Does anyone even consider teriyaki to be Japanese food anymore? Drive around north and central Orange County long enough, and you'll see many older restaurants advertising the dish alongside burritos, pastrami and burgers. The only thing Japanese is the name: The restaurant owners are usually Korean, if not Latino or the occasional mad Greek.
The teriyaki at these places (like Chinese-American and Mexican-American grub) is fully assimilated into the American diet and probably generations removed from the mother country, but no one minds. We Americans like our teriyaki sweet and warm, just like they grill it at HAPPY TERIYAKI & SANDWICHES in Orange. Here, as everywhere else, the secret is in the sauce: a thick, sugary liquid as comforting as molasses, a concoction that will turn your fingers into flypaper. You won't care: Slopped onto chicken, beef, shrimp, even tempura, Happy Teriyaki's sauce can transform mortar into a lunchtime must-have.
Thankfully, the ladies who run Happy Teriyaki don't scrimp on the meat. Though shaved into thin slices, the meats nevertheless retain their flavor after being grilled into juicy, obsidian nubs; the tempura, meanwhile, is fried goodness. Enjoy the teriyaki meats as a plate, and you'll also receive a small green salad, a scoop of rice and a chilled macaroni salad. Fine, but the bowls are better: larger than the industry standard, with the ingredients inside so compressed you're afraid the bowl will explode when you pop the top. I can do without the cabbage leaves, but the broccoli and carrots lend fiber. And then there's the rice: clumpy yet fluffy, which allows the hurried eater to fork lunch into his mouth that much faster—perfect. Make sure to ask for another helping of teriyaki sauce, as the servers unfortunately only dribble it on the bowls and plates . . . or maybe I just like my rice drowned in the stuff.
And whatever you order, ask for the "spicy sauce" advertised in small print on the wall. I initially thought the Happy Teriyaki owners would provide some Sriracha or—I hoped—Tapatío, since few things go better with sweet than spice. Instead, a lady handed me a thimbleful of what I thought was more teriyaki sauce until I noticed chile seeds sprinkled through the dark goo. I'm no expert on Asian salsas, but this spicy sauce is how heat should be—similar in texture to teriyaki sauce, but with a murky, furtive heat that can sear your lungs if you swallow too fast. Take your time, and take some home.
HAPPY TERIYAKI & SANDWICHES, 352 S. MAIN ST., ORANGE, (714) 978-0141.