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Kappo Honda: Masters of Illusion--and Junk Food

May 23, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — Kappo Honda is a traditional Japanese pub restaurant (kapporyori-ya), specializing in little snacks (kappo) to go with sake or beer.

Illusion has always been a touchstone of Japanese culture. Traditional Japanese houses had no locks; they had secret hidden rooms. Warriors disguised themselves as farmers to elude their enemies. Even today, the visitor to Japan encounters illusion. Shinto shrines lie shrouded in the valley of industrial high-rises.

Kapporyori is said to have originated in Kyoto, Japan's cultural center, where temple monks developed a cuisine of illusion, shaping tubers and grains to resemble flowers, fruits, fish and meat. Kappo Honda serves a dish that goes back to that temple cuisine, renkonmanju, a dumpling based on lotus root flour--though unlike the original, the kapporyori has a nonvegetarian stuffing.

Because Kyoto is far from the sea, raw fish rarely figures in kappo dishes. And because top-quality fish has always been a luxury in Japan, kappo eventually became especially popular among the urban working class.

Though kappo has already been introduced to Orange County by Osaka Kappo in Tustin and Ka-sen in Fountain Valley, it's still not well known. One evening when I was at Kappo Honda, a Vietnamese woman came looking for sushi to go. "We don't have sushi anymore," replied one of the chefs, as he broiled up mackerel behind the restaurant's minuscule, seven-stool counter.

"Then what do you serve?" I heard her mutter to herself as she retreated out the front door.

The answer would probably have pleased her, had she stayed to find out. Kappo Honda was a sushi place once, but now the menu features broiled, grilled, steamed and fried dishes, plus cooked and raw vegetables, a variety of noodle preparations and a few novelties.

The restaurant deserves credit for having eased the linguistic barrier somewhat. Most of our Japanese restaurants confine their authentic dishes to Japanese-language menus, but on Kappo Honda's main menu, which looks sort of like a book report in a plastic folder, all the dishes are listed in both Japanese characters and the Roman alphabet.

The only real problem is that the menu occasionally presupposes knowledge the reader might not have. Being able to read the words watarigani or zarusoba doesn't necessarily mean you're going to know what they mean.

*

Kappo Honda is a casual place, where your rough wooden chopstick is elevated from the table by a peanut in the shell, rather than one of those ornate little ceramic blocks. The waiters and waitresses all wear the traditional Japanese robe with wide sleeves and a sash. There is a communal wooden table in the center of the dining area, in case you want to make new friends during a meal.

The first step in any kapporyori-ya is to order the beverages. Kappo Honda has a fine selection of premium sakes, the most expensive ($15 a glass) being the dry, complex Kubota sake, drunk ice-cold. If you feel like beer, try Kirin's Ichiban Shibori, a dry premium lager in a tall, 21.4-ounce bottle.

The food is saltier than at most Japanese restaurants (probably to promote the customers' thirst), but much of it is so tasty you wouldn't mind. I always start out in a Japanese pub with salted green soy beans (edamame), boiled in the pod; you pop them directly into your mouth. Morokyuu is crisp wedges of cucumber smeared with a smoky fermented soy bean jam. Shoots and leaves of spinach are sauteed in butter and garlic, then served on a square of aluminum foil. The best grilled vegetable is probably the thumb-sized Japanese mildly hot pepper known as shishito.

Among the fish dishes (all cooked), the best I've tasted was butterfish (tara) steamed with a bit of sake. It literally melts in your mouth. The salt-baked yellowtail could have been fresher, but asari sakamushi, clams steamed in sake (Little Neck clams, in this case), tasted as if they'd been plucked from the sea that morning.

As for the watarigani and zarusoba mentioned above, the former is a bamboo basket full of deep-fried crab legs, pretty good, and the latter is a dish of buckwheat flour soba noodles. The noodles are cooked to a discreet chewiness, topped with shredded nori seaweed and served piled up on a bamboo mat. Dip the noodles in a bowl of stock made from shaved bonito fish, shiitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed. They are habit-forming.

One shocking thing about this pub food is how salty and greasy it tends to be, a fact which may undermine the myth of the ever-healthful Japanese diet. There is certainly no shortage of Japanese junk food at Kappo Honda. One evening, I had deep-fried breaded pork tenderloin (tonkatsu), a basketful of sesame-crusted fried chicken and an order of fatback and greens, following them up with nikujaga, a stew of beef tripe, tongue and potatoes.

The best thing to do at a Japanese pub is to come with no expectation, relax and eat at an unhurried pace. That should put you in the mood for one of Kappo Honda's special treats; try the terrific cubes of fried tofu with a rice flour breading called agedashi dofu, or the rose-pink monkfish liver pa^te ankimo, often called the foie gras of Japan.

The kappo pub isn't ready to dethrone the sushi bar as king here in California, but restaurants such as Kappo Honda are putting a more humble, more inexpensive style of the Japanese kitchen squarely on the table.

Kappo Honda is moderately priced. Kappo dishes are $2.50 to $7.50. Combination dishes are $9 to $11.80.

* KAPPO HONDA

* 18450 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley.

* (714) 964-4629.

* 5:30 p.m.-midnight Sunday, Monday and Wednesday-Friday; 6:30 p.m.-midnight Saturday. Closed Tuesday.

* Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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