Habuya, a True Okinawan Restaurant (and maybe the only one) in California

Updated 3/11/21

Remember the movie Karate Kid 2? Where Mr. Miyagi goes back to Okinawa to get his honor back? If you do, that is about the extent of Okinawan culture most people experience (time to take in more, and I do not mean Karate Kid 3).

What he meant by honor was to honor his stomach by eating some bitter melon, an ingredient in signature Okinawan dishes like goya chanpuru which is a stir-fry of bitter melon, tofu, egg, and sliced pork or Spam. Since Mr. Miyagi likes his alcohol, you know he washed it all down with an Okinawan brewed Orion beer. All of which was the honorable way to do it. *cue Peter Cetera “Glory of Love.”*

Okinawans (Ryukyuan) Are Japanese, but the Cuisine Has Some Distinctive Differences

Even though Hawaii is part of the United States, the culture of Hawaii is dramatically different from the mainland, much like Okinawa is to Japan.

Okinawa (Japan) is 0.04 times as big as Hawaii (US).”

Photo Description: the reddish wall at Habuya in Tustin, CA. The way is filled with tiny frames with a ton of character from pictures, art, to little trinkets.
More originality here than Chotskies, Buca Di Bepo, and Applebee’s walls combined.

Habuya Has a Cool Interior With a Lot of Character

One of the coolest interiors in Orange County because a lot of the art in the restaurant was done by the owner Mayumi Vargas herself.

Photo Description: bonito flakes atop a white square plate with stir-fry of spam and bitter melon and bean sprouts.
From the 808 to Okinawa, what’s up with people on small islands and their love for Spam (not the email kine either)?

“Goya champuru with bitter melon is a signature Okinawan dish, and do not for the Spam.”

If you are one of my latino homies, you have no issue saying “goya” and you probably will not struggle saying “champuru” either.

Distinctively Okinawan Dishes/Foods

Goya chanpuru $6.80, is one of the most iconic Okinawan dishes, so don’t pass it up when putting your order in.

Photo Description: one of the most recognizably and distinctively Okinawan ingredients, umibudou. The sea grapes are atop a salad which has raw salmon sashimi in it.
Those are not anal beads, but they are a type of seaweed often referred to as “sea grapes” or in Japanese “umi budou.

This was my first time having umi budou, and if you want to get all fancy, the latin name for this type of algae is called “caulerpa lentillifera.”

They are considered a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, zinc and iron. They also contain a high level of vegetable protein per calorie and a good amount of omega3 fatty acids too.

favy-jp.com “Sea Grapes are Known as Umibudo in Japan.”
Photo Description: a close up of the "vine" like sea grapes which are very tiny. Maybe the size of a pomegranate... well, a bit smaller. The color is a translucent dark green.
When it comes to epic salads, this is an epic Okinawan deluxe ocean salad, $15.

How was my sashimi and umi budou salad? Think fresh and crunchy algae/seaweed (it is nothing like tiny grapes) mixed with fresh salmon and tako sashimi. All those ingredients amount to an epic salad well worth the money.

Photo Description: teba or chicken wings are on a very long rectangular plate with a lettuce beneath for plating purposes and 4-5 wings with a very nice char.
Bdubs (Buffalo Wild Wings if you don’t know) has nothing on these wings because they aren’t overcooked, tough, and dry like it had sat in a tanning booth after a night of drinking and doing Xanax.

Japanese restaurants typically have either a grilled (teba) or a deep-fried (tebasaki karaage) chicken wing. Regardless how they are prepared, you won’t get the overcooked wing you would find at an American chicken wing restaurant.

Photo Description: one of the table top menu's which highlights Mayui'san's artistic abilities.
That time doodling in class really paid off for someone.

The Owner of Habuya, Mayumi’san

There are always the occasional hand drawn and written signage and promo’s on the tables. The amount of time it takes to creates these just reflects on how much effort Mayumi’san puts into her business.

Okinawa soba is not buckwheat/wheat noodles, and they are closer to udon noodles. The broth is also like a shoyu (soy sauce) broth. Nice way to confuse the f*ck out of you.

Photo Description: the Okinawan soba aka ramen at Habuya.
What do you get for $8, you’re looking at it.

The Rest of the Menu at Habuya Okinawan Dining

Yea, they do a very basic shoyu ramen here and a number of other noodle dishes which are just aiggghhhht, but throw that in with a number of other items and drinks, and we coo.

Photo Description: awwww yea, a sign with an anko filled dessert with the words "Authentic Japanese Dessert."
Even Okinawans eat dessert (just not deep-fried Twinkies).

Okinawans do eat dessert, and I think they typically have daifuku which is an anko/azuki filled mochi or a yuzu sherbert (I like both).

The art here can be called art versus your IKEA KNOPPÄNG print hanging in your dining room.

Photo Description: more artwork of Mayumi'san on her wall.
Coming here is like a mini gallery exhibit except you don’t have to stand in front of it pretending to  be moved by the interplay of colors and juxtaposition of shapes.

