Until now, only a handful of OC restaurants has flirted with serving the cuisine of Okinawa, an island prefecture of Japan. Though it's a sushi bar first and foremost, the wonderful Ohshima in Orange has dabbled with the more esoteric Okinawan dishes of boiled pig's ear called mimigar and a bracing salad of bitter melon. Then there's Sakura Saku, the long-defunct teriyaki-and-roll joint in Huntington Beach and its taco rice, a Frankenstein dish of Tex-Mex seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese and Japanese steamed rice, a foodstuff that only recently entered the Okinawan diet, no doubt inspired by homesick American servicemen with Taco Bell cravings.
The new Habuya in Tustin may never resort to serving taco rice (or tako-raisu, as it's called there), but I wouldn't be surprised if it's featured as a special one of these days. Just know that here, you can't have California rolls or sushi, even if you beg. Okinawa native Mayumi Vargas, has taken on the mission of representing her home island's distinct food culture, rescuing it from being a mere footnote on Japanese menus in our county. And she's not shy about doing it. At her restaurant, you'll find everything from pork feet to bitter melon, the infamously acrid yet beloved gourd the Japanese call goya. Pork feet are served in a stew or dropped into a bowl of ramen, and goya embeds a tamago-like omelet with eel.
Then there are the tropical ingredients that make Okinawan food exotic to even those in Tokyo. Shredded green papaya stuffs a crispy egg roll, and Habuya's best dessert is a fresh pineapple sorbet that Vargas commissioned a specialty ice-cream maker to produce just for her restaurant.
Short of the taco rice, Habuya still recognizes the indelible mark that an ever-present U.S. military has had on Okinawan cuisine. Just as in Hawaii, Spam has become an accepted protein source in Okinawa. Funny, then, that the island known for the longevity of its residents has adopted it so seamlessly in what's probably the healthiest dish of all, chanpuru, a stir-fry as humble as it is commonplace and ubiquitous. In the prototypical goya chanpuru, the high-sodium canned meat actually becomes indispensable in taming the astringency of the sliced bitter melon, the neutral crunch of the bean sprouts and the sweet lashings of the beaten egg.
Pork in its unprocessed form is the featured protein you'll see most often. The already-falling-apart stewed daikon has the lowest dose of it, the broth-soaked wheels sandwiching thin slices of bacon. The grandest piece of pork comes with crunchy tendon and gelatin still entangled around the meat. It floats like a fallen log above a gingery broth and soki soba, a special Okinawan wheat-based noodle that bears no resemblance to its buckwheat-based Japanese cousins. Its canary yellow and linguine-like chewiness lies somewhere between ramen and Chinese hand-pulled noodles.
Ra fu te—the local variant of long-stewed pork belly known elsewhere as kakuni—is nothing but a hunk of pig that quivers with equal parts blubber and softly melting meat. Soy, the indigenous rice wine called awamori and the patience of a long, low simmer suffuses Habuya's rendition. If the tableside placards announce the presence of the dish as a special, get it.
In fact, always take heed of this placard and the items it lists. It's here that I discovered raw tuna buried under the mucilaginous slobber of grated Japanese mountain potato, garnished with the caviar-like pop of the seaweed lovingly called Okinawan sea grapes. A sugary mash of Japanese pumpkin blankets thick scallops, a pairing as sweetly evocative as Thanksgiving candied yams and turkey. Okinawan mineral salt and lime pepper are sprinkled over a slab of smoky grilled chicken, a dish that somehow manages to trump the addictive, crispy-skinned, deep-fried torikara, a version of Japanese karaage.
As young as Habuya is, Vargas—who cut her teeth at the ramen purveyor Kohryu in Costa Mesa and the ever-popular Honda Ya in Tustin—already has a good handle on things. The dishes are consistent, and the service provided by her and her one helper is unerringly warm. Lines are routine at the notoriously cramped, ill-located building behind a gas station where numerous restaurants have failed. With Habuya, this cursed space is alive and, most important, has become the OC epicenter of a cuisine that's a footnote no more.
This review appeared in print as “The Perfect Prefecture: Habuya dazzles as the first Okinawan restaurant in Orange County.”
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.