D'aah, is it Hawaiian? Is it Japanese? Is it Filipino? Is it Mexican? Hank and I are seeing items like kalua pig (definitely Hawaiian), chicken katsu (Japanese), lumpia (Filipino, of course), empanadas and ceviche, direct from España or Méjico, plus unknowns like kelaguen -- all on the same menu.
But maybe we're onto something new. Here at Yokozuna's this isn't just a catchall selection from a Chula Vista kitchen with an identity crisis, but an authentic cuisine from one of the greatest Pacific crossroads-civilizations you've never heard of.
History 101: Guam's destiny was written in the wind. The trades blew everybody to Guam. The original Indo-Malay immigrants (over 2000 years ago), Magellan, the Portuguese explorer (in 1521); Spain's Manila treasure galleons (on their way across to Acapulco for 300 years); plus Filipinos, Chinese, Germans, Japanese, Americans...
And now my buddy Hank and me.
Okay, this isn't exactly Guam. We're opposite Southwestern College on Otay Lakes Road. But it feels pretty darned Guamanian to me. Girls buzz around us in hula skirts, black or pink, with white hibiscus flower silhouettes. They carry steaming piles of rice with meat glistening on top, or plates loaded with chunks of meat and ribs. They drop tropical-looking rattan blinds to keep the sun out. A street sign that reads "Kalakaua Avenue" hangs by the cash register. Probably Hawaiian. "Got pugua?" says another sign behind a display of T-shirts for sale. A bamboo sushi bar with nine tall chairs faces the entrance to the dining room. We get toothy greetings from Polynesian gods on totem poles. "Graduation Leis," says an old sign. Even the acoustic ceiling tiles have been thatched in rattan. Louie Castellanos's karaoke music's just starting up, over by a wall hung with autographed photos. Oh, there's Channel 10's Lee Ann Kim, and musicians, like the group named P.O.D. They come here because they have Guamanian blood -- this is comfort food central. Seems like a dance floor up the other end, and long tables where birthday groups can get together. Now a gal picks up a mike, stares down into a TV screen, and breaks out singing, "Ooo-oooh child / Things are going to get easier..."
"This is so...Pacific," I say to Hank. "But why would they call this 'Yokozuna's,' as if it's Japanese, if this is about Guam and the islands?...For that matter where da heck is Guam?"
Later, I found out the answer to that one, because Carla had landed there once. "Guam?" she said. "Hot. Muggy as hell. Couldn't see any trees. No palms. Lot of sand. And flat." Which is funny, because Guam is the summit of a couple of undersea mountains that, with an equal start, would make Everest look like Point Loma. The Mariana Trench dives to 36,000 feet. Like, seven miles down. Earth's deepest hole. Asia's shallow coastal waters plunge right over that cliff into the deep ocean there, right beside Guam. No wonder those treasure ships got sucked north. No wonder the Spanish took control of Guam for 300 years. It must have been the ideal provisioning post before the long haul across the Pacific. And since then the Americans, the Germans, the Japanese...
Result? A Pan-Pacific food festival! The Hawaiians brought ground-roasted pig, the Spanish brought spices, the Japanese brought sushi, the GIs brought, well, Spam.
"So let's be patriotic," Hank says. "It's on the menu."
The man is correct. Spam is the very first item in the first column, which is labeled pupus -- appetizers. "Spam Musubi, fried Spam sautéed in a sweet shoyu (dark brown soy sauce) wrapped in sushi rice and seaweed." Two pieces for $5.25.
We order from a cute kid called Jessica, get an iced tea for Hank ($2) and a coffee for me ($2). And when the musubis come, there are three (not two) angle-cut tubes of rice-in-seaweed with Rolling Stone tongues of Spam sticking out the middle. Plus, Jessica plops down a pot of dark, thick, sweet dipping sauce. Eel sauce, they call it, and man, it's deep and delicious. I let Hank have two of the musubis. I want to save space for ribs and this chicken "kelaguen." Jessica says that's a real Chamorro dish. Has to be. Because who's heard of it? Come to think of it, who's heard of "Chamorro"? Turns out, Chamorro are the people of the Marianas chain of islands (the largest is Guam) who have had to put up with five centuries of Other People coming to tell them how to live.
We take a while to sort out what else we'd like to have. Hank's into Japanese. Me, I want to know more about what's Chamorro on the menu. Oh -- the menu has little flags to tell you which dishes are Hawaiian, Japanese, and Guamanian (the sexy flag of Guam is a curvaceous palm tree on a beach with an outrigger sailing by). Plus smiley faces for dishes they can do as kids' plates.
People at the next table are grazing on a bowl of edamame soy beans ($4), popping the beans into their mouths from the pod, like peas. Every minute or so, one of the four line-chefs double-dings the bell to tell the waitresses another plate is ready.
The menu's divided up into appetizers, soups, salads, "da pastas," "da bowls," "kau kau time" (Hawaiian for "eat eat," according to Ellis, one of the management guys), Japanese fried rice, noodles, appetizers, and hand rolls.
The best deal is "da bowls." A "bowl" is a standard dish anywhere in the Pacific, basically a pile of rice with meat and sauce on top. The cheapest, and most popular, Jessica says, is the $5.95 teriyaki chicken. For a dollar more you can have teriyaki beef or a combo beef-chicken. The chicken katsu don (deep-fried breaded chicken, onion, and egg, over donburi -- a sweet soy-based sauce) is also $6.95. Add two bucks and you can spice any of them up with serrano chile sauce and green onions. "Kau kau" dishes are more elaborate, and more expensive. Up to 17 dollars, but they have plenty of less pricey chicken dishes, like the $8.25 "huli huli." (Hawaiian, meaning, "turn, turn." Rotisserie, I guess. Hey, is that related to "hula"?) Or $8.25 chicken skewers ("marinated and grilled on a bamboo skewer topped with Yokozuna's teriyaki sauce").