This guy Mike lifts his shirt so I can see the big tattoo on his back. A buffalo skull and a dream catcher. Not bad.
"Where'd you get it done?" I ask.
"RJD," he says.
"RJD, man. Donovan. State Slammer. Rock Mountain. They got great artists in there."
We're chewing the fat outside the corner market in a strip mall in Barrio Logan. I'm on my way to a new place I'd spotted here from the #11 bus. "Fish and Chips Teriyaki." Told Hank. "A new Japanese! Wanna try it? I'm paying."
Knew he'd be hooked.
Two minutes later he swings up in his Camry. Mike's heading south, so Hank and I make our way to the Teriyaki. It's squeezed between "Gina's Hair & Nails" and "Panchita's Bakery #3." We go in and settle at a table with a blue-and-white checkered oil-cloth tablecloth.
"Oh no," says Hank. He's eyeballing the menu. "There's no sushi! I ain't gonna eat grease again, man."
"Don't worry," says this Korean lady. Sun. She owns Teriyaki. "We broil all the meats on BBQ grill. Fat drops through. And we have green salad." Hank mulls. I look around.
Sun's place shines, spick and span, with gold and cream walls and maroon wainscoting, roosters and boat scenes high on the walls around the acoustic ceiling and -- this is the part I like best -- a big open kitchen up front, Oriental-style. Right now they've got chicken strips smoking up a storm on the grill bars. At one of the other tables, this guy José Guadalupe is contemplating a whole polystyrene box loaded with chicken strips and grilled shrimp on a mountain of rice. It's a lot of food. He picks up his fork. "I live about three miles south," he says. "But I come here because it's good. Healthy. No grease, unlike other places."
Hank's still not a happy camper. He checks the teriyaki listings. Some dishes have "large" and "small" portions. There's a regular-size chicken on rice with a side salad for $4.95, or a large for $5.95. Spicy chicken's $5.30 and $6.30. But most are one size fits all. Beef's $5.95, five pieces of shrimp on rice are also $5.95, and hey, they even have salmon, halibut, and swordfish ($7.95, $8.95, and $8.98). Then they have "chicken and..." combos like José's chicken-and-shrimp teriyaki and, wow, that's only $5.95. Chicken with halibut is the most expensive combo at $8.50.
Fish and chips are in the "Fried Platters" section. They're $8.95, or $5.00 for a half-plate. I'm tempted by the "small" plate of catfish with fries, salad, tartar sauce, and cocktail sauce, ...cause it's only $5.98 (the full size is $9.95), and this place looks to be generous on servings.
I scan the rest: fried combo platters, all $10.95. They look good. The seafood combo has two cod, two shrimp, four scallops, and calamari with fries, salad, and the sauces. Ditto the three catfish pieces and six shrimp. Or you can just do, say, a grilled swordfish with rice and salad for $8.95. They even have fried-fish burritos for $5.95 and burgers starting at $5.95.
"Decided?" I ask Hank. "They have yakisoba. Noodles, right? Hey, veggie yakisoba, $5.75. Healthy. And a deal."
Heh heh. Preemptive strike. Steer him off the big-ticket items.
"Gyoza plate," he says. "And ask them if they can replace the rice with more salad."
Banzai! Gyoza's like, $4.95. Now mebbe I can afford a $10.95 seafood platter.
"We tell first-time customers, 'Try the teriyaki chicken,'" says Sun. "It's our specialty, and you get plenty."
I think of fighting for my right to spend more, but hey, $4.95 and $5.95...
I order the larger teriyaki chicken at $5.95, just to be sure I get enough food. Completely forget that I coulda had José's chicken-and-shrimp combo for the same price. But what the heck. Yes, it comes in the polystyrene box, but it's packed with beautiful, rich strips of chicken laid over the rice, with a separate box of salad, plus a little pot of dressing and another pot of extra teriyaki.
And here's the thing that gets both Hank and me oohing and aahing: the teriyaki. "It tastes like soy with wine," I say.
"It's nice," says Hank. A rare compliment. "Here, try it with a gyoza."
Wow. Hank, sharing? Even rarer. I take one and dip it. Oh yes. Crisp fried-dough shell with pork inside.
"That teriyaki's so-o-o seductive," I say. "Voice of its own. Not afraid to speak out for itself. Subtle cherry base notes..."
"Oh please," says Hank. "But yeah, it's good."
"We make our own," says Sun.
"It's not out of a bottle?"
She shakes her head. And that winey taste? "We use lots of fruits. Our secret recipe. That's why we call our restaurant 'Teriyaki.'"
"I found this location." Sun's husband Chil has joined us. "I saw people lining up to get in to that Mexican restaurant around the corner, Las Cuatro Milpas. I thought, 'Oh, good. Plenty of customers here. If we can only get business like that.'"
"My food is expensive for this area," says Sun. "But we always give big quantity, because most people here work tough jobs. And we make it healthy meat, broiled, not cooked in fat. So we hope they will come back."
"My dream is to have a line like Las Cuatro Milpas," says Chil.
Sun's not worried. She just sticks to the rule her mama told her, back in Inchon, South Korea. "'Work hard,' Mama said." Sun smiles. "'Never count the money.'"
[2009 Editor's Note: Teriyaki has since closed.]