My chicken katsu, with California roll and ginger-covered tomato on salad
4967 Newport Avenue, San Diego
"Who’s cooking tonight?”
JP looks at me like I’m supposed to know.
“No, that’s the question I always ask when I come into a restaurant,” he says. “If they don’t want to tell me, my antennae go up. Because I like authenticity. A lot of places dress up well, charge you top dollar, and deliver you mediocrity. I don’t accept that.”
This is happening at OB Sushi Sushi, a place I’ve dropped in to this Monday night. Actually, only came in because I was walking down Newport minding my business when I heard this girl’s voice.
“Hello, sir. You like Japanese food?”
Bunch of menus on stands surround her. Sushi place. Open. Which, being a Monday night around nine, I appreciate. I also appreciate her trying harder than all the other places here. The usual suspects, O.B. Noodle House, the Joint, Hodad’s are all crowded, of course. Others look like tombs. Guess I’m taken with this gal’s enthusiasm. And I haven’t had sushi for a while, and those boards outside are spouting plenty of deals. Why not?
Soup and Sapporo: Miso soup is free and the beer’s only $2
So, now I’m in this large room with creamy yellow walls and a big mural of Japanese gals and guys walking among bamboo trees. There’s a high bar for drinks and a low counter where the sushi chefs are. I sit at the high bar because I don’t think I’m going to be able to...justify my presence where the real sushi fiends sit.
Actually this place is pretty crowded, too. Long table of techie-type students are celebrating something. And the bar is full with what look like mid-level business execs, eating as well as drinking.
The gal, Nhi, turns out to be Vietnamese. She seems to know all about the Japanese food, though, especially the bargains.
JP (“No, I’m not related to JP Morgan”) has just had a proper meal and is ordering unagi — freshwater eel — from among the nigiri, as, uh, dessert.
And he’s leading the bar conversation. Joking about a German friend who wanted to order “cheek of fish” and instead got “chicken and fish.”
“Uh, cheek of fish?” I have to ask. Never heard of this one. I mean cachete de cabeza, cow’s cheek, in a taco, yes, and usually a pretty good piece of meat. But fish cheeks? I didn’t even know fish had cheeks.
“Oh, yes,” JP says. “Tastiest, tenderest part of the fish, if people only knew. But it’s small. Just behind the eye socket. Takes a delicate operation to cut it out. They do it here.”
He points to the appetizer section. Right at the bottom. “Hamachi Kama, $7.95,” it reads.
“Huh,” I say. “‘Hamachi’ is yellowtail, so ‘kama’ must be ‘cheek.’ But would it fill you up?”
“No way,” says JP. “But for the flavor and the tenderness, it’s enough.”
Problem: I’m hungry but have no spare bucks for luxuries. I ask Nhi.
“I think you want the dinner entrées,” she says. She points to the...okay, totally cliché dishes. Chicken teriyaki. Beef or salmon teriyaki. Chicken’s $8.95; beef and salmon, $9.75. Then there’s chicken katsu ($7.95) or chicken katsu don (“with vegetables,” says Nhi) or chicken curry ($8.95). Then they have “Banzai sesame chicken” and “Banzai orange chicken ($8.95).” Also, bulgogi beef broccoli, the Korean grilled dish ($9.95) or double onion beef ($9.95).
“These are best for you because you get salad, miso soup, steamed rice, and California roll, or gyoza or cream cheese wonton with it, same price.”
So I figure better to get this than bitsy myself to death on rolls and nigiri and appetizers (though I did kinda want to try Monkey Balls, which are fried stuffed mushrooms, cream cheese and spicy tuna — cost $6.95).
Natch, I go for the cheapest of the cheap, the chicken katsu. A nickel under eight buckeroos.
Sure glad I ordered it, though, because what comes is a big plateful. Breaded deep-fried chicken sliced and set around a bowl of teriyaki, plus a four-chunk California roll, rice, and a salad with a ginger-covered tomato on top.
Also, Nhi says Sapporo beer goes for $2 for a handle glass. Cool. I order one.
Meantime, I squish some wasabi into the teriyaki, add the flakes of ginger, and have at that chicken. It’s good. I mean, nothing remarkable, nothing super-exotic, taste-wise, but it’s doing its job, along with the rice, and at the right price.
“Here: you need to try something interesting,” says JP. Nhi has just brought him his two pieces of freshwater eel, each belted down onto its lump of rice by shiny black seaweed. Unagi, $3.50.
“This is my dessert,” he says. “Because it lived in freshwater, the flesh is slightly sweet. It’s how I like to end my meal.”
He’s an interesting guy. Tells me he has played chess masters, is into web development big-time, has worked for Boeing, Microsoft. And seems to know quite a bit about Japanese cuisine. “Try,” he says. He’s serious. I grab my chopsticks, pick up the flap of fish on its vinegar-rice boat, dip it a little in the teriyaki, and...wow. The man is right. Sweet meat.
“Only thing beats this is cheek of fish,” he says. Turns out cheek is a delicacy everywhere, like, from Japan to China to Turkey to Portugal. Has been since medieval times. It was famous all along the old Silk Route.
“These days, in the west, alas, people usually throw away the whole head of the fish, where all the flavor is,” JP says.
Mental note: Come back. Dare to get a little cheeky.
Prices: Chicken teriyaki, $8.95; beef or salmon teriyaki, $9.75; chicken katsu, $7.95; chicken katsu don (with vegetables), $8.95; chicken curry, $8.95; sesame chicken, $8.95; orange chicken, $8.95; bulgogi beef broccoli, $9.95; double onion beef, $9.95; freshwater eel unagi nigiri, $3.50; Monkey Balls (fried mushrooms, stuffed with cream cheese, spicy tuna), $6.95; cheek of yellowtail (hamachi kama), $7.95
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily (till 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Buses: 35, 923
Nearest bus stop: Newport and Cable