D'aah, is it Hawaiian? Is it Japanese? Is it Filipino? Is it Mexican? Hank and I are seeing items like kalua pig (definitely Hawaiian), chicken katsu (Japanese), lumpia (Filipino, of course), empanadas and ceviche, direct from España or Méjico, plus unknowns like kelaguen -- all on the same menu.
But maybe we're onto something new. Here at Yokozuna's this isn't just a catchall selection from a Chula Vista kitchen with an identity crisis, but an authentic cuisine from one of the greatest Pacific crossroads-civilizations you've never heard of.
History 101: Guam's destiny was written in the wind. The trades blew everybody to Guam. The original Indo-Malay immigrants (over 2000 years ago), Magellan, the Portuguese explorer (in 1521); Spain's Manila treasure galleons (on their way across to Acapulco for 300 years); plus Filipinos, Chinese, Germans, Japanese, Americans...
And now my buddy Hank and me.
Okay, this isn't exactly Guam. We're opposite Southwestern College on Otay Lakes Road. But it feels pretty darned Guamanian to me. Girls buzz around us in hula skirts, black or pink, with white hibiscus flower silhouettes. They carry steaming piles of rice with meat glistening on top, or plates loaded with chunks of meat and ribs. They drop tropical-looking rattan blinds to keep the sun out. A street sign that reads "Kalakaua Avenue" hangs by the cash register. Probably Hawaiian. "Got pugua?" says another sign behind a display of T-shirts for sale. A bamboo sushi bar with nine tall chairs faces the entrance to the dining room. We get toothy greetings from Polynesian gods on totem poles. "Graduation Leis," says an old sign. Even the acoustic ceiling tiles have been thatched in rattan. Louie Castellanos's karaoke music's just starting up, over by a wall hung with autographed photos. Oh, there's Channel 10's Lee Ann Kim, and musicians, like the group named P.O.D. They come here because they have Guamanian blood -- this is comfort food central. Seems like a dance floor up the other end, and long tables where birthday groups can get together. Now a gal picks up a mike, stares down into a TV screen, and breaks out singing, "Ooo-oooh child / Things are going to get easier..."
"This is so...Pacific," I say to Hank. "But why would they call this 'Yokozuna's,' as if it's Japanese, if this is about Guam and the islands?...For that matter where da heck is Guam?"
Later, I found out the answer to that one, because Carla had landed there once. "Guam?" she said. "Hot. Muggy as hell. Couldn't see any trees. No palms. Lot of sand. And flat." Which is funny, because Guam is the summit of a couple of undersea mountains that, with an equal start, would make Everest look like Point Loma. The Mariana Trench dives to 36,000 feet. Like, seven miles down. Earth's deepest hole. Asia's shallow coastal waters plunge right over that cliff into the deep ocean there, right beside Guam. No wonder those treasure ships got sucked north. No wonder the Spanish took control of Guam for 300 years. It must have been the ideal provisioning post before the long haul across the Pacific. And since then the Americans, the Germans, the Japanese...
Result? A Pan-Pacific food festival! The Hawaiians brought ground-roasted pig, the Spanish brought spices, the Japanese brought sushi, the GIs brought, well, Spam.
"So let's be patriotic," Hank says. "It's on the menu."
The man is correct. Spam is the very first item in the first column, which is labeled pupus -- appetizers. "Spam Musubi, fried Spam sautéed in a sweet shoyu (dark brown soy sauce) wrapped in sushi rice and seaweed." Two pieces for $5.25.
We order from a cute kid called Jessica, get an iced tea for Hank ($2) and a coffee for me ($2). And when the musubis come, there are three (not two) angle-cut tubes of rice-in-seaweed with Rolling Stone tongues of Spam sticking out the middle. Plus, Jessica plops down a pot of dark, thick, sweet dipping sauce. Eel sauce, they call it, and man, it's deep and delicious. I let Hank have two of the musubis. I want to save space for ribs and this chicken "kelaguen." Jessica says that's a real Chamorro dish. Has to be. Because who's heard of it? Come to think of it, who's heard of "Chamorro"? Turns out, Chamorro are the people of the Marianas chain of islands (the largest is Guam) who have had to put up with five centuries of Other People coming to tell them how to live.
We take a while to sort out what else we'd like to have. Hank's into Japanese. Me, I want to know more about what's Chamorro on the menu. Oh -- the menu has little flags to tell you which dishes are Hawaiian, Japanese, and Guamanian (the sexy flag of Guam is a curvaceous palm tree on a beach with an outrigger sailing by). Plus smiley faces for dishes they can do as kids' plates.
People at the next table are grazing on a bowl of edamame soy beans ($4), popping the beans into their mouths from the pod, like peas. Every minute or so, one of the four line-chefs double-dings the bell to tell the waitresses another plate is ready.
The menu's divided up into appetizers, soups, salads, "da pastas," "da bowls," "kau kau time" (Hawaiian for "eat eat," according to Ellis, one of the management guys), Japanese fried rice, noodles, appetizers, and hand rolls.
