Japanese sake jars and sushi art sit on high shelves.
1620 National Avenue, San Diego
What’s this? A sushi sandwich board in Barrio Logan?
I’m walking up National Avenue. Blazing midday sun.
“Wednesday Special,” it reads. “Tempura roll, includes edamame, seaweed salad, $8.”
On the board’s other side it reads, “Sushi bar. Spicy tuna rolls, 8 pcs $5.40; California rolls, 8 pcs, $5; rainbow rolls, 8 pcs, $9.80; seaweed salad, cucumbers, $6; shrimp tempura roll, 8 pcs, $7.”
Huh. This is in the bricky part of the barrio. Patches of maybe 1940s brick buildings. Light industry, small businesses. Coffee distributors, Mercedes repair joints. Gotta investigate.
The open door leads into a narrow passage lined with tables and chairs.
At the end, a big black-and-red poster hangs on the brick wall. “SOAR: Sushi On A Roll. Est. 1993.”
There’s a door set into the side of the building on the left, beside the poster. And, wow. Down a couple of steps, you come into a big industrial-type space with a blackened roof and all the pipes, one wall with a mural of fishes in the blue sea and objects such as giant sake jars and sushi art sitting on high shelves.
The main space of the room is filled with a single way-big circular counter. Two levels. All made of gray marble. Medieval-looking black iron chairs surround it. The chair backs are carved into the shape of fishes.
Two sushi chefs in black work in the middle. I see more working away in another big kitchen off to the side. This is some operation.
Dan brings me a beautiful little pot of soy sauce.
A gal says, “Sit down. Welcome.”
“So, what is this, some secret society?” I ask.
“No way. But we used to do only catering. And renting out this space for parties. For 20 years. Now, since April, we’ve decided to make it open to the public.”
Her name’s Lorna. She says that, right now, they’re open Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
I’d be a little worried moneywise about sitting down if I hadn’t seen the deals on the sandwich board outside.
Lorna brings me the little menu.
It has the same daily specials I saw outside, including the one for today, an $8 tempura roll, plus beer, wine, or sake for $5. Could do with a Sapporo. But, better not. Working later.
Beer or no beer, what happens next is the best lesson in sushi I’ve ever had.
I ask for the special, and pretty soon Hugo, one of the sushi chefs, brings over an oval plastic plate of nine pieces of sushi, all pink and white and green and yellow, plus a slurry of electric-green seaweed salad, a pile of edamame (soybeans in their pods), and a nearly golf-ball-sized lump of wasabi, the green Japanese mustard. Plus a pink pile of ginger shavings. Hugo’s workmate Dan brings me a beautiful little pot of soy sauce and a glass of water.
I crack open my chopsticks and lunge straight into the first slice of my tempura roll. Mmm…crunchy. Interesting combo of tastes burst in my mouth.
By now another guy has appeared. Jeff Roberto, the owner. Lorna’s his managing partner.
“What exactly is tempura?” I have to ask. All I know is that it’s fried something.
He doesn’t choke at my ignorance. He explains that it’s seafood or veggies that have been battered and deep-fried. “This one has salmon, imitation crab, avocado, seaweed wrap, then rice. We put it in a tempura batter and panko, flaky breadcrumbs, and quickly deep-fry it.” He says the panko crumbs are to keep it crispy. Otherwise, the rice will soften up on the surface.
While I’m chewing I have to research it, too. Seems the idea for tempura started not with the Japanese, but with the Portuguese. They had Jesuit missionaries in Japan around 1550.
My tempura’s not just crunchy. It’s got sesame seeds and eel sauce (yes, made from real eels, Hugo says), plus splotches of Sriracha sauce to add a sweet tang. Totally delish.
Now I want to know more. Like, how would the Japanese go about eating this plate-load?
“Do you eat them in any special order?” I ask.
“Well, you’d have the salad first,” says Hugo. “Then the edamame, then the tempura.”
He doesn’t stop there. In fact, this guy’s an encyclopedia of eating customs. Such as:
Never stab your sushi with your chopsticks. It’s gross, and it brings bad luck.
Eat sushi with your fingers unless the sushi has rice on the outside and you’re worried about getting sticky.
Eat each slice of sushi in one bite, because it’s the taste combination that’s important. Besides, otherwise you’ve got an unholy mess.
Lorna Ramos, the managing partner, and Jeff Roberto, the owner
If you’re sharing plates with friends, always pick pieces off their plates with the opposite ends of your chopsticks, so your saliva doesn’t get on their food.
Don’t mix the green wasabi into your soy sauce. “You should put a little piece of wasabi on top of your sushi piece, then dip it lightly into the soy,” Hugo says. “Never leave it sitting in the soy. The soy will overpower the whole taste of the sushi.”
Nigiri, the rice with the sashimi on top, will always come in two pieces, the right slightly larger than the left. Hugo says, “The right one is for the man, the left is for the woman.”
Don’t mix the ginger with your sushi. It should be taken separately, to clean your palate for the next flavor.
“And, uh, don’t eat the skins of the edamame?” I ask.
Hugo nods, patiently. I kinda knew, but I had to ask.
Last thing he says is, don’t forget to look at the danged sushi before you plow into it. “It’s made to be appetizing to the eye, almost as much as the taste.”
I come out full and exhausted from all the input. I mean, how come I didn’t know this stuff already?
Then I think about what grandma always said:
“Better to look silly than stay stupid.”
- Prices: Daily $8 specials (e.g., tempura roll, edamame, seaweed salad); spicy tuna roll, 8 pcs $5.40; California roll, $5; rainbow roll, $9.80; four pcs of tuna sashimi, 4 pcs $10; seaweed salad, cucumbers, $6; shrimp-tempura roll, 8 pcs, $7; salmon or tuna sushi, 2 pieces $4.75
- Hours: 11:00 a.m. –2:00 p.m., Monday–Wednesday
- Bus: 901, 929
- Nearest bus stop: National Avenue at 16th Street (901, 929); 12th and Imperial Transit Center (4, 11, as well as 901, 929)
- Trolleys: Orange Line, Blue Line, Green Line
- Nearest trolley stop: 12th and Imperial Transit Center