Midnight Snack: Izakaya Honda-ya with Matt Braunger

Think there aren't any restaurants open late in L.A.? Residents who work late beg to differ. Comedian and actor Matt Braunger talked about unusual food, unusual commercials and unusual families over late-night sushi Downtown.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E
Photo by A.Rios/R.E

What's the most bizarre food you've ever eaten? Ask any Angeleno, and odds are they'll name something they ordered in Koreatown or Little Tokyo. Monkfish liver, squid, octopus pancake balls.

The menu items can look like words plucked from a hat and combined at random. Take, for instance, "sautéed oyster mushroom." Sounds delicious. What is it?

All these items - "200 Items On Menu!" - are available at an izakaya deep in the recesses of a Korean mall in Little Tokyo. Surrounded by ordinary stores with extraordinary names, such as the GNC-inspired "Super Health" or the self-evident "Max Karaoke," Honda-ya Izakaya packs a crowd every night.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

Actor-comedian Matt Braunger knows the menu well. Back from New York after taping a comedy special and fresh off a completed pilot co-starring Kyle Kinane, Matt soaks in the menu.

Henry: This is the bar food of Japan, right?
Matt: It's a Japanese drinking club, basically. The ones in Japan--from what I understand; I went when I was eleven, so I wasn't drinking--but you kind of just pound beer and eat food that soaks up the alcohol.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

Henry: So this is where people would come to drink after work?
Matt: Yes but it's very regimented in Japan, not like us. In America, you're usually like, "I'll go have a beer" and then you end up having like eighteen, and the next day, you're like, "oh what the hell? I ate four plates of wings!" The Japanese plan that. They designate a night and say, "That's the night we all go."

Henry: You went to Japan as an eleven-year-old? How was that?
Matt: Great because everything almost seems designed by a genius kid. All the flashing lights and everything. I remember the funniest thing to me was how, in America at the time, we had T-shirts with Japanese symbols on it, not knowing what they meant. And then I saw Japan had the same thing. I saw a jacket that said in English, "Summer Camp 1967" or - and this is all in letterman letters - "We Fell In Love For The Very First Time." You see that and you're like, "Yeah? Really?"

Henry: Was that when you first had izakaya?
Matt: LA was the first place I heard about it. I tried sushi when I was eleven in Japan, but it could have tasted like gumdrops, and I still would've said, "It's raw fish." You hate everything when you're eleven. The first time I really enjoyed sushi was in Chicago, right after college, and I was like, "This is outstanding. I always want this." I found this love of Japanese-style food, and I already liked to drink beer. So in a place like this, the worlds kind of merge.

I let him order for us both. As a man who tours the country for work, he is no stranger to adventurous food. He also comes from a family of butchers, so whatever we get, it's sure to be fun. He orders the octopus balls (or, takoyaki) straight away.

Matt: Octopus baaaaalls.
Henry: I take it you like them.
Matt: They're great.
Henry: I'm so afraid of octopus. Ever since watching people eat raw baby octopus in Korean BBQ restaurants, you know, with whole baby body you pop in your mouth like popcorn?
Matt: Sure sure.
Henry: Horrifies me. Is it good?
Matt: It is, but I eat a lot of weird stuff. I'll eat whatever I can get that's odd and within reason. I just got this cookbook from a restaurant in Montreal called "Joe Beef" that's high end but really into partying and overdoing it, food-wise. I only bring it up because, in Montreal, they almost have a tradition of good eating but indulgent eating, crazy indulgent, where it's like French times ten, and one of the recipes calls for horse meat, and I'm just like, "Come on. Horse? Really?"
Henry: Horse meat's about to become legal soon. Did you hear about that?

Late last year, Congress signed a revised Agriculture Appropriations Bill and in doing so opened the door for the renewed slaughter of over 100,000 horses per year, quietly lifting a federal ban.

Activists are up in arms. They say the cruel practice could resume any time now.

Chefs threw their arms up in joy. They say horse meat is delicious.

Henry: Would you eat it? Say someone came to you and said, "Here, this is some finely prepared horse," would you try it?
Matt: Probably. I eat every other kind of animal.
Henry: What's the weirdest thing you've eaten?

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An appropriate question as I try my first octopus ball. I dip it in a smear of what looks like mayonnaise on the plate. My first bite dispels all fear.

Henry: That's really good.
Matt: Right? It doesn't taste fishy.

Henry: That's great. Thank you. Oh wow, that's really good. All right, go on - the weirdest thing you've eaten...
Matt: I had a whole branzino fish when I was in New York. I went to a place called Prune, and the chef there is a notorious badass lady, who made a restaurant on her own terms, and it's all very hearty and rustic. And it's a whole fish, and I was eating with an old friend, and she was like, "Ugh, I don't like looking at anything with--
Henry: The eyes...
Matt: So of course I dug out the eye with a fork and ate it.

