No cuisine surprises me more consistently than that of Japan. Last week, I stopped by HANA NO KI, a Japanese pub in Costa Mesa I have haunted for the past couple of years. They specialize in pub grub, small plates meant to be shared by businessmen knocking back Sapporos, or big portions of homestyle cooking. I usually settle on the latter: pork and chicken cutlets, buttery croquettes with enough gooey cheese to make Chili Billies seem like an exercise in restraint, and bucket-sized bowls of udon and soba noodles. It's partly because the English-language menu is so small (best to come here with Japanese pals who can decipher the many katakana and kanji characters on the walls advertising various fish specials), but mostly because those meals make a great lunchtime special or long, leisurely dinner.
The day I last visited, I wanted something even simpler than my standards. I decided on what I thought was ochazuke, a rice soup spiked with a boiled plum you're supposed to cut open so its innards can spill forth its tartness. Instead, the stern waitress returned with a sizzling pan of zosui, a rice stew that looks like oatmeal. I initially wanted to complain, but the mess seemed enticing, so I started ladling the stew into a smaller bowl to let it cool. Rice grains floated within a tofu sea, with udon strands lazily cresting through the surface. I usually ask for hot sauce with any food I order (blame the Mexican in me), but no spice was necessary for the zosui. It satisfied every part of my palate: hearty with protein, tasteful as the most gourmet of items, not heavy even though it eventually filled me. The zosui isn't going to win any James Beard awards any time soon, but it's damn good.
Hana No Ki's rice stew wasn't even the biggest surprise for me that night. Before that entrée, I asked for a side of mountain potato and seaweed. I imagined a plate of fat, steaming tuber chunks wrapped in seaweed; instead, the waitress handed me a foam cup filled with potato shavings. I stuck my chopsticks into the cup, and up stretched a gelatinous blob. It seemed strange. It smelled funny. And it tasted great, a mix of the seaweed's tartness and the potato's crispy charm. The zosui will be a bit much for the coming sweltering summer, so I'll wait until winter to try it anew. Meanwhile, many more Lost in Translation surprises await.
Hana No Ki, 891 Baker St., Ste. 15, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-8715.