My yellowtail head. Kinda gruesome, kinda delicious.
"Eight bucks,” says my friend Jim.
“For a fish’s head?” I ask.
“You’d be surprised how much meat’s on it.”
116 Orange Avenue, Coronado
2884 University Avenue, San Diego
He tells me about sitting next to a Kenyan couple in Saiko, the sushi place in Coronado (with a branch in North Park), who asked for this deep-fried yellowtail’s head and got it at half the price of all the other sushi offerings. “Such a deal!” he said. “I paid $13 for our sushi roll.”
Saiko Sushi's Coronado location
So, I’m heading into Saiko, this Arctic Monday evening. Inside, it’s toasty-warm. And crowded. I’m glad. Need company. And turns out Mondays they have an all-night happy hour.
I sit up to the sushi bar. Different-colored slabs of fish sit at eye level behind glass. Up on the wall, a samurai sword and a foot-high Godzilla fill a shelf.
On my right, a row of guys and gals are talking skiing. Sounds like they’ve hit every resort west of the Rockies.
To my left, this kid and his mom. Except this ain’t no ordinary kid.
“Let me have Saiko salmon and yellowtail belly, with white soy,” he says to the sushi chef behind, Dan. “And we’ll make up our own poke.”
He does it with the authority of some sushi chef from Osaka.
“How old are you, kid?” I ask.
“Ten, but I’ve been eating this stuff for five years.”
Michelle, Shane. At 10, he knows sushi
“This is Shane,” says his mom, Michelle. “We call him our sushi ‘fish-a-nado.”
Oh, good one. ’Cause here we are in ’Nado.
I check the HH menu. It goes from edamame for $2.50 to Saiko (with salmon and yellowtail) for $8.50.
“But do you have fish heads?” I ask Caroline, the waitress.
“Aah,” she says. “Depends. Let me check.”
She comes back. “Yes, kabuto, the head, and we have kama, too. The collar. Yellowtail.”
Twenty minutes later, the head of a yellowtail tuna, deep-fried, hollow-eyed, grimacing rather than grinning, arrives with a slice of lemon in his mouth. I feel two ways about this guy, because yellowtails are warm-blooded, like us. And these suckers can sheer through the water at up to 50 mph. Who’d cut down such a performer?
One of the sushi chefs, Amberly, sees me hesitate. “Start off with the cheek. It’s especially rich and tender.” She tweaks at the space above the left jaw with a hook and pulls out a round wad of pinkish meat. I take it, try it, and, yes: rich and tender.
“Just pick at it, anywhere,” she says. “The meat at the back of the kabuto and on the kama is thick. And the fins: you can chew them. And the eyes. The fatty deposits at the back of the sockets are delicious. Use your chopsticks or your fingers.”
The fins are crunchy and delicious.
Uh-huh. Feel positively cannibalistic poking into the blackened eyes and breaking off fins. Then again, they are so tasty. Squirting lemon helps, and so does dipping into the soy sauce and sipping from the green tea I got a pot of ($2.75, refillable), and taking the odd swatch of sticky rice.
“From Japan?” I ask Amberly, pointing to my yellowtail.
“No, San Diego, actually. I purchased it from the captain of a local fishing boat called Plan B, two days ago, 6:30 in the morning, down at the Tuna Harbor dockside market. He caught it right off San Diego. Most of our fish is local.”
Huh. I tuck back in. Even the bony-looking parts of this fish head have edible skin. And Amberly’s right. The shoulder collar is thick with the most delicious seared meat. Tender, moist, goes on forever. And the fins are not as tough as they look.
“The irony,” says Amberly (who trained at Nobu in Denver), “is a lot of people can’t handle a fish head. More fish heads get thrown away, and all because, I guess, they look too much like fish heads.”
Sushi: blood-orange chutney makes the difference
Shane and his mom Michelle, meantime, have been getting through their Saiko roll with New Zealand salmon, yellowtail belly, and imitation crab meat ($13.50). “Micro cilantro on top,” says Shane, “plus avocado and blood-orange chutney. Awesome.”
“Hey, Shane. Would you like some eel sauce and ice cream?” asks Amberly. “I have a new idea for it.”
“They love him here because he’s insatiably curious,” says Michelle.
“Awesome,” says Shane.
“Eel sauce, ice cream?” I say.
“Don’t worry,” Shane says.
“Eel sauce is really just a sweetened soy sauce. And it works great with the vanilla,” says Amberly. “Okay, Shane, try this.”
Surprising combo: vanilla ice cream with tuna chicharrones
She shakes what seem like little brown granules onto the top of the spoonful samples of ice cream they brought around the counter. For all three of us.
“My invention,” she says. “It’s like crumbled chicharrones, but made of smoked fish flesh, not pork.”
Oh, yes. See what she means. The savory twang on the vanilla and sweet soy is terrific.
But the icing on this cake? I go to pay my bill. This giant fish head, with rice, cost me all of $10. With the tea, total’s $12.75. And I’m totally bloated.
Awesome. And, hey, turns out “Saiko” means just that: “best,” “perfect,” “awesome.”
Bottom line: fish heads are my new go-to. Even if you have to get used to looking at it while it looks back at you. Your job: ask for one at every sushi joint you go to. You know they’ve got them out back, for a song.
116 Orange Avenue, Coronado
- Coronado Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; 4:30–9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. Friday); Saturday, noon–10 p.m.; Sunday, noon–9 p.m.
- Happy Hour: 4:30–6 p.m. daily. All night Mondays
- Prices: Happy-hour appetizers include edamame, $2.50; shrimp shumai (dumplings), $5.50; seaweed salad, $3.50; pork gyoza (potstickers), $5.50; California roll, $5.50; Saiko roll (salmon, yellowtail), $8.50; spicy albacore (lunchtime), $12.50; ginger chili pork wings, $13; grand roll (with avocado, mango, tempura shrimp, goat cheese, macadamia nuts), $14; yellowtail fish head, market price (around $10)
- Buses: 901, 904
- Nearest Bus Stops: Second and Orange (904); Third and Orange (901)
- Ferry: Coronado ferry
- Nearest Ferry Stop: Coronado Ferry Landing, off First and C
In North Park:
2884 University Avenue, San Diego
- North Park hours: 4 p.m.–10 p.m. daily, till 11p.m., Friday, Saturday
- Bus: 7
- Nearest Bus Stops: University and Utah