Kearny Mesa’s best selection of bento boxes — a great way to grab an authentic Asian lunch on the go — is at Najiya Market.
  • Kearny Mesa’s best selection of bento boxes — a great way to grab an authentic Asian lunch on the go — is at Najiya Market.
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I’m just an average guy who likes to eat, cook, and travel. Food is the window through which

I see the world. It’s through various cuisines that I learn about history and culture. It’s the same with travel; a wonderful cebiche with a bracing leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) inspired us to visit Peru. Nam khao, a symphony of textures and flavors, had us crossing the Mekong and into beautiful Laos; tasty mezeler and lahmacun led us to Turkey. I’ll go as far to say that meeting and marrying my wife was inevitable. She is originally from China, where one of the usual greetings (in Chinese) is, “Have you eaten?”

I was overjoyed when my office was moved to the Kearny Mesa area two years ago. It’s where we did the majority of our shopping and eating. Having access to the fruits of Convoy Street at lunchtime is a work benefit almost equivalent to having my own private parking space. Here’s a listing of my Kearny Mesa lunch rotation.

Nijiya Market, 3860 Convoy Street, 858-268-3821, nijaya.com

Marukai Market, 8111 Balboa Avenue, 858-384-0248, marukai.com

Mitsuwa, 4240 Kearny Mesa Road, 858-569-6699, mitsuwa.com

Zion Market, 4611 Mercury Street, 858-268-3300, zionmarket.com

The unfortunate reality of working behind a desk with deadlines, meetings, and whatnot is that many meals are eaten at our desks. When that is the case, the usual on-the-move lunch would be a bento from one of the three Japanese markets in the area, or from the Korean Zion market. Being of Japanese ancestry and growing up in Hawaii, bentos — basically a box lunch — is a way of life for me. The composition of the bento is pretty basic: a starch, usually rice, along with okazu, loosely translated to be something to be eaten with rice. The best variety and most friendly and fastest (i.e., check-out) is Nijiya Market, which is my favorite. Marukai has a smaller selection, but is the most inexpensive. Marukai is a membership market, but you don’t need a membership to purchase bento. For a change of pace, I’ll grab Daeji Bulgogi (spicy pork) or the chicken version at Zion, though you’ll have to work with the terrible parking and long lines at the cashier. Hopefully, this will soon be a thing of the past, as Zion is moving to the huge spot on the corner of Clairemont Mesa and Convoy. Mitsuwa has a variety that’s just a level below Nijiya and a rather large food-court area to eat in. For some reason, I find the cashiers in Mitsuwa to be the least friendly, sometimes even surly.

Kayaba Japanese Restaurant and Santouka Ramen
4240 Kearny Mesa Road, suite 119, Kearny Mesa, 858-974-1101, In the Mitsuwa Marketplace, mitsuwa.com

When someone mentions “food court” here in the States, it usually invokes visions of generic mall food. I call this same-chicken-different-sauce syndrome. The food court in Mitsuwa Marketplace, though it consists of only two shops, is an exception. Kayaba is a rice bowl and tonkatsu shop. I stick to the tonkatsu, a pork cutlet coated with panko and deep-fried, served with an addictive mashed-potato salad with onions cleverly mixed into it. The pork is served on a metal spring contraption to make sure all the oil is drained off. I also enjoy the katsu curry, Japanese curry with a pork cutlet. Even though it seems like a shop serving ramen is opening up every couple months, I still enjoy Santouka’s tonkotsu (simmered pork bone broth) and toothsome noodles the most. The shio (salt) ramen toroniku style, with the fatty braised pork cheek and fixins on the side. Trips here fulfill the usual 10-30-10 criteria for lunch; a 10-minute drive, 30 minutes to order and eat, and a 10-minute drive back to the office, with a 10-minute buffer for the hour.

Cali Baguette Express

4425 Convoy Street #200A, Kearny Mesa

Cali Baguette Express
If I want something lighter with a fast turnaround, a banh mi will usually do the trick. I’ll usually grab one from the Convoy location of Cali Banh Mi Express. The company bakes their own bread, and you can get a banh mi for three bucks. I usually go with the Dac Biet, which has cha lua, defatted pork sausage (think bologna, ham, and pâté). The sandwiches are finished off with the usual cilantro, cucumber, and pickled vegetables, including jalapeños, so if you’re sensitive to heat, have them deleted from your sandwich or proceed with caution. If I’m in the mood, I love a Banh Mi Trung, basically a fried-egg sandwich. It’s comfort food for me, even with the pickled veggies, cilantro, and peppers. These aren’t super-stuffed sandwiches here; it’s all about proportion, and I find this one right for me. I’ve even picked up a baguette, French pâté, and spread on the way back to the office. Friendly staff and a usual quick turnaround make it a pleasant experience.

The Noble Chef

6159 Balboa Avenue, Kearny Mesa

The Noble Chef
The Noble Chef, hidden away in a strip mall on Balboa Avenue does a couple of items well. None of them even closely resembles the orange chicken and beef broccoli you’ll see on the “fast food” menu. I avoid the chicken, beef, and noodle soup and go with either the shrimp fried rice or shrimp chow fun with XO Sauce, that pungent but tasty concoction based on dried seafood, garlic, and chilies. When the chef is on, you’ll even get a bit of wok hei, the wonderful flavor a well-seasoned wok will impart to food when used skillfully over high heat. XO sauce is pretty pungent, so it’s better to eat it during the lunch hour. The tangy shrimp tomato sauce rice is also a favorite, an almost radioactive red in color from ketchup — yes, ketchup, which, by the way, the Chinese claim was created in the city of Xiamen. Either way, it wakes up your taste buds.

Golden City Restaurant

5375 Kearny Villa Road, Kearny Mesa

Golden City Restaurant
Golden City Restaurant fills the void of a decent middle-range Chinese restaurant that’s not Sichuan. There is a huge multipage lunch-special menu during the week. Beyond all the Americanized Chinese food, I’ve found several dishes I enjoy. The Kwai Fei Chicken is on my desert-island-dish list. We called it “cold ginger chicken” in Hawaii. It’s a seasoned steamed chicken served with an addictive ginger-based paste, almost like a pesto, that I love. On the lunch-special menu you’ll also find a good variety of dishes and even items like steamed pork with preserved vegetable (psst, it’s pork belly), fish fillet with black-bean sauce, pork chitlins with mustard greens, and roast duck, all priced under ten bucks. The lunch menu is huge, with over 75 items, and is served between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | Spirit of Family Dinnertime | More Than Dish or Deal | Accessible Gourmet | Fried Chicken | Places to Try At Least Once

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