5447 Kearny Villa Road, 1, San Diego
And now, for a completely different style of barbecue: Japanese yakiniku. Sensei Shima, Samurai Jim’s martial-arts teacher, favors Suzuya for it; Jim and his fellow students often eat there with the master after class. Jim thought it’d be fun if we got together with his mom Masako and his step-dad Dan. And he was right. Interesting people to enjoy, new food to savor, and even a new brand of unfiltered sake to explore.
Japanese barbecue, yakiniku, almost certainly derives from Korean barbecue, adapted by the Japanese. There are centuries-old tensions between Japan and Korea, exacerbated by World War II, and still raw and painful today. But Suzuya has resolved them domestically–it’s genuinely a family-run restaurant, owned by a Japanese husband and a Korean wife. (Didn’t meet him. She’s beautiful and lively.) The restaurant is roomy and airy, with nothing-special decor, but also no crowding. Almost all our fellow diners that night were Asian, ranging from single guys playing on Blackberries to convivial small groups.
Let’s start with that fizzy sake, since that’s what I did: It’s called Sayuri, comes in pretty little pink bottles, and is drier than the familiar sushi-bar Takara (which they also carry). It’s very good, similar to Momokawa Pearl, but then — like Peter Lorre as a besotted wine critic in Roger Corman’s hilarious old Tales of Terror (“Hic! It’s very good!”) — I’ve rarely met a nigori I didn’t like. Dan drank a sake called Kikusui that tasted like vodka. Not sure what ladylike Masako was drinking; it came in tall ceramic teacups (but wasn’t tea) and on the bill was called “open bar.” (Brings back images of San Francisco Chinatown speakeasies during Prohibition, when the tea wasn’t tea.)
Our charming server brought small plates of lettuce salad, along with wet washcloths to wipe our hands. She chatted with Masako in Japanese and with the rest of us in English. All through the meal, she helped guide us to the best way to eat–so very nice, so valuable, when you’re exploring a new cuisine. We began with agedashi dofu (lightly fried tofu), which Masako and I both adore, suffused in mild broth (so mild that both Masako and I added a squibble of soy sauce to our portions). The tofu was silky rather than crispy, bedded in a slippery nest of narrow cellophane noodles. Three of us had to struggle a bit to capture them with our chopsticks, but we were not so lily-livered as to ask for forks.
We debated — should we get kaki (fried oysters) or yaki (grilled ones)? “I don’t like fried food,” declared tiny, glamorous Masako, so we settled on what Jim (learning Japanese) called kaki yaki (you may giggle now; he did): grilled oysters. They were delightful, tender-firm in a vibrant soy-based sauce spiked with tiny pepper bits to eat or not. Grilled squid were more challenging, reasonably tender but chewy, with a milder sauce. “I still haven’t developed a taste for squid,” said Jim, traumatized at an early age by a grandfather’s rubber-band rendition. They’re hard to get right, and grilling doesn’t make it easier. These were nearly terrific–but only nearly.
Among the scattering of Korean dishes on the menu is my favorite, bibimbap, a sort of Asian jambalaya, short-grain rice cooked in a stone pot until crisped at bottom and sides, then mingled with a kitchen sink of meat and veggie slivers, and topped with a soft-cooked or fried egg, plus as much Korean hot sauce as you like. You stir it all together. I liked the emphatic crisping of the rice edges, but none of my companions were sold — the glutinous texture of the rest of the rice had vanished in the cooking. The egg was barely perceptible — the cook uses only the yolk, which disappeared into the mixture — and I missed the rich gooey texture to temper the crackle and spice.
Then: BBQ! Dan, a sophisticated palate, proved my main ally for the order: He deliberately cultivates the look of a dude who should be wearing a trucker’s gimme cap, but given his global travels — he drives airplanes, not semis — he’s willing to try anything at least once. Everybody wants Kobe beef, but not everyone wants to cozy up to a Kobe beef tongue, or a Japanese version of beef tartare.
