Honda-Ya Box: Costa Japan

Has anyone satisfactorily explained how Costa Mesa became such a focal point for great Japanese food? Why sushi spots are almost as common there as pho is in Westminster? How the city was able to land Marukai and Mitsuwa markets so long ago? Where ramen is as rarified an art form as the Balboa Bar on the Penninsula? I know about the Japanese tourists who take tour buses from LAX to South Coast Plaza, drop thousands of bucks, then get back on the bus to LAX and fly back home, but Costa Mesa's Japanese population isn't exactly high—the 2010 U.S. Census shows its total Asian population is nearly 8 percent.

Whatever: Costa Mesa gets to reap the benefits. And its reputation is such that when the wildly popular Honda-Ya chain of izakayas decided to open its first non-pub, it forsook hip spots such as downtowns SanTana and Fullerton in favor of the strip mall on Fairview Road that most county residents know for housing the Lil' Pickle sandwich shop and a textbook store. At Honda-Ya Box, the emphasis is on quick meals of the bento box or plate variety that people can order to-go or eat quickly. It has only been open since September, but the restaurant has already found its groove (although it's best to go just after the lunch rush, as the wait can be long then). Eaters choose from a simple menu—an entrée, a complimentary bowl of miso soup, a salad and whatever the side of the day may be, from enoki mushrooms to pasta salad. There are a couple of sushi-roll offers, but no sashimi or sushi bar; expect quick, cheap meals instead of an endless parade of snacks, as you'd find at its Honda-Ya older siblings. And though the meals may be prole, the tastes are spot-on: The Japanese curry is savory, expansive and sweet, while pork katsu crunches with a thousand crumbs.

The owners know better than to stray too far from the roost, so one of the delights of Honda-Ya Box is finding the latest slip of paper that's been taped onto the wall or counter with the special of the day (or week, or month). There's a rainbow of musubis—from Spam to curry to a blue crab variety as big as a softball. I've seen special pot stickers, soups, pickled veggies—it's as varied as Noh drama. And best of all? You can drink beer or wine, the better to get you started as you continue the party at another spot in the city. Viva Costa Japan!


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