Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Comfy, Neighborhood Japanese Pub - Kappo Honda

What makes a great Izakaya (Japanese Pub) or Kappo restaurant (focused on the culinary arts) can be many things, depending on the individual. For one of my Tokyo friends, it's a place that's close by, that serves reliable food and drink, and where they can relax after work. For a Saitama friend, it's a place that has the most extensive Sake menu. And for others, it may be the restaurant that has the best execution of dishes, regardless of locale. But perhaps one of the most endearing traits of a good Kappo restaurant or Izakaya is when it finally grows roots in the neighborhood; when it becomes a place that's warm and comfy, like a well-worn, favorite jacket, where they have a consistent clientele of locals and where the atmosphere is inviting. Kappo Honda is one of those places.

Kappo Honda has been serving customers for the last 13 years along a quiet stretch of Brookhurst. Its owners have also opened up Honda-Ya in Tustin and Little Tokyo. Of the 3 Honda restaurants, Kappo Honda in Fountain Valley is the only one to have the "Kappo" moniker, due to its original focus on Kappo Ryouri, Japanese dishes focused on the culinary arts, with a higher quality execution for things that are fried, stewed, cut, or boiled.

I still remember my very first visit to Kappo Honda, about 6 years ago. My dearest 'dachi, ghibli99, had mentioned that there was a new Japanese restaurant that opened up recently and we decided to try it. From the moment we stepped inside, I knew it was a special place. Rustic decor, a large wooden table that was the centerpiece of the restaurant (for communal dining), and warm lighting with a bustling crowd and J-Rock group WANDS playing in the background. It was also the first So Cal Japanese restaurant I visited that had a serious Sake menu (it currently features 18 different Sake, with some excellent choices such as Suigei and Kubota Manju).

Since that first visit, I've found myself back at Kappo Honda (or Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori across the street) multiple times a year, whenever my OC Hounds or Izakaya Hounds feel like getting together for whatever reason. (^_~) And with each additional visit, the restaurant has become more and more comfortable and enjoyable, but the food has had its share of ups and downs.

Over the years, Kappo Honda has slowly increased the offerings on its menu to the point that now, it features a rather monstrous amount of choices, which has hurt the quality of its offerings at times.

Usually, my Izakaya Hounds start with a bottle of Suigei Sake (Kouchi, Japan). Kappo Honda holds a special place in my heart for introducing me to the wonderful Suigei. (^_~) Slightly floral, bright, with a clean, long finish, it was my favorite for the longest time, until Takeno Tsuyu came along. :) Or to mix it up, we'll sometimes order the famous Kubota Manju Dai Ginjo Sake (Niigata, Japan) as well (but this was only a recent addition to Kappo Honda's Sake menu).

For the first few years worth of visits, Kappo Honda's Agedashi Tofu (Fried Tofu in Soup) was one of the best versions of this dish to be found in So Cal. It had a slight crispiness before giving way to a sogginess as it absorbed the mouth-watering, house-made Dashi Broth. Unfortunately, the last 3 visits to Kappo Honda this year have resulted in a step back for this dish: The Agedashi Tofu arrives completely soggy and gelatinous, losing all texture except a soft, soggy mess. The Dashi Broth, however, is still as good as before with this light, aromatic broth with notes of Kombu (Kelp) and a delicate Shoyu (Soy Sauce), but it seems the kitchen has changed its cooks because the execution of the Tofu is lacking. And after Izakaya Bincho's legendary version of this dish, Kappo Honda's has become merely serviceable.

Their Tori Nankotsu Kara-age (Fried Chicken Bone (it should read "Cartilage")) has surprisingly been changed recently. For the first few years, they used the Cartilage from the Leg and Thigh area, but on my most recent few visits, they've switched over to Yagen Nankotsu (Chicken Breast Cartilage).

Unfortunately, the new Yagen version is overfried and dried out. It has a good crispiness to it, but just a tad too overcooked. The original version of Nankotsu that they had was much better.

