On a recent article reporting the results of a Chowhound poll of favorite Orange County eats some posters lamented that the O.C. restaurant scene is "sad," "depressing," "lacking," and "bleak." They took this list as proof that dining in Orange County does not equal that of New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
If one's metric in determining whether a region has a "great restaurant scene" is how many tony French and European establishments with celebrity head chefs named Puck, Splichal, or Keller are present, then they'd be right in saying that O.C. is indeed "lacking".
Inarguably, L.A. is home to dozens of "world-class" fine dining restaurants. And being as large as L.A. County is, it harbors some authentic "ethnic" food enclaves within it as well. It's a fact that Chinese food heaven is located in the San Gabriel Valley, and Artesia is home to Little India; both of which are in L.A. County. I love L.A. for these reasons.
But that's not to say that Orange County isn't great also. Orange County boasts Little Saigon, Vietnamese food mecca, and Santa Ana for the best Mexican north of the border. We've got our share of fine dining options too, like Chat Noir with Chef Yvone Goetz at the helm. And that's just naming a few.
Some might read this and say, "But most of the good restaurants in O.C. are just just ethnic joints." Yes, Virginia, it's true that most of the places people enjoy in Orange County could be considered "ethnic" or "foreign," but obviously, one person's "ethnic" and "foreign" is another's home cooking. It's just an unfortunate consequence of semantics and perspective.
What I would argue against is calling Orange County's roster of fine, family-owned, and independently operated restaurants as "sad," "depressing," or "bleak." In my humble opinion, it is quite the contrary. For every L.A. chef with his/her own line of cookbooks and cutlery, there are hard-working and talented ones in Orange County like Hiro Ohiwa who aren't as famous.
Unlike Chef Puck, (who long ago turned over the reins of Spago to an equally capable head chef) Chef Ohiwa still mans the saute pans at his namesake restaurant, Cafe Hiro. There in the open kitchen, you'll see him toil every night of the week wearing a backwards baseball cap, dazzling his patrons with inexpensive, honest, and inventive food.
Orange County is also home to artisans like Shibutani of Sushi Shibucho and L.A. ex-pat Chef David Slay of Park Ave. And let's not discount those countless unsung cooks from La Habra to San Clemente who take great pride in churning out everything from pupusas to foie gras. For instance, Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove produces the freshest, most authentic Thai cuisine in all of California, but there's not a snowball's chance in hell that the chefs behind the scenes will ever get to see the limelight of an adoring press.
Another example of this is Honda-Ya in Tustin, which topped the "Ultimate" O.C. Restaurant List tying with Mastro's Ocean Club. The cooks in the kitchen of this venerable eatery might not hold degrees from Le Cordon Bleu or win awards from the James Beard Foundation, but the food is reliably good and unfussy.
There's a tatami room where you can make like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or Richard Chamberlain in Shogun and sit cross-legged while you struggle with chopsticks and your legs fall asleep. Massive logs from ancient timber tower above you and there's always the boisterous sound of toasts made after Asahi is poured out of giant bottles. The wait is frustratingly long on weekends and you feel like you've won the lottery when your name is called. This is my kind of place. This is my Orange County.
If you're curious what the food is actually like, what follows is a sample of a typical dinner I have often at Honda-Ya.
We start with complimentary brined cucumbers to ease our palate into the meal. The two spears served are as cool as ice cubes and crisp with a slightly spicy zing.
The first dish is potato, carrot and thinly sliced beef, slowly simmered in a soy and mirin infused broth. This is home-style cooking with simple and rustic ingredients. Like the typical American beef stew, it's soothing and uncomplicated.
The soft hunks of potatoes, carrots and tender meat are designed to warm you to the core and lull you to a satiated slumber. But unlike Dinty Moore, this Japanese version isn't bogged down with a heavy and thick gravy. In fact, once the meat and vegetables were eaten, I couldn't help but sip the leftover brew like consomme.
Next was the crab custard, a faithful preparation of chawan mushi topped with the extra treat of whole pieces of freshly shelled crabmeat. We thought the steamed egg was a touch too sweet and dessert-like, making it an odd base to the briny crab.
