7530 Mesa College Drive, Linda Vista
Remember the guy who hijacked a tank and drove it through the streets of San Diego? They say this is where he got the tank, at the National Guard Armory in Linda Vista. And not too far past that, near where the 163 and 805 meet, I come across another surprise: a little house with bamboo torches, a maroon canopy, and a tiny outside deck, plus a red-and-white doorway-cloth flapping in the breeze and a sign that says “Sushi Diner.” You get the feeling this could be a little eating place in the countryside of Japan. Natch, just have to pop in.
I swipe my way through the flap over the door. Lone customer. Just me, and Bob Marley wailing, “One love, one heart/ Let’s get together and feel all right.” The place is tiny, with a sushi counter, a few tables, surfboards slung from the ceiling, hanging rattan screens, palm-frond roof fringes, rows of weird bottles of sake, and a couple of metal Japanese kanji symbols for love and peace.
Racks behind the counter hold rows of different-colored chopsticks. There’s a picture of Bob Marley laughing and smoking a big joint. That’s next to menu specials stuck on the wall with names that pay tribute to love and peace. The place has that cool factor, all right, like Pokéz downtown.
“Welcome,” says this Japanese gal, Mari. She brings a lunch menu. I sit down at a counter stool in front of a sign that reads “Personalized Japanese vodka bottles soju only $36!! Ask for more details.” There are bottles of Japanese vodka on a shelf with people’s names written on them. And now I notice another sign. “Personal chopsticks, so you know you have your own, $1.50.”
“We keep nearly 200 sets of chopsticks for regulars,” says Daisuke, the guy in charge. Wow.
I check the menu. Prices are good, starting with the teriyaki chicken rice bowl, which goes for $3.75. An eel bowl is $6.95, and, like, even a chicken katsu curry plate is only $7.95, and that’s with a rice salad and a sushi roll, such as a four-piece spicy crab or three-piece shrimp tempura.
But I concentrate on the lunch specials. They run about $6 to $8. Mixed tempura (battered, deep-fried veggies and, say, shrimp) plus chicken katsu is $6.95. With the 11-piece sushi-roll combo instead — which includes spicy tuna, crunch roll, and California roll — it costs $7.95. A simple “California roll set,” basically a California roll with green salad (or edamame) and miso soup, will set you back $4.95.
At first I decide I’ll go for the mixed tempura and the sushi-roll combo ($7.95), till — whack! — I discover I don’t quite have the funds. So Mari says the best thing, if I want to fill up, is the $6.95 roll combo sampler set.
She’s right. The big square plate is packed with four pieces of spicy tuna, a three-piece crunch roll, and a four-piece California roll. Plus the miso soup and a big salad bowl. This is when I realize how rusty I’ve gotten with the sushi scene. I have to ask Daisuke how to use that green wasabi horseradish, dammit. How could I forget, the soy sauce, the mixing? While I’m at it, I get Daisuke to explain the crunch roll. It’s imitation crab and shrimp, with peach-colored spicy mayo, eel sauce, and crunchy tempura crumbles on top. Dee-lish, ’specially dipped in the wasabi-soy mix.
Now, suddenly, the place is filling up. Bunch of school students, a couple of families. “I tell you, this is just as good as Okinawa,” says a retired Marine named David. His wife and son, Elizabeth and Cyrus, come here all the time. Bright Laotian kid named Thomas, a sophomore from Kearny High School, tells me how being Asian is cool at school. “Clothes, cars, computers,” he says, “and Asian food. We’re happening!”
Right now, Mari’s taking a long green plate past with a giant caterpillar aboard. Oh, man. Everything they present is sheer elegance. This one’s an eight-segment eel-crab-shrimp caterpillar roll, $8.95. That’s mine, next time.
“It’s the best-kept secret at Mesa,” says Sean, this guy who comes in for takeout.
“If you’re a regular at Sushi Diner,” says another guy, also from Mesa College, “you’re in. We know who we are.”
The Place: Sushi Diner, 7530 Mesa College Drive #B, Linda Vista, 858-565-1179
Type of Food: Japanese
Prices: teriyaki chicken rice bowl, $3.75; eel bowl, $6.95; chicken katsu curry (with salad and sushi roll, e.g. four-piece spicy crab or three-piece shrimp tempura), $7.95; mixed tempura with chicken katsu, $6.95; teriyaki chicken with 11-piece sushi-roll combo, $7.95. California roll set (spicy tuna, crunch roll, and California roll) with green salad or edamame, miso soup, $4.95; seaweed salad, $4.95; seafood salad, $6.95
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m. Monday–Friday; dinner, 5:00 p.m. –9:30 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 5:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday; 4:00 p.m. –10:00 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday
Nearest Bus Stops: Mesa College Drive at Ashford Street (northbound); Linda Vista Road at Mesa College Drive (southbound)