Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

A New Gaijin-neration

Nueske bacon enrobes skewers of sweet scallops.
Nueske bacon enrobes skewers of sweet scallops.
Place

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House

627 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

I wasn’t sure what to think when I first heard about Gaijin Noodle + Sake House. Taken literally, the word “gaijin” means “foreigner.” In actual usage, it means “non-Japanese.” But growing up in Hawaii, “gaijin,” like the word “haole,” was often used by my family and friends accompanied by unflattering and colorful adjectives.

That Gaijin was the project of Chef Antonio Friscia (formerly of Stingaree) and his partners West Group didn’t change my somewhat unfair impression that the place would be more style than substance. It wasn’t enough for me to drive down to the Gaslamp.

What it took to convince me was a good friend, Candice, whose taste buds and judgment I trust. She told me that Chef Friscia, a regular at the now-defunct Hillcrest location of Yakyudori, was serious about putting out a good product. Yakitori chef Komei Nishiyama's experience at Raku (Yakyudori’s replacement in Hillcrest) didn’t interest me as much as Komei-san’s six months at Yakyudori.

The dark interior exudes a sleek urban feel.

Gaijin is located in the spot the Cheese Shop used to occupy in the Gaslamp. The interior is full of dark tones and exudes a sleek, urban feel, but the vibe is relaxed and casual. What really got my attention was the rectangular grill behind a Plexiglas window. Gaijin uses binchotan, a low-smoke, oak-based charcoal that adds a distinctive smoky flavor. A simple chicken wing seasoned with sea salt and grilled over binchotan can taste magical.

You are provided with two menus. The first lists various noodles, entrées, appetizers, basic yakitori, and drinks. The second is a printed checklist of available yakitori items. Don’t forget to check the chalkboard next to the gong (sounded when free rounds of sake will be passed out). I once had a skewer of sweet scallops enrobed with wonderful Nueske’s bacon, which, without viewing the chalkboard, I would have missed.

Over three visits to Gaijin, I tasted a variety of robata (grilled) items, in addition to a couple of noodle dishes — after all, this is a “noodle house.” What I found is that the more traditional robatayaki items, such as skewered cubes of chicken thigh — called momo in Japanese — weren’t up to the level of Yakyudori on Convoy. Both times I ordered the dish here, there wasn’t enough salt and the pale chicken lacked caramelization, as if it hadn’t been grilled close enough to the charcoal on the brazier. An abundance of black pepper also detracted from the flavor; the skirt steak and beef tongue suffered similarly. The chicken meatball, or tsukune, had too much ginger in it for my taste, and the tare, a sweet, soy-based sauce used to flavor certain yakitori items, had burned.

And, yet, to put everything into perspective, my good friends Candice, Howie, and Jenne, along with yours truly, recently did a two-stage yakitori tasting at Yakyudori and Koubou on Convoy Street and found that Gaijin’s more traditional offerings were significantly better.

The Portabello mushroom skewer, basted with care, was wonderful.

I enjoy Gaijin the most when it takes the fusion side of the fork in the road. The Portobello mushroom, basted with tare and lightly finished with truffle oil was wonderful. The buta-kimchi, Gaijin-made kimchi rolled into pork, then cut into rounds and grilled, has a balanced savory-sour flavor. The kimchi here is mild and reminds me of Japanese style “quick kimuchi,” barely fermented and slightly sweet. It pairs nicely with a piece of grilled pork, never overpowering the bincho flavor.

On two occasions, I ordered Spicy Miso Chasu Hakata Ramen. I’m not sure why they call this a Hakata ramen — thin, pale, and firm Hakata-style noodles are replaced with standard Mutual Trading ramen noodles. On both visits, the noodles were overcooked. The second visit, I specifically asked for firmer noodles, but I don’t think the kitchen got the memo. The broth is mildly spicy and quite salty. It reminded me of kimchi base.

I loved the flavor of the green tea soba noodles.

On the other hand, I loved the flavor of the Uni Green Tea Soba Noodles. Though I’ve never been a fan of the Italian-Japanese fusion that Gardena restaurants like Spoon House and Akane Chaya offer, the pairing of rich, almost decadent flavors with the savory Cha Soba was excellent. The dish tasted like an exotic carbonara. The only problem was the texture of the soba. It should always be al dente, yet here it tends to the mushy side. My dining partner complained that the portion size was too small, but rich flavors are best savored in manageable quantities. This was close to a perfect marriage of Chef Friscia’s Italian heritage and Japanese ingredients.

