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Dec 4, 2008 12:19 AM

The Comfy, Neighborhood Japanese Pub - Kappo Honda [Review] w/ Pics!

(Formatted with All Pictures here:

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.

Kappo Honda
18450 Brookhurst St, Fountain Valley, CA 92708

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    1. Nice write-up! Before your forays came to my attention, I had no idea that the O.C. had so much in terms of non-sushi Japanese establishments.

      1 Reply
      1. re: J.L.

        Hi J.L.,

        Thanks. :)

        Yah, for a while O.C. had this wonderful "Triangle of Goodness" with Osaka Kappo (before they sold it and it went downhill), Kappo Honda and Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori. My Japanese Hounds introduced me to these places and it was worth the drive. :) When they were at the top of their game back then, these 3 represented some of the best in L.A. / O.C. for this type of food.

        Since then, Osaka Kappo was sold, and Kappo Honda has taken a step back. Shin Sen Gumi is still a great night out (and Kappo Honda is still decent, and worth stopping by because it stays open till 1:00 a.m. 7 Days A Week to get some Japanese Small Plates and Good Sake variety (and the great ambiance). :)

      2. I've always liked Kappo Honda because it's so convenient, especially if you're in OC. There's free, plentiful parking and it's just a few blocks from the 405. There can be quite a wait sometimes, but in general I've found it less crowded and less hectic than the few times I've been to Honda-Ya in Tustin.

        The food might not be the best of the best, but it's overall pretty good.

        I grew up in Fountain Valley and before Kappo Honda, there was a generic Americanized Japanese restaurant there serving the usual tempura and teriyaki. I was surprised when I discovered it had turned into the nice place it is today. If I still lived in OC, I would definitely be a regular there. :)

        1 Reply
        1. re: huaqiao

          Hi huaqiao,

          Thanks for the reminder on the parking (definitely plenty of it, and easy to get to from the 405). :) It's definitely nice to see it thriving and popular with the locals even to this day; a good neighborhood Japanese eatery.

        2. I miss Kappo Honda. There was a time when my friends and I would go every Tuesday night. I went a few months back and it was funny to see how some green workers from back in the day are now managers. I need to move back to OC.

          Btw, Honda-ya in Little Tokyo ain't that bad!...haha. I like the atmosphere there and the food is steadily getting better.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Keizo

            Hi Keizo,

            Oh, so you were a regular there, too? :)

            Little Tokyo: I'm glad to hear it's getting better. My last visit nearly a year ago was so bad none of my Izakaya Hounds want to even attempt it again (myself included). But one of these days I'll have to see how they've improved. Thanks. :)

          2. exilekiss-Thanks so much for your great post on Kappo Honda. We were visiting from the East Coast and took our dear friend (who, as an aside lived in Japan for 8 yrs.) there for dinner and we were hoping (for obvious reasons) for the best and Kappo Honda delivered. We waited about 75 minutes for a table and we were well rewarded-we rolled out of that place for about $22/pp without drinks, but with tax and tip. I could not stop eating! Thanks again for the rec!

            P.S. Our friend Leslie lives and works in Riverside County-do you have any authentic Japanese restaurant recs there? I have searched Chowhound and it seems out of the LA (Torrance/Gardena/Carson/FV/Costa Mesa) area it is slim pickings indeed.

            6 Replies
            1. re: kolachman

              Hello kolachman. As an I.E. resident I can tell you that it is VERY slim pickings out here when it comes to Japanese cuisine. However, there are some places were you can get moderate to slightly above par Japanese food near Riverside. For sushi, you can try Oishi or Cabin Sushi. Both are moderately priced and offer fairly good service. Joe's sushi is one of those all you can eat sushi places priced around $20. IMO, it's worth at least one trip to see if you like it, but know that you're not going to get the great service that you would at a more formal sushi restaurant.

              As far as Japanese, teppan is pretty much it out here. There is RA in Corona (very trendy), Wabi-Sabi in Corona (or maybe it's Mira Loma?), Zip in Corona, and Masa's in Riverside. Other than that, I wouldn't really venture too far to find anything else. Note that none of these can hold a candle to Kappo Honda or Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori but they're the closest we have out here.

              If you're willing to travel a bit, take the 91 to the 71 and go to a place called Shima in Chino/Chino Hills. This place was impressive. Their sushi was excellent (though it was 9:00pm on a Sat. when I was there and they were out of toro) and I also had a teppan dinner which was good (pretty hard to mess up, though). I was most impressed that they had a shabu dining area. I plan on going back soon to try it.

              Good luck and happy eating. :)

              1. re: SnortingMercury

                Thanks SnortingMercury for the recs. I hope my friend Leslie can find something in her area-she lives in Temecula and works in Riverside-Leslie and I were talking about shabu-shabu. That will be the next trip out there. Shin Sen Gumi blew us away. We went to both locations-Gardena and I think the other was in Fountain Valley. Gardena was a much better experience overall although I think (but am not absolutely sure since a number of days had passed) that FV pork broth was richer. Thanks again, all the best eating!

              2. re: kolachman

                Hi kolachman,

                Thanks. :) It's great to hear that you and your friends enjoyed the meal there. Now if you can only imagine that it used to be even better.

                For Riverside? I don't get to go out there very often, so I'm afraid I don't have any recommendations. I'll ask around, but it sounds like SnortingMercury has some good recommendations for your friend to try.

                1. re: exilekiss

                  exilekiss-Thanks for responding! On our trip our goal was to hit as many authentic Japanese Restaurants as possible-all our Japanese restaurants back east seem to be run by those of other nationalities and it doesn't always work. I wish I could have experienced the better KH! Although we enjoyed it thoroughly, Shin Sen Gumi ranked in the top spot with Kappo Honda and Sushi Shibucho very close 1a and 1b. Is there a better Izakaya/Yakitori place than Kappo Honda in Orange County/LA area? Thanks again-I look forward to more of your postings.