My Spicy California. Gateway sushi, but at $3.50 what’s not to like?
  • My Spicy California. Gateway sushi, but at $3.50 what’s not to like?
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DMV. Wednesday afternoon. “H.H. Zero. One. One,” says the woman’s auto-voice over the loudspeaker. “Report to counter #3.”

Chika and the Men - Raymond, Jesse, Minuit.

Chika and the Men - Raymond, Jesse, Minuit.

Okay, that might not be exact, but I’ve been sitting hearing the numbers creep up for the last hour. And when it’s mine, I feel like a lottery winner. I maneuver through the crowds till I get to Counter Number 3. Natch, there’s a line for that, too. Have to say though, all the DMV people are expert at keeping us moving, and staying cheerful.

Now I’m staring at the actual driver’s license test. Blood alcohol concentration limits? D’ah, .01, .05, .08 percent?

Halfway through: what $7.75 buys, drinks included.

Halfway through: what $7.75 buys, drinks included.

It’s the one question I get wrong, which means — yippee! — got myself a renewed license. Time to celebrate. “You guys go to any cheap eateries, nearby?” I ask the clerk at the check-in counter.

“Well, if you just walk down to University, there’s Ichiban,” he says. “Happy hour, they have three-dollar sushi rolls.”

Nice little patio.

Nice little patio.

“And they have a great sake deal,” says this guy standing beside me. “Like, a carafe of hot sake, $1.25!”

“You’re not driving, are you?” says the clerk.

“I have my stretch limo,” I tell him, “the #11 bus.”

I head along Normal Street. And I hear conversations in the bars. They seem to be swollen with refugees from the DMV. “I spent three hours there, waiting!” this gal Gloria’s saying. “Then my friend said, ‘Why don’t you go have a drink and come back?’ So, well, I did. Except never got back. Been here all afternoon.”

Yuki points to explain the sign. Ichiban means Number One.

Yuki points to explain the sign. Ichiban means Number One.

But now, oh yes. Right across University from the giant rainbow flag, thar she blows. Ichiban.

It’s got a nice li’l patio thrusting out onto the sidewalk. A few people sit there eating sushi rolls with chopsticks. “Happy Hour 3-7,” says a sign on the canvas awning.

“Three to eight now,” says a gal clearing up dishes. Yuki. “We’ve extended it.”

“And $1.25, hot sake?” I say.

“Sure. Happy hour,” she says. “Welcome.”

So, what’s a red-blooded sake drinker to do? I follow Yuki through the front door. Inside’s small, intimate, with brown walls, bamboo, abstract art, and a black and gold Kanji symbol above the counter.

“Ichi – one,” says Yuki. She’s pointing up to the symbol. “And ban – means ‘number.’”

Oh yeah. Now I remember this place. Yuki says it’s been here 37 years.

She shows me the happy hour sushi menu. And I like how it starts with the cheapest at the top. “Eight pieces per order,” it says, and top o’the list, natch, is the California roll, with imitation crab and avocado, $3.25. Also $3.25, the avocado and cucumber roll. For $3.50 you get the Spicy California, and it goes up to, like, the Philadelphia ($4.50), the Crunchy (fried shrimp, imitation crab. Sounds lovely at $6.25), the Rainbow, which is basically the California topped with different sashimi ($6.50), and the Red Dragon: fried shrimp, imitation crab, cucumber, and a cap of spicy tuna ($7).

Then they have three at 5 pieces per roll. The $4.25 Vegetable Roll has lettuce, avo, cucumber, radish, pickled gourd, and hey, burdock, an edible dock full of burs that, turns out, gave a Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, the million-dollar idea for hook-and-loop fasteners. (Velcro, anyone?) There’s also a chicken katsu (short for katsuretsu, the way the Japanese pronounce “cutlet”) for $4.50, and a fried soft-shell crab roll, with imitation crab, avo, lettuce, and cucumber wrapped in soy paper ($5.50).

Number one.

Number one.

Plus they have a separate list of specials, such as “fried calamari legs,” ($6.75), grilled salmon collar ($5.45), beef sukiyaki bowl ($8.75) and even chicken chow mein ($5.75).

But I can’t resist the bargain basement deal. So I go for spicy California, plus a small carafe of sake, and, what the heck, a $3 bottle of Sapporo beer. (Of course, too late, I realize the real bargain is the large bottle for $4.)

But I mean, who’s complaining? Check comes to $7.75, before tax. I head out to a patio table bathed in the setting sun, and wait till Chika, another waitress, brings everything out. And man, that sake is so hot I have to wrap a napkin around the carafe. I mix the ginger and wasabi and soy sauce, pour the hot hot sake, and the cool cool Sapporo, and have at it all.

And guess what? The humble spicy California roll is just fine. Dunk those suckers in the dish of soy-ginger-wasabi and they are totally delish. I somehow remember that story of how the California Roll began: it was a Japanese-Canadian chef, Hidekazu Tojo who decided to roll his rolls inside-out to hide the seaweed wrap because, back in 1971, the whole idea of seaweed was like, yuk! to his Canadian customers. Or was the real inventor Ichiro Mashita at Tokyo Kaikan restaurant, in LA’s Little Tokyo? One day, in the 1960s, Ichiro ran out of toro, tuna belly, so he substituted avocado, and voila! California, the ultimate gateway sushi roll, was born.

Whatever, I’m munching, sipping, glugging, feeling so smug. I mean, deal aside, this place just seems to have the right vibe. Good fusui (“wind-water,” the Japanese version of Feng shui). Group of guys at the next table has been having just about the same as me. Raymond, Jesse, and hey, Minuit de la Croix. They turn out to be experimental musicians and videographers. Talk flows. So does the $1.25 sake. This place gets hard to leave. I order another California. The sun sets. Uh, one last sake? I ain’t driving.

Even though, as of 4:30, I could.

In theory.

The Place: Ichiban, 1449 University Avenue, 619-299-7203

Hours: 11:30am – 9:30pm Monday to Thursday; till 10pm, Friday and Saturday; till 9pm, Sunday; happy hour, 3-8pm daily

Happy Hour Prices: California roll, with imitation crab and avocado, $3.25; avocado and cucumber roll, $3.25; spicy California roll, $3.50; Philadelphia roll, $4.50; the Rainbow (California plus sashimi), $6.50; Red Dragon (fried shrimp, imitation crab, cucumber, spicy tuna), $7; the Vegetable (lettuce, avo, cucumber, radish, burdock, pickled gourd), $4.25; chicken katsu, $4.50; fried soft shell crab, in soy paper, $5.50; chicken karage, $5.75; grilled salmon collar, $5.45; grilled yellowtail collar, $9.50; calamari legs, $6.75, Spam musubi, $3.50; crunchy roll (fried shrimp, imitation crab), $6.25; hot sake (small, HH), $1.25

Buses: 1, 7, 10, 11, 215,

Nearest Stop: University at Normal (1, 11); Park Boulevard and University (7, 10 eastbound, 215) University at Centre Lane (10, westbound)

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