One item has become a guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, it’s not on the menu, though you can order it — even if the server hasn’t a clue, the kitchen will know how to make it. It’s a combination of three of my favorite things: ajitsuke tamago, wonderful marinated boiled eggs with firm whites but soft yolks (insert egg warning here); ramen broth; and minced Nueske’s bacon bits. It brings me comfort in the midst of the rush and the music that seems to grow louder as the evening goes on. The name of the dish is equally straightforward: “Bacon and Egg.”

The beers offered are simple, three bottled Japanese varieties — including one of my favorites, Hitachino White — and Sapporo on tap. Perhaps in the future we’ll see the addition of select local craft brews. The sake list is more ambitious, with about 11 available. There are also five “Kakigori” cocktails, grownup-flavored, shaved-ice imbibing.

The staff seemed focused on clearing plates as fast as possible, yet the service was still relaxed, casual, and enjoyable. I might be biased. On two of my visits, my main servers, Jamie and Keoni, were from Hawaii, my home. They recognized my speech patterns and instantly pegged me as an ex-pat Kama’aina. Both exuded an unpretentious, professional vibe.

I’ve found dishes I like at Gaijin, and I intend to enjoy them over and over again. Maybe it’s a whole new Gaijin-neration. ■

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House

627 4th Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-238-0567; gaijinsd.com

Hours: Monday–Thursday, 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m.; Friday, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m.; Saturday, 5:00 p.m.–3:00 a.m.; Sunday, 5:00–11:00 p.m.

Fare: Japanese and Japanese fusion

Vibe: Casual and relaxed early on. Gets louder and more like an elbow-to-elbow scene as the night progresses

Seating: No reservations, 8–10 tables, plus 6 seats at the yakitori bar

Must try: Pork and kimchi; portobello mushroom; anything with bacon; “Bacon and Egg”; Uni Green Tea Soba Noodles

Need to know: It’s the Gaslamp, so parking can be a challenge. Pricing on the yakitori menu is for two skewers; however, I’ve been able to order single skewers of everything. A seven-skewer combination called the “Seven Samurai” is $21.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s biennial Art Auction, La Mesa Oktoberfest, Keep Rockin’ Fest

Events October 1-October 3, 2020
Next Article

No delay for deletion of parking on 30th Street

City cycling manager swears the mayor’s order doesn’t make it official
Nueske bacon enrobes skewers of sweet scallops.
Nueske bacon enrobes skewers of sweet scallops.
Place

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House

627 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

I wasn’t sure what to think when I first heard about Gaijin Noodle + Sake House. Taken literally, the word “gaijin” means “foreigner.” In actual usage, it means “non-Japanese.” But growing up in Hawaii, “gaijin,” like the word “haole,” was often used by my family and friends accompanied by unflattering and colorful adjectives.

That Gaijin was the project of Chef Antonio Friscia (formerly of Stingaree) and his partners West Group didn’t change my somewhat unfair impression that the place would be more style than substance. It wasn’t enough for me to drive down to the Gaslamp.

What it took to convince me was a good friend, Candice, whose taste buds and judgment I trust. She told me that Chef Friscia, a regular at the now-defunct Hillcrest location of Yakyudori, was serious about putting out a good product. Yakitori chef Komei Nishiyama's experience at Raku (Yakyudori’s replacement in Hillcrest) didn’t interest me as much as Komei-san’s six months at Yakyudori.

The dark interior exudes a sleek urban feel.

Gaijin is located in the spot the Cheese Shop used to occupy in the Gaslamp. The interior is full of dark tones and exudes a sleek, urban feel, but the vibe is relaxed and casual. What really got my attention was the rectangular grill behind a Plexiglas window. Gaijin uses binchotan, a low-smoke, oak-based charcoal that adds a distinctive smoky flavor. A simple chicken wing seasoned with sea salt and grilled over binchotan can taste magical.

You are provided with two menus. The first lists various noodles, entrées, appetizers, basic yakitori, and drinks. The second is a printed checklist of available yakitori items. Don’t forget to check the chalkboard next to the gong (sounded when free rounds of sake will be passed out). I once had a skewer of sweet scallops enrobed with wonderful Nueske’s bacon, which, without viewing the chalkboard, I would have missed.

Over three visits to Gaijin, I tasted a variety of robata (grilled) items, in addition to a couple of noodle dishes — after all, this is a “noodle house.” What I found is that the more traditional robatayaki items, such as skewered cubes of chicken thigh — called momo in Japanese — weren’t up to the level of Yakyudori on Convoy. Both times I ordered the dish here, there wasn’t enough salt and the pale chicken lacked caramelization, as if it hadn’t been grilled close enough to the charcoal on the brazier. An abundance of black pepper also detracted from the flavor; the skirt steak and beef tongue suffered similarly. The chicken meatball, or tsukune, had too much ginger in it for my taste, and the tare, a sweet, soy-based sauce used to flavor certain yakitori items, had burned.