Characteristics of Okinawan Cuisine

  • Okinawan dishes are a combination of S.E. Asian, Chinese, and American influences due to trade or the U.S. presence in Okinawa.
  • Common or signature ingredients are goya (bitter melon), turmeric, miso, salt, kombu, and katsuobushi.
  • I found this surprising, but due to a number of factors from the hot climate, religion, to the surrounding types of fish species, seafood is not a huge part of the Okinawan diet.
  • This is a good one, it’s quotes about Okinawan cuisine which goes that it: “begins with pig and ends with pig” and “every part of a pig can be eaten except its hooves and its oink.”

Popular Okinawan Dishes and Drinks

Here are a few of the most distinctive Okinawan dishes that are a combination of S.E. Asian, Chinese, and American influences due to trade or the U.S. presence in Okinawa.

  • Gōyā chanpurū (bitter melon, egg, and pork)
  • Okinawa soba (the base stock is like ramen)
  • Rafute (braised pork belly)
  • Taco rice (Americanized taco ingredients with rice)
  • Tofuyo (fermented tofu)
  • Umi-budo (sea grapes/algae)
  • Awamori (a dialcohol unique to Okinawa made of long-grain indica rice from Thailand)
  • Orion (brand of beer from Okinawa)

If I had an Okinawan bucket list of food experiences, it would be to try taco rice (yea, I’m aiming for the moon and one can dream).

Photo Description: the other signature dish of Okinawa is taco rice. On an oval style white plate is a mound of what look like white rice, ground beef, lettuce, some sort of yellow looking sauce?, some sliced tomatoes and a side of "hot sauce" which looks more like ketchup.
This is the only dish not offered at Habuya, but I want to try it even though I’m sure I had something close to it from living in El Lay. Image by Nelo Hotsuma.

Are You Okinawan or Japanese

This took some research because I knew there were some distinct differences when calling somebody from Taiwan, “Chinese.” Something you may want to have a sensitivity to because just like Taiwan is an island off of China, Okinawa is also a tiny little island off the Southwest tip of Japan. Both countries have their own distinctive roots and culture much like Hawaii does in contrast to the mainland U.S.

Okinawa is part of an island chain called the Ryukuan islands, and they are considered a part of Japan. The indigenous people of these islands are called Ryukuan or Lechewan. There’s a bunch of subgroups within the population, and Okinawans are considered to be a part of it because even though they do speak Japanese, and their nationality is Japanese, they are still considered Japan’s largest minority group with 1.3 million living in Okinawa or dispersed outside of Japan, mostly in Hawaii.

So after reading all that, and if you still feel the way I do which is like Hank Hill:

Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
Kahn: I live in California last twenty years, but first come from Laos.
Hank: Huh?
Kahn: Laos. We Laotian.
Bill: The ocean? What ocean?
Kahn: We are Laotian. From Laos, stupid! It’s a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It’s between Vietnam and Thailand, okay? Population 4.7 million.
Hank: (pause) So, are you Chinese or Japanese?

If that is you, you need to read Kelly Yamamoto’s response about “Do Okinawans identify themselves as Japanese first, or Okinawan? The answer is so well done (I love it), so go read the entire response – probably one of the best things I have read in a long time.

“To Japanese people on the US mainland, whether they are Japanese nationals or Japanese Americans, I’ll usually say I’m from Hawaii, so they know I don’t identify primarily as Japanese and that I have a slightly different generational history than Japanese Americans from the mainland (i.e. no WWII internment camps, less discrimination).”

Kelly Yamamoto, via Quora
Photo Description: the infamous bitter melon being washed in colander.
If Masaaki Komori can make bitter melon look this good, this is who I would go to if I needed a pic of myself bathing. #valentines Used under CC rights.

It Is Not Just Pat Morita’s Character in the Karate Kid Who Have Okinawan Roots

How about some famous celebrities with a Okinawan connection:

  1. Tamlyn Tomita, the actress best known for her role in “The Karate Kid, Part II” who is a a quarter Filipina.
  2. Brian Tee, the actor best known for “Fast and the Furious, Tokyo Drift” was born in Okinawa, but left when he two years old. He is of Japanese and Korean ethnicity.
  3. Merle Dandridge, the actress in “The Last of Us” was born in Okinawa, and she is of Korean, Japanese and African-American heritage.
  4. Namie Amuro, is a musician and actress, and she was born in Okinawa. She is a quarter Italian and Japanese.

Where Da Hell Is Okinawa

Where is Okinawa? It’s that tiny little island that I circled in red. For a closer look in and around Okinawa via Google Maps, click this link or Google Earth here.

Photo Description: this is a picture of where Okinawa is located in relation to Japan and China. The red circle is of Okinawa which is Northeast of Taiwan, but it is nowhere near the size of Taiwan. Okinawa (Japan) is 0.04 times as big as Hawaii (US)
If you went through the American school system, that round circle is either highlighting Great Britain or Okinawa.

Where to Eat Okinawan Food in California

Here’s your chance of getting a taste of Okinawan cuisine in Orange County, California without doing a 22 hour flight from SNA to OKA for about $1k.

Habuya Okinawan Dining

14125 Red Hill Ave
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 832-3323

Instagram: Mayumi’san, the owner of Habuya is amazingly creative, so a lot her work adorns the menu, the walls, to the artists she has performing in her business regardless how tiny her venue is, it doesn’t stop her from having musicians and other entertainers. So don’t miss out on the food and entertainment, and make sure you add her on Instagram at www.instagram.com/habuya2010/

11:30am-2pm, 5:30-11pm5:30-11pmClosed
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