Their Butakaku (Stewed Pork Belly & Spinach with Sweet Soy Flavor) has been up and down over the years. Of the ~20 times I've ordered it, a little over half the times have been nicely tender and long-stewed, while the remaining times (including the last 3 visits) have been under-stewed, with the Pork Belly being too tough and chewy. The Buta no Kakuni Sauce has been pretty consistent, however, with a delicious Mirin, Shoyu (Soy Sauce) base that goes so well with a bowl of Steamed Rice. :) It's just unfortunate that they seem to be trending downwards.

One of the surprises from my first visit to Kappo Honda that has remained consistently good (over 6 years now) has been their Zaru Soba (Cold Buckwheat Noodles with Dipping Sauce on the Side). While Kappo Honda doesn't make their own Soba Noodles, if you're in the mood for Soba and can't make it out to a great Soba specialist like Ichimian, Kappo Honda has arguably *the* best version of manufactured Soba I've tried in L.A. or O.C. The kitchen seems to have no problems making this spot on, each time. It has a perfect chew, a great texture and grain-aroma every time we've ordered it (including the last 3 trips this year). Very nice.

Another consistently excellent dish has been their Tarakasu (Grilled Butter Fish) from their Yakizakana (Grilled Fish) portion of the menu.

From the 20+ times we've ordered this dish, it's been consistently very good: Truly buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, flaky, moist Butter Fish, lightly sweet from the Mirin; simply cooked, but *so* delicious! (Note: This fish has bones (not very many, and they are easy to pick out), and it's worth the minor hassle.) Excellent.

Kappo Honda's Ikamaru (Grilled Whole Squid) is another good dish. One whole Squid is roasted over their Yakitori Grill and served with some fresh grated Ginger and a slice of Lemon. Of the 12+ times I've had this dish, it's been nearly always tender and moist, while retaining a light smokiness from being roasted over the charcoal. It makes for a great snack with Sake or Beer. :)

One area that Kappo Honda has never been very good at, has been their Yakitori / Kushiyaki selections. From the first time I tried their Yakitori over 6 years ago through my latest visit last month, it has always ranged from bad to average at best (in fact, with the advent of Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori across the street, my OC Hounds usually held off on ordering any Yakitori from Kappo Honda and saved those cravings for our Shin Sen Gumi visits :). But I was curious if their Yakitori and Kushiyaki dishes have improved recently, so we ordered a few items to see.

Their Okura Maki (Okra with Pork) arrives slightly overcooked, but decent, with a disappointingly little amount of actual Pork Belly wrapped around each piece of Okra.

Their Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage) skewer is simply bad Yakitori. It's not as bad as Honda-Ya in Little Tokyo, but it was pretty disappointing, tasting of old, funky Chicken, slightly rubbery(!) and unappetizing.

Their Sasami Mentaiko (Chicken Breast with Spicy Cod Roe) skewer is equally disappointing. Extremely salty, with the Chicken Breast being way too overcooked (the inside was very dry), this was nearly inedible.

Their Buta Shiso (Shiso Pork) skewer uses too thick a slice of Pork, making the skewer too thick to eat in bite-sized chunks, and it's overcooked as well, turning it into a very dried, chunky Pork skewer that buries any hint of the Shiso leaf.

The basic Yakitori dish, Negima (Chicken Leg Meat with Green Onions) arrives with the Tebasaki (Chicken Wings). Their Negima has always been disappointing, but tonight, it was the worst I've ever had: The Chicken Leg Meat was tough and rubbery, and smelled of lighter fluid. :( Very disappointing.

Finally, their Tebasaki (Chicken Wings) managed to turn things around slightly, being a decent rendition of the dish, cooked correctly, with a crispy outer skin, while still being moist inside.

Kappo Honda used to have one of the best Tonkatsu (Fried Pork Cutlet) in L.A./O.C. For the first 3-4 years, they consistently delivered a wonderfully crisp exterior that stuck with the nice, meaty chunks of the Pork Chop. It was never too oily and just perfect with Suigei / Beer / Rice. But over the last year+, the Tonkatsu has changed for the worse. The exterior breading now falls off from the Pork easily, and the seasoning in the breading has become more pedestrian. It's not a "bad" Tonkatsu, but it's disappointing considering how good it used to be.

