Long before the gastropub altered appetites with ultra-hoppy beers and shareable small plates, there was the izakaya. The Japanese iteration of the food-focused pub is pure fun: boisterous and convivial with a wide-ranging menu of raw, fried, and charcoal-grilled dishes designed to please the sober and soused alike. There’s no shortage of izakayas in Orange County—universally tiny places where glasses of sake seem to clink in choral unison—but Costa Mesa’s 6-month-old Izakaya Hachi is already one of O.C.’s best.
Hachi is part of what might be a burgeoning micro-chain. This is its second location, with the original branch occupying a prominent spot in Torrance’s izakaya hierarchy—both owned by Manpuku, the Japanese barbecue chain with roots in Tokyo. So not only is its kitchen perpetually stocked with ribbons of fatty, gloriously marbled meat, but the restaurant already possesses a certain polish that’s typically gained over years of testing and tweaking.
Getting to Hachi can be a bit of a challenge, though. It’s wedged into one of Costa Mesa’s busiest culinary corners: the shopping center at Bristol Street and Paularino Avenue, home of old-school stalwart Anjin, the hip new Capital Noodle Bar, and the perpetually packed outpost of New York’s The Halal Guys. Parking is often a test of wills, cars fighting for any sign of an open spot before ultimately submitting to the complimentary valet.
Once you get inside, it’s a den of serenity. The space is handsome and refined, outfitted in warm wood and pale stone, the dining room’s midcentury-style chairs seemingly cribbed from a West Elm catalog. There’s bar seating for front-row views of the kitchen, a compact main dining room, and a more sedate back room partitioned by wooden screens. It’s a small place that can still squeeze in the crowds: bachelorette parties, double dates, and groups of businessmen.
Don’t look for defined appetizers or entrees here—everything is meant to be shared as soon as it’s shuttled from the kitchen. The Kobe beef sashimi already has achieved Instagram fame—bite-size slices of raw beef wrapped around lobes of uni and topped with caviar and gold leaf. It’s luxury for the sake of it, sure, but the briny pop of the caviar and the creamy uni provide a lovely (and needed) salinity to the otherwise earthy beef. Hachi serves several cuts of beef sashimi, most arriving essentially unadorned, a statement of confidence not just in the kitchen’s skill but also in the product itself.
Seafood is treated with the same reverence. Oysters are slippery and cool, sluiced with a bit of lemon juice and as good as you’d find at almost any local oyster house. The warm crab croquettes disappear quickly. They’re coated in crispy panko crumbs and fried to an addictive, pleasant crunch. The restaurant also specializes in oshizushi, a boxy variant of sushi in which rice is packed into a mold, fish is carefully placed on top, and the whole thing is pressed into a tight, rectangular log. Hachi’s pressed salmon sushi is truly great. The rice is fortified with minty shiso, the salmon is buttery and yielding, and atop it all are a few more briny bursts of caviar.
The grill is where Hachi really shines. Yakitori, skewered meats and vegetables cooked over binchotan charcoal, is a staple of izakaya cooking. Take Hachi’s chicken meatball. Each torpedo-shaped mass of meat is formed onto a skewer, dunked in a savory-sweet sauce, and set over the grill. Drops of sauce and fat hiss as they hit the charcoal below, the chef fanning the resulting smoke over the phalanx of skewers. The meatball is perfect: charred, smoky, sweet, and eminently tender. You might never taste a better, juicier chicken thigh than here at Hachi, but the restaurant is just as proud of its beef tongue, and for good reason: The notoriously chewy meat is licked by the flames just long enough to resemble a very fine steak.
This is pub grub, so a drink is essential. A few lesser-known Japanese beers are available, including a peculiar wasabi-infused ale from Niigata. It’s not quite spicy, but the beer is a fun novelty, with a kind of floral funk taste that still somehow smacks of wasabi. There’s a small selection of shochu separated by grain (barley and sweet potato varieties dominate) as well as an impressive roster of sake. You can’t go wrong with a bottle of Hakkaisan’s premium-grade sake—dry, crisp, and beloved even by the most discerning sake sippers.
Service is composed and attentive, appearing just when you’ve taken that last sip or split that final bite. It’s there, too, when you’re ready for another round, maybe a snack of fried gobo (burdock root) chips or blistered shishito peppers and mushrooms buried under smoky bonito flakes. The fried chicken isn’t quite as crunchy or finely seasoned as versions elsewhere, but the octopus and daikon radish salad is a nice mid-meal refresher, the octopus still a touch chewy but not unbearably so.
Dessert here, as at many izakayas, is all but perfunctory, requisite bowls of all-too-simple green tea ice cream and orbs of mochi ice cream sheathed in tempura-fried shells. None are failures, but you get the sense that the staff knows it doesn’t need dessert to accomplish its goal: to send you smiling, full-bellied and red-faced, into the night.
BEST DISHES Kobe beef and uni sashimi, octopus and daikon salad, shishito peppers and mushrooms, pressed salmon sushi, grilled chicken meatball, grilled chicken thigh, grilled beef tongue
PRICE RANGE Vegetable dishes, $4.50 to $7.50; seafood, $5.50 to $17.50; grilled and fried dishes, $3 to $13.50; hot pot, $30 to $40
FYI A chalkboard highlights the day’s fresh fish, oyster, and meat selections.
3033 Bristol St.