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Honda-Ya: Believe the Hype! (long)

Hungry1 | Apr 10, 200612:29 PM

Make no mistake, I totally love this board. But I usually take recommendations posted here with a grain of salt--way too often, I find myself disappointed by places everybody else loves (Blue Marlin?? Why??) and delighted by grungy, ESL-dropout-run, holes-in-the-wall that I'm sure you will all hate.

So on Saturday, when looking for a place for a low-level celebration dinner, I turned to this board again with my usual cynical eye. I wanted something (1) festive and different (2) close to home (central OC), (3) cheap, and above all (4) REALLY REALLY tasty. After all, it's not every day that I manage to get a book published AND get audited by the IRS in the same 24-hour period...

Following migratory hound Seth Chadwick's mouth-watering photo essay from a few days back, I decided to give Honda-Ya in Tustin a shot. I'd heard nothing but good things about it here, but I didn't want to get my hopes up.

So I pulled my normally vegan husband off his meat-free wagon for the evening and off we went. We got there about 6:30, and there were already about a dozen people waiting outside. We signed in on the clipboard posted by the front door, grabbed a menu, and waited.

Once we were seated (after about a 15 minute wait), we had already decided on a few things to try. But then we saw the yakitori menu: on top of the half-dozen plates we'd already decided on, we ordered a skewer of pork belly and a skewer of chicken gizzards.

These arrived before the other dishes. OH MY GOD were they good! They were still smoking whern they got to our table, were crisp, nearly caramelized on the outside, and nearly squirted juice when we bit into them. No sauce or conspicuous seasonings on them--just a pure, direct, and immediate meat-plus-heat blast. Excellent.

Our other dishes came out simultaneously, and occupied the entire surface of our tiny table:

Kalbi (broiled beef short ribs)--Very tasty, thin-cut slabs of beef in a mildly sweet, garlicky marinade.

Edamame--I reminded my husband that I had just purchased a bag of frozen edamame from Trader Joe's, which we could eat at home, but he wanted these anyhow. They tasted like..edamame. A good palate cleanser.

Tatoyaki (octopus pancake balls)--Golf-ball-sized rounds of custardy savory batter embedded with miniscule bits of chopped octopus and topped with Japanese barbeque sauce and bonito flakes. They had a wonderful creamy texture. The octopus didn't contribute much to the flavor, but these were tasty little things anyhow.

Deep-fried soft-shell crab--A good-size crab that someone had thoughtfully cut into chopstick-friendly pieces before serving. Crispy, greaseless, yet still moist and juicy inside.

Crab dumplings--open-face dumplings consisting of thin wonton-wrapper-like pasta folded around generous mounds of fresh, shredded crabmeat barely bound with a bit of egg white (I think). Unlike Chinese dumplings, there were no vegetables or other flavorings in the filling--just crab. This can only work if the crab is fresh and of high quality. And yes, it worked.

Beef stew with potatoes--this was a bowl of mildly sweet broth scented with soy and a touch of bonito, with large slices of beef and chunks of potatoes and carrots. It was a fantastically soothing dish--something I can imagine a Japanese mom making for her kids on a winter evening the night before (or after) a big exam.

Salmon skin salad--mesclun greens topped with shreds of crisped salmon skin and a slightly spicy, very tasty, ponzu dressing.

All of this--plus a beer, a small sake, and two cups of tea--set us back $45 plus tip (This was after applying their web coupon, which got us 10% off the food cost).

Overall assessment? Mind-blowingly good. Every dish was excellent. Even my husband, who's normally not impressed by food, kept talking about it the next day.

The only drawback? It made me realize how mediocre most Japanese restaurants are. Now I'm totally spoiled. Damn!

The hounds have come through again! Thanks!

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