Henry: What was it like? Juicy?
Matt: Eyes are weird. They're crunchy, and they kind of pop a little.

Henry: Did you regret it halfway through?
Matt: I had to try it. It's not like it was a gorilla eye or a tiger, something big that would burst in your mouth.

Henry: What kind of eye would you draw the line at? Like a cow eye?
Matt: Cow eye - no way. It's too much like mine. Of course that's weird parallel to draw because pig meat is the closest to human.

Henry: You mentioned you were in New York. You were shooting something for Comedy Central, right?
Matt: I shot an hour special.

Henry: How is it?
Matt: I like it. I watched the first cut today. It's so hard to watch yourself. Oh my god, it's like "What are you doing? Stop walking around. Don't do that. Look straight ahead." You get so self-critical. You've heard your jokes a million times. You think you don't have an ounce of charisma. It's just like anybody - when you see yourself, you're just like, "Good God, I'm a fat asshole." I remember when I first came to LA, I started doing commercials to make money, and the first time I saw myself on TV - it was a Christmas ad for Macy's - and when I came on TV, my first thought was, "I know that dick." And then I was like, "oh, that's me!"

Henry: You didn't realize it was you?
Matt: I didn't. My first, split-second thought was, "I know that guy, and he's kind of annoying."

Henry: I saw some ad with you for Summer's Eve (a brand of feminine hygiene products).
Matt: Yeah, I have a bit about that on my first album. About going home and telling my parents about it, and about how the ad makes no sense.

Henry: Were they proud of you though?
Matt: They were glad I was working. They thought it was funny.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

Henry: I get the sense from interviews with you that your parents have been pretty supportive of your career. At this point it doesn't matter, since you're successful, but early on...
Matt: Yeah, I say on my album, "Thanks to my parents who never once said, 'Hey that's stupid, get out.'" They also kind of protected me from relatives who were like, "What if this comedy thing doesn't work out?"

Henry: Like that bit you have about your uncle?
Matt: That was actually a composite of several uncles. I don't have one who's like that all the time.

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Henry: Were the uncles offended at being the butt of a joke?
Matt: No, that's the best thing about composites. They can all be like, "That's not me. That's Ed. No, That's Mark."

Henry: Do your parents worry you'll make jokes about them?
Matt: They occasionally ask, "You're not doing anything about us, are you?" But there's nothing to do about loving, supportive parents that have open minds, you know? I guess there are few things.

Henry: Patton Oswald does something about that, like the worst kinds of parents to have are the parents who say, "Do anything you want," and he's like, "Whatever, I just want a son-of-a-bitch dad who yells at me!"
Matt: For sure. There's stuff I'm sure I can dig up, but I almost have a unilateral problem with it because, basically when I first moved to L.A., there was this management company that's no longer around, but I wanted to get signed with them so bad.

Henry: What were they called?
Matt: They were called Power Entertainment, and they had some great people. The thing is they repped comedians that acted, and I was like, "That's what I do! That's me! Hey!" And I remember I met with one of the managers a couple of times, and he gave me this checklist that said what to make your material into. It said stuff like, "Do you have a strange family? What's strange about them? What's weird about your mom? What does your dad do that drives you crazy?" Shit like that. It was like a forty point questionnaire to mold your act into something that could become a sitcom.
Henry: Wow.
Matt: And I had such a reaction to it that was so negative, like this is so dumb. I don't know. Obviously America will always eat up the typical sitcom with the fat dad and the mom that yells at him. I read a great quote about this "Simpsons" writer whose been around forever, and he was talking about how someone once said to him, "If someone talked to me like people in sitcoms do, I would probably cry." Because they're so mean all the time. It's all just cutting each other in half, and we're like, "Oh that's families." No, it's not. You can't say stuff so nakedly awful about how fat someone is or how stupid they are. And what's worse is for someone who's worked for years to find their voice as a comedian, and then they get that questionnaire, and they have to be like, "Guess I will change everything."

Henry: I mentioned Patton Oswalt probably because I just saw "Young Adult."
Matt: Oh yeah, how was it?

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

Henry: Great. Really great, and I feel like he's done a pretty seamless job working serious acting roles into his career. Same with Louis CK. Since you studied acting originally, do you see yourself moving in that direction, even if it's more dramatic?
Matt: For sure. I'd just like to keep doing comedy, similar to what those guys have done, if possible. But it's one of those things, when you get that kind of question - not that you did this - but when you're asked, "Would you want this person's career?" It's almost like the Drunk, Annoying Guy at a party - which I've been plenty of times, more times than I care to count - who goes up to a couple and is like, "I want to have a relationship like you guys have. You guys are perfect. You guys are so awesome!" and the couple's sitting there, and in her mind, she's just found out her husband's cheating, and her husband's like whatever whatever. I can certainly find someone's career and be like, "Oh that'd be so cool," but you never know what they're dealing with unless you're in their shoes.

