It took us nearly all summer to make the pilgrimage out to Annandale, but we finally made it out to Honey Pig Izakaya last night and sampled some of the only Korean and Japanese pub food we’ve ever had outside Asia.
One of the most deeply frustrating things about Japanese food in America is that, even in cities full of sushi restaurants and ramen shops, it’s still really hard sometimes to find the greasy, deep-fried delicious pub food you’ll find on the streets and in the izakayas of Japan.
Maybe it’s the special equipment required to turn out molten-hot orbs of takoyaki and crispy-on-the-bottom, gooey-on-the-top skillets of okonomoyaki. Or maybe it’s because the Japanese pub food genre is so completely antithetical to the clean, minimalist sushi menus we Americans know and love so well. Maybe it’s that we’re not exactly suffering, here in the land of deep-fried Snickers bars, from any dearth of greasy indulgences. Perhaps the saturated-fat-laden niche for gut-busting fried restaurant fare here in America is, well saturated.
And yet, if you haven’t tried takoyaki or okonomoyaki, one of those uniquely Japanese creations of octopus, shrimp, batter, topped with kewpie mayo and bonito flakes, you’re missing out on one of the most wonderful gustatory experiences in the world. There’s no reason not to seek out it out where you can and so there is no reason not to give Honey Pig’s new Izakaya a try.
We walked in to the tiny, dimly-lit restaurant as soon as they opened at 5pm, catching the staff by surprise. Though they might not have been ready for us, they welcomed us warmly and rushed around bringing out a high chair and drinks and even a perfect bowl of luke-warm miso soup for 1 year old Will. I can’t say for sure whether it was good miso or not, but our-not-such-a-big-eater Will downed the whole thing before I could snag even a spoonful, so I’ll take that as a ringing endorsement.
This restaurant may be an excellent example of why you shouldn’t always trust Yelp reviews from people using Living Social or Groupon specials. Too often, restaurants offer those sorts of deal right after grand opening to generate buzz and it backfires. They get slammed, the kitchen staff isn’t yet up to 100% efficiency and ends up in the weeds. The front of the house is still working the kinks out and the clientele may or may not know exactly what kind of food they should be expecting.
No one on Yelp liked the yakitori at Honey Pig Izakaya which was fine with us since we weren’t going there for (truly difficult to do well) meat-on-a-stick anyway.
Instead, we ordered the two dishes we’d been craving for over a year now: okonomoyaki and takoyaki. They are very similar dishes to one another, but since we are leaving for India next week, it seemed like a now or never-in-two-years kind of opportunity. We also tried two of the Korean dishes on the menu: the bulgogi and the tteokbokki, rice cakes in a spicy sauce.
The okonomoyaki was fantastic, exactly like we remembered it–crispy on the bottom, gooey and rich and loaded with chewy bits of octopus on top. Okonomoyaki is just precisely what good, greasy comfort food should be: a sizzling mishmash of carbs and fat, crunchiness and creaminess all brought together in one dish so perfectly balanced and satisfying that it gives my stomach warm fuzzies just to think about it.
The tteobkokki was also one of those dishes I’d go back for again and again. It’s another ultimate comfort food dish and Honey Pig Izakaya does it so right. The unctuous, chewy rice cakes never felt too heavy in the spicy-but-not-too-spicy sauce. The garnish of toasted sesame seeds and green onions on top added the perfect crunchy texture and flavor to contrast with the soft rice cakes below.
As for the takoyaki? (not pictured) Well, they were about as good as I think we’ll ever get in America and the fact that they were on the menu at all and they were good enough for us to finish the entire plate on a table already groaning with good food–I guess that’s saying something.
Traditional takoyaki aren’t actually deep-fried per se, they’re pan-fried in a specialized piece of equipment not terribly unlike the one used by the Danish to make ebleskivers. Last February in Tokyo we ordered takoyaki from a stand in Ginza and watched as no less than 4 people worked over the hot metal pans, constantly pour batter, adding ingredients, and delicately turning each orb of crunchy-on-the-outside, molten-goo-on-the-inside goodness individually with tiny wooden skewers.
It was one of the most labor-intensive processes I’ve ever seen–which may be one reason why it’s so difficult to find takoyaki in the States. The takoyaki at Honey Pig Izakaya, while tasty, did not have the same complex layers of texture and flavor as the ones we had in Tokyo. The too-crunchy exterior and the one-note creamy interior made me think that perhaps they were some sort of pre-made frozen concoction, dropped into a deep-fryer and then garnished and served. Good, but not great.
The bulgogi at Honey Pig Izakaya was delicious, but paled in comparison to our memory of the bulgogi at the original Honey Pig where it is served with all the fixings–lettuce leaves, kimchi, pickles, sauces, sheets of seaweed, and rice. Izakaya’s bulgogi came out looking more like a platter of fajita filling–minus the tortillas. We enjoyed it, but we’ll probably wait to visit the original Honey Pig before we order it again.
All in all though, if you love Korean and Japanese food, you’ll love Honey Pig Izakaya. The staff were absolutely wonderful–so friendly and kind to our young son– and the food satisfied every craving we had.
By 6pm the small space was 3/4 full and we were told that by 11pm or so, this fun neighborhood spot, with beer posters and ink-jet printouts of sushi boats on the walls, is packed with young people out to enjoy a few beers and a some delicious food.
When: Monday-Sunday 5pm-2am (though the website says they’ll be opening for lunch soon)
Where: 4231-R Markham Rd Annandale, VA (just down the street, around the corner from the original Honey Pig)
Why: the tteokbokki, the okonomoyaki, sushi, grilled meats, a selection of Korean and Japanese beers and a fun, neighborhood-bar-but-in-Korea atmosphere.