is their spicy jumbo shrimp. It can be eaten with the shell but after a bite, I ended peeling it off while mopping up the tail with the sauce on the place. Not only was the tail delicious and moist, I ended up sucking the head as it has all of that goodness from the guts and organs. I know, that doesn't sound exactly appealing as almost all of the organs with crustaceans like shrimp are located in the head.

Once again, I would like to apologize for the lack of lighting in the pics. Honda-Ya is an amazing and fun place to grab a couple of drinks and order a fair quantity of small dishes. It's a great divergence from the typical chain restaurants with their happy hour specials while also serving as an after dinner/ late night place for food and drinks. Even though it may be unusual for some, I would definitely recommend sittingat the tatami mat area as it's a unique and fun experience even though it might require more waiting. Once you sit down, have a couple of chu-hais, and nibble on some small plates; you'll feel that you've transported into an izakaya in Japan.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sushi Gen: The Best Sushi in Little Tokyo (a.k.a. The Non-$15 Sashimi Platter Blogpost)

Sushi Gen is a landmark institution in Los Angeles as it has been around since the '80s. I can imagine it was one of the first sushi restaurants here in the US. Even after all of this time, it still not only retains its glory but also manages to introduce people towards more traditional preparations of sushi. Yes, lots of people rave about their $15 Sashimi platter ($15 during lunch, $26 during dinner) and of course it's of amazing value regarding both quality and quantity. However, not only are the people who typically go for the platter missing out on the sushi bar experience as the platters are only available for table dining, they are also missing out on the variety offered a-la-carte and served immediately by order from the sushi bar. In addition to the variety and even though sashimi's also served at the bar, people are also missing out on what Sushi Gen truly shines and excels in: actual sushi, of course, with the vinegared rice!

The moment you see the restaurant from outside, you'll notice plenty of people waiting to get a table inside as they are most likely going for the sashimi platter. However, if you decide to opt for the a-la-carte only sushi bar in which you should do so if you want the best food and experience, wait time drastically shortens or even one would be seated immediately like we were. Once seated at the sushi bar, the sushi chef immediately greets you and instructs that you order verbally a couple of orders at a time. Immediately at this point, my recommendation is to ask for the sushi list that's typically given to tables who want to order sushi a-la-carte in order to know fully what they offer. Typically in Japan as it's the same ordering method as Sushi Gen unless if one is ordering omakase at a high-end institution in Ginza, one tells the sushi chef an order or two at a time and figures out what to order by simply looking at what's inside the sushi bar refrigerator for an item's availability. This too is expected for diners at the sushi bar. However, their bar is too long to see everything they have which is why I highly recommend requesting for the list.

As I typically like to stick to tradition when dining at the sushi bar, I had ordered my sushi progressively from lightest to heaviest in terms of flavor. I started out with Japanese Snapper (Tai). The sushi was seasoned with both yuzu juice for refreshing acidity and yuzu-kosho (fermented yuzu) to provide salt and a deep-flavor contrast with the fish. With both of these seasonings contributing to the Japanese Snapper's flavors, this was a great way to start the meal along with the freshness of the fish and the skin being left on the side in order to provide a textural contrast.

Wanting another fish of the lighter flavors yet something different from the Japanese Snapper, Engawa (Halibut Fin Meat) came next. As it's a bit chewier than Hirame (meat from the main body of the halibut) along with having its clean, light flavors, the Engawa was very delicious as it too was seasoned with yuzu juice and yuzu-kosho for the same reasons as the previous Tai.

Garnished instead with chopped shallots, green onion, ground ginger, and seasoned with ponzu (soy sauce seasoned with yuzu juice); the Spanish Mackerel (Aji) was served to us. The garnishes and the ponzu provide a refreshing contrast to the strong flavors of the mackerel along with the ponzu providing an umami flavor. In addition, one can tell that the seasonings and garnishes for the Aji are there to uplift its flavors instead of masking its "fishiness" in which there really wasn't much of by the fish itself. This was a surprise favorite for everyone in my dining party as Aji isn't typically ordered as frequent in the States which of course is unfortunate as it's a traditional sushi topping in Japan.

Next came Kohada (Gizzard Shad) which is, like Aji, one of the sushi toppings that isn't much ordered in the US yet it is standard in Japan. The flavors of the fish, like as of expected in makerel, were very strong, borderlined to being a bit "too fishy" even though it was still very delicious. It was fortunate that the lone topping of yuzu-kosho was there providing a different, strong flavor to complement the fish along with the vinagered rice providing refreshing acidity. It was these two components in which I felt saved it.

