Thursday, April 28, 2005

Honda Ya - Tustin

American bar food works on the principle of "it's salty, so buy another drink." Pretzels, cocktail peanuts, Chex mix. At best, you can hope for a good burger or properly crisp french fries. I love a bar like Costa Mesa's Goat Hill Tavern as much as the next guy, with over 100 quality beers on tap and peanut shells discarded on a sawdust covered floor. They make no pretense of being anything but a beer lover's bar, but there's nothing to eat other than those oversalted peanuts.

Taking a different tack to keep men in the joint is Hooters, which tarts up their underpaid, leered-at waitresses in silly orange ass shorts dating back to the 1970's roller disco craze. They draw pisswater American lagers from a trough and sling the worst chicken wings to foul the face of the earth, and thrive nationwide with this satin-clad-ass formula.

In other countries, the only enticement to stay at a bar is the company you bring, the anticipation of the next round of inevitably delicious food, and the intangible feeling that you belong there. Spain has tapas bars. Mexican cantinas comp delicious bota┼łas as you order more cerveza. Japan has izakaya.

Sake: my namesake, the aqua vitae of my family across countless generations. It is the first character of my Japanese last name. It's the middle character in the word izakaya, traditional pubs where sake and beer flow freely and small dishes of food are served to share with friends. I finish work around midnight, grab Katy, and sometimes head over to neighboring Tustin, where Honda Ya stays open until 1am. Since most Irvine "bars" close up around 11, Honda Ya is our default neighborhood bar. Perhaps we should move...

Izakaya offer a large menu of small dishes categorized by the method of cooking: raw, grilled, fried, steamed, and stewed, each with different textures, temperatures and flavors in the mouth. Variety is the watchword at an izakaya. We start off with squid sashimi and natto, which arrives in a small bowl. Thin juliennes of squid resting on a few tablespoons of fermented soybeans, with a sprinkle of nori and green onion. It's your job to squirt some soy sauce and wasabi and stir the contents until the natto takes on a slimy, snot looking consitency. If you think only a Japanese could love this, you're almost right. This is one of Katy's favorite dishes here.

Grilled skewers of beef tongue, bacon wrapped asparagus, bacon wrapped okra, chicken cartilage and chicken breast arrive next. Prepared simply over a hot flame, the flavors of the food itself shine aided with a sprinkle of Japanese sea salt. Simple, and delicious.

We order a tall bottle of Sapporo and a cold Hakkaisan sake. We share the beer by keeping the small glasses topped off. As she's younger than me (and female), this is Katy's "job," and she 's learning to do it well. The Hakkaisan is a chukuchi sake, starting off with a round richness and finishing with a mild alcoholic off dryness. Neither too sweet, nor too dry. Other sake are sweet, described as amakuchi. You might enjoy the extemely sweet, unfiltered sake clouded with rice dregs called nigori sake. Others with a taste for the dry, clean finishing sake should ask the waiters to guide you toward a karakuchi sake.

"Buta no kakuni" is a chunk of pork shoulder slowly simmered in a master sauce of soy, mirin, dashi and a touch of dark sugar that's replenished and reused for the next day's batch. The fatty parts of the pork melt down into an unctious jelly, and contrasts with tender meat with every bite. It's served with a small bit of simmered spinach drizzled with spicy Japanese mustard. If you've ever had the massive "pork pump" [sic] in San Gabriel restaurants like Lake Spring or Mei Long Village, think a small, single serving version of that, minus the Chinese five spice seasoning, and less sweet.

Takoyaki are octopus fritters, small bits of meat encased in dashi seasoned batter and pan fried into a golf ball size. It's served with mayo and tonkatsu sauce, and a few strands of red pickled ginger. They're popular street food and served at festivals, but occassionally found in izakaya, too.

