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"Don't touch my mustache," says Rachel.

Say what?

Ichiban

1449 University Avenue, Hillcrest

I'm at Ichiban, the cute and cheap sushi joint in Uptown. Had a heckuva deal during their happy hour (4:00-8:00 p.m., every day), demolishing a Philadelphia Roll for $3.25 plus a glass of tea for $1.75.

Rachel

So when Rachel, the cheery Japanese waitress came by, I had to say thank you.

"Arigato," I said, showing off my one word of Japanese. Then I had to ask her, "Uh, how do you say 'You're welcome'?"

That's when she says, "Don't touch my mustache."

"That's what it sounds like," she says. "Actually it's 'Do ita shi ma shi te.'"

Huh. I'd come here because I was curious as to how they were doing. Last time — but this was a few years back — they were crowded, like every night. Since then, though, sushi has taken over 'Diego. A ton more places. People are getting fussier. They know more. They wouldn't be seen dead eating, like, a California Roll. And Ichiban ("Number One") had to have been one of the first: Rachel says it opened 33 years ago.

Only difference I can see when I come now is that they have a lot more space. Used to be the main eating area was on the sidewalk because the kitchen took up half the space inside, behind a high counter on the right.

That's gone. Kitchen has disappeared out back. Sad in a way. It was great to see the whole cooking thing happening. But for sure, they have more seating space. And it's still intimate and cozy, with creamy walls and little hanging lights everywhere.

"We upgraded two years ago," says Rachel. And now they have screens, bamboo, abstract paintings on the wall, single flowers in vases. But most important, they still have cool people. I mean the customers. They look interesting. What they're talking about is interesting.

Alfred's good for a laugh

Like Alfred, guy sitting at the next table — and they're small tables — he's a technician at the ceramics center at Grossmont College. Spends his days teaching art students how to throw pots. Man, I'd love to be able to do that.

"You get in a zone," he says. "And all your troubles go away. You're sort of meditating."

"Yeah, except me, the pot would start wobbling and flying off the wheel," I say.

I guess I was most worried that with success the price of everything at Ichiban would go up.

No probs. Not now, in happy hour anyway.

The bento special Alfred had

Alfred's having the dinner special, a bento box loaded with chicken teriyaki and mushrooms and rice and gyoza (meat-filled dumplings). Cost him $7.75.

"But I often come for their happy hour specials," he says. "I love the Hawaiian roll or the crunchy roll."

I see the Hawaiian roll has tuna and avocado on top of a California roll (which has crab and avocado in it). Eight pieces. The crunchy (eight pieces) has crab, fried shrimp, and cucumber, with a "sprinkle of tempura crumb and special sauce."

They each cost $5.50.

'Course if you want to be really nice and cheap you can have that California roll for $2.50. Or the vegetable roll (cucumber, avocado, radish, pickles, lettuce, asparagus, wild burdock — cross between an artichoke and a thistle? — broccoli and ginger) for three bucks.

My Philadelphia roll and Japanese tea

But I go for the Philadelphia Roll. Price is so right. Hey, can you beat salmon, cream cheese, cucumber, eight pieces for $3.25?

So, Alfred and I chow and chew fat. How crafts like pottery could be the saving of a humanity that doesn't know how to live. Amen to that.

Only thing missing? Man, I'd give my eye teeth for a large bottle of Asahi beer ($3.50) and actually one of Alfred's crunchy rolls sounds da bomb. Except I'm a little low on the yen right now. And really, the Philly has done the job.

This is a place to bring ten of your rowdy friends to spend time out on the patio. Or your secret lover. I mean in this atmosphere, with these prices, what's to lose?

But please, before you thank me, don't touch my mustache.

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