3396 30th Street, North Park
(No longer in business.)
The Japanese art of sushi was bound to change once it reached the Americas and American-born chefs and diners took it up. How many aspiring local chefs would put up with the rigors of Japan's decade-long apprenticeship system? And how many eaters here care about that? Those enviable souls who appreciate it and can afford it may pay a hundred dollars or more for an exquisitely artful omakase ("chef's choice") meal at, say, Katsu in L.A., or up to a couple thousand (!) for one at Masa in Manhattan. Most Americans, though, are content to drop in at neighborhood sushi bars for a bite. These local places become community hangouts, and if the neighborhood is lucky, they offer good eating, too.
So residents rejoice when a sushi bar lands in a restaurant-sparse area. I first spotted Zensei a few days after it opened. A crowd was gathered at the dogleg at 30th Street and Upas, a line leading to the entrance of a gray, long-vacant building. Driving by, I made out part of the sign -- Zen-something -- and added up the evidence. "Omigod, omigod!" I squealed like a teenager. "Did you see that? It's a sushi bar! Not a taquería, not a pizzeria. We're gonna have sushi in North Park!" "Did you say sushi?" my boyfriend asked, ducking an SUV that was crowding us on the turn.
A couple of months later, we returned on a damp Sunday, a challenging day for sushi, since there are no fish deliveries on the Sabbath. Zensei's interior is long and narrow, with a sushi bar on one side, a row of tables along the windows, and toward the back, banquettes that can be pushed together for larger parties. Oil paintings by local artists decorate the walls. Hidden in back is a kitchen where the non-sushi items are cooked; en route from the parking lot, you can spy on the chefs working there.
We settled down at the bar, and Monica, our courteous hostess, brought relish plates of wasabi and pickled ginger. A young Latino, Hugo Arreguin, stood behind the sushi counter.
We started, as we always do at a new sushi bar, with an order of uni, sea urchin "roe" (gonads, actually). It's an instant pass/fail test: If the uni is mushy and tastes like iodine, it's too old and we're outta there. But even on Sunday, Zensei's golden-orange lobes were velvety, fresh and briny, and the portion was generous. The rice was excellent, with cohesive grains and a sweetness from seasoned sushi vinegar. Our next choice was ama ebi, "sweet shrimp," presented with the raw bodies and flash-cooked heads on the same plate and garnished with a heap of raw carrot shreds. Most sushi chefs flavor the rice under the bodies -- with wasabi, maybe, or yuzu juice (from a Japanese citrus fruit) -- because these freshwater shrimp are often bland. Hugo left the rice unadorned, so this was the one roll for which I stirred up a soy-wasabi slurry dip.
Meanwhile, a ponytailed young woman a few stools down was doing my job, giving Hugo a "chef interview" as he worked. The owners, Jo-Jo (José Fantos) and Al (Alberto Quintos), "don't cook sushi or really know that much about it," Hugo said. "They were looking for an investment and focused on this neighborhood because Jo-Jo used to live around here, and they realized that what the area needed was sushi." "Right!" chorused Ms. Ponytail and her date. "We walked six blocks in this freezing weather."
That comment made us crave hot food along with the cold sushi rolls -- a bowl of miso soup. The kitchen in back prepares the cooked dishes, including soups, hot sushi-bar appetizers such as "dynamite" and stuffed tempura-fried shiitakes (here called Bombe-Bombs, stuffed with salmon, cream cheese, and a touch of dashi, dried bonito broth). It also offers entrées of tempura, noodles, teriyaki, fish, and chicken katsu (croquettes), including a version with yuzu sauce. The soup proved weak on miso flavor but was well garnished with diced tofu, shiitake shreds, green onion tops, and nori slices. Monica thoughtfully gave us two spoons without our having to ask.
After the uni and ama ebi, we were starting to trust the chef, so we tried a spicy scallop hand roll -- another test. This roll is a rare delight when chefs do right by it, but some chefs omit vital ingredients (e.g., mayo), some plop the scallops on top of the cone instead of mixing them into the rice, and some use slimy scallops. Trainee chefs may roll so ineptly that the cone-bottom oozes rice into your lap. Hugo's version was a layered construction: He laid rice on a sheet of nori, topped it with cucumber sticks, small scallops (of decent quality) mixed with Japanese mayo, and shakes of hot sauce, then rolled the nori into a well-sealed cone. My boyfriend's only complaint was that the mayo was bland. "Almost everybody uses the bottled stuff now, Kewpie brand, instead of making it themselves," he grumped.
Down the counter, Ms. Ponytail's interrogation of our chef continued. Hugo started out making sushi at E Street Alley about eight years ago, learning from the Japanese chefs there. "I learned both traditional and nontraditional styles," he said. "They trained me for about a year. After that they let me start making rolls." He has worked at other sushi bars, including Yokozuna's in Chula Vista and Bamboo Hut in Mira Mesa. Jo-Jo and Al, old acquaintances, approached him to come work for them three years ago, when they began planning for Zensei.
Later, I asked owner Jo-Jo whether "Zensei" was a pun on sensei (Japanese for "teacher"). "From what I understand, it's an old term, used in the early part of the last century," Jo-Jo said. "It means 'the height of prosperity and power.' Japanese who are 50 and older know the term, but younger people have no idea what it means." And the reason the restaurant took three years from planning to opening? "The delay was due to our inexperience. We had to redo the whole interior of the space and also deal with the city about permits. We ran out of money about four times." Jo-Jo said that Hugo's co-chef (on vacation that week), Rocendo Rendón, got his training under the master sushi chef of the Benihana chain and worked at the local Benihana for several years before joining his friends at Zensei. Zensei gets its seafood from the same Los Angeles sushi specialist that supplies the esteemed Sushi Ota and Nobu, among others. (Not coincidentally, Lizard Lounge also buys from them.)