Lightly seared A5 wagyu, nigiri style
Dining rooms have returned to San Diego, but that doesn’t mean restaurants don’t still find themselves in a sort of pandemic limbo. As social distancing restrictions remain, most traditional restaurants can’t seat enough of diners to turn a profit. Which means those of us who remain cautious enough to stay safely at home, and order delivery or take out, remain vital to a business’s survival. But restaurants must find a way to bring skittish diners back to their dining rooms.
815 University Ave, San Diego
In a best-case scenario for diners, that may mean irresistible special offers, such as the one that lured me last week to the Hillcrest location of Ramen Ryoma.
The late May special was simple enough: a lightly seared slice of A5 wagyu beef nigiri for three dollars. Why is that so special? First of all, wagyu beef is counted among the world’s best. The Japanese cattle line was bred to yield exquisitely marbled cuts of beef, densely interwoven with ribbons of fat said to melt at a lower temperature. A little heat cues this beef to melt in your mouth, at once steaky, buttery, and sure to release a few endorphins.
Left to right: salmon belly, ocean trout, and Scottish salmon nigiri
And that A5 designation: that’s reserved for the best of the best wagyu. It’s sold for upwards of 200 dollars a pound. Order an eight-ounce steak of it at a Little Italy restaurant, and it’ll run you $125.
Yellowtail belly nigiri
By Ryoma’s own estimation, even a thin slice of A5 wagyu, seared by a blowtorch over a pat of rice, should go for ten bucks. At three, it was a steal, a sort of loss leader, meant to get diners through the door, capped at two orders per customer to ensure we try Ryoma’s regularly scheduled ramen, sushi, and drink offerings.
Bluefin tuna toro nigiri
Mission accomplished then. My girlfriend caught sight of the special on social media, and we made a point to visit to give the high-end beef a try. The place opened in December, the latest location of several San Diego Ryoma locations, and it appears to be the only one to offer the wagyu deal.
Scallop and uni in truffle oil with salmon roe
The two-story restaurant on University has an all-glass storefront; diners get a view of the Hillcrest thoroughfare. In pre-distancing times, the ground floor was intended as a ramen bar, leaving the sushi bar upstairs. The distinction has become less important due to six-foot rules.
The sushi bar upstairs at Ramen Ryoma
That said, we did sit close to the sushi bar, and did warm ourselves up for wagyu with a bottle of sake and choice sushi selections: toro bluefin tuna ($5, per person), yellowtail belly ($3.25), and a trio of salmon that included Scottish salmon, ocean trout, and salmon belly ($8.50). We tried an interesting sashimi of scallops topped by uni, served in truffle oil with salmon roe ($17 for six). It was like tasting three different oceans, simultaneously, bathed in umami.
Open since December 2019 in Hillcrest
Normally, we might have left the restaurant celebrating such morsels. But then came that A5 wagyu. The sushi chef torched each slice maybe five seconds, enough to add only a hint of char while leaving most of the cut rare to raw.
Nothing tastes this good. Before I even stopped chewing it, I signaled to the server to bring us our second round. Having met our daily limit, we decided before we paid the bill we would return for another two rounds a couple nights later, paired with ramen and beer.
A thin slice of A5 wagyu, seared by a blowtorch at Ramen Ryoma in Hillcrest
The Hokkaido style miso ramen and chashu pork were on the mark, so aside from a couple of forgettable oysters, I would recommend trying Ramen Ryoma with or without a wagyu special, particularly for those seeking a late-night spot (it’s open till 2 am Friday and Saturday).
Truth is, that short-time special ended with May, so the usual sushi, ramen, and drinks may be all we can count on as dining in restaurants becomes normal again. Or, perhaps with a little gentle encouragement from the public, Ryoma will consider bringing that wagyu back? It’s definitely worth leaving the house to eat something this tasty.