Their Buta Kimuchi (Pan-Fried Pork & Kimchi) has fortunately remained as tasty as before. Lean slices of Pork sauteed with Kimchi results in a delicious mixture of a tangy spiciness from the Kimchi mixing with each slice of Pork and a slight nuttiness from the Sesame Seeds.

The Shishamo Shiso Age (Fried Smelt Fish with Shiso Leaf) has usually been very good, but on the last visit, it was slightly undermined by the old-tasting oil. Beyond that, the Shiso Leaf always imparts a wonderful, herbal, spring-like fragrance and matches well with the Shishamo (Smelt Fish).

Kappo Honda makes a respectable version of Nigauri Chanpuluu (Pan-Fried Bitter Squash with Bacon, Egg and Tofu).

This is a more rustic interpretation of the dish, and there's a similar version of this, done Okinawan-style at Shin Okinawa Izakaya (the Go-Ya Champuru) that I found more enjoyable. Still, the bitterness from the Bitter Melon, large chunks of Egg and Tofu give a satisfying edge to this dish.

A classic dish arrives next with their Tori no Kara-age (Fried Chicken with Soy Sauce Flavor). This dish has generally been consistently good whenever we've ordered it over the years. On this visit, it was good, moist and more to an Izakaya-level than a Kappo-level execution of the dish, being a touch too oily, but still enjoyable.

The Ume Onigiri (Japanese Plum Rice Ball) is a decent version of a Japanese Rice Ball if you're in the mood for one. The Ume paste that they use tastes like a store-bought, mass-produced version, being a bit muted and more sour than anything, lacking the refined fragrance of a higher-quality version. But overall, their various Onigiri (Rice Balls) fill a need if you find yourself nearby and want one.

The Tori Zousui (Rice Egg Soup with Chicken) is a great way to finish off an evening at Kappo Honda. It lacks the made-from-scratch, focused love of Tomo-san's creation at Izakaya Bincho (it's not even close), but for a decent version of it after a long night of Sake and Beer, this is worth considering. (^_~)

Their varieties of Ochazuke (Chazuke) (Rice in Fish and Tea Broth) are also decent (again, not as good as Izakaya Bincho, but serviceable) offering a nice variety of choices from Ume (Japanese Plum), Sake (Salmon), to Ikura (Salmon Roe) and Uni (Sea Urchin).

Service has always been good for an informal neighborhood Japanese eatery, with the busboy or waitresses always making the rounds and there's always someone present in the dining room, tending to each table's needs. The dishes range from $1.80 - $8.95 (a great bargain), with some Sashimi Special Assortments running $20.95. We average about ~$22 per person (including tax and tip already) when we're there just for food, but about ~$40 - $50 per person when my Izakaya or OC Hounds want to enjoy the wondrous Sake choices. (^_~)

Kappo Honda in Fountain Valley represents an interesting cultural development: Like a classic, local Izakaya or Kappo Restaurant in Japan, Kappo Honda has taken root in its neighborhood and become a familiar, relaxing, local Japanese Pub to get some decent-to-good Japanese Small Plates and enjoy an extensive Sake Menu. In the past, Kappo Honda would've been a strong recommendation, but after 13 years, it's understandable that there's some turnover in the kitchen staff, which unfortunately, has caused a noticeable decline in the quality of the food.

At this point, Kappo Honda doesn't really live up to its Kappo label anymore, and is more like its sister Izakaya restaurant, Honda-Ya in Tustin (and thankfully not like the disappointing Little Tokyo branch). While the quality of the food has taken a hit, Kappo Honda still serves up some good Japanese Small Plates / Kappo Ryouri here and there, and with the great Sake Menu and plenty of regulars (that I've seen over the course of the past 6 years), it has truly become like the more down-to-earth local eateries in Japan (in terms of ambiance). Here's to hoping they bring in new chefs to have food to match.

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

Kappo Honda
18450 Brookhurst St.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 964-4629

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.


Noah said...

I miss Japanese food, but at least I can live vicariously through you.

Now I'm hungry.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Hehehe, thanks. :) Let me know the next time you want to explore more of Japan; I'm always up for it. :)

Maybe you can add start a Man Bites Japan Sub-Project after your main one is done. (^_~)

pleasurepalate said...

