1210 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
It’s amazing what you can learn sitting at your friendly neighborhood sushi bar. Back in 1999, when we were still living in the greater Los Angeles area, I took on a consulting gig here in San Diego. One quiet evening, between bites of nigiri, Kuni — the itamae (sushi chef) — and I were chatting about manju, a Japanese confection most commonly made from rice flour and stuffed with red bean paste. I mentioned Fugetsu-do, a Little Tokyo institution in Los Angeles, which has been doing business since 1903 and also claims to have invented the fortune cookie. Kuni then told me about a shop in Chula Vista called Hogetsu Bakery. They made mochi and manju for Nijiya Market, but he said I’d be better off driving down to Chula Vista and buying it directly from them. And that’s the way it’s gone for the past 12 years, even though we’ve only been San Diego residents for 11!
The shop is located in a nondescript strip mall on the corner of Third Avenue and Oxford Street. Blink, and you’d miss it. The sign is faded; after all, Hogetsu has been around for more than two decades now. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Mr. and Mrs. Takeda. When things aren’t too busy, Mrs. Takeda enjoys chatting with customers from behind the counter. Though she doesn’t know me by name, she once surprised me by telling me exactly how long I’d been a customer. I also learned that Mr. Takeda had mastered his craft at Fugetsu-do. The couple even resided in Hacienda Heights, our family’s old stomping grounds.
The place is small and reminds me of the corner snack shops of my youth. While snacks line the shelves, it’s the two counters filled with wagashi (confections traditionally served with tea) that get my attention. Depending on the time of year, you may find seasonal items like sakuramochi, a sweet pink rice cake filled with red adzuki bean paste and wrapped with a sakura (cherry blossom) leaf, indicating that spring is on its way; sakuramochi is also traditionally eaten on Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day, March 3).
No matter the season, the usual suspects are always available: items such as suama, a multicolored mochi, and habutai — white (filled with sweet red bean paste) or pink (filled with white bean paste). There’s kinako (filled with red bean paste and dusted with soybean flour) and daifuku (filled with whole beans). Really, there are so many I can’t remember them all!
I am sure, however, of my wife’s favorite: kimishigure, smooth red bean paste coated with a mixture of white bean paste, egg yolk (kimi), and rice powder, and then steamed. The result is a yellow orb with cracks. The cracks represent the drizzles of late fall (shigure). But I’m only scratching the surface here, as there are many types of mochi, manju, and nerikiri, all traditional confections used in tea ceremonies. And all are priced at just over a dollar.
I realize that gooey, sticky mochi combined with sweet mashed beans might seem like a stretch to some — it’s not everyone’s cup of tea — but if you haven’t tried it, do give it a chance.
The timing of this article is fortuitous, as one of the best times to visit Hogetsu-do is the week after Christmas. Since 1873, the Japanese have followed the Gregorian calendar, and mochi plays an important role. When I was growing up, ozoni, a chicken stock or dashi-based soup that features grilled or broiled mochi, was the first item eaten on New Year’s. This is a busy time of year for the Takedas, as they fill orders from customers and local markets for mochi and manju, and the selection and freshness of the wagashi is optimal.
Hogetsu has long been my stop for edible gifts to friends near and far. But as time passes, I wonder how long the Takedas will keep going. Theirs is a mom-and-pop business that requires time, labor, and craftsmanship, and there is no heir apparent. During one of our conversations, Mrs. Takeda said, “We don’t have a computer. Maybe we’ll get one after we retire.”
Here’s hoping they postpone the joys of the internet for a few more years. ■
ADDRESS: 1210 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
WEBSITE: no website (they don’t own a computer!)
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday 10:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
FARE: Snacks and confections
VIBE: Little neighborhood snack shop — if, that is, you grew up in my neighborhood on Oahu
PRICES: Most confections just over $1
SEATING: No inside seating
MUST TRY: Whatever catches your fancy. Other than the standard habutai (mochi filled with sweet red bean paste), items change by season. My wife’s favorite is kimishigure.