Evolving toward simplicity

The colorful interior at Hoka Hoka has hardly changed in fifteen years of operation. Photo by Richard Foss

Redondo’s Hoka Hoka has a much simpler menu than in past years, but is still a delight

There’s a cliche about what teenagers like when they go to restaurants, and it usually involves loud environments, bright colors, and bland food. My offspring weren’t excited by those, but always welcomed a chance to visit Hoka Hoka, a Japanese/Korean fusion restaurant on Torrance Boulevard. The environment was cheerful and lively, and our youngsters enjoyed watching sushi chefs cutting sushi with lightning speed. They whiled away the time between ordering, and service by drawing on the placemats, the servers were unfailingly complimentary of their art skills. One of their best portraits of an itamae cutting fish was ceremonially posted on the wall, and since it was still there over a month later, they probably actually liked it.

My family went back to Hoka Hoka this week with my wife, a friend, and one of those kids, now 34 years old, and no longer spending as much time drawing on placemats. The decor has changed very little since they opened in 2007. The eerily lit bottles of sake on the shelves still add a blue glow to tables at the back. But the menu has changed considerably – they opened with an expansive menu that included Korean barbecued ribs, and noodle dishes, but in recent years trimmed that down to focus on seafood. There are still a few hot dishes like udon soup and teriyaki, but over 80 percent of the menu is sushi rolls. The change was so drastic that I thought the place must have changed hands, but a server explained that they cut back the menu during the pandemic and haven’t yet brought some items back.

Since Hoka Hoka always had an improbably large menu for a small restaurant, this probably makes sense, but it makes the restaurant’s name even more odd. Hoka hoka is Japanese for “Hot! Hot!, a warning common in restaurant kitchens, and most of their current offerings are sushi, served cool or lukewarm.

The salmon skin salad at Hoka Hoka, left, and a tempura appetizer, right. Photo by Richard Foss.

That doesn’t include one item we started our dinner with, the shrimp and vegetable tempura. This is the classic item, very well executed, the batter crisp and interior moist, the veggies just cooked through. They serve it with an oddly sweet sauce, something I’ve rarely encountered. I’m open to breaks with tradition, but everybody at our table found this a bit out of balance.

We were much happier with our other starters, a salmon skin salad and special cucumber roll filled with crab. Eating fish skin sounds weird, since that’s something you generally leave behind on your plate, but when salmon skin is toasted it has a crunch and flavor like a seafood potato chip. Whoever invented it was inspired, and took something generally wasted and made it a popular item. The salad here was a mix of greens and carrots, and though avocado is shown on the menu picture we didn’t taste any. A sprinkling of sesame seeds added an additional crunch and dash of nuttiness, and the mild dressing contributed flavors of soy, ginger, and toasted sesame oil.

The cucumber special roll was a fine pairing with the salad, emphasizing fresh cool flavors to contrast with the slight smokiness of the salad. It was simple, just artificial crab wrapped inside sweet Japanese cucumber, with a drizzle of ponzu sauce, hint of wasabi, and a sprinkle of black sesame. I prefer real crab for the superior flavor and slightly oily texture, and wish the restaurant would make clear on the menu that they’re using processed fish that is similar to crab, but that’s a minor issue.

Hoka Hoka has a respectable sake list, and we ordered two 300 ml bottles of Kikusui Junmai Ginjyo and Kurosawa Junmai kimoto, both reasonably priced at under $20. The Kikusui reminded me of a Sauvignon blanc, light and refreshing, while the Kurosawa was more full-bodied and reminiscent of an unoaked Chardonnay. Our party of four sipped these through the meal, enjoying the way each complemented different entrees.

Our main items were an eel and avocado bowl and four sushi rolls: the Normandie, Vivid, Hoka special, and something called a “superman burrito roll.” I don’t remember Superman actually eating sushi in any of the comic books I saw as a kid, but maybe that was in an issue that came out after I stopped following it, or perhaps in one of the movies. Come to think of it, I don’t remember him eating a burrito either, so Metropolis must have been located somewhere outside of California*. The superman burrito roll is a very large roll stuffed with salmon, albacore, avocado, and crab, all wrapped without rice in soy paper studded with sesame seeds. Soy paper becomes soggy very quickly in contact with moisture, so by the time this arrived at the table it was already soft. I liked the flavors, but they might rethink not having rice, since that would soak up the moisture a bit.

The Vivid roll was a nice contrast, made with spicy albacore and shrimp tempura with rice and seaweed and topped with more artificial crab in a vinegar sauce with a little chili. When I alternated bites of the two, one was all soft coolness and mostly natural flavors, the other heavily enhanced by vinegar and heat. It was a nice experience.

The Hoka Special roll is offered with four pieces of nigiri sushi on their happy hour special, which is available all the time they’re open.

Two of our party ordered their sushi rolls on the “Happy Hour Special,” which includes a sushi roll plus four pieces of California and spicy tuna roll for 16 bucks. We were puzzled when that was offered because we were dining in mid-evening. It turned out that Hoka Hoka hasn’t reprinted their menus since deciding these would always be available, so any hour they’re open is happy hour. That special isn’t extended to every roll on the menu, but is applicable to a lot of them, and it’s a great deal. We selected a Normandie roll while wondering what shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, cucumber, salmon, and avocado might have to do with the French province by that name. There isn’t one as far as we can tell, but it was an enjoyable roll. The Hoka special roll was more to my taste. The crabmeat and avocado roll that is baked after being topped with crabmeat and spicy tuna hit the spot. I ate a piece while musing on how this style of roll was still fairly novel when Hoka Hoka opened in 2007. All but the most militantly traditional sushi bars drizzle gochujang, mayonnaise, hoisin sauce, and Sriracha sauce now, and they keep doing it because that’s what fits the 21st century palate.

We were somewhat full after all this, but couldn’t resist ordering an item advertised as “fish ice cream.” It’s quite plausible that Japanese or Koreans might actually try making ice cream that includes fish, but this was regular vanilla ice cream that has been wrapped along with a chocolate wafer inside a thin sheet of pastry and then pressed into a mold that makes it fish-shaped. This and the macaron ice cream sandwiches are the only things on the current menu that I’m sure weren’t there 15 years ago, and we found it to be an amusing novelty.

Hoka Hoka hasn’t kept up with the times, but that obviously doesn’t matter – the place was almost full when we arrived, and when we left a couple who had been waiting happily headed toward our table. Like us, they appreciated a modest neighborhood place where you can get a good meal without breaking the bank.

*I’m going to watch my emails for responses from comic fans whom I’m sure will know whether Clark Kent ever ate Mexican or Japanese food.

Hoka Hoka Sushi & Sake is at 811 Torrance Boulevard, just west of Prospect. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sat 5 p.m. – 10 p.m., Sun 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. Wheelchair access good. Free off-street parking. Noise level moderate. (310) 316-7850. Hokahokasushi.com. ER


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