Jim, who’s been eagerly learning to cook at home and was excited to show off his new skills, took charge of the grilling, a very good thing, since I was fried by my workday and would have pulled off everything near-raw, while Masako would have cooked everything well-done.
The Kobe tongue with green onions was a treat. It comes in thin slices, spread with scallion purée, and topped with minced scallions. This is the opposite of my ancestral people’s tongue recipe (simmer two hours, peel, simmer two more hours), but it’s a different pleasure. You grill it a minute or two on each side (the scallion paste won’t fall off), and it emerges delightfully rare, tender-chewy, and ready to be finished with a squeeze of lemon juice. The restaurant also offers regular tongue for a buck or two less–I wonder if it’s as velvety?
The boneless Kobe short-ribs are as spectacular as you’d hope–deeply marbled and buttery. You get a generous portion to feed four for $17. (Compare that to fancy downtown places charging $18 and up per ounce — albeit for filet.) The Kobe comes from Snake River Farms in Idaho. “We looked into Kobe from Japan and heard that the water there was polluted, while in Idaho it is pure. So we went with Idaho,” said the lovely mama-san.
Then we tried some seafood, which arrived in light, elusive marinades. Due to Jim’s care, the scallops were superbly cooked, translucent and succulent. Gotta have a Jim at the table, or they might not be worth ordering–they’re nice but not fabulous in themselves. The shrimp were merely shrimp, probably Thai tiger prawns. We added “pumpkin” (kabocha squash) and shiitake mushrooms to this course. The squash, although thinly sliced, took a lot of cooking until caramelized on both sides. It was worth the wait for the sweet vegetal flavor our mouths had been missing. The shiitakes, with no oil for basting, ended up dry and shriveled. “They need oil,” I said. “I don’t like oil,” said Masako. “Sorry, I’m a Chinese cook at heart,” I said, “and I really want to mop these in toasted sesame oil to plump them up while they grill.” Dan, co-conspirator, nodded emphatically.
One more barbecue meat to try–pork. We chose pork cheeks, merely $5, which were more than marbled, actually fatty, with a bouncy texture when cooked medium-rare. They were kind of fun–in fact, Jim and Dan liked them a lot, and even Masako ended up liking them, although she didn’t want to because of the fat. They snuck up on her palate and seduced her.
Then came the really daring dish–Dan and I conspiring again: Japanese raw-beef tartare with a sesame marinade and raw egg yolk on top to mix in. The hand-chopped meat was fresh-tasting and tender, the yolk rich. “I like this better than French beef tartare,” said Dan. “I like its simplicity.” “I’m not sure I’d agree,” I said. “This has all the richness, but I miss the tart contrasts of capers, parsley, anchovies, and so forth.”
After all that, we needed a palate cleanser, and a simple, earthy soup struck the right note for a finale. (Soup at the end of a meal is less odd than it seems: it’s standard among several Chinese ethnic groups and a great, soothing send-off.) Karubi soup offers short-rib meat in a clean, light meat broth with cellophane noodles — ending our meal with the same slippery noodles we’d started with. So homey and right, it hit the spot.
This was a giant dinner, more than we needed to eat, but food costs were barely $20 each. Your booze bill is up to you, but ours was ridiculously low, same as the food bill for full indulgence. So raise a glass to Suzuya– kanpai!
Middle and Upscale Bargain Bites du Jour
Portugalia: In case you missed the ad in the “Happy Hour” section, the restaurant is offering Free Food Tuesdays. That’s right, free, one plate per person from 8:00–10:00 p.m. Their happy hour is late-night, 10:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m. (Tuesday–Sunday), with food specials from $4–$10.
Baseball Tailgate Party–Gaslamp Strip Club: Offered on all Padre home game nights from 5:00–7:05 p.m., cook-it-yourself 10-ounce Skirt Steak, 10-ounce Baseball Cut Top Sirloin, or 10-ounce Teriyaki Steak for $9.95, plus tax and tip, including salad and grill-ready garlic bread. Steaks are USDA Choice grade. To reserve for groups of eight or more, call 619-231-3140.