And, yet, to put everything into perspective, my good friends Candice, Howie, and Jenne, along with yours truly, recently did a two-stage yakitori tasting at Yakyudori and Koubou on Convoy Street and found that Gaijin’s more traditional offerings were significantly better.

The Portabello mushroom skewer, basted with care, was wonderful.

I enjoy Gaijin the most when it takes the fusion side of the fork in the road. The Portobello mushroom, basted with tare and lightly finished with truffle oil was wonderful. The buta-kimchi, Gaijin-made kimchi rolled into pork, then cut into rounds and grilled, has a balanced savory-sour flavor. The kimchi here is mild and reminds me of Japanese style “quick kimuchi,” barely fermented and slightly sweet. It pairs nicely with a piece of grilled pork, never overpowering the bincho flavor.

On two occasions, I ordered Spicy Miso Chasu Hakata Ramen. I’m not sure why they call this a Hakata ramen — thin, pale, and firm Hakata-style noodles are replaced with standard Mutual Trading ramen noodles. On both visits, the noodles were overcooked. The second visit, I specifically asked for firmer noodles, but I don’t think the kitchen got the memo. The broth is mildly spicy and quite salty. It reminded me of kimchi base.

I loved the flavor of the green tea soba noodles.

On the other hand, I loved the flavor of the Uni Green Tea Soba Noodles. Though I’ve never been a fan of the Italian-Japanese fusion that Gardena restaurants like Spoon House and Akane Chaya offer, the pairing of rich, almost decadent flavors with the savory Cha Soba was excellent. The dish tasted like an exotic carbonara. The only problem was the texture of the soba. It should always be al dente, yet here it tends to the mushy side. My dining partner complained that the portion size was too small, but rich flavors are best savored in manageable quantities. This was close to a perfect marriage of Chef Friscia’s Italian heritage and Japanese ingredients.

One item has become a guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, it’s not on the menu, though you can order it — even if the server hasn’t a clue, the kitchen will know how to make it. It’s a combination of three of my favorite things: ajitsuke tamago, wonderful marinated boiled eggs with firm whites but soft yolks (insert egg warning here); ramen broth; and minced Nueske’s bacon bits. It brings me comfort in the midst of the rush and the music that seems to grow louder as the evening goes on. The name of the dish is equally straightforward: “Bacon and Egg.”

The beers offered are simple, three bottled Japanese varieties — including one of my favorites, Hitachino White — and Sapporo on tap. Perhaps in the future we’ll see the addition of select local craft brews. The sake list is more ambitious, with about 11 available. There are also five “Kakigori” cocktails, grownup-flavored, shaved-ice imbibing.

The staff seemed focused on clearing plates as fast as possible, yet the service was still relaxed, casual, and enjoyable. I might be biased. On two of my visits, my main servers, Jamie and Keoni, were from Hawaii, my home. They recognized my speech patterns and instantly pegged me as an ex-pat Kama’aina. Both exuded an unpretentious, professional vibe.

I’ve found dishes I like at Gaijin, and I intend to enjoy them over and over again. Maybe it’s a whole new Gaijin-neration. ■

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House

627 4th Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-238-0567; gaijinsd.com

Hours: Monday–Thursday, 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m.; Friday, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m.; Saturday, 5:00 p.m.–3:00 a.m.; Sunday, 5:00–11:00 p.m.

Fare: Japanese and Japanese fusion

Vibe: Casual and relaxed early on. Gets louder and more like an elbow-to-elbow scene as the night progresses

Seating: No reservations, 8–10 tables, plus 6 seats at the yakitori bar

Must try: Pork and kimchi; portobello mushroom; anything with bacon; “Bacon and Egg”; Uni Green Tea Soba Noodles

Need to know: It’s the Gaslamp, so parking can be a challenge. Pricing on the yakitori menu is for two skewers; however, I’ve been able to order single skewers of everything. A seven-skewer combination called the “Seven Samurai” is $21.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

No delay for deletion of parking on 30th Street

City cycling manager swears the mayor’s order doesn’t make it official
Next Article

Sweet meets heat at Fluster Cluck Hot Chicken

A revamped Nashville chicken stall dishes crispy and spicy enough tenders
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close