5038 Montezuma Road, College Area
Ever been to the 'No?" asks Mark. This is his splash. Taking his old tennis buddy Ed to lunch.
"The 'No?" What kind of eats does he have in mind?
"Yeah, the 'No. Fres-No, man. Fresno. This town is full of us 'Noahs. We're infiltrating. And we're bringing our pizzas with us. The best in the world. Me-N-Ed's."
"You and me?"
"No. 'Me-N-Ed's.' Pizza chain from home. We all hang out there. Just think of it as the ''No embassy.' "
When we get up to Hillcrest, there's a Me-N-Ed's, all right. Except it's closed down. As in kaput.
"Guess 'Noahs' ark sank," I say.
"Okay, okay...still got to eat." Mark's regrouping. He restarts his old Volvo. "I've got it! Hole-in-the-wall. College. The most incredible California roll you ever had."
"Another 'No hangout?"
Fifteen minutes later, we're up on Montezuma, at College near SDSU, pulling into a mini stripmall, right where the 11 and a bunch of other buses stop. Frat houses and a big Presbyterian church sit across the road. We park outside a little place with "Sushi To Go" painted in big red letters across its side. A more worn-out sign says, "Oshi's Kitchen. Japanese and Korean Food."
Inside, it's certainly tiny. "Bibimbap!" shouts a voice from behind these blue-and-white cotton curtains. A guy hands out a tray, and a customer comes from the room next door and takes it. It has a big over-easy egg slapped on top of a pile of veggies, meat, and rice.
A list of tempura hangs on one wall, and a big plastic page filled with sun-faded color pix of different dishes sits below the counter.
"What's most filling?" I ask the two guys standing behind it. Jooheon and Peter. They look like students. The two take a moment to talk about it.
"We think the Bibimbap," says Jooheon. "It's a very popular Korean dish. Good with Number 22 sauce."
I check it out on the picture chart. It's that over-easy egg set on top of vegetables, marinated beef, and rice. "Really healthy," Jooheon says. "It has squash, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, bean sprouts, and seasoned beef. It's the most popular Korean dish." Goes for $5.50.
Mark's looking at the Bul Go Gi. "Korean barbecued beef," he says. "Had it before. The combo includes a California sushi roll, too. See? Only $6.50. This place is a bargain, I tell you."
I see the California roll on its own is $4.25 for the ten-piece, and you can get a half-size six-piece for $2.95.
"No no no," Mark says. "Look for Number 72. That's why we're here. Tempura California Roll. Tempura. That means dipped in batter, dunked in boiling oil. Deep fried, right? I've never seen this anywhere else."
"Not even in the 'No?"
"Not even in the 'No. So we've gotta get that. Mandatory. It's awesome."
It's $5.33. I still order the Bibimbap, mainly because of its name, and Mark orders a plate of spicy chicken ($5.25). He asks for an iced green tea ($1.25), and I get a hot green tea ($1.00), figuring that might make me feel more authentic. Plus, I do like unsweetened hot tea with Asian food.
So we go sit in the eating area, up a step and into a small room with paper screens and light wooden slats, Japanese style. We wait.
"Bibimbap!" Peter shouts from the kitchen. "Spicy chicken!" We go collect our trays. The plates are polystyrene, but Mark knows what to do. He goes to a pile of little green and red oblong dishes sitting in a pile on the kitchen counter. We take them up to our table and use them to divide the stuff out. I start off with the fried egg and veggies and marinated beef and rice. The beef tastes good, but the whole thing comes alive when I squirt some Number 22 sauce on it.
"That's gochujang," says Mark. "Soy-type hot sauce."
I'm impressed. The sauce is plummy and hot but not rocket-hot. But, wow, the spicy chicken is. Powerful taste. Peter says normally they'd have noodles with it, but they're out today. So we got rice. No problem. And my green tea comes in a beautiful decorated green mug.
Something about splotting the bits of food onto those long, squared-off plates with the curled-up corners makes it all seem so damned classy.
And hot. Whew. That spicy chicken really talks to you.
"You know why the Koreans love hot food?" Mark asks.
"Because they're Asian."
"Wrong. Because in the 1500s, the Portuguese brought the chile over from South America. The whole Asian hot thing is an import from the New World."
Mark's into this stuff. "Korean cooking is a combo of Japanese and Chinese. But more barbecued meats and less seafood than the Japanese, and they use less oil than the Chinese."
Right, right. But, truly, Number 72, when it comes, needs no talking up. The tempura California roll. It's a nice fat roll with the middle split into avocado and crab'n'cucumber, wrapped in seaweed with rice on the outside. And, oh yes. That rice is fried to a crisp skin. Wicked. Scrumptuoso.
"Tokyo, with Seoul," I say.
"And cholesterol," Mark says.
We are just finishing it up when we notice Jooheon locking the front door.
"It says you're open till 7:30 tonight," I point out.
"We're going to have to close down," says Peter. "Family emergency. Sorry."
Two minutes later we're back in the Volvo. "What is it with you?" I say to Mark. "One look and everybody closes."
"Yeah, but we got it, didn't we? Number 72. Won't find that baby anywhere else."
"Not even in the 'No?"
"Not even in the 'No."