The first Disneyland fans to walk into Disney World when it opened in 1971 might have had the same feeling I had eating at the new Honda-Ya in Fullerton: happy that something as great as the original has been duplicated, that more people can experience the wonders, but at the same time a little wistful that the one that started it all might someday be forsaken for the newer and bigger. But the expansion of Old Town Tustin's most popular restaurant was as inevitable as Disneyland's. This was, after all, the place whose weekend wait times routinely were an hour or more.
Honda-Ya is a Japanese izakaya, a casual place to have a bite or two in between bottles of Asahi, Kirin or Sapporo. 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. Before the Fullerton location opened, Honda-Ya begat branches in Little Tokyo and City of Industry. With the newest restaurant already drawing crowds, you realize that Honda-Ya is no longer just a neighborhood pub, but rather a branded ambassador of all things Japanese food. The exhaustive menu is a compendium of ingredients and cooking methods—a longer and more worthwhile list to leaf through than the one at Jerry's Deli's and featuring food you actually want to eat. 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. Heck, there's even teriyaki and sushi, if you're so inclined.
With this Fullerton debut, the chain finally has a space grand enough to match the scale and scope of the menu. Where the original Tustin location is a narrow squiggle of a restaurant, the Fullerton Honda-Ya, claimed from an abandoned Sizzler on Yorba Linda Boulevard, is a rat maze of booths in a building with the square footage of a high-school gymnasium. Like the original, there's a tatami room, in which customers can sit cross-legged in an elevated, reed-matted vestibule where no shoes are allowed; here, though, it's three times the size of the original. But same as at the Tustin restaurant, you will lose the feeling in your legs somewhere around minute six. You realize there as you do here that your couch-potato limbs aren't suited for this traditional Japanese way of sitting. But do it anyway. There's nothing like channeling your inner Richard Chamberlain as you order food and sake while lounging as though you were a victorious samurai warrior.
Honda-Ya, izakayahondaya.com. Open daily, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Beer, wine and sake!
Start by marking off an order ticket of yakitori, which sees nearly every part of a chicken skewered and roasted over white-hot, premium coals called bincho tan. The chicken skin, woven to resemble the ruffles of a ballet tutu and rendered to a crisp-chewy curl, is a much more satisfying (if slightly greasier) bite than plain-old white meat. Meanwhile, the bacon-wrapped okra is way more interesting than the bacon-wrapped asparagus. But nothing in this kushiyaki list absorbs the sweet, sweet smoke from the coals as do the quail eggs.
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Order the fish cheeks, either from salmon or hamachi, in lieu of the sashimi. When chopsticks fail to extricate the pudding-soft meat hiding under swoops of bone, a finger or some determined tonguing will do. Then ask for something stewed, such as the buta kaku, hunks of pork belly simmered in sake and soy until it all reaches a homogeneous state of unctuousness. Deep-fried foods are too easily ordered here, just as at any restaurant. The chicken karaage—Japanese chicken nuggets otherwise known as sesame fried chicken—is a workhorse, able to function as a full meal if you order it as the protein in one of the combo dinners, but you can also have it à la carte with a squeeze of lemon. The soft-shell crab, its legs petrified into crispness, should be dipped into the house ponzu and followed by a swig of beer. Offset the fried with something steamed—maybe the homemade crab shumais filled with a mousse-like paste pursed inside translucent wonton skins sculpted into pyramids.
If I've noticed the Fullerton restaurant's parcels have taken on a machine-formed neatness, less lumpy than those I ate at the Tustin branch nearly 10 years ago, it may just be the nostalgic part of me taking over. Don't mind it. It's the same kind of misplaced wistfulness that has those old Disneyland fogeys still talking fondly of E-tickets.
This review appeared in print as "Sit Like a Shogun: Honda-Ya brings its formidable brand and izakaya food to Fullerton."