Lunch and Cocktail Nibbles with a View: Bertrand at Mister A’s new 20/20 lunch features a spontaneous three-course menu that changes daily, priced at $20 and served in 20 minutes, with dishes like tuna niçoise and Maine lobster strudel in filo dough. Later in the day, the new “Cocktail Hour,” served on the scenic patio Monday–Friday 2:30–6:00 p.m., offers happy-hour discounts on drinks and small plates, such as spring rolls, sole sliders on brioche, Jidori chicken “tulips” with orange sauce, croque monsieur, and Kobe sliders.
The Palm’s summer special is a four-pound Maine lobster, split to serve two, for $90 per couple, including two salads and two side dishes, available through August 31. Not exactly dead cheap, but it’s a huge lobster for the same price as an average mid-scale dinner. Bevs, tip, and tax extra.
The Marine Room continues to bend over backwards to stimulate our recession-dimmed appetites with bargains for superb food. The three-course Lobster Menu (with fabulous choices for first and main courses) is available every Monday from 6:00–9:30 p.m. The menu is $40 per person for food only, $55 with wine pairings. The adventurous Passport to the Seasons Menu is available Tuesdays–Thursdays 6:00–9:30 p.m., also $40 for food, and $55 with wine pairings. “Passport” dishes may include macadamia spiced wild prawns, lobster bisque, pomegranate cashew-crunch salmon, spiced diver scallops. Both bargain dinners end with the “Trilogy,” three desserts in one.
Blue Point’s Today’s First Catch Three-Course Menu: $30 a person for three courses, $45 with wine pairings, for a menu that sounds like real edible fun–or do I mean fin? It’s available Monday–Thursday 5:00–6:30 p.m. At another Cohn restaurant, Dakota Grill, the continuing deal is Savory Sunset Savings & Monday Night Prime Rib Three-Course Dinner, available nightly from 5:00–6:00 p.m. — and all evening Monday. Three-course prime rib dinner (choice of pork or beef prime rib), $25.50 per person, excluding tax and gratuity. Wine pairings are, amazingly, only $10.
Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa: Celebrating its 20th anniversary with a new chef, C. Barclay Dodge, a veteran of major resorts across the west. For those lucky enough to find themselves in this luxurious area at midday, the lunchtime special is $19.89 for two courses, an appetizer or soup, and an entrée, made with herbs and vegetables grown right on the property. Available 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m. through Labor Day.
Thee Bungalow’s “Summer 7 of 7s”: $7 selected glasses of wine, a $7 Absolut martini, and seven entrées (including crispy sweetbreads, grilled rib-tip steak, Maine diver scallops, and a veggie plate), plus soup or salad for $17. (Available all summer, all hours, except July 15 and August 10.)
La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla: $55 tasting dinners Wednesday and Thursday nights at the newly renovated, view-endowed, and normally exorbitant Sky Room (including complimentary parking), running at least through July.
Suzuya Japanese BBQ
*** (Good to Very Good)
5447 Kearny Villa Road #A, Kearny Mesa, 858-505-0611.
HOURS: Lunch Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly 5:30–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Japanese-Korean tapas and bibimbap $3.75–$8; BBQ meats $5–$17 (for Kobe); BBQ seafoods $6.50–$10; BBQ veggies $3–$4; soups and noodle dishes $4–$7. Full lunches $6.50–$10. Figure about $20 per person for a big shared dinner.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Japanese and Korean barbecue cooked by diners over gas at the table, plus Japanese tapas (izakaya), stir-fries, noodle and rice bowls, soups, salads, tempuras, with a few Korean items. Japanese beers, sakes, generic wines.
PICK HITS: Grilled oysters (kake yaki), Kobe boneless short-rib BBQ; Kobe tongue with green onions BBQ; pumpkin BBQ; raw beef with egg yolk (tartare); short-rib noodle soup.
NEED TO KNOW: Unlike Korean BBQs, no pan chan (gratis side dishes) with entrées. Gracious service.