As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I do not subscribe to the theory that all non-Japanese operated Japanese restaurants are inauthentic or serve subpar food. Sure, there are a lot of non-Japanese operated Japanese places that serve crappy food, but then I have also had more than my share of decent meals at non-Japanese operated places.
I knew Hachi Hana was a Korean operated Japanese restaurant before I even set foot in the restaurant. But I never hesitated for a moment to visit it because of this fact. I actually wanted to visit it because I was hopeful that it would have one dish one its menu – which is served at many Korean operated Japanese restaurants in other cities I’ve lived in – that I have craved for a long time: Hwe Dup Bap.
Hwe dup bap is basically raw fish bibimbap. In North America, it is usually served in Korean operated Japanese restaurants. I first became acquainted with this dish while I was in Boston. It was served in many of the local Korean sushi places, and the raw fish used in the hwe dup bap were usually scraps and ends that were not suitable for proper cuts of sashimi and nigiri sushi. I know a lot of people would be turned off at the prospect of eating a bowl of vegetables and rice mixed with chopped-up and unwanted pieces of raw fish, but not me. I thought that the mixture of the various cuts of fish with the rice, vegetables (sometimes pickled, sometimes not), sesame oil, and kochujang was extremely well-matched and quite satisfying.
I haven’t had the dish for a while because I’ve been between California and Taiwan for the past 3 years. Obviously, there are no Korean operated Japanese restaurants in Taiwan, so I have not had it there. And all the Japanese restaurants that I frequented in Orange County were Japanese owned while all the Korean restaurants I’ve been to in the area were focused on dishes that did not contain raw fish. Therefore, it has been a long time since I’ve had a chance to sample the dish.
I had a hunch that Hachi Hana would serve the dish, and I knew the minute I walked into the restaurant that it would serve the dish. The sushi chef was Korean, his assistant was Korean, and all of the servers were Korean. But the interior of the restaurant was that of a typical Japanese sushi restaurant, with a typical light-colored wood themed sushi bar area, typical light-colored wood wall panels, typical Japanese style wall sconces made with light-colored wood, and typical Japanese restaurant tables and chairs made with light-colored wood.
The menu that we were given had typical Japanese restaurant/sushi restaurant items, with typical lunch box specials on the back page. My wife ordered one of the boxes, but I didn’t because that was not what I came to the restaurant for. I flipped through the two or three page menu looking for the Hwe dup bap and found it listed as the Korean Chirashi Sushi
The first thing that I noticed about the bowl once it arrived at our table was that it had a very strong and very appetizing sesame oil aroma. The second thing I noticed was the vegetables on top of the chopped up raw fish resting on the standard bed of lettuce. These were fresh, non-pickled vegetables that were more finely julienned and more neatly arranged than most other hwe dup bap’s I’ve had. The variety of the vegetables was also a little different than what I was used to. There were pea sprouts and purple cabbage, which I have never seen in a hwe dup bap before.
The kochujang came in a bottle instead of being pre-portioned into the bowl, and I quickly squeezed some of it from the bottle into the bowl. Then, I throughly mixed all of the ingredients with the rice sitting at the very bottom of the bowl.
I had my first spoonful and liked what I tasted. It was everything that I remembered the hwe dup bap to be, and a lot more. The non-pickled and thinly julienned vegetables were fresh and crunchy. Because they were so thinly-julienned, they were allowed to spread out more evenly amongst the other ingredients of the bowl. This added a nice crunchiness to every single bite I had.
The kochujang was sweet and spicy, and it combined with the extremely fragrant aromas of the generously-used sesame oil to create a two-pronged attack on both my taste buds and my olfactory glands. The sweet spiciness was further enhanced by the included slivers of raw garlic and chilis, which were two more items that I have not had the pleasure to experience in a bowl of hwe dup bap before. The garlic added yet another beautiful aroma to the already great sesame aromas while the chilis amped up the spiciness whenever they were encountered.
The raw fish was another pleasant surprise. These were not scraps and ends; these were proper sashimi pieces cut up to a size so that they could be more easily mixed with the other ingredients. Every single variety of the fish felt fresh, and I loved that they included raw squid (cuttlefish?) as well as cooked octopus along with the standard salmon and tuna. The textures fish were firm and the textures of the mollusks were chewy yet chewable.
Every element of this bowl of Korean Chirashi was well-thought-out, well-prepared, and throughly enjoyable.
My wife thought that her Lunch Box (Bento box, lunch special??? I forget the exact name) C was not as enjoyable. She thought the items in her box were quite pedestrian.
The lunch box came with the following components:
- Salad – My wife thought the salad was typical. It had the typical variety of vegetables with typical Japanese salad dressing. The vegetables were fresh, but the portion size was rather small.
- Shrimp and vegetable tempura – The tempura was well-fried. The batter was crispy and not greasy. But my wife did not like the shrimp. My wife thought the shrimp didn’t taste fresh because of their more stale and less plump textures. She thought that the vegetables were ok. They were, once again, typical.
- Dynamite roll – The dynamite roll was probably my wife’s favorite component of the box, if she did have a favorite. She commented that she liked both the flavour and texture of the sushi rice. She felt that it had just the right hint of vinegar and was firm enough to make every grain stand out on its own. She thought the other ingredients were just ok. I tried a piece and thought that the roll had a very strong sesame flavour that came from all of the sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
- Nigiri Sushi – The order came with four pieces of nigiri sushi: shrimp, tuna, salmon, and tai. My wife thought that the shrimp was once again a bit more stale and less juicy than than she would have liked. She thought that both the albacore and salmon were fresh, but that the fish was sliced too thick to be enjoyed when combined with the rice. She gave me the tai nigiri, and I thought that she was spot on with the thickness comment. The fish was definitely cut a little too thick to create a smooth and delicate chewing experience that was essential of a well-made piece of nigiri sushi. The fish did taste fresh, but the knifework left a lot to be desired.
- Sashimi – Two pieces each of wild salmon and albacore tuna were included. Once again, both fish tasted fresh. And once again, they were sliced way too thick for their textures to be enjoyed.
My son, in a slight departure from his recent binge of deep fried white-meat chicken, chose the Tonkatsu.
The tonkatsu was so deeply fried that it was crunchy like a cookie. The deeper-than-deep fry job also meant that the batter totally adhered to the meat. It was like a layer of superglue was applied between the meat and the batter because nothing could have separated the two; not a fork, knife, or any amount of abuse my son applied to it with his chopsticks. On a thicker cut of meat, this deep fry job would make the pork meat so tough that it would be unchewable. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the meat was almost paper-thin. I would say that it was probably thinner than the batter. The thinness of the meat made its texture a non-factor since it was barely detectable.
The extra crispiness of the tonkatsu was enough to make my son like it. But my wife and I were not impressed when we both tried a piece of it.
It’s hard to draw up a general conclusion on whether or not Hachi Hana is worthy of a revisit. My son liked the tonkatsu, but he liked it for exactly the same reason my wife and I disliked it: it was over-fried. My wife thought that her lunch box had components that were typical of other average Japanese places. The raw fish, even though it was cut too thick, definitely felt way fresher than the other average sushi joints. I really liked my hwe dup bap. I loved the flavours, textures, and all the non-typical components. But then my judgement might be clouded by the exciting prospect of having the dish after not having it for almost four years. I think the best thing for me to do would be to try another similarly popular Korean operated Japanese restaurant. I’ll order the exact same dishes and see how they stack up against the dishes I had today at Hachi Hana…but I do not currently have a list of similar restaurants. Any suggestions? If you know of such a restaurant (I imagine that there should be more than a few), please let me know in the comments below.