A guy walked into Izakaya Meijiya one quiet Sunday night. “Takeout?” he asked.
Since the waitress didn’t show up for work, it was up to the chef, a young man in his thirties with an affable, easy way about himself, to oblige the potential customer with a polite bow and the menu. But then, as if by telepathy or perhaps intuition, before the guy had a chance to read one word on the three-page roster of specialties, the chef said, “We don’t have sushi or rolls.”
“Oh,” the gent replied, not hiding his disappointment. “Then never mind.”
The chef smiled understandingly and bowed again as the man left, presumably to search for his dinner elsewhere. Pity he didn’t stay because if he had, he would’ve discovered the youngest, most-promising izakaya in OC.
The newest tenant in a decrepit Costa Mesa strip mall at which the metal bars go up when the sun goes down, Izakaya Meijiya opened a few months ago with a dining room no bigger than a teriyaki-to-go joint and a Japanese-speaking staff of three or four who would be easily outnumbered if the place were even half-full. After the failure of so many newfangled OC izakayas—such as the much-hyped but ultimately doomed Izakaya Zero in Huntington Beach and Haru Izakaya in Tustin, a place no one but creditors would remember—this eatery’s existence seems unlikely.
Its birth becomes the hopeful blip that there just might be some viability left in what was a Quixotic quest by a few restaurateurs a couple of years ago to duplicate the success of the impossibly busy Honda-Ya in Tustin, Kappo Honda in Fountain Valley and the ardently traditional Kappo Sui in Costa Mesa. The latter, by the way, also happens to be from where one of Meijiya’s cooks defected.
In a valiant attempt to take some action from its established crosstown competitor, Izakaya Meijiya produces the same kinds of food. These are tapas-size bites designed to be consumed with ice-cold glasses of Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi—or, depending on how the workday went, thimble shots of premium sake, of which they have many. As is typical of the style, preparations run the gamut of every conceivable cooking method, including deep-fried, steamed, stir-fried, simmered, grilled, pickled and, some, not cooked at all.
You’ll see examples of the latter on the whiteboard, where they’ve scribbled a list of sashimi in dry-erase marker, both in Japanese and in English, some of it already unavailable, as supplies are exhausted. That night, thick steaks of flesh-colored seared hamachi rested on onion slices tamed of their spiciness as splotches of ponzu and crispy fried garlic chips stacked on the flavor. Ahi was presented plain to show off its vibrant maraschino-cherry-red lusciousness, while silver-skinned mackerel ate as tangy as yogurt. The uni, lamentably pasty and slightly bitter, stuck onto its wooden tray like smears of freezer-burned ice cream. This rarely ordered curiosity did not benefit from the restaurant’s lack of foot traffic.
A more popular dish, even in this early stage of Izakaya Meijiya’s life, is the crab-cream croquette, and you can see why. It isn’t done in the usual football shape you’ve come to expect. Instead, you’re given a hollowed-out crab shell stuffed to the brim with the extracted meat mixed with a bechamel-based sauce, then panko-breaded and deep-fried. You squeeze a lemon into the cavity and scoop out the crusty, hot-as-lava crab-flecked cream with a tiny teaspoon as if it were crème brûlée.
Its crustacean cousin, a runt-size soft-shell crab, also gets the deep-fry treatment. Without batter, it comes out of the hot oil tanned and leathery, its carapace rendered crunchy as a chip. Salmon is broiled until the strip of skin turns crisp, its meat basted with a shimmer of a glaze and slightly overcooked.
Looking like Pac-Man ghosts, homemade steamed shumai arrive fat and plump, full of fluffy shrimp mousse. Though it’s customary to use the dollop of mustard provided, you can ask for ponzu sauce to dip between bites, letting the thirsty filling absorb the tartness.
For a more-electric mouthful, decongestant-strength wasabi and diced-up raw tentacles and other squid odds and ends wiggle in a playfully chewy and too-slippery-for-chopsticks appetizer called shiokara—a term that encompasses a whole class of fermented seafood the Japanese usually chases down with alcohol.
Follow this with the spinach simply stir-fried with garlic, an item with which Honda Ya diners should be well-acquainted. It’s not as silky here, but it is probably a few degrees healthier because of the cook’s restraint with oil.
The decadence is saved for the pork kakuni, a massive hunk of fatty pork belly, the equivalent of too many slices of bacon, simmered in a sake-, soy-and-mirin-flavored broth that also imparts its boozy sweetness to a halved hard-boiled egg. The homey dish, a perennial izakaya favorite, melts before you even attempt to pick it apart with chopsticks. And when you do end up finishing it, the guilt that follows will urge you to order something else, like the chilled iceberg, sashimi-scraps-endowed seafood salad that dutifully offsets the fat you just consumed.
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Of course, this all assumes you’ve accepted and gotten over the fact Izakaya Meijiya doesn’t do sushi or rolls. So have you?
Izakaya Meijiya, 1113 Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 545-5175. Open Tues.-Sun., 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Appetizer-sized items, $2.50-$8.50; noodles, $6-$8.50. Beer and sake.
This review appeared in print as "No Sushi, No Problem: Izakaya Meijiya revives a Japanese drinking-and-eating concept."