For this list of Japanese restaurants, we intentionally left out the sushi bars because, well, we already did that list. We also shut out the ramen joints, teppanyakis, and yakinikus because, well, we still want to do those lists. But you can certainly have ramen and sushi, even a California Roll, at some of the restaurants we feature in our list of 10–a lineup thrown together in no particular order.
10. Kappo Hana
If you think most Japanese chefs are dead serious about their craft, you haven't met the chef at Kappo Hana,
who is doubly so. Why? He's the only chef in OC we know who has the
balls and the mad skills to serve kaiseki, the highest form of cooking
in a cuisine already steeped in tradition. The meal features a laundry
list of methods and ingredients, all in a multicourse, seasonal-menu
popular centuries before seasonal menus became popular. Order the kaiseki dinner three days in advance, or for more immediate
gratification, get the kamameshi dinner, a meal set in six courses,
culminating in an iron pot presented tableside, full of rice and meat.
Though the sign outside simply says, “Sushi,” Bistro Anju
should not be counted among the sushi slapdash that dots our suburban
mini-malls and shopping complexes with increasing frequency, even if its
sparse dining looks like it belongs. It should be compared to its rightful peers:
South Coast Plaza's Hamamori and Newport Coast's Bluefin By Abe. Yes, owner/chef
Hideki Saito can produce California rolls and decent nigiri, but he'd rather dazzle you with foie gras and
gazpacho, things cooked on a blazing stovetop and employing more than just
First, let's put it on the record: Habuya is an Okinawan eatery, not a
Japanese one. It is true that Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan, so it's
technically still Japanese food, but that's like saying a pizza from New
York is the same as pizza everywhere else. Okinawa has a distinct
culinary culture. Unparalleled in their love of pork and bitter melon,
Okinawans have a kindred spirit in Habuya's Mayumi Vargas. She revels in
satisfying homesick tastebuds unserved by OC's generic Japanese
joints. She sources a specialty ice-cream maker to supply a refreshing
pineapple sorbet. Other indigenous dishes include chanpuru, an
egg-lashed stir-fry of bitter melon that features tiny bits of Spam
thanks to an omnipresent U.S. military, and ra fu te, the Okinawan
variant of Japanese kakuni, which simmers with awamori, the prefecture's
own rice wine. You know better than to ask for California rolls here
(which, of course, aren't Japanese either).
Simmered pork belly cooked in a broth of shoyu and mirin. Fried chicken
wings arranged artfully in a pinwheel over a thin, dark broth. All are
precursors to the soba, which is made in-house and what this place is
known and loved for. They have a special room. I repeat: a special room in which the buckwheat noodles are kneaded, flattened, and then turned into strands that might as well be golden threads. They are so precious every resilient chew tells you someone who cared made this.
It should be already widely known that Nana San is the reincarnation of the original Ango Tei, the
much-beloved local spot at which an hour wait was as much a constant
as the freshness of the fish. Ango Tei was
sold to new owners a few years ago, but in the 25 years it was in
business, Goro Sakurai, the owner's stepson, was being trained to master the sushi arts. Nana San is the culmination
of that grooming. And here, with his wife, Judy, Sakurai seems ready to
cultivate fans for his own quarter-century run. The best stuff isn't even sushi-related. A vibrant scallop-and-zucchini stir-fry fumes with a buttery aroma
that you'll smell and taste days afterward. And the
tempura-fried shiitake mushrooms stuffed with crab recall Disneyland's Monte Cristo sandwich.
But the most inspired offering has nothing to do with fish or sushi
and everything to do with pork–pork ribs and sausages, to be exact. The
former is lovingly braised, then briefly charred–a dish designed to be
so tender the meat can be peeled off with a gentle pinch of your
chopsticks. The latter gleams in a snappy casing and bites like a smoky barbecue link. Slathered in hot mustard, both will win you over if Nana San's hospitality hasn't already.
The omakase meal at Bluefin can run close to $100 per person. This is, without a doubt, one of the most expensive sushi bars in the county, and the sushi isn't even the thing to get. The omakase, a meal set in six courses, is the best way to
taste the creativity at work. There'll be an amuse bouche, in which some
items might be flecked with goldleaf; others, if in season, fresh
caviar. Then slices of owner/chef Takashi Abe's freshest sashimi take
form as a brisk salad course, followed by two immaculately cooked
courses of seasonal ingredients. Expect these dishes to feature anything
from a stuffed quail with foie gras to a whole deep-fried mackerel
stuffed with pumpkin–maybe even some Kobe beef medallions, if you're
lucky. But it's not over–a sushi course is next, which will almost be anticlimactic after the excellent food you had prior. Finally, a slice of chocolate cake and ice cream will top off a perfect dinner that
you hopefully didn't have to pay for.
Follow Stick a Fork In It on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook! And don't forget to download our free Best Of App here
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.