Toro, tuna belly that’s as tender as butter
"Hi! Welcome! Yókoso!” It’s this lady at the cashier desk. Love that about Japanese eateries. I know it’s just business, but welcomes like this kinda make you feel good.
Kanpai's sign, under the moon
I had just hopped off the 712 bus, 3rd and Palomar, Chula Vista. Deepest Southland. Right opposite this place I had never noticed before. Kanpai. Word’s the Japanese equivalent of “Cheers!”
301 Palomar Street, Chula Vista
Hostess’s name is Noriko.
“Happy hour?” she asks.
Huh? Turns out they have one from 5 to 7 every day.
“Yes,” I say. “Uh, are you guys new here?”
“New? Well, 30 years in business here. Sit somewhere?”
Wow. I look around. The place looks fresh, but with lots of the traditional coziness of an izakaya, traditional after-work pubs back in Japan. Dark wood and paper walls and white paper lanterns, but mostly it’s light and airy with lots of cream tile and its share of sports screens.
Baked green mussels
I go to sit up at the half-circle counter that surrounds the kitchen area. Two chefs work away, swift and silent, every now and then holding out dishes for waitresses or counter customers to pick up.
Place is looking full. This happy hour has a following. And from the Japanese-American community, too, it seems. There’s one businessman eating away at a plate of maybe six baby octopuses (costs $7.50, says Noriko — not in the HH deal). Behind me a couple leads in their ancient mom. From the greeting exchanges, you know they’re regulars. Guy sitting next to me says customers go sit around the other side of the counter to read the latest Japanese newspapers, like Asahi Shimbun.
Masako, one of the waitresses, leaves me the menus. Man. Whole lotta food going on. But on top, she places the happy-hour menu. Two sides of a plastic-covered sheet. “Everything $3.95!” it says, and “our hot house sake and draft beer are happy price during happy hour as well!”
Main drinks deal seems to be $3.95 for a 16-ounce Asahi Dry beer, and $2.95 for a li’l jug of hot sake or $4.50 for a tall one. I order the Asahi and a tall sake jug.
Kanpai's seaweed sits on a pile of lettuce, showered with sesame seeds.
Happy-hour deals include $3.95 salads, like spinach with sesame sauce, chayote salad, hakusaizuke (Japanese pickled cabbage). Then there’s the $3.95 nigiri (fish slices laid on pressed vinegary rice) and rolls stuffed with anything from yellowtail to surf clam. But the really interesting dishes are on the flip side. Like, grilled squid, sautéed pork ginger, lemon chicken, sautéed pork kimchi, grilled mackerel, on and on, $3.95 each.
So, first I go for a seaweed salad. I’ve never known if I liked the stuff or not. Then, a plate of three baked green mussels under a blanket of orange cheese. Two items, eight bucks. It’s a start.
And this seaweed? Truly interesting umami taste. It sits on lettuce and under a shower of sesame seeds, with some oil and vinegar on it.
But...oh, man. That bubbling baked cheese is it, and the plump mussels underneath. Takes me my first one to remember you don’t try to fish it up with chopsticks or fork. You haul the whole shell up to your mouth and scoop the meat into your mouth and then pour in the puddle of butter and garlic sauce you left behind.
“Dang, that was delicious,” I can’t help saying.
“This is my favorite place,” guy to my right says. “Been coming here for 15 years. They have unagi [freshwater eel] that’s so sweet, it’s to die for. And their spicy tuna roll, it’s the best of any place in this area. I always have it.”
Name’s Jeff. He used to be in the Navy. Boilermaker on a battleship, the New Jersey. “The hull’s steel was a foot and a half thick,” he says. “Eighteen inches! We got two days’ shore leave in Japan. Had to anchor off, ship was so big.”
He’s loved Japanese food ever since. His wife Shara’s eating that spicy tuna roll he’s talking about. He’s having a pork soup. I’m trying to think what to have next. Oh, what the heck. I ask for the roll Shara’s having. At $3.95, why resist?
Grilled eggplant — not big in Japan
Plus, I just spotted a plate passing by with what looks like a giant eggplant: gleaming black skin, golden flesh, and sesame seeds on top. It’s grilled eggplant marinated in miso sauce, says Masako. “How much?” I ask. “$5.95,” she says. “Not on happy-hour menu.”
I still go for it. It looks so...well, Japanese. But Gansen the chef, when he leans over to hand me the spicy tuna roll, says, “Not Japanese.”
“Spicy tuna roll you’d don’t see in Japan. Japanese are not into hot spices, except for wasabi.”
Are they into eggplant?
“Not big in Japan also.”
Gansen’s been the chef here for 25 years, so he has to know what he’s talking about. Says he keeps up to date by visiting his hometown near Nagasaki every few years. Says most restaurants are much more conservative over there. “Here, Americans and overseas Japanese like new things.” Whatever, he’s turned this eggplant into a big slippery open boat of garlicky deliciousness.
I like this place. It just feels like the real McCoy. And it’s so easy to talk around this counter. Like, right now Gansen and Jeff are waxing enthusiastic about toro, the fat belly of the tuna. Suddenly Gansen brings me over a piece, wrapped in a band of black seaweed.
“Tastes like butter, right?” says Jeff.
Right. And totally tender. But costs $11 for two pieces.
“How do you say, ‘Thank you?” I ask Noriko, as I pay.
“Duomo arigato gozaimashita,” she says.
“It means, like, ‘Thank you, thank you again, for something that has happened.’”
Huh. One thing’s sure. Soon as Carla finds out about tonight, something’s gonna happen again.
301 Palomar Street, Chula Vista
Happy Hour Prices: Spinach salad with sesame sauce, $3.95; chayote salad, $3.95; hakusaizuke (Japanese pickled cabbage), $3.95; salmon nigiri, $3.95; surf clam nigiri, $3.95; yellowtail roll, $3.95; grilled squid, $3.95; sautéed pork ginger, $3.95; lemon chicken, $3.95; sautéed pork kimchi, $3.95; grilled mackerel, $3.95; baked green mussels, $3.95; non-happy hour items higher, e.g. grilled eggplant, $5.95; toro (tuna belly, two pieces) $11
Buses: 712, 929
Nearest bus stop: Palomar and 3rd
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest trolley stop: Palomar (maybe ¾ mile away)