My favorite here is the special handmade steamed crab shumai. Three square raviolis filled with crab meat and minced fish are steamed, and taste cleanly of crab. Unlike most shumai, it contains no pork. The texture is delicate, the flavor decidedly marine. Smear some hot Japanese mustard in the shoyu, and I'm a happy guy.

Despite our trips thus far, we've barely scratched the surface of the more than 100 items on the menu. Weekly specials add even more selection, so it'll take a lot more visits to say we've really tried everything. Certainly, we'll have to try more of their modest but sophisticated sake selection.

Izakaya aren't bars where lonely saps walk in and everyone knows his name, like some fictional bar on a TV show. You bring your own damn friends and they'll welcome you with a century old tradition, well prepared foods, and a place that feels immediately comfortable and familiar, even if you're not Japanese. I can go on ad nauseum and describe every dish we've ever tried at Honda Ya, but anyone who's been to an izakaya will already know what I'm talking about. If you haven't I hope I've tempted you into visiting one near you.

Honda Ya
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA
Open 7 days, dinner only
5:30pm - 1am, last order at 12:30am

[ed - this writeup inspired by Sarah at The Delicious Life, who invited other food bloggers to her virtual event called Bar Fly: Dine at the Bar! I'm looking forward to reading the other submissions.]

Thursday, April 21, 2005

OC Weekly on China Garden & dim sum

Photo by Amy Thelig

This week's edition features a review I wrote about one of the finest Cantonese restaurants in Orange County. Click here for the story.

White Castle fries only come in one size

Photo by Josh Karpf

One reason I'm glad I no longer live in New York, the city that brought you street signs that read:

No parking
No standing
Don't even think about it
This means you

Click here to read more about this charming White Castle sign on Chowhound. If you think this sign is a fake, you haven't spent enough time in New York.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

In season - green almonds

I found green almonds for sale this week at Irvine's Wholesome Choice, a great Persian owned supermarket with an excellent produce section. Not as extensive and exotic as the Berkeley Bowl or Austin's Central Market, but far better than most in Orange County. If you want to play the "my supermarket can beat up your supermarket" game, we'll have to step outside...

Having started phase one of the South Beach diet after last weekend's carb orgy at the Songkran festival, Wholesome Choice provided all the veggies we've been eating this week at the Salt household. In addition to the stores in our area that serve the Persian and Arab populations, I suspect you'll find green almonds for a few more weeks at the better farmer's markets around these parts. Here's a link to farmer's markets in the Los Angeles area, courtesy of the LA Times (free registration required).

The Persian recipes I've seen for green almonds have included fruit and or sugars, so I'm afraid those are out. Perhaps I'll simply boil them and sautee with oil, garlic, and parsley, or something along those lines. To be truthful, I bought these cool looking, fuzzy little critters without knowing exactly what to do with them, but who's not guilty of that every now and then? If you have any carb-free recipes, please leave me a note.

[Update: Regina Schrambling wrote this story for the LA Times about almonds, and talks about San Francisco chef's Judy Rodgers role in popularizing green almonds. Free registration to the LA Times is required.]

Wholesome Choice
18040 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Songkran festival - North Hollywood

Add two parts Buddhist holy day to two parts Thai food festival, a large helping of minor league karaoke singing, a pinch of beauty pageant. Stir with a hyperkinetic water fight among teenagers that resembles an Unreal Tournament game played with Super Soakers and water balloons, and you have a recipe for the Thai New Year festival held at the Wat Thai Temple. Vendors are here every weekend, but not as many as on special events like Songkran.

Thousands filled the temple grounds to sample foods from a score of vendors hawking street foods. When we arrived about 1pm, some booths had lengthy waits of 30 minutes, like the green papaya salad lady. While waiting, we sampled chicken, pork, and beef satay from the vendor next door. Later, we tried garlicky grilled Thai sausages, a mediocre pad thai, and an oversweet bowl of boat noodle soup. Desserts consisted of excellent mango and sticky rice, custardy kanom krok, and sweet crepe called rotee filled with a fried egg, drizzled with sweetented condesed milk and sugar. Sounds odd, but think how good the maple syrup incursion tastes on your breakfast eggs. Get yourself an egg rotee!