The progression now focused on fish with more deeper, meatier, and even perhaps buttery flavors. Yellowfin Tuna (Hamachi) came up. Even though I usually don't go for Hamachi, this was surprisingly very delicious as the fat content of the fish provided a nice buttery flavor without it being overwhelming. The freshness of the fish certainly helped as well. As the Hamachi wasn't seasoned at all like the previous sushi, the fish of this heavier class now requires the diner to dip the fish (not the rice) into the soy sauce. As wasabi is already added to the majority of sushi ordered, no additional wasabi's needed to be added or to be mixed into the soy sauce which is actually a sushi faux-pas. The slight dip of the fish in the soy sauce provided a strong, salty, umami flavor that went well together with the butteriness of the Hamachi.

Next came the most standard out of all the sushi, Lean Bluefin Tuna (Akami). Not only is the tuna of high quality and very fresh, it's meaty, savory flavors were very much appreciated.

Now, I present to you what are the most amazing, lip-drooling items at Sushi Gen: Chu-Toro (Medium Fatty Tuna on the left) and the grandest of all, O-Toro (Very Fatty Tuna on the right). First, lets start off with Chu-toro. It was quite evenly marbled which is what makes Chu-Toro what it is: an amazing blend of the fatty and the meaty, leaner flavors combined together in order to make its own unique character. Next, words can only mention so much of the grandeur lavishness of O-Toro. The distinct fatty segments of the tuna belly is what overrides the senses and makes those sensitive to fat extremely squeamish just by looking at it. This of course was extremely luscious in both flavor and texture. Only a small dip of soy sauce is required in order to fully bring out the breathtaking flavors of both Chu-Toro and O-Toro. As the chef was willing to give a piece each of Chu-Toro and O-Toro as it's two pieces per order, I was fortunate enough to taste both of them. But then again, who am I kidding? I'm going for the all out lusciousness of O-Toro only when I come back next time!

The next best thing came next: Sea Urchin (Uni) from Santa Barbara served as a gunkan-maki (battleship roll).  Unlike Ikko in Orange County where they serve some of the best Uni, this isn't preseasoned in which at times I prefer it just as is with only a small dip in the soy sauce for seasoning so that I can taste and appreciate the full, distinct yet very clean flavors of fresh Uni. The texture of the uni was firm, not at all watery which also contributed to its extreme deliciousness.

To complete the almighty sushi trinity with O-Toro and Uni being the other two components, raw Sweet Shrimp (Amaebi) was then presented freshly before us with their heads being simmered into miso soup to be served later on. Not only was it not at all slimy as one might perceive it to be, the meat was very firm in texture and of course was very sweet in flavor as it should live up to its name.

One of my personal favorites, Ikura (Seasoned Salmon Roe) came next served as a gunkan-maki like the Uni. The eggs were very fresh as determined from its non-wrinkly, springy, firm texture. I swear, some people get weirded out from the sight of roe as they make a mental connotation of fish eggs with something icky. However, they shouldn't do so as people see caviar from sturgeon as luxurious yet not so much with Ikura as it's from Salmon. Be that as it may, the Ikura had a very deep savory flavor which only required a small dip of soy sauce in order to bring out fully its flavors as the roe was of course high in salt content yet not overwhelmingly salty.

Our miso soup with the head from the Amaebi simmered in came. It definitely was a delicious way to wash down all the sushi consumed. The head was loaded with meat which made it great to nibble on while slurping down the soup. However, one more sushi remained before the meal was concluded.

Finally, the last pieces of sushi that was serve was Conger/Seawater Eel (Anago). My cousin who dined with me was curious about it in the beginning as he wanted to know the differece between it and its freshwater counterpart, Unagi. Anago is definitely more meaty, savory and fish-like in flavor versus the much sweeter Unagi which is why I prefer Anago over Unagi. My cousin too felt the same way the moment he started to savor it. The Anago served at Sushi Gen has the right amount of sweetness from the sauce and its meat was very savory and firm. The combination of the two opposite characters create a harmonious flavor. If you're ever in a bind to decide which of the two eels you should order, I would definitely recommend choosing Anago over Unagi.

After finishing the rest of the miso soup, out meal was concluded. All of the sushi were extremely fresh and tasted amazing. Because of how consistent Sushi Gen is able to maintain its high standards of quality and preparation for decades while offering more traditional sushi toppings, that is what makes Sushi Gen the best sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo, if not Los Angeles. If you have only one night to eat sushi in LA, this is the restaurant to go to. Forget the $15 sashimi platter, go for the full experience and to expand your horizons by dining at the sushi bar.

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