The best deal is "da bowls." A "bowl" is a standard dish anywhere in the Pacific, basically a pile of rice with meat and sauce on top. The cheapest, and most popular, Jessica says, is the $5.95 teriyaki chicken. For a dollar more you can have teriyaki beef or a combo beef-chicken. The chicken katsu don (deep-fried breaded chicken, onion, and egg, over donburi -- a sweet soy-based sauce) is also $6.95. Add two bucks and you can spice any of them up with serrano chile sauce and green onions. "Kau kau" dishes are more elaborate, and more expensive. Up to 17 dollars, but they have plenty of less pricey chicken dishes, like the $8.25 "huli huli." (Hawaiian, meaning, "turn, turn." Rotisserie, I guess. Hey, is that related to "hula"?) Or $8.25 chicken skewers ("marinated and grilled on a bamboo skewer topped with Yokozuna's teriyaki sauce").
They have one or two fish offerings -- wouldn't you expect more from ocean-surrounded Guam? -- like the grilled mackerel with ponzu sauce ($11.25), plus a $14.25 Hawaiian combo, with huli huli chicken, kalua pig, macaroni salad, and white rice. I'm told it's worth it for the macaroni. "Mama Mila," who's Filipino and the mom of one of the owners, Gary, apparently puts pineapple, apples, and cheddar in it.
But if you want to sample what the Chamorros eat, there's no contest: the Chamorro combo includes four Guamanian dishes -- Uncle Frank's pork ribs, chicken kelaguen, Grandma Rosie's potato salad, and red rice. It's $14.25. Add three dollars if you want beef or shrimp kelaguen instead of chicken.
Uncle Frank turns out to be one of the founding fathers of the restaurant. "Everybody goes for his ribs," says Jessica. So I order the combo. Hank orders sushi, an ahi poké (basically tuna in seaweed, $6.75), a crab hand roll ($4), and a spicy scallop ($4).
My order arrives first, a plate of way-big ribs (four), with potato salad and "red" rice -- it actually looks orange -- and a green-flecked pile of chicken kelaguen. They also have a cucumber salad.
"That came real quick," I say to Hank.
"That's because they know most people are going to order it," he says.
The ribs have a smoky, slightly sweet (and is that lemony?) tang to them. What's delicious is the blackening. (I run across Uncle Frank himself later, and of course, he says that the recipe's a secret. "But it's all worked around garlic, lemon juice, slow cooking.")
The chicken kelaguen is a nice counterbalance. At first taste, you'd swear this was a shrimp ceviche. The chopped-up chicken has green onions, peppers, and shredded coconut, sharp and light against the ribs.
"Okay, this is the other Chamorro thing you've got to add," Jessica says. She slides across a little sauce-pot. "Finadene." She says it "Fee-na-DAY-nay." "National sauce of Guam, and that's official. They put it on everything, just about. But take it easy."
Ho boy. She's right. I dipped the end of a rib in it. Didn't think it helped the rib's flavor, which was good enough on its own, but it burned the heck out of my buccal cavity. I bet that's what Uncle Frank marinates his ribs in. Ellis tells me the sauce is made of lemon juice, peppers, scallions, and soy sauce. You can see Spain in a lot of this. Three hundred years' occupation doesn't disappear without a gastronomic trace. To a probable taro-and-fish diet the Spaniards added hot peppers and corn (from their Mexico territory), tortillas, for sure, and probably better chickens, domesticated pigs, even rice. And what about this ceviche wannabe, kelaguen? (It tastes even more ceviche-like when I come back a few days later and have the shrimp kelaguen.)
Then there's achiote, the seed of the annatto tree. Very Spanish. That's what makes the rice red -- well, orange. It's supposed to add a subtle flavor, but I think color's the big deal here. There's garlic in the mix, too, and I can taste it.
My little burn sent me to the naked rice first, but after a while, adding some finadene to it makes the rice interesting. The cucumber salad is a good cooler, too. It's bathed in a vinaigrette. Oh, and "Grandma Rosie's potato salad" tempers everything nicely. I think she's Uncle Frank's wife. I don't taste anything radically Chamorro, but Grandma Rosie knows her stuff. She's put in black olives, pimientos, relish, and egg. It's a meal in itself.
Hank says they don't have any of Guam's famous stews, like kadon pika, spicy stewed chicken leg quarters, or the milder Estafao manok. But why would he worry? He first came here because of the Japanese-sounding name ("Yokozuna's Sushi Bar--" -- he blanked on the "& Islander Grill" part). As usual, he's on a sushi search.
He loves the ahi poké, nestled pink in there under the floppy seaweed and sesame seeds, and over sliced, marinated cucumber. Hank then digs into a huge scrumbo pile of "dynamite" green-lip mussels, baked in that weirdly French-tasting white sauce the Japanese make. He asked for the hand rolls to be made without rice, to cut down on the carbs, and they obliged with big flutes of pinky chopped-up crab and mixed spicy scallop. "I like it better if they don't chop the meat up," he says. "Then you get its full tenderness and flavor. But this tastes fresh, and they filled the whole roll with the meat. They didn't have to do that. I'm not complaining."