The Wat Thai temple

Just some of the food vendors

Satay, anyone?

Green papaya salad Queen

This dish is the food equivalent of standing in front of the stack of Marshalls at a Zeppelin concert. Prepared to order with mortar and pestle with juliennes of unripe papaya, tomato, fish sauce, small pieces of raw salted crab, dried shrimp, tamarind, lime juice, garlic, chili, cilantro, red chili powder and topped with peanuts. Last time, I asked the papaya lady to make mine spicy because I'm manly like that. I couldn't take more than a few bites before succumbing to the knowledge that I am an utter spice wuss who'd be outdone by half the 12 year olds in Bangkok. This time, I asked for mild, and there wasn't enough heat to balance the tamarind sweet and lime tartness. Next time, like Baby Bear, I'll get mine just right.

Thai rice steamers

Just emptied

Saucing steaming sticky rice with coconut milk

Glutinous rice, shorter grained and fatter than the jasmine rice favored by Thais, cooks up sticky and chewy instead of light and fluffy. It's flavored with sweetened coconut milk and a generous amount of salt, and eaten with fresh mango, or durian. I'm gonna be in Georgia this summer, maybe I'll make some with fresh ripe peaches!

She's a mango slicing machine!

With four straight strokes of the knife, ZIP ZIP ZIP ZIP, off comes the skin from half of the mango. Freed of its pit with a swift stroke, she lowers the blade on the mango filet, WAP WAP WAP WAP, and turns the fruit over. In fifteen seconds, your tray of mango and sticy rice is ready.

A man, a plan, a smelly hand: durian!

This vendor cracks open a fresh durian. His left hand is gloved to protect himself from the sharp, weaponlike husk of the fruit. Myself - not a big fan of the fruit that tastes like heaven and smells like hell. If someone hasn't trademarked that cliched description, I think I will and make a fortune from licensing it

Dessert lady ladling

Kanom krok, coconut milk fritters

Fans of the sweet Scandinavian donut aebleskiver, or the savory Japanese octopus fritter takoyaki will recognize the pan used to cook these Thai sweets. Funny how different cultures use similar tools so differently. Here, the rice flour and coconut milk batter is both sweetened and salted, in the distinctly Thai fashion.

Whatever you say, kid

Colorful handbags

You're reading a food blog, so naturally I've focused on the good eats for sale at the Wat Thai temple. Other vendors hawk handmade clothes, jewelry, handbags, Thai music CD's and movie DVD's, cases of fresh fruit, religious icons (it is a temple you're visiting, yes?) and carved wooden phallus charms, presumably to put some sting in your man's thing. Bring the kids and the impotent - something for everyone, and come hungry!

Wat Thai Temple
8225 ColdwaterCanyon Ave.
North Hollywood, CA

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

In season - rambutan

One foodie benefit of living in Asian-rich Orange County is good access to tropical fruits from the Pacific. Mangos are widely available right now, as are jackfruit, durian, and cherimoya. This photo shows rambutan, a delicately sweet and succelent fruit that tastes much like lychee. If a lychee tree were dosed with LSD, rambutan would be the result.

The hairy looking husk is just thick enough that a knife should be used to slice through the skin, revealing the pale fruit inside. Its flesh is textured like a firm grape, and uh, gonadal in shape and size. Its flavor is mildly sweet and far less intimidating than its bristly husk. My kid didn't hesitate to try it, and enjoyed his first try.

I bought a package of Hawaiian grown fruit, 7 for $3.70 at my local Persian supermarket, but imported produce is available all over Little Saigon for less. The specimens I saw in Little Saigon were more brightly colored, magenta swirled with crimson and tipped with neon yellow spikes. Tropical fruit, indeed.

Where to buy them? Click here to see a recent discussion on Chowhound's LA board.