5447 Kearny Villa Road, Kearny Mesa
And now, for a completely different style of barbecue: Japanese yakiniku. Sensei Shima, Samurai Jim’s martial-arts teacher, favors Suzuya for it; Jim and his fellow students often eat there with the master after class. Jim thought it’d be fun if we got together with his mom Masako and his step-dad Dan. And he was right. Interesting people to enjoy, new food to savor, and even a new brand of unfiltered sake to explore.
Japanese barbecue, yakiniku, almost certainly derives from Korean barbecue, adapted by the Japanese. There are centuries-old tensions between Japan and Korea, exacerbated by World War II, and still raw and painful today. But Suzuya has resolved them domestically–it’s genuinely a family-run restaurant, owned by a Japanese husband and a Korean wife. (Didn’t meet him. She’s beautiful and lively.) The restaurant is roomy and airy, with nothing-special decor, but also no crowding. Almost all our fellow diners that night were Asian, ranging from single guys playing on Blackberries to convivial small groups.
Let’s start with that fizzy sake, since that’s what I did: It’s called Sayuri, comes in pretty little pink bottles, and is drier than the familiar sushi-bar Takara (which they also carry). It’s very good, similar to Momokawa Pearl, but then — like Peter Lorre as a besotted wine critic in Roger Corman’s hilarious old Tales of Terror (“Hic! It’s very good!”) — I’ve rarely met a nigori I didn’t like. Dan drank a sake called Kikusui that tasted like vodka. Not sure what ladylike Masako was drinking; it came in tall ceramic teacups (but wasn’t tea) and on the bill was called “open bar.” (Brings back images of San Francisco Chinatown speakeasies during Prohibition, when the tea wasn’t tea.)
Our charming server brought small plates of lettuce salad, along with wet washcloths to wipe our hands. She chatted with Masako in Japanese and with the rest of us in English. All through the meal, she helped guide us to the best way to eat–so very nice, so valuable, when you’re exploring a new cuisine. We began with agedashi dofu (lightly fried tofu), which Masako and I both adore, suffused in mild broth (so mild that both Masako and I added a squibble of soy sauce to our portions). The tofu was silky rather than crispy, bedded in a slippery nest of narrow cellophane noodles. Three of us had to struggle a bit to capture them with our chopsticks, but we were not so lily-livered as to ask for forks.
We debated — should we get kaki (fried oysters) or yaki (grilled ones)? “I don’t like fried food,” declared tiny, glamorous Masako, so we settled on what Jim (learning Japanese) called kaki yaki (you may giggle now; he did): grilled oysters. They were delightful, tender-firm in a vibrant soy-based sauce spiked with tiny pepper bits to eat or not. Grilled squid were more challenging, reasonably tender but chewy, with a milder sauce. “I still haven’t developed a taste for squid,” said Jim, traumatized at an early age by a grandfather’s rubber-band rendition. They’re hard to get right, and grilling doesn’t make it easier. These were nearly terrific–but only nearly.
Among the scattering of Korean dishes on the menu is my favorite, bibimbap, a sort of Asian jambalaya, short-grain rice cooked in a stone pot until crisped at bottom and sides, then mingled with a kitchen sink of meat and veggie slivers, and topped with a soft-cooked or fried egg, plus as much Korean hot sauce as you like. You stir it all together. I liked the emphatic crisping of the rice edges, but none of my companions were sold — the glutinous texture of the rest of the rice had vanished in the cooking. The egg was barely perceptible — the cook uses only the yolk, which disappeared into the mixture — and I missed the rich gooey texture to temper the crackle and spice.
Then: BBQ! Dan, a sophisticated palate, proved my main ally for the order: He deliberately cultivates the look of a dude who should be wearing a trucker’s gimme cap, but given his global travels — he drives airplanes, not semis — he’s willing to try anything at least once. Everybody wants Kobe beef, but not everyone wants to cozy up to a Kobe beef tongue, or a Japanese version of beef tartare.
Jim, who’s been eagerly learning to cook at home and was excited to show off his new skills, took charge of the grilling, a very good thing, since I was fried by my workday and would have pulled off everything near-raw, while Masako would have cooked everything well-done.
The Kobe tongue with green onions was a treat. It comes in thin slices, spread with scallion purée, and topped with minced scallions. This is the opposite of my ancestral people’s tongue recipe (simmer two hours, peel, simmer two more hours), but it’s a different pleasure. You grill it a minute or two on each side (the scallion paste won’t fall off), and it emerges delightfully rare, tender-chewy, and ready to be finished with a squeeze of lemon juice. The restaurant also offers regular tongue for a buck or two less–I wonder if it’s as velvety?
The boneless Kobe short-ribs are as spectacular as you’d hope–deeply marbled and buttery. You get a generous portion to feed four for $17. (Compare that to fancy downtown places charging $18 and up per ounce — albeit for filet.) The Kobe comes from Snake River Farms in Idaho. “We looked into Kobe from Japan and heard that the water there was polluted, while in Idaho it is pure. So we went with Idaho,” said the lovely mama-san.
Then we tried some seafood, which arrived in light, elusive marinades. Due to Jim’s care, the scallops were superbly cooked, translucent and succulent. Gotta have a Jim at the table, or they might not be worth ordering–they’re nice but not fabulous in themselves. The shrimp were merely shrimp, probably Thai tiger prawns. We added “pumpkin” (kabocha squash) and shiitake mushrooms to this course. The squash, although thinly sliced, took a lot of cooking until caramelized on both sides. It was worth the wait for the sweet vegetal flavor our mouths had been missing. The shiitakes, with no oil for basting, ended up dry and shriveled. “They need oil,” I said. “I don’t like oil,” said Masako. “Sorry, I’m a Chinese cook at heart,” I said, “and I really want to mop these in toasted sesame oil to plump them up while they grill.” Dan, co-conspirator, nodded emphatically.