An odd execution of the traditional California Roll
6171 Mission Gorge Road, San Diego
Pipo-kun, Tokyo PD’s mascot
In Japan, the concept of kawaii, or “cuteness,” is pervasive. Even traditionally “uncute” entities such as the military or the fire department have a cute mascot, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Pipo-kun, a space-traveling cartoon rodent with huge eyes and a sweet smile. When David told me he’d passed by a sign for a place called Kawaii Sushi, I was eager to check it out.
We happened in during lunch, which was clearly a time for medical professionals dining alone. At one table was a doctor (still wearing his white coat with his title embroidered on the front), at another, a woman in scrubs. A third woman, wearing business attire and seated in the corner by the front window, was so comfortable talking on her phone and working on her laptop, I assumed this might be her office.
Lunch special Bento #1
Black-and-white illustrations of kawaii sushi characters (for example, nigiri coming to cartoon life to smile and wink at diners) hung on the walls, which were painted in bright sherbet colors including orange, pink, and blue.
I’d seen photos of the gorgeous sushi rolls that Kawaii Sushi serves up: sashimi shaped into the form of rose buds or other flower blossoms, cucumbers delicately designed to look like leaves, and caterpillar rolls made kawaii with the addition of “eyes.”
But I didn’t order any of those. The lunch specials were a great deal at $7.95. Diners can choose two items from a list of 13, served with miso soup. We started with tamago (egg nigiri), and then ordered two different Bento Plate specials (there are six, ranging in price from $5.25 to $9.95, again, a great deal). I got the #1, with “fried seafood,” California Roll, chicken teriyaki, gyoza, rice, and miso.
The miso soup was delicious, not too salty and rich in umami flavor. But the tamago was one of the saddest versions I’ve ever tried. It was dry and chewy and on the overly sweet side.
We overheard some of the kitchen staff speaking Vietnamese, which explained some of the options on the menu, such as the fresh spring rolls, which are typically not found on a Japanese menu.
I enjoyed the salad, with that classic ginger-sesame dressing I prefer over the mayo version you see around, and the rolls were fine — simple and fresh, though sloppily wrapped and oddly long. The nori was only on the outside, which is unusual, as these basic rolls almost always feature rice on the exterior, with a spiral of nori holding the ingredients together within.
The teriyaki was great, with fresh zucchini, onions, and broccoli. I would have liked more of it. This bento would have been markedly better if they’d ditched the whole “fried fish” part and made the entrée selection a bit larger.
And let’s talk about that fried fish. It didn't taste like fish so much as “deep fryer.” I gave mine to David because I found the flavor of fried oil to be off-putting. He didn’t love it much either. This is when we noticed the entire joint smelled like “fryolator.” Our noses began to twitch.
Bento lunch special #2, with salmon sashimi and more of that fried fish
David got the #2, with a tuna roll and salmon sashimi (mine was $7.95, his $9.95). He thought his salmon filet was “okay” but agreed that the fried fish was an odd item in these bento boxes. He sat downwind from the kitchen, which was behind me, and became increasingly disturbed by the smell of old, boiling oil, so much so that he said it would be a deterrent to returning. When we left, the stink lingered on our clothes and in my hair, so noticeable that we actually went home and showered before continuing with the day’s errands.
Still, we enjoyed the clean cuteness of the joint and remain intrigued by those photos of beautiful rolls enough to attempt returning for dinner soon. “Maybe at dinner, when everyone's not ordering lunch specials that come with fried fish, it won't smell so bad,” David said.