If you're ever stuck in a rut of sushi, ramen, and teriyaki, wondering what else is out there, try these ten other great Japanese dishes that you can eat right now in OC.
Bento (Lunch Box) at Mitsuwa
You can go at lunch time to get a bento box (pre-packed Japanese meal sets) at Mitsuwa's refrigerated deli section. Or better yet, come around a quarter after 5 p.m. That's when the man with a red Sharpie comes out to mark down the remaining supplies up to 20% off. He goes through every container, one by one. He subtracts a whole dollar there. Fifty cents here. He discounts all of it to clear out what's left of the inventory. Though the selection this close to dinner may look like barren shelves from the Soviet-era compared to the bounty seen at lunch, there's usually enough left over if you get there before the other bargain hunters swarm. You're lucky if there's still some of chicken karaage with rice and trimmings. Also good: panko-crusted fish, the unagi rice and the bulgogi lunch boxes. But always go with the chicken karaage if it's there. The deep-fried morsels of fried chicken, like its American counterpart, tastes great cold. But unlike KFC, this is a healthy meal. Things like green beans, marinated bamboo shoots, stewed carrot, mushroom and seaweed balances the protein. Rice comprises half the bulk.
Buta Kaku (Braised Pork Belly) at Honda Ya
If you don't already know, Honda-Ya in Tustin is one of Orange County's original izakayas. This was the restaurant that popularized the term in OC and proved to all that Japanese food wasn't just teriyaki and sushi. Its success inspired a mini-izakaya boom a few years ago, with none of the new entrants rising to its glorious levels. With branches in Fullerton, LA's Little Tokyo and City of Industry, Honda Ya ceased to become just a local neighborhood pub, but rather a branded ambassador of all things Japanese food—the closest thing it has to Disneyland. The exhaustive menu is a compendium of ingredients and cooking methods. You can have just about everything here, from the milky pork-bone broth of tonkotsu ramen to the kooky, mucilaginous charms of the fermented-soybean delicacy known as natto. But one of the dishes you have to get among the many it makes is the buta kaku, hunks of pork belly simmered in sake and soy until it all reaches a homogeneous state of unctuousness. It has some spinach in it, a smear of mustard, and all the soulfulness you come to expect of something that's usually homemade by a Japanese grandmother.
Ebi Korokke (Shrimp Croquette) at Kappo Sui
While you nosh on that teriyaki bowl at Yoshinoya, your Japanese friends know better. They go to Kappo Sui—a Japanese restaurant meant for Japanese people. A list of specials is scribbled in kanji. Finding an English speaker in the house is a challenge. But before you begin to feel like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, the food arrives. There's mountain potato, broiled mackerel and crisply fried kaki-age. One of the best dishes of all is the ebi korroke, which are deep-fried croquettes lightly crusted in panko breadcrumbs that burst with cream and shrimp.
Goya Chanpuru (Stir-Fried Bittermelon) at Habuya
Though you'll find a lot of familiar Japanese dishes at Habuya, the restaurant is first and foremost an Okinawan restaurant. And no dish is perhaps more Okinawan than the goya chanpuru it serves. It's a simple stir fry that utilizes goya (bitter melon) and SPAM, an ingredient that demonstrates the indelible mark that an ever-present U.S. military base there has had on Okinawan cuisine. You find strips of the high-sodium canned meat taming the astringency of the sliced bitter melon, and pairing quite naturally with the neutral crunch of the bean sprouts and the sweet lashings of the beaten egg.
Hitsumabushi (Eel Rice) at Sagami
You'd be right in thinking that Sagami is another teriyaki and California roll lunch box factory; but you'd be only 10% right. The other 90% is what makes Sagami beloved among actual Japanese people. There are seasonal lunch special bentos that change, well, seasonally. In the fall, you might see a mench katsu teisyoku there, the closest thing Japan has to a country fried steak. Then there's the Nagoya-style dishes that turn this small space next to Subway as serious a temple to tradition as the sandwich shop is to the opposite. Try the hitsumabushi, roasted eel on rice served in a wide-brimmed bowl that you eat in three stages: first with just the rice; second with a sprinkle of nori, scallions, and wasabi; then, finally, with dashi broth for the finish. Be forewarned. It is an expensive dish at close to $20 a pop. But when you consider that this is quite possibly the only place in Orange County that serves this dish, there's really only one other alternative: find a Japanese person from Nagoya to cook it for you.
