Sushi by Moonlight
Photo by Tenaya Hills I'm not sure what time it is anymore. Ientered Honda-Ya around 6 in the evening, shortly after its wooden door opened, and swam toward the tsunamis of Asahi gushed out at the bar. I arrived early to calm nerves already twitching in anticipation of an 8 p.m. date in a secluded Honda-Ya table. After throwing woo at Beauty Herself for a couple of hours between shared slurps of boiling udon noodles, I left Honda-Ya only to run into some acquaintances seeking an after-hours repast. They ignored my I'm-getting-lucky-tonight pleas and corralled this blue-balled lad back into the rustic restaurant. And here we are, uncounted orders of sushi, yakitori, sake shots and nasty stares later: shoes off, kneeling on tatami mats, cussing and howling, with dessert imminent and the night before us.
Now I remember: it's midnight. And the lights just turned off.
This isn't my first lost night at Honda-Ya. The Tustin Japanese joint continues to be a county chowhound phenomenon more than a decade after its opening, one of the precious few Orange County restaurants with a daily past-midnight closing time and a 150-plus-item menu that necessitates hours-long pilgrimages just to dent it. Business buzzes every second: chattering Japanese college students, novice gaijin warily eyeing the massive sashimi slices before them, overenthusiastic waiters and a manic phalanx of sushi chefs that screams out "Irasshaimase!" (welcome!) whenever a customer walks in. Forgive the impudence, grasshopper: Honda-Ya is merely emulating the look and feel of an izakaya (Japanese pub), down to the hanging ceiling logs, muted lighting and general feudal feel of a Kurosawa set.
The owners here know a bit about how to run a successful Japanese pub because they also operate Fountain Valley's much-celebrated Kappo Honda. Per the izaka-ya tradition, then, Honda-Ya is all about time and placement: different sections that provoke a different feel and warrant a different menu at different hours. Most solitary eaters, for instance, arrive early and chopstick their sushi at the spartan sushi bar, where a request for an omakase (chef's choice) dinner unleashes a torrent of food almost as relentless as that which is paraded in a Brazilian churrascaria palace. The sushi is tasteful, if a bit conservative in its selections: buttery salmon, chewy tekka (tuna) and a cucumber sort that is little more than Honda-Ya's complementary garlic-infused cucumbers wrapped around seaweed and rice.
Better yet is Honda-Ya's actual bar in the back, where many swigs of alcohol help fuel you through the tiny bowl-meals that are the centerpiece of all great izaka-yas. One of them doesn't satiate you and isn't supposed to: it's all about matching appetizers together for the best overall epicurean experience (actually, it's all about getting pleasantly pounded, but that's another joy). The agemono trays feature impossibly fried things that are nowhere close to gourmet but crackle with excellence—the cheese age are East Asian jalapeño poppers, come six at a time, and are some of the finest Velveeta-based beings to ever scald your mouth. Some of the yakitori items either sound like Hallmark cards (really, what's the difference between regular heart and "special heart"?) or a visit to the entrails portion of a slaughterhouse but are marinated slices for posterity—you don't know beef until you've chewed through Honda-Ya's tender, massive, sublime beef tongue. And even if you don't drink, you'll get visions of IHOP in your palate just smelling any of the itamemono dishes, sautéed or stir-fried bombs that are shiny thanks to the gobs of butter used in preparing most of them. Itamemono cuisine is the tasty building block of coronaries: stir-fried asparagus with bacon; beautiful ginger pork; and the tellingly titled enoki butter, a bowl of hackberry mushrooms (skinny fungi that look like pins on growth hormones) so oily you can spread it on pancakes.
There are regular tables and booths at Honda-Ya as well, and if you want to navigate through the endless variations of udon, soba and ramen bowls available, eat here—only the dining room walls, plastered with English and katakana script papers, contains the secret soup menu. But the place to dine is in that elegant tatami room, strewn with Japanese gewgaws. Everyone sits on the ground, and the plates are equidistant from one another to make pilfering from your partner easier. I inevitably conclude my Honda-Ya treks here, and this where I found myself the night the lights went out.
Was it a power outage? A cruel reminder of the lady-friend invitation I ignored ("Bros before hos" is uttered sub rosa by all males at one point in their lives; men are idiots)? No: terrible J-pop cooed from the speakers, and a singer cooed a sexily accented "Happy Birthday" as waiters brought green-tea ice cream to my surprised pal. In honor of his birth, we ordered another round of sake at 1 in the morn—and finally, the night began.
HONDA YA, 556 EL CAMINO REAL, TUSTIN, (714) 832-0081. OPEN DAILY, 5:30 P.M.-1 A.M. BEER, WINE, SAKE! DINNER FOR TWO INVOLVES MANY LITTLE PLATTERS TO TRULY FILL YOURSELF BUT USUALLY RUNS NO MORE THAN $30, EXCLUDING DRINKS. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.