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.

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