4902 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
“Sushi chefs’d freak,” says Big John. “We have sushi that we just make up, like our Dr. Eel Good, the Betty, the Joint, the Mary Jane, the O’Beef. That has seared filet mignon on top…”
Big John’s the gentle giant who started this place two and a half years ago. He must have done something right. He created this sushi-tapa joint, and tonight — a Thursday — it’s rocking, packed, abuzz.
Me, I just happened to be standing across Newport waiting for the #35 to get me back downtown, when I noticed this scene. My giddy aunt! You could hear the voices, the classic-rock music, the chink of china coming muffled through the big glass windows.
Had to go see. Inside, it is dark red walls, gold tin tile ceiling, long, gathered maroon curtains, warm ivory dish chandeliers. Feels Russian, or like somewhere Modigliani and his artist buddies would turn up.
And, hey! We’re in happy hour. Guess I may as well eat. Sit up to the bar next to a guy munching the length of a sushi roll like a leaf ant working from one end to the other.
“Betty Roll,” he says. “Poached shrimp, scallops, avo, bacon. Pretty rad. It’s this or the half-pounder burger when I come.”
Sushi? Burgers? Yup. French-trained chefs, it says, prepare everything. “Sushi — steak — chicken — swine.”
The Betty Roll ain’t cheap. Fifteen bucks. Still, I see it’s disappearing. Fast.
“Must be good,” I say.
“It’s all good,” he says.
Name’s Rich. This is Rich’s hangout. He’s an interesting guy. He’s done 400 skydives, and now he’s moving on to base-jumping. Bridges, Yosemite’s Half-Dome, skyscrapers. “I just need to prove I’m alive. Prove there’s a point in living,” he says.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, I look for the happy-hour section. Tapas first: plate of French fries, $3. Marinara and goat cheese is $4. Five wings go for $5. You get two salmon tacos for $5. Same deal for pulled pork or chicken sliders. Hmm... Nothing to grab you by the throat here, but decent pricing.
Sushi sounds more interesting. Ye olde California roll is $5 for the cut roll and $4 for the hand roll. (Seems hand roll is cone shaped, cut rolls are the snake chopped into chunks.) Shrimp tempura and spicy salmon rolls: also $5, $4. Cheapest is the salmon nigiri (sliced raw fish on a ball of rice), two pieces for $3. Deal, but gut-filler? Nope. The veggie roll’d fill you more, at $4, $3. But Rich says “the Joint” sushi roll is the best of the HH bunch at $6.
I see “the Joint” is normally $13 and has “deep-fried soft-shell crab, chopped with avocado, green onions, pickled shallots, sesame seeds, spicy aioli, ‘micro’ cilantro, and rolled in soy paper.”
Huh. Soy paper. Not seaweed.
Aimee comes up. “Drink?”
Okay. What sticks out is this “One Cup” Ozeki sake for $5.50.
I go for it. Turns out to be a Coke-sized glass jar of the stuff, chilled, not heated. But great!
Meanwhile, uh, decisions…
Would love to have some bacon-wrapped dates and goat cheese I see going by, but no HH special. Costs $10. So just to get something going I swoop on the very first item in the regular tapas list: a sliced Bread & Cie baguette with virgin olive oil ($2.50). And you know, yacking away with Rich and his generously bearded buddy Christian, and sipping from my little sake mug and breaking off bread and dipping it in the really flavorsome golden oil, it almost feels like a meal already.
But I still go for a roll, the salmon skin roll ($5.50). A long white plate soon arrives with half a dozen slices of sushi, each one with sticky rice wrapped around a mess of actual salmon skin, avocado, cucumber, uh, yamagobo — a reddish vinegar-marinated ginger root, turns out — kaiware (daikon radish sprouts, a little mustardy), plus sesame seeds and eel sauce. Is that the yamagobo scattered over the top of the actual roll like golden wood shavings? Or shredded salmon skin? And what’s with the orange masses of eggs also oozing over the top? Maybe the chef just threw them on for luck.
Whatever, most important, it tastes super fresh. It’s lush, savory, but with sweetness from the rice, and all those caviar eggs popping in your mouth, yum. Helped by the ginger and wasabi and soy, natch.
Rich gets talking with Eric Riffe the executive chef as he maneuvers through the crowds toward his kitchen.
“I lived in France,” Eric tells us. “I worked in an Irish bar in Paris, and in a Basque place. Learned a lot. And then I was in San Francisco. Except the girl I was dating lived in O.B. So I came to be with her. But I love it here. With Big John you can stray from tradition and try stuff. Like shrimp and grits, the O’Beef roll. I do racks of antelope, elk, bison. Plus, working three blocks from my place, three blocks from the ocean? How can you beat that?”
What a night! Now I’m back yakking with Rich, about decent bridges to jump off.
“I’m still a learner,” he says. “But I’ve jumped off the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. That’s about 900 feet up.”
The next one?
“Auburn, California. The Foresthill Bridge. About 730 feet. Tallest in California.”
But, well, why?
“It’s for that moment,” he says. “That moment after you’ve jumped out, you leave time and space. You just…are. Nearest thing to joy I know. Then you have to come back into yourself, concentrate, pull the rip cord.”
I leave, $14.58 poorer but feeling richer. I’d call that a deal.
- The Place: The Joint, 4902 Newport Avenue (at corner with Cable Street), Ocean Beach, 619-222-8272
- Happy Hour Prices: French fries, $3; marinara, goat cheese, $4; wings, five for $5; two salmon tacos, $5; pulled pork or chicken sliders, 2 for $5, 3 for $7; California cut roll, $5 (hand roll, $4); shrimp tempura roll, $5 ($4); spicy salmon roll, $5 ($4); salmon nigiri, 2 pieces for $3; the Joint roll, $6 (hand roll only); regular menu prices, $7–$11 (lunch), $7–$17 (dinner)
- Hours: Monday, 4:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m.; Tuesday–Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–1:00 a.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 a.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m.–2:00 a.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–1:00 a.m.
- Buses: 35, 923
- Nearest Bus Stops: Cable at Newport