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Behind Closed Doors

Osaka Kappo brings Japanese street food in from the cold

If you want Asian street food in Orange County, you have to get off the street. The sidewalk noodle stall you'd find in Tokyo or Blade Runneris not for us—we'd think it was unsanitary. Unsavory. We suck. We're unadventurous.

But street food, tough as its name, is still out there behind closed doors—two of them belonging to Osaka Kappo, a nominally Japanese restaurant serving sushi (Japanese) and Japanese and Chinese noodle soups—but run by Koreans. Still with us? Try the soba. Seriously. And when you're done, thank the ramen. Ramen—Chinese noodles—is the only one of the Asian holy noodle trinity that Osaka Kappo doesn't serve. But if you know soba or udon at all, it's probably because of ramen. Ramen is your public relations agent—the goodtime-Charlie wingman for your more esoteric, introverted noodle dishes like soba and udon that would never get a date with an American belly on their own. Until now.

Soba is Japanese for buckwheat—and shorthand for a soup with buckwheat flour noodles as its main ingredient. Udon and ramen are Chinese—though, again, both show up in Japan. (Udon is wheat flour noodles—or a soup made with them.) But ramen? Ramen owns everything. Ramen noodles—also from China—make the world go around. Without ramen to grease the way, would we know or care about anything but spaghetti? You will after you've been here.

Osaka Kappo is open for dinner, with pretty much the same menu, but this is a lunch kind of place—boisterous, loud, and yes, there's a sushi bar. You get the big hello when you open the door: shouted-out greetings in Japanese—strange for a Korean-run restaurant, but fair enough. They embrace their neighbor's cuisine—unlike the Japanese, when they invaded Korea in the late 1500s—making Osaka Kappo friendly in the extreme. A little creepy, really. A horizontal row of photographs that virtually encircles the restaurant is all smiley diners, their satiated grins leering at you off the flash paper like happy cattle. Soon, you'll be one of them.

We started out with some sushi appetizers because we were famished—your basic California roll, and some tuna roll, both cut rolls—and they were tasty. But flawed—fatally flawed. The California roll was missing the cucumber—again, who cares? It's California roll. Butit's supposed to have the cucumber. The tuna roll arrived looking like a series of tiny hills and valleys: this is what happens when you cut your cut roll with a dull knife. Plus? The nori—the sheets of seaweed they wrap your sushi in—was soggy, as if they'd made this roll ahead, to outmaneuver the lunch rush.

For a main course, we had soba. And udon—both of which were delicious. There's definitely a moral for us and for the chefs: stick to what you know. Or, in our case, eat the lunch you came for. Best is the tenzaru soba—soba noodles with tempura—which comes to your table boilingwith a piece of butterflied shrimp tempura resting partially in the broth. Delicious. The broth is beef-based, though you can get chicken too; and in it you get soba noodles—darkly flavored by the buckwheat flour—plus sliced green onions (on the side), pressed fish cake (delicately fishy, quite nice) and a whole egg dropped in.

The flaming hot broth cooks the egg mostly, and when you spear it with your tempura, you get to mix the yolk into the broth. Excellent. And? Fights beri beri, the nervous system disease you've never heard of—but which was relatively big among 19th century upper class Japanese people who ate exclusively white, rice-flour noodles. Commoners ate soba noodles—made from buckwheat flour, and high in thiamine—and they didn't get sick. At least from that. Awesome.

The udon? Hot and hearty; just as good as the soba, though not as deeply flavored. And identically prepared, down to the little plastic jar of red pepper flakes to garnish. Just substitute udon for soba. And slurp it up.

OSAKA KAPPO, 13681 NEWPORT AVE., SUITE 9, TUSTIN, (714) 730-7051. OPEN DAILY, 11:30 A.M.-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $30, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE, SAKE!

 
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