600 Palm Avenue, Suite 300, Imperial Beach
"We should be so lucky,” says Michael.
The two of us are looking at a wooden box, maybe four-by-four inches and three inches deep. Joe, the owner here, has brought it over to our table.
“It’s a masu,” Michael says. “You drink sake from it.”
Michael’s an old buddy.
“From a wooden box?” I say.
“If you want to be traditional.” Michael points at the shelves behind the long curving sushi counter. Dozens and dozens of masu are piled along them.
“For our regular customers,” Joe explains. “See? Their names are painted on them.”
Huh…been eating here for an hour and I never even noticed.
This is at Meijo, a Japanese eatery at the isolated entrance to Imperial Beach, a location that’s been the graveyard of a long line of restaurants. It’s just not a natural gathering spot. I’d given up on it.
But tonight, as the sun set, I was walking up through the emptyish parking lots of the Silver Strand Plaza, heading for Highway 75, when I noticed more cars and bikes parked around the Meijo building than any other part of the plaza’s lot.
So I kept on walking till I got to the entrance. It looked locked, but then the sign in the window flashed “OPEN,” and the door pulled back to reveal…good grief. Inside, the place was rockin’, packed like a bar on a Friday night (this was Wednesday), except that everybody was eating — at tables, at the sit-up sushi bar. Or else they were waiting for takeout at the cashier’s counter. Or walking and talking from table to table. It was a secret party at the end of the world.
To cap it off, there in one corner was Michael, probably the brainiest guy I know, who’s spent chunks of time in Korea and Japan. He was sitting under a stuffed sailfish, reading a book and drinking plum wine, eating a mess of something in a bowl…
“What’s that in there?” I ask.
“This, my friend, is tako salad.”
“Huh. Except it doesn’t look like salad, and I don’t see no tacos.”
“No. ‘Tako’ with a ‘k.’ It means ‘octopus’ in Japanese. This is chopped and seasoned octopus with vegetables.”
The bowl the octopus is in (Michael’s eaten most of it) is a beautiful brown-and-cream-spotted piece of ceramic art. Plus, the tako salad costs all of $5.95.
“This place,” Michael says, “is the perfect example of that Old English adage, ‘Good wine needs no bush.’ People in I.B. know this is the best Japanese food around, and they don’t gouge you. It’s about half what you’d pay anywhere else.”
Michael’s had plum wine ($3.50), the octopus salad ($5.95), and a shrimp katsudon ($6.95).
“‘Don’ means ‘meal in a bowl,’” he says. “I went a little wild tonight, but the katsudon was worth it. Shrimp, deep-fried, and then steamed with vegetables.”
Well, what the heck, may as well have something. I mean to keep it down to a small roar, financially speaking, but when Mr. Lu, the jokey host who sets the tone here, comes over with his order book, I ask for a small hot sake. It’s the same price as Michael’s wine, $3.50.
And to eat? “Get the Dream Roll,” says this gal who’s getting ready to leave. “Tempura shrimp, avocado, and cream cheese inside — tuna, shrimp, and spicy crab outside. Believe me, it’s spicy.”
And a touch pricey, $11.95.
Two ladies, Shelly and Ricki, at the next table over, also have rolls.
“Kamikaze rolls,” Ricki says. “Spicy crab and shrimp inside, tuna, salmon, ponzu [citrus and soy] sauce, and masago [fish eggs] outside. Too good.”
They’re also $11.95.
Lucy Trishman and her husband join the conversation, though they’re heading out, too. They say they had the tiger eyes — calamari stuffed with salmon ($8.95) — and the Charger roll ($12.95).
Charger roll? “We call rolls whatever our customers want, whenever they create one of their own,” says Mr. Lu. “The Charger roll is very popular.”
There are pages of choices. How the heck to decide? It’s a relief when I see the whiteboard with only four items.
“Specials,” it says. “Teriyaki chicken with fried gyoza (dumpling), $5.95; shrimp and beef curry with salad, $5.95; spicy tuna hand rolls, three pieces, $8.95; sushi mix, $8.95.”
I order that last one from Mr. Lu. He brings it — an oval plate with five different kinds of fish flesh on rice, plus nine pieces of sushi rolls — and a piping hot bottle of sake. How well it goes together: hot sake gulps, bites of rice and yellowtail, tuna, salmon, shrimp, and white tuna (“escolar”).
Joe says that a lot of the customers who keep their masu sake boxes here are military. “It’s what they come for when they return from a deployment. Imperial Beach people are very loyal. We love them.”
It’s dark when I cross over Highway 75, Meijo about the only light in the black. Michael told me that “Meijo” is a shorter name for Nagoya Castle, a famous fortress in central Japan that has survived from the time of the samurai.
It fits the place, Meijo being a survivor in a location that till now has taken no prisoners. ■
The Place: Meijo Sushi, 600 Palm Avenue, Suite 300, Imperial Beach, 619-429-4373
Type of Food: Japanese
Prices: Octopus salad, $5.95; shrimp katsudon bowl, $6.95; special (e.g., teriyaki chicken with fried gyoza), $5.95; spicy tuna hand rolls, three pieces $8.95; sushi mix, $8.95; kamikaze roll (spicy crab and shrimp inside, tuna, salmon, ponzu sauce, and masago (fish eggs), $11.95; tiger eyes (calamari stuffed with salmon), $8.95; glass of plum wine, $3.50; small pitcher hot sake, $3.50
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; closed Sunday
Buses: 901, 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stops: Rainbow Drive at Bonito Avenue (901 southbound); Silver Strand Boulevard (Highway 75) across from Rainbow Drive (901 northbound); Palm Avenue at Rainbow Drive (933, 934)