A big party has filled one of the long tables near Lee Ann Kim's pic. The girls bustle about in their flower-flapping pareus. That's the thing. People look as if they're enjoying themselves. The point is, yes, it's sushi, yes, it's Guam, but most of all it's pan-Pacific, where partying is a way of life and generous servings of whatever is the most important virtue. We're not talking nouvelle cuisine with a micro-dot of food on a big white plate. If you even see the plate here, there's something wrong. I come back a couple more times after this visit. First time, I desperately want try something new but get sucked into that Chamorro combo again, just 'cause of Uncle Frank's addictive ribs.
Next visit, I'm determined to get something for the patient Carla, so I order her kalua pig (Hawaiian all the way, $9.25) and an "Islander Sampler Platter" ($10.25), which has two nice, standard lumpia; two empanadas (achiote-stained masa shells filled with a spicy chicken purée); two delicious shrimp patties, with flavors that make you think "kelaguen"; and four teriyaki chicken wings. Pretty good deal for $10.25.
The kalua pig is smoked and slow-roasted in ti leaf "for eight hours," they promise -- different from the Chamorro way of maybe two hours' barbecuing. I think I preferred Uncle Frank's ribs.
The day here, with Hank, I run out of steam, and of space. Hank helps me out with the ribs, and the cucumber salad, and the chicken kelaguen, till even he's sated.
Before we go, I have to ask Ellis: "What does that 'Got pugua?' mean?"
"Pugua's betel nut," he says. "Older people have been chewing it for thousands of years." Seems it's a stimulant. Perks you up like coffee or nicotine.
Desserts aren't big here. They could have countless sweet fruits like papayas, guavas, mangos, but there are only cakes. We're too full anyway.
"It's surprisingly familiar food for somewhere so far from, like, everywhere," says Hank. The boy's right. Guam's 2356 miles southeast of Tokyo, 3800 miles west of Hawaii, and a day ahead. Across the dateline. "That's why they say Guam is 'where America's day begins,'" Hank says. He flaps the door shut. "And also why they say: 'Here today, Guam tomorrow.'"
Ooh. How do you top that?
"Or," I say, "'Chamorro's another day.'"
"Yokozuna's has been going on since November 1999," says Ellis Quenga, Yokozuna's catering coordinator. "Guamanians, all islanders, are very festive people. We love to entertain. If there are only four people, we don't just cook enough for four people. We cook plenty. The owners wanted to create something real [suitable] for parties. The place is owned by two Filipinos, a Mexican, and a Guamanian. Uncle Frank set the flavor. He had many years of entertaining, so with his knowledge, this just kind of fell into place.
"The food here is a lot about Pacific Rim, especially Hawaii. In the beginning they tried to do a little more traditional menu with Guamanian food, adobos and estafaos, and kadon pikas, but it didn't go as well as they'd hoped. So now there are a lot fewer traditional islander [dishes] here. We focus more on the more popular items, the kelaguens, the ribs, the red rice and potato salad. And we have adjusted some things to fit the customers' liking. Like the cucumber salad: we don't usually put a vinaigrette on it in Guam. We usually use a soy sauce. But we don't do that here because a lot of [other] food items are based on soy. Or kelaguen: It's a form of ceviche. It's supposed to be uncooked, but we can't do that here. And they make a lot more different kinds back home, like with deer meat.
"The most popular dish is the Chamorro combo. It is Guam. Nine out of ten go for it. But our teriyaki bowls are popular too. Everyone knows teriyaki chicken and rice."
Why "Yokozuna's"? "It was a name given by the owners. In Japanese it means 'Grand Champion,' among sumo wrestlers. I know a lot of people, when they see the name, and 'sushi bar,' they assume it's a Japanese restaurant. We still get customers who have been living around the corner who didn't realize that we have an extensive menu of islander food. But we're one of a kind, a full-service, sit-down restaurant, versus a lot of other islander restaurants that serve on 'to-go' paper plates. We're not saying this is a four-star restaurant, but as far as full-service with wait staff, and glass plates, that's how we operate."
I asked him about the role of women in Guam. "They are a very big part of the society there," he said. "The Marianas were taken over by Germany, Japan, Spain, America, so there have been a lot of different influences. We're mixed up, as far as the cultures are concerned. It's a very westernized island. Once the settlers started coming in, Chamorros became the minority. Forty percent. But the women held on to our culture. They passed it on, mother to daughter. And nowadays, it's mandatory for kids K through 12 to take Chamorro classes, so they don't lose their language. So yeah, it's a very Americanized society out there, but we haven't lost ourselves, and men and women have always respected each other. Like, the males will cook. It's not designated 'women only.'"