Delicious smoke hints at flavors to come.
4516 Mission Boulevard, Suite E, San Diego
Phffft! The fat drips from the lamb onto the hot charcoal. Smoke puffs up. But then it disappears and all you see is the neat little white log in the red-hot fire surrounding it, deep down in the shichirin, or what we gringos would probably call a hibachi.
“We get this charcoal from Japan,” says Jun, one of the two brothers running this place. “It has the best flavor. It’s called Bincho-tan, white charcoal from the Ubame oak tree.”
“We get the lamb from Australia,” says Jun’s older brother Ray. “It has the best flavor also.”
They should know: The two of them used to cook at Nobu.
We’re looking at my lamb BBQ. Can’t wait.
Corn appetizer is more filling than it looks.
So lucky to have found them. What drew me in was the sign, “Japanese Tapas and Noodles.” Huh. Japanese tapas?
The happy hour menu was still on the sandwich board outside when I came in. Items like tempura Brussels sprouts ($4), ahi poke endives ($5), or fried corn on the cob ($3). Except it was around seven already.
The inside was plain, with three rows of tables, white and mustard walls, a big photo of the coast around Scripps Pier in La Jolla, a dark green ceiling, and a bar at the end with sake bottles lining the shelves above it.
It’s pretty crowded, and this is only Tuesday night. A good omen. Tables on the left are filled with an office crowd, all sharing dishes, drinking sake, and yacking a lot.
I take one of the six stools at the rear bar, facing the little black and white kitchen curtains. It’s very personal back here. All three servers are rushing in and out, and the chef is constantly calling for dishes to be zipped out while they’re hot.
“Something to drink?” says this tall guy, Taylor, the only non-Japanese server.
I’m thinking beer, and see they’re making a big play about their draft beer. “Asahi Super Dry. Imported directly from JAPAN! #1 Bestseller.”
“This is a big deal for us,” says Jun, one of the two chef-owners. “Most ‘imported’ Asahi draft beer actually comes from Canada. But we ship our kegs in from Japan.”
He looks a bit disappointed when I go for the bottled Kuronama ($5), a black beer I’ve never had.
Meanwhile, gotta eat. I see I could be spending a whole lot here if I don’t watch out. Like, a sashimi salad goes for $9, three oysters with a ponzu — kinda lemony — jelly’s $7, a four-piece grilled octopus sashimi is $7, and (yikes) live local “uni” sea urchin is $14. Tapa plates of octopus fritters are $6.50, grilled squid’s $9.50, and a shrimp mac and cheese costs $8. They even do sliders — breaded fried pork with fries, for $8.50.
When I cry poor, Jun’s wife Rio says I could always go the ramen route. “The Izakaya yakisoba is $9.50, but you get a lot,” she says. I see we’re talking ramen noodles with pork or chicken. Or shrimp, for $2.50 more.
I mean I could go for a soupy noodle dish like kaki-age, which is deep-fried veggies and shrimp in a “dashi” soup. Dashi is a broth made from dried kelp and tuna flakes. That’s $9.25. Or If I really wanted to be mean, just go for a teriyaki chicken “small bowl” ($6.50) or fried rice with pork ($5). Or the basic kappa, a six-piece cucumber and sesame seed sushi roll for $4.
I can’t resist starting off with those $3 fried corn on the cob I saw in the happy hour menu. Except now they’re $4.50.
But then I notice the picture in the menu of a little Noah’s Ark ceramic boat with a grill on top and slabs of red meat laid out next to it. “Lamb BBQ,” it says, “$12.50.” Dang. Expensive, but love grilling, love lamb. I order that and a cup of green tea ($2), to settle ye old palate.
Oh, and what the heck. Just in case I’m still hungry I go for that $4 kappa sushi roll too.
Almost straight away, Jun brings a tiny square plate of what look like Rice Crispies, but taste salty. “Otoshi, or tsukidashi, ‘tiny snack,’” he says. “Just to go with your beer.” Hmm. That’s cool.
The next square plate is bigger, and has three vertical corn on the cob, each with a wooden skewer. They have had a brown sauce poured over, soy and garlic by the taste, and they’re surprisingly filling.
But hey, now to the $12.50 investment. And, man, a fire-stained ceramic bowl covered in what Rio says are poems written in ancient Japanese characters. She tries to read them. “Something about ‘leaf of the flower,’” she says. “But it is very difficult to understand.”
Crew gathers at the end of the night — Taylor, Ray, Jun, Rio.
Inside, under the stainless grill, is a fire with a pleasant resinous flavor wafting up from it.
But the real flavor comes from the mini-steaks of lamb I lift onto the grill with the tongs. Jun says give each side three to four minutes, and he’s right.
I dip each into the little sauce saucer they include. All I can think of is the word umami. Whatever that means, this has it. Savory, tender. The kappa roll sits untouched and looking pretty boring by comparison.
Have to ask what “Izakaya” means.
“‘Izakaya’ just means ‘pub,’” says Jun. “‘I’ is the word for ‘stay,’ and ‘zakaya’ is ‘of sake.’ Sake place.”
That’s it. Next time I’m coming back to learn sake. What better place to learn?
Prices: Fried corn on the cob, $4.50; sashimi salad, $9; three oysters, ponzu jelly, $7; grilled octopus sashimi, $7; live sea urchin, $14; octopus fritters, $6.50; shrimp mac’n cheese, $8; breaded fried pork slider, fries, $8.50; Izakaya yakisoba, $9.50; fried rice with pork, $5; kappa sushi roll, $4; a six-piece cucumber and sesame seed sushi roll for $4; lamb BBQ, $12.50 (Appetizers cheaper during happy hours, 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. daily, and 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. weekends).
Hours: 5:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m., daily; also open for lunch Saturday and Sunday, 12:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m.
Buses: 8, 9, 27, 30
Nearest bus stop: Mission Boulevard at Felspar Street