Shonoya, sitting inconspicuously in a Costa Mesa mini-mall, next to tiny Japanese noodle house and a dark karaoke bar, is a wonder. From its modest, opaque facade, you wouldn't guess that it serves the kind of dishes that make visiting Japanese businessmen forget they're homesick.
The name means "Sho's place," Sho being master chef Shotaro Abe (pronounced AH-bay). Abe and his wife, Fujiko, constitute the entire staff of this tiny kitchen, a fact that may astonish you when you taste some of their magnificent food.
Abe is a master of ippin-ryori , the small dishes that accompany beer or sake--Japanese pub food, in other words. (There's more to him than pub grub, though. After the first of the year, he intends to emphasize complete dinners.)
His restaurant is plain and simple: five wooden tables, one five-seat counter in front of the cooking area and a few typically Japanese appointments, such as paintings of bamboo in blossom and colorful noren , the hanging strips of cloth most often used as curtains or room dividers.
In a way, Shonoya is the Japanese equivalent of the truck stop where a seen-it-all waitress unfurls her order pad with a look that says, "Nothing fancy, pal, just food." There is elegant fare here, but it's basically a place to roll up your sleeves and eat heartily. You wouldn't order creme bru^lee at a cafe on Highway 80, and you don't come to Shonoya for sushi.
English is used only minimally here. Yes, there is an English menu listing complete dinners ( teishoku ) such as pork cutlet and broiled fish, which come with soup, rice, pickles, a small appetizer dish and dessert (invariably fruit or ice cream). But come here with someone who can read the Japanese wall menu, or learn the names of one or two of the terrific specialty dishes, and you are almost guaranteed safe transport to culinary heaven.
The wall menu changes constantly, so there's no telling what you'll find listed. When available, pure, simple dishes such as shime saba (white mackerel), the cucumber and fermented bean paste appetizer morokyuu and the chef's tofu and wakame salad (made with a kind of seaweed) show this kitchen's alchemic command of flavor.
At my first lunch, I had minchi katsu , two golden patties of minced beef, breaded and deep fried, served with adroitly prepared Japanese accompaniments, such as home-style miso soup and briny pickles. It was almost transcendentally delicious, hamburger to the 10th power.
My companion, meanwhile, enjoyed a delicate salad of salmon skin topped with the daikon radish sprouts known as kaiware . The sharpness of the sprouts plays off the salt and crunch of the fish skin with majesty. We are a long way from sushi here.
In the evening, the restaurant is often full of dressed-alike businessmen and occasionally a Japanese couple of the younger generation, him in a T-shirt and her in Donna Karan. The beer and sake flow freely, and the food rolls out of the kitchen nonstop.
You might start with edamame , a complimentary dish of salty boiled soybeans designed to provoke a powerful thirst. Nothing I ate here has satisfied me more than moro kyuu , an appetizer of crisp raw cucumber with a dark, smoky coating of fermented soybeans. The freshness and contrast in this dish overwhelms the senses, and the integrity of the products is unassailable.
You could try agedashi dofu , though many non-Japanese find this good-sized square of deep-fried tofu a daunting sight. It's topped with katsuobushi , shaved flakes of dried bonito. When they are sprinkled on the hot tofu, these cellophane-thin flakes begin to move in the heat, wavering and shriveling before your very eyes. ("I refuse to eat anything while it's still moving," said a friend, averting her head.)
But if you can stand the show, I recommend it highly. What makes this dish so good is Abe's wonderful dashi , the basic Japanese cooking broth. It's just like the dashi that oba-chan (granny) used to make.
With luck, you'll find kisu tempura, three smelt-like fish deep-fried in a light, crunchy batter. You dip them in a salty, delicious sauce into which grated daikon radish is mixed. Yamaimo tempura is kind of like deep-fried yam, served in rounds. Sometimes there is hokkei, a salty fish related to the mackerel, broiled to order and served sizzling.
But there's no doubt that Abe's triumph is shime saba , raw-seared white mackerel that positively melts in the mouth. It's somewhere between sashimi and cooked fish, and completely satisfying--which means the kitchen usually runs out of it early.
These are all a la carte dishes. The complete dinners are more filling but equally accomplished. No one in O.C. makes better tonkatsu , the breaded pork cutlets consumed feverishly in Japan. Kani koroke is a sort of crab croquette, discs of crab and potato usually eaten with a thick Worcestershire-like sauce. Winter is the season to order nabeyaki udon , a soup of thick noodles with fried pork, eggs, onions, fish cakes and vegetables in an irresistible homemade broth.
Non-Japanese who come on their own may not find it easy to navigate these waters. The waitresses really do not have the time to translate the names on the wall menu for you, and the owners are too busy churning out food in the kitchen.
But true adventure is worth a little trouble. And the dishes served at Shonoya are true adventure.
Shonoya is moderately priced. Dishes range from $2.50 to $15.
* 891 Baker St., B-15, Costa Mesa.
* (714) 557-8715.
* Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
* Visa and MasterCard.