Jennifer, Michael
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Sushi Freak

1071 6th Avenue, Downtown San Diego

What if you could walk into a sushi joint and invent your own sushi roll? Just tell the chef "Gimme some of this, some of that, and I don't care if they shouldn't go together, roll it! It's what I want."

I'd never even thought about this until I passed what was Submarina, the sandwich joint, at 6th and C downtown. Now, the windows are covered in brown paper, and a new sign shines from the corner:

"Sushi Freak."

I have to go in. Because there's something cheeky about the name. An attitude thing. You automatically feel we're not gonna get deference to age-old traditions here.

Inside, César, the cabinet-maker, is working on creating what looks like a self-service counter eatery. "Come back tomorrow," he says. "The owners will be here then."

So I do. And this time when I come in, a young couple's standing discussing plans. Turn out to be Michael Broder and Jennifer Duarte, owners of this, and another Sushi Freak that's already up and running near Morena/Linda Vista trolley stop.

César

"It's really working," says Michael. "That's why we're starting this one up. Because what we have is an original idea. We've been working three-and-a-half years on this. This is sushi, but it's a new way of doing sushi, where we empower you, the customer."

"Because the thing is right now you either pick up wilting ready-made rolls at the supermarket, or you have to sit down and spend lots of money and lots of time at a sushi bar," Jennifer says. "And the truth is, a lot of people are in awe of sushi chefs, and the whole sushi world. It's too formal, and takes too long. Like everybody else downtown, I have 30 minutes max for lunch. Not enough for the whole sit-down deal."

"Specialized sushi chefs can be rock stars," says Michael. "They know the leverage they have with their exclusive knowledge of a centuries-old culinary tradition, and so it becomes a serious business."

Counter area

"We wanted the whole thing to be more laid back, California casual, but also quick," says Jennifer. "So basically we create 40 ingredients to mix and match, and the rest is up to you. You're the chef!"

Of course yes, they did enlist a master sushi chef, James "Oshi-San" Oh. "Because with fast, there's a danger of sloppy. And we had to make sure the quality was always there," Michael adds.

Sushi Freak

5175 Linda Vista Road, Suite 105, Linda Vista

They say 60 percent of customers at their Morena/Linda Vista store create their own rolls, 40 percent order straight from the menu.

I can't decide if, oh Lord, we're looking at the fast-food idea riding into town to dumb down the proud complexities of the sushi tradition, or if these guys could be on to something.

According to Michael, a bunch of people think he and Jennifer have discovered the Next Big Thing, at least in the sushi world. "We've had interest from all over," he says. "We have a franchise package now. You don't need specialized knowledge. You could set one up, if you love sushi and have tons of enthusiasm. And $175,000."

And training sushi chefs?

"I can teach any kid to become a sushi roller," says Jennifer. "I could train you in five minutes. You can set it up so it's not as complicated as it seems."

So how does it actually work in practice? This downtown branch isn't scheduled to open till next Tuesday. But I'm longing to find out.

Guess I'll have to take the Green Line up to Morena/Linda Vista.

I'll report on that real soon.

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