Is there a difference between a "Kappo" and an "Izakaya" restaurant?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Yes, but the difference may not be as apparent here in the U.S. In a quick summary:

An Izakaya is like a Japanese Pub, focused on food and drink (usually a decent to pretty good selection on both fronts). It can be the most "informal" of the types of Japanese eateries with this focus.

A restaurant labeling itself as a Kappo restaurant is meant to be a place that has a more refined / higher-level of execution for its dishes, usually a true Kappo chef has mastered enough to be able to excel in dishes that are Boiled, Cut, Stewed and Fried, amongst other things.

I've spoken with staff from various Kappo restaurants who take offense if you call them an Izakaya. There's can be a bit of a hierarchy at times.

But then in the U.S. a restaurant calling itself "Kappo" may not really meet those higher levels of execution.

Adding to the confusion for some is that many good Kappo restaurants also can have a great selection of Sake / Shochu / Beer, and some dishes are commonly found on both a Kappo menu and an Izakaya menu.

And I've been to Izakayas in Japan that are high-end Izakayas that don't mind calling themselves an Izakaya, even though they are fancier than some of the Kappo restaurants in the area (in terms of decor, service, etc.).

Feel free to e-mail me with more questions. :)

ila said...

i never really liked kappo honda.

i feel that they are not as nice if you're not japanese. i went with a couple non-japanese friends once, on a non-busy night, and the waitress did not tend to us at all until i complained to her in japanese.
we left them a small tip due to a few mix ups in orders on top of this rudeness. when we tried to leave, the waitress came after us and told us that it wasn't sufficient!

if i want kappo, i will drive down to hana. if i want yakitori, there's always honda-ya. just my two cents :]

Pepsi Monster said...

Hey Exile Kiss,

Love your explanation to Abby about the difference between Kappo and Izakaya.

I noticed you mentioned in your review about Honda-Ya in LA and comparing Kappo Honda to that place. Is it really that bad that the LA's Honda Ya went downhill? What went wrong and if there is a big noticeable difference between the two. I really would like to hear your take about that place.


Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Sorry to hear about the bad service experience you had! :( My condolences.

I guess we've just been lucky; there was maybe 1-2 times out of the 6 Years that I've gone that we had some mediocre service, but the Staff has changed so many times (I've seen so many different waitresses and waiters there). It's unfortunate that you ran into someone that was rude to you (I don't blame you if you don't want to go back).

Definitely Kappo Hana is great! :) Love that place, and I think their Kappo food is better executed. For Yakitori, you don't like Shin Sen Gumi on Brookhurst? (^_~)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks! :)

Ultimately any branch of a restaurant is only as good as its staff (front and back of the house). Honda-Ya in Little Tokyo feels like they took Honda-Ya Tustin / Kappo Honda Fountain Valley's massive menu (which took years to expand and have the kitchen knowledgeable enough to execute (most) with enough skill), and dropped it onto the Little Tokyo staff from Day 1.

There's just too many dishes for such a new kitchen, IMHO. As a result, about ~90% of the dishes we ordered at Little Tokyo Honda-Ya were just... bad. The Yakitori was ironically the highlight of the meal (because the Yakitori is generally the weakest part of the Tustin / Fountain Valley branches).

From there it was all downhill: Reused (Old) Oil for all their Age (Fried) dishes like the Tori no Kara-age. Their Buta no Kakuni (Stewed Pork Belly) was extremely tough, chunky and hard to chew. And more. The group I went with included some hardcore Izakaya Hounds and some discerning Japanese Hounds and we were all disappointed.

Anonymous said...


seem like if yakitori is my comfort food... I should stick w/ SSG across the street :-p

wouldn't you say so?


Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kelvin,

In its current state, "yes," I would say so. :)

The reasons to go to Kappo Honda across the street from Shin Sen Gumi would be:

1. You're in the mood for Kappo / Japanese Small Plates (full menu / selection)

2. You enjoy the variety of Sake at Kappo Honda more than SSG (both places carry unique Sake that the other one doesn't have).

3. You want to hang out later: SSG closes by 11:30 p.m. Kappo Honda closes at 1:00 a.m.

Otherwise, yes, Shin Sen Gumi is the place to be. (^_~) (and my favorite of the two.)

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