Izakaya With Seoul
Sushi and bulgogi burritos live together in perfect harmony, side-by-side at Tustin’s Haru Izakaya
Is it just me, or is every other Japanese joint opening these days an izakaya? The trendy Japanese equivalent to the gastro-pub has been popping up all over OC. Last summer, the Wasa Sushi empire debuted Izakaya Wasa at the Irvine Spectrum. A year before that, Japanese cuisine heavyweight Takashi Abe opened Izakaya Zero in Huntington Beach—which has since fizzled and closed.
The granddaddy of them all remains Honda Ya in Tustin. With its two-hour-long waits and faithful customers willing to endure them, it is the model that spurred the boom and the benchmark against which new entrants are measured.
Within walking distance of Honda Ya, there’s Oki Doki, an izakaya that opened late last year that aims its sights at Honda Ya’s customers—or at least the impatient ones. Travel another few blocks, and you’ll find Haru Izakaya, yet another newbie occupying the shell of a former sushi bar. This one, however, is an izakaya by name only. It is actually Korean, not Japanese.
Though the room is a dead ringer for Kappo Honda in Fountain Valley—complete with dangling red lanterns and wall-separated wooden booths—the first clue that its soul hails from Seoul should be the constant soundtrack of K-Pop. The music is piped in through unseen speakers and accompanied by a video on a flat-screen TV that no one seems to be watching. There are unframed posters of comely Korean models hawking Korean beverages (or something like that) and hand-written specials scribbled in Hangul. Scan the menu, and notorious delicacies such as soondae, Korean blood sausage, pop out. Hite is the beer of choice here, and soju the rice liquor.
But if Honda Ya is known for the traditional Japanese subtlety of flavor and economy-sized servings, this Korean competitor does the opposite. Nothing requires chugging frosty bottles of Hite more than the stir-fried seafood udon—a boldly flavored, generously portioned concoction as subtle as an erupting volcano. An oily red gochuchang-spiked sauce lubes the noodles, coats the veggies and flavor-packs each piece of squid, shrimp and mussel. Every slurp of noodle sizzles on the tongue and numbs your lips wherever contact is made. And yup, those are sliced jalapeños in the mix, adding fuel to the fire.
This boldness seeps into Haru Izakaya’s salads. The tuna tataki is sliced into papery whispers from a steak that was spice-crusted and briefly smoked on the grill. The fish is laid out over a bed of sliced onions and salad greens, then drizzled with a hot-and-sour dressing that tastes like ponzu walloped with Sriracha. Even better is something called the Screaming O, a tower constructed of the same tuna and wilted onions, sitting on a tuft of shredded daikon and glistening with a similar scorching sauce.
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Their ultimate one-of-a-kind offering, however, is the cheese pork katsu—a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet stuffed with mozzarella that seems to have materialized from a Homer Simpson slobber dream. The golden panko breading is crisp, the meat is tender and crumbly like country-fried steak, and when you take a strip from the plate, the cheese stretches out in webs reminiscent of a freshly baked pizza. One thing’s for sure: You’ve never seen anything like it at a Japanese izakaya.
That isn’t to say that Haru isn’t trying to follow the izakaya formula. As with Honda Ya and others of its ilk, the menu is divvied into sections separated by cooking style: deep-fried, stir-fried, etc. And, of course, there’s sushi, sushi rolls and even Japanese okonomiyaki. Recently, they’re starting to experiment with kushiyaki, the izakaya staple of things grilled on a stick. On the night of my visit, they offered skewers of bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes. But since they used thick American bacon and didn’t let the fat render completely, it seems no threat to Honda Ya’s more refined rendition.
Another experiment, simply called the Korean-barbecue burrito, seems like a call to arms in the wake of the Kogi Korean Taco Truck phenomenon. Sweetly marinated slices of bulgogi, guacamole and onion are wrapped in a griddled tortilla, both reaffirming that Mexican goes well with Korean and staving off our jones until the Kogi truck stops in OC.
Haru Izakaya at 498 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 731-9400. Open daily, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Wine, beer, sake and soju.