Henry: Do you think that far ahead? About what do you want for yourself? Obviously, you've come this far, but do you have more that you'd like?
Matt: If I could help a bunch of friends and make an interesting career doing what I love and trying new things and not losing my mind, I think that would be the ideal.

Henry: What would make you lose your mind?
Matt: Just, I think if I got - let's say, going in an insane direction: Tom-Cruise famous, like someone who cannot go out into the world without being attacked. There was an article in GQ where this writer went out with Justin Timberlake at Comic Con. Word gets out. No one knew Justin was at Comic Con, and then word gets out he's there. The hotel gets mobbed. The limo pulls up. Five guys have to keep people away from him as he gets into the limo and speeds away. Even Brad Pitt has said, "The key is you have to be faster than them." I'm like, "Man, I don't want to ride a motorcycle like Jason Bourne everywhere." I don't want to be commandeering a vehicle and driving down steps in a f$#@ing Mini Cooper, backwards. That sounds horrible. And since I am just one person, I think about this quote sometimes. George Harrison once responded to a question when someone asked, "How did you deal with being a Beatle?" He had a really good perspective, that all the Beatles shared, which was, "As crazy as it got, we always still felt sorry for Elvis. Because we had each other. No matter how crazy it went, we could turn to each other and go, 'This is f*&%ed up.' We could all relate. Elvis had no one. Nobody that ever talked to him could ever relate to him." Maybe Sinatra?

The rest of our order arrives - a mouth-watering spread of sashimi, green onion pancakes, bacon-wrapped miscellany, and meatballs of unknown origin. Our greedy fingers pluck from a half dozen plates.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

Matt: This is my favorite kind of eating. Like in general. I find when I go out to eat, I want the whole table to get a bunch of stuff and all share. But then I visit home, and I try to introduce my parents to that type of eating, and they're like, "Um, I'll get my own."
Henry: I've had the exact same experience going home. Is it a uniquely LA thing?
Matt: Oh yeah. I've had friends that I eat out with, like one of my friends, she's a comedian, she's like, "No, sorry, just gotta have my own dog bowl." I'm like "alright, I understand that."
Henry: This is kind of embarrassing, but I tried to find a phone number for Eggly Bagelface. I wanted to dial it so you could ask what he'd order if he was here.

Eggly Bagelface is the subject of one of Braunger's most popular bits. Essentially, when Braunger was a kid in Portland, he and his friends scoured the phone book for silly names to prank call and, as fate would have it, found the best name in history: Eggly Bagelface.

Henry: I couldn't find a listing. What I did find was a band.
Matt: There's a band. Yep. There's a guy on Facebook, who still posts on my Wall. Stuff like "I miss you," stuff like that. Yeah it's one of those things where I remember it from my childhood, but it might've been a name that just looked like that.

Henry: Oh I'm not even challenging you, I don't care.
Matt: But to set the record straight, people ask me all the time, they're like, "Agh, we can't find him!" - and I don't know.

Henry: Poor guy. Probably just killed himself.
Matt: That'd be so awful.

Henry: The opposite of loneliness. The phone just would not stop ringing.
Matt: Oh God.

Henry: It'd be really wonderful though if, when you're sixty, you get a knock on your door, and it's him. He'd be like, "Let's sit down and talk."
Matt: Or "I'm here to kill you."

Henry: Exactly! Like Anton Chigurh from "No Country for Old Men."
Matt: I was just thinking that! And I'm like, "You don't have to do this, Eggly." And he just looks at me, "Why does everyone say that?" He's just killing everyone by this weird code of his.

Henry: What would Eggly Bagelface's code be? Part of me hopes he's the most attractive man you ever meet.
Matt: That'd be amazing. Like he doesn't even think his name is weird because he's such an attractive man. He's been with so many beautiful women and had such a marvelous life. It's like Engelbert Humperdinck, who in his day was a big crooner, and everyone was like, "Oooh he's so handsome."

Henry: I find the whole Engelbert Humperdinck thing shocking. If Bradley Cooper was named Eggly Bagelface, he would not be successful with women. He would not be People Magazine's Most Handsome Man in the Universe.
Matt: No. That's a tough thing to get over. George Clooney would have a hard time.

Our plates are clean. The waitress asks if we want more, but we are only two mortal men. It's clear the best way to eat at an izakaya is in a big group so everyone can order everything, and no item goes unordered.

Henry: Is this where you like to come after a show?
Matt: I usually come on a night off. A couple of friends. Get some beers. It's most fun when you have the whole night to get a good buzz. You all order a cab on a Friday or Saturday and eat and drink everything.

Photo by A.Rios/R.E

"Eat and drink everything" seems like the perfect slogan for a place like this. Maybe printed in letterman font on a T-shirt, beneath an image of a horse's eye.

If they're serving it here, I'll try it.

Izakaya Honda-ya
333 S. Alameda #314; 213-625-1184

[Photos by A.Rios/R.E]

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