But we both swooned over the crab shumai dumplings which are made of thin wonton wrappers stuffed with crab mousse. These piping hot parcels of goodness are shaped into diamond-shaped purses and served freshly steamed with a dollop of lethal hot mustard on the side. The paper thin noodle-dough envelope offers the slightest resistance to the teeth and the firm, silky filling has a subtle but omnipresent crustacean flavor. This is one of my Honda-Ya favorites.
Next dish? Grilled clams. Cherrystones, to be exact, each about two-inches wide. With something as fresh and delicate as these, simplicity is key. And Honda-Ya's restraint is evident here.
Heated on a grill until it pops open, the mollusks are served hot on the half shell over a bed of sea salt. A drizzle of lemon and it's ready to eat. No other accoutrements are necessary. I grabbed one, tilted the shell into my mouth, and allowed belly meat to slide down. The acidic tang of the lemon and clam juice accented the tender chew of the creature. It couldn't have tasted better if it was cooked over a beach bonfire in paradise.
Although Honda-Ya is well-known for sticks of yakitori prepared on the robata, the cooks also put their grill talents to use on fish. One fine example of their handy work is the grilled hamachi collar.
Collar meat, for those in the know, is the filet mignon of the yellowtail snapper. This is the hunk of flesh surrounding a boomerang-shaped bone nearest the gills. Here, the smoky heat of the grill imparts a pleasant bitter charring which compliments the natural buttery sweetness of the fish. We buried our chopstick tips deep into every nook and cranny, making sure to extract every bit of the meltingly soft and pulpy meat.
The kona cream croquette demonstrates Honda-Ya's expertise with deep-frying as the hamachi collar does with grilling. What is a kona cream croquette? It's a crab meat suspended in a cream sauce, encased in a deep-fried, breaded shell. This crunchy, golden brown coating forms a rigid enclosure which breaks apart when you bite into it, revealing the hot oozing filling. If you have ever dreamed of deep-frying clotted cream, this is as close as you'll come.
A dab of dark tonkatsu sauce, the Japanese cousin of Worcestershire sauce, brings the richness of this deep-fried dish back down to earth.
No meal of ours at Honda-Ya is complete without an order of quail eggs from the robatayaki menu. What could be special about grilled sticks of boiled quail eggs you ask? The answer: the charcoal.
The neutral flavor of these miniature eggs make them best suited to suck up the sweet smoke of the special lumps of carbon that Honda-Ya uses called bincho tan. This type of fuel is expensive stuff as I understand it.
Next was the deep-fried soft shell crab.
There's just something so satisfying about eating a whole animal from end to end. This is why I like munching on deep fried anchovies and eat the heads of ama-ebi after I feast on its flesh. Soft shell crab qualifies itself into this category and they do a great one here at Honda-Ya.
The whole crustacean (minus the gills) is lightly battered and then dropped into hot oil until the soft carapace is rendered as crisp as a wafer. The bowl of dipping sauce made from soy spiked with vinegar and floating pieces of diced scallions always ends up with a few stray crab legs in it, due to our rapaciousness at consuming this dish.
Anything tastes good when it's wrapped in bacon. And the grilled sticks of okra is no exception. Each green pod is bound with a thin layer of sliced pork belly. When it's put over the coals, the fat melts and bastes the okra, imparting a lip-smacking, porky flavor.
The first bite taken crunches like asparagus, but subsequent chewing releases a slimy and mucuous-like liquid that exudes from the vegetable and fills your entire mouth. It's like the okra hocked a loogie into your mouth and now you have to swallow it. It's an alarming experience to some, but call me crazy, it's one that I savor.
To finish the meal, I had the most surprising and eye-catching dish of all. Called anmitsu, it is simply a bowl of agar-agar, which is Jello culled from seaweed, joined with cubed pear, melon and a pasty sweet red bean. It is a dessert that's refreshingly light and guilt-free.
This satisfying meal for two came out to total only about $50. And there's nothing "sad" or "depressing" about that.
Honda Ya Japanese Restaurant
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780