Kushiyaki (Grilled Meat and Veggie Skewers) at Kappo Honda
Which came first? Fountain Valley's Kappo Honda or Tustin's venerable Honda-Ya? They're part of the same family, but are always spoken of like they were adopted siblings. Honda-Ya is big, boisterous and serves everything under the gigantic umbrella that is Japanese cuisine. But Kappo Honda has a laser-guided focus on the kushiyaki, which is the generic term for everything that's skewered on sticks and grilled. As soon as you enter, you see Kappo Honda's grill masters front and center, hovering over the skewers roasting above white hot coals. So you'd be missing the point if you don't have a few of them, or heck make your meal entirely of kushiyaki. You might have heard of yakitori, grilled skewered chicken, which is probably the most popular kind of kushiyaki. They serve all parts of the chicken here (and we mean ALL parts). But don't stop there, get the skewered quail eggs, and the bacon-wrapped okra, both of which will forever elevate your expectations of food on a stick.
Okinomiyaki (Japanese Savory Pancakes) at Ebisu
Okonomiyaki, which roughly translated means "whatever you like gridled", is a Japanese pancake consisting of shredded cabbage, batter, egg, and your choice of different meat mix-ins. It's kind of like a frittata, sort of like a pizza, but is a uniquely Japanese creation since it contains grated nagaimo, a slimy yam that acts as binding agent. Ideally you want to eat okonomiyaki straight from the griddle it's cooked on, which you can do at Gaja Okonomiyaki in Lomita. But in Orange County, one of the best places for okonomiyaki is at Ebisu. There are about six different choices for filling, but whatever you get, your pancake will be smeared with sweet soy sauce, zigzagged with kewpie mayo, and topped with shaved bonito flakes that will wave to you as though it were alive.
Pork Katsu Curry (Pork Cutlet Curry) at Cafe Hiro
Café Hiro's may be the finest tonkatsu curry in Orange County. The pork—cut as thick as the first Harry Potter book, then fried under a light panko-crust and with a small quivering piece of the fat still attached—is great in and of itself: the perfect ratio of juice-bursting pork chop to golden-brown breading. But then there's the ocean of curry lapping onto the white beach head of rice—a flavorful sludge almost as thick as the peanut-sauce for Indonesian satay. The spicing level for the curry is customizable all the way to scorching, but the mild is best. This is where all the curry flavor, sweetness, and richness exist in perfect balance. And since curry has been fully adopted into Japanese culture as pizza has to ours, Café Hiro offers it with the required condiments of pickled shallots, fukujinzuke (pickled radish), and rehydrated raisins, all of which you should prodigiously as the red pepper flakes and parmesan on a slice of pepperoni. If you're a Cafe Hiro regular but haven't tried this curry, you're like a New Yorker who hasn't ever eaten the pizza.
Salmon Onigiri (Salmon Rice Balls) at Cream Pan
Yes, Cream Pan is a Japanese bakery, a damned good one, but here's an item that you should get along with the breads: the salmon onigiri. Loosely translated, onigiri is just "rice ball"; but that's slightly inaccurate as most are triangular, not spherical. There's also almost always nori involved, whose utility is twofold: It adds flavor and a place to grip without getting your fingers sticky. They're often filled with things like plum, fish eggs, or best of all, cooked salmon. Cream Pan's not the only place you can get onigiri. Mitsuwa Market has it (as do other restaurants and markets), but theirs has rice making up most of its volume and a teeny-tiny, marble-sized portion of salmon in the center—a smidgen's worth. But Cream Pan? They mix the salmon meat into the rice before sculpting. The result is salmon and rice in every bite—every mouthful a perfectly proportioned ratio of the two ingredients, salty and satisfyingly salmon-y. The first chomp is as wonderful as the last: a squar...um, triangular meal onto itself for about $2.
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Tendon (Tempura Rice Bowl) at Don Don Tei
Donburi is simply just a rice bowl. If you've been to Yoshinoya or The Flame Broiler, you've technically had donburi. But there's more to the classification than just that. The most popular is the oyakodon (chicken and egg on rice), or a katsudon (a deep fried pork cutlet on rice). But the best donburi at Don Don Tei may be the tendon. No, not cartilage (think of the Japanese pronunciation). It simply is a bowl of rice with tempura'd veggies and seafood laid on top. Basic, yes; but also unexpectedly great and better than anything else they've got on offer. The tempura that coats the fish, shrimp, squid, eggplant, squash and bell pepper straddles the line between crisp and soggy as the whole thing is soaked in a dashi-based sauce. You may have had tempura as an appetizer, but assembled and resting on pristine pile of rice like this, the dish takes on a special resonance. The decadence of the deep fried foods edges itself closer and closer to cloying. But then, when it's just about to get sickening, it gets pulled back by a mouthful of rice.