"My favorite dishes at Okan make me think of my mother."
  • "My favorite dishes at Okan make me think of my mother."
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Wa Dining Okan

3860 Convoy Street #110, Kearny Mesa

I recall that first sniff on a warm September evening in 2008, the sight of various nimono (simmered dishes) piled into oozara ryori (large plates) lining the sleek wooden bar, the light crunch of the agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu in dashi broth), all of which transported me home, sort of. You see, I’m a Sansei, third-generation AJA (American of Japanese Ancestry). Born and raised in Hawaii, we could be eating corned beef and cabbage one evening, chicken long-rice (cellophane noodles with chicken) the next. Sukiyaki and nishime, a vegetable stew, were special-occasion dishes, as were the various simmered dishes that are among my favorites at Wa Dining Okan.

Okan is tucked into the corner of a strip mall on Convoy, sharing space with Nijiya Market. The spartan but tastefully decorated shop is tiny, consisting of a nice 16-seat bar area and a few small tables. The capacity of the shop probably tops out at about 30 people, and things can get a bit cramped. This also means that if you intend on a non-solo visit to Okan on any evening other than Sunday or Monday before 6:00 p.m., reservations are recommended.

Upon being seated, you are handed a menu to go along with the smaller two menus placed at each table, one in English, the other Japanese. The large menu includes all the daily and seasonal specials — there are often as many as a dozen — along with the much overused category name “tapas.” These are the items in the large plates placed on the bar. I’d stay away from anything resembling a tuna salad; you can get that anywhere. My preferences are the more classic dishes, such as nasu-miso (eggplant with spicy miso) and nasubi nimono (simmered eggplant), kabocha nimono (simmered pumpkin), and kiriboshi daikon (simmered dried daikon strips).

Over time, I’ve noticed an increased presence of nikujyaga-type dishes. Traditionally, nikujyaga is your basic meat and root vegetables slowly stewed in a soy-sake-mirin-sugar sauce. The end product can look like a dry stew or even gravy. At Okan, it comes in dishes such as shishito peppers stewed with ground beef, sweet and salty, with a sneaky spiciness. All kozara ryori (small plates) are priced at $3 during the literal happy “hour” (5:30–6:30 p.m. daily); otherwise, they’re $3.75 each. If you’re at the bar, don’t be surprised if someone peers over your shoulder. Chances are that this person is not minding your business but merely checking out the daily offerings.

You could make a meal out of a couple of small plates and a noodle or rice dish. Since natto is not offered, I’d go with tororo (grated mountain yam) over rice. Yes, the texture is somewhat like glue, but it’s refreshing when mixed in a bowl of rice with a touch of soy sauce.

There are a couple of other items I enjoy: the gobo salad ($6.50; $5 during happy hour) is an eye-catcher. It’s also delicious. Gobo (burdock root) is common in Japanese cuisine and often used in Chinese herbal remedies. It has a woodsy, earthy flavor, a mild sweetness in the background. Because of its fibrous texture and its ability to soak up flavor, you’ll find it most often in various simmered and stewed dishes. At Okan, gobo is shaved then deep-fried, accentuating the sweetness of the root. It’s served dramatically stacked on top of a bed of mizuna and dressed with a ponzu-like dressing.

Daikon salad

If the gobo is the princess of salads, the daikon radish salad with plum dressing ($7) is the ugly duckling. Slices of daikon are haphazardly stacked on layers of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) with mizuna and the plum-based dressing scattered about. It is no less tasty, though I find the flavor a bit sour. I also like the kawa-su, thin slices of chicken skin in a ponzu-based dressing.

Kawa su: thin-sliced chicken skins

Fans of soju will be overjoyed to see the list of 30-plus brands available. Five are priced by the glass; bottles range from $13 to over $300. The sake list is more modest, with seven offerings, including two of my favorites: a good everyday Otokoyama and the pricey but wonderfully floral Kubota Manju Junmai Daiginjo. To qualify for Daiginjo Junmai classification, rice has to be polished (milled) to at least 50 percent. “Manju,” as we call it, is polished to 67 percent, which leaves only a third of the raw material for this refined sake.

Chicken gizzards

As for the rest of the menu, there are places on Convoy that do a better job with robatayaki (grilled), sashimi, and agemono (fried) dishes, though I’ve had a well-prepared deep-fried chicken-gizzard dish ($6), and agedashi tofu is good. The menu changes with the season; if something grabs your attention, try it. Recently, I’ve noticed the addition of kamameshi (rice cooked in a kettle). And while I don’t expect it to live up to the fantastic kamameshi we had at the James Beard–nominated Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, I’m still excited to check it out.

So, what’s with the “Dinner at Mom’s” title? Well, Okan is a slang word that means “mom.” And though I’d never, ever, call my mother Okan, I’m happy to say that my favorite dishes at Wa Dining Okan do make me think of her. ■

Wa Dining Okan 3860 Convoy St. #110, San Diego, 858-279-0941; okanus.com

Lunch Hours: Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

Dinner Hours: Monday–Wednesday 5:30–11:00 p.m.; Thursday–Saturday 5:30 p.m.–midnight; Sunday 5:30–10:00 p.m.

Fare: Japanese small dishes, sashimi, grilled, fried, simmered, and salads.

Vibe: Casual and cozy, with jazz usually playing in the background.

Must try: Gobo salad, along with a few of the daily special small dishes.

Need to know: The restaurant is tiny, so reservations are recommended. The bar area is good for solo diners. Ample parking, though the spaces are small.

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Comments

TFD Sept. 28, 2011 @ 8:57 p.m.

I love gobo salad! Funny how you mention to expect "someone to peer over" your shoulders to look at what you're eating because I'm that "someone." I also take a trip to the powder room just to check out what others are ordering.

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