(Note: Additional photos from the meal are available via the link below.)
J. and I certainly enjoyed our trip to Mastros in Costa Mesa. I am convinced that their Gorgonzola Mack and Cheese will be featured prominently at the big buffet table in the sky.
However, as much as we enjoyed Mastros and all it had to offer, the restaurant we really wanted to try the most during our anniversary weekend was a little Japanese restaurant in Tustin called Honda-Ya. Thanks to the famed Elmomonster of the L.A. Chowhound Board, J. and I had been given a great lead on some of the best Japanese food "behind the Orange curtain."
This was especially good for me because Phoenix is not known for its grand Japanese culture. Suggest to a group of people that they go to a traditional Japanese restaurant in Phoenix and half will think you mean Kyoto Bowl and the other half think Benihana.
Hold me. I'm scared.
We arrived at Honda-Ya around 9:15 PM and I was pleasantly surprised as the little street that led to our eatery was lined with beautiful trees and lots of plants and flowers. Other Asian restaurants and shops were in strip malls and along the thoroughfare. We found Honda-Ya and pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the place. Parking was ample as most of the other businesses in the strip mall were closed. However, the spaces were ultra-narrow.
The restaurant was busy and we peeked into the place to see how long of a wait there was. We also noticed the clipboard right outside the door that instructed us to put our names down and be patient. We did so, noting that we could choose to sit at a traditional table or on tatami mats in a side room. We chose the traditional table.
The wait was only about 10 minutes before we were called and taken to a booth at the back of the restaurant. We were seated with a full view of the grilling station and next to a large community table that had been overtaken by a large group who were thoroughly enjoying themselves. The atmosphere, albeit a bit dark, was boisterous and lively and we couldnt help but be even more excited.
Our menus were presented and we ordered drinks. We were presented with three distinct menus. The first was the full menu that featured the many items from Katsu to Soba to Sushi and cooking styles from grilling to deep frying to steaming. We were also given a second menu that had various specials and new items. The third was a simple strip of paper with a variety of choices including the charcoal-grilled Quail eggs that Elmomonster had recommended.
Our server was very patient with us as we reviewed the menu again and again and again. We knew the things we wanted for sure: Crab Dumplings, Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab, and the Quail Eggs. But this was a place for small plates and we new that we had to try even more dishes.
As we made one final review before ordering, we were presented with little saucers of sliced cucumber. I took a bite and relished in the cold, briny and sweet taste of the marinated vegetable. Then, a few moments later, my mouth went ablaze with the spicy heat from the marinade. What a great contrast and J. and I wished we had a plate of them.
We finally decided on the Crab Dumplings, the Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab, the Shrimp Shumai, the Quail Eggs, some Beef Soba, and the Garlic Greens. If we needed another round of choices, we were assured that wouldnt be a problem.
Our drinks came and we only were able to enjoy a moment of them before our first dishes arrived. The Garlic Greens were a bowl of Japanese long beans sautéed with smoky bacon and served in a sweet garlic soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A lemon wedge was provided and we squeezed every drop out of it to give the beans an even bolder taste. J. and I were hooked from the first bite. They were absolutely fantastic. Crisp, hot, garlicky, and delicious. What a great way to start our meal.
Next up was the Shrimp Shumai. Little nuggets of shumai goodness were brought on a dish with a small cup of dipping sauce. They were fried to a golden brown and were still steaming hot. J. and I each grabbed one of the nuggets, dipped away and popped them into our mouths. Crunchy and savory, these were excellently prepared and tasty. The sauce added a salty dimension that really made the shrimp stand out. Just wonderful.
The Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab was presented on a deep plate with a small cup of soy sauce with what looked to be garlic chunks in it. One medium crab had given up its life for our pleasure and we grabbed pieces of the meat, did the dipping ritual and enjoyed. The tempura batter was crunchy and the crab was sweet. This were perfectly cooked and we devoured it in record time.
J. was big on the Beef Soba. A large bowl of soba noodles and slices of sirloin and green onion were floating in a rather complex broth. We filled our individual bowls and I was in love with the broth. Just amazingly simple and yet very complex on the palate. The noodles were earthy and the flavor of the broth had been absorbed by them. The beef was tender and slightly salty. The green onions had been added last, so we got a fresh, spring taste from them. Again, a simple soup that was very complex below the surface.
The Crab Dumplings arrived and they looked delectable. They resembled clam shells that were slowly opening. J. and I each grabbed one and took a bite. Sublime. The dumping shells were soft and slightly chewy and held this delicious crab mixture that had two distinct subtle tastes: crab and egg. These didnt require any dipping sauce as it would have overpowered the entire point of the dish. We loved them and fought over the last one.
The idea of charcoal grilled quail eggs had never really entered my mind until I saw Elmomonster write about them. We didnt know what to expect, so we got one skewer of the eggs to try them. They were smaller than I anticipated, but it was an very interesting and intriguing dish. The small eggs were exceptionally neutral in taste. What stood out was the smoke and char from the grilling over the charcoal. The eggs had become smoky treats and we plopped them into our mouths and enjoyed them.
J. and I decided to enjoy another round and this time we went with the tried and true as well as the daring. We ordered the pork katsu, the Seaweed in Sweet Vinegar Sauce and the Japanese Pumpkin.
First to our table was the Japanese pumpkin. In a small bowl, four fairly large slices of the squash were soaking in a thick, sweet sauce. What immediately stood out to me was how cold the pumpkin was. I guess I was expecting something room temperature. We each tired a slice and it was an interesting experience. The taste was similar to leftover candied sweet potatoes just out of the fridge the day after Thanksgiving. This didnt wow us in any way, but was interesting to try.
Next up was the seaweed. Okay, so we made a mistake in selecting this one. I am sure that to the traditional Japanese palate, this would be exceptional. To us, it simply was not our cup of seaweed. The taste was fine. It was definitely sweet and vinegary. However, I couldnt get past the texture which was just a bit to slimy for my taste. J. is a pure foodie and did not like the texture either, so we set that dish aside.
The pork katsu, on the other hand, was wonderfully pleasing. Freshly breaded, tender and moist, we grabbed slices of the pork, bathed them in the side of BBQ sauce and enjoyed. This was a great cutlet and a meal of the katsu and the garlic greens would make a perfect lunch.
We felt we had done enough damage and decided to end our meal with some Green Tea Ice Cream. It was creamy and delicious and as subtle as vanilla. It was a nice way to end the meal.
I was elated when we got our bill and this wonderful feast from Japan set us back all of $42.73 which included tip and a 10% discount we received from a website (http://www.gnavi.co.jp/l_a/jp/w001510...). Service was quick and our drinks were regularly filled. As we left, we thanked our lucky stars that we had arrived when we did because there was a good 20 or more people waiting outside for tables.
We simply adored Honda-Ya. Great food, fantastic service, fun atmosphere. It had it all.
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
Notes: Open for dinner only - 5:30 PM to 1 AM daily.