The Land of the Rising Beer

Photo by Jeanne RiceAs a restaurant writer, I believe oversimplification is necessary to understand the world's food systems. As a case in point, there are two kinds of food in the world: beer cuisine and wine cuisine. German grub goes better with beer, French with wine. And then there's a third kind: whiskey cuisine, like Irish food, but that begins to get complicated because maybe whiskey is their cuisine, so perhaps that doesn't count.

Are you getting all this?

Okay, that said, I love Japanese food because it's great beer food. You do not drink iced tea with sushi. You do not drink cabernet with udon noodles. You can drink sake, but no one really drinks sake. It's more like down-the-hatch stuff needed to facilitate a wicked buzz.

But you drink beer with sashimi and soba, tempura and teriyaki. You drink great, big bottles of the stuff. And as far as I can tell from eating in American Japanese restaurants, there is a holy trinity of Japanese beer—Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo—and nothing else.

This makes drinking beer in a Japanese restaurant very simple.

So when I saw Nikko Honda advertised as a Japanese pub restaurant, it confounded my very concept of this beer-drinking simplicity. As Catholics will tell you, you do not screw with a holy trinity. The mere thought of some belch-echoing Nipponese brew pub concocting Osaka strawberry-blond ale made me shiver. Of course I had to go.

I need not have worried so. One step inside this Fountain Valley restaurant and I was reminded that the very foundation of Japanese food is simplicity. It is very clean food in concept and presentation. Its beer is no different; a Yokohama amber wheat porter is like squaring a circle—beyond theoretical possibility.

In this clean, comfortable restaurant with exquisitely lacquered tables, only the holy trinity is served—okay, and Bud. And Bud Light. But no Godzilla Fire-Brewed Stomp Lager.

The crisp, clean Japanese brew came in 22-ounce torpedo bottles or immense frosty mugs. It was the amniotic fluid to some very solid and at times excellent food.

Of course, there is a sushi bar, but I concentrated on the dinner menu, including the typical dinner-house combo meals with choices of chicken and beef teriyaki, tempura, sashimi, sesame fried chicken, and a breaded pork cutlet called a tonkatsu. Each dinner comes with salad, potato salad and miso soup. All very well done, and all very conventional.

The really good stuff can be ordered from the la carte section—things like maguro-nuta, a tuna sashimi with a bean-paste sauce. Or grated radishes and salmon row. Or udon or soba noodle dishes tempered with yams.

I shoveled in these side-dish foods, like the Chinese vegetables with bacon (featuring spinach greens in a salty brown broth and rich bacon flavor) or the shumai-age (a dish of six deep-fried dumplings accompanied by a tart plum sauce). Such items dot the menu and more than make up for the somewhat less-than-inspiring sashimi.

You can eat well in Nikko Honda for around $10 or $15 per person, which is a mean feat in most Japanese restaurants. But drinking well comes with its own price tag. As I tossed down the end of my Kirin, a group of six young Japanese men and women converged in an exposed side room, where they kneeled at the low table on padded mats. Their server brought them ice-dripping mugs of beer the size of sledgehammer heads. They quickly drained their glasses; reinforcements soon followed. They were halfway through those when I left. Sloppy chuckling had turned into full gales of laughter, and they had yet to crack their menus.

It would be a very good night.

Nikko Honda, located at 18450 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, is open Wed.-Mon., 5 p.m.-midnight. (714) 964-4629. Dinner for two, $25, food only. Beer and wine only. All major credit cards accepted.


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