Yoshi Minezaki. He has kept his prices low.
Coming out of the DMV (trying to get a “Real ID”), Normal Street. Heading for University. Need nosh. But where to? Okay, I already know. Specially now, four in the afternoon, happy hour at my favorite place. Relieved to see they’re still here on University and glowing with a cozy openness. In these restricted times, they have the advantage of being mostly outside anyway.
1449 University Avenue, San Diego
This is Ichiban, “Number One” in Japanese. Think I was here two, three years ago. And they had one heckuva happy hour. And guess what? The place is already looking busy. Okay, Friday afternoon. End-of-week workers getting out early.
The $10 Bento box, with teriyaki chicken, veggie egg rolls, salad, mash, and rice.
“Welcome!” says a little lady. Sure I recognize her. “Satomi,” she says. They’re all actually Japanese here (lots of sushi places aren’t, which is totally fine). Now I think about it, I view this place as a kind of izakaya. Notice that “saké” is embedded (zaka) in the actual word. Izakaya: tapas-type mini-pubs with casual food, after-work hangouts where you drop in, let out a big breath, and probably order a cheap little pitcher of saké, a bottle of Sapporo beer, and some sushi to line your gut. They’re the main reason I’d love to go to Japan.
Here, the action is out on the sidewalk patio, with plastic curtains between the little tables. But you have to go inside to order. I head for the cut-out hole in the Perspex at the counter. Cats are all around. In the art, that is. First you see is the giant size neko (cat) on the split curtain to the kitchen. Cats are big in Japan. Hello Kitty! Guy pops his head around the curtain to see how many customers he’s got. Yoshi Minezaki. Has run this place since the start. Forty years? “We’re lucky we do most of our business outside,” he says.
I pretty much know what I’m going to do, which is stick with the happy hour menu, because this is one of the few really cheap places in town that hasn’t jacked its prices up, specially (and I ain’t blaming restaurants that have) since covid.
Ichiban’s Happy Hour’s Sunny sushi roll - a salmon and avo treat.
The menu itself is super reasonable, like the 3-piece pork egg roll at $4.75. The gyoza (wonton wrappers, usually stuffed with pork and cabbage) go for $6 for five pieces. Chicken Katsu (deep fried chicken breast) is $5. And sushi rolls go from $6.75 for a 10-piece California Roll to $13 for a Rainbow (different sashimi on top of a California roll). Entrées are about the same price. Chicken with rice and salad is $10. Baked salmon with veggies is $11. Ramen is $13.
But — hey hey! — cut to the happy hour menu (HH is from 4-8 every afternoon), and we’re looking at a whole other price universe.
David. Has truly worked with the Rich and Famous.
I know exactly what I want. Just your basic sushi and saké. So, top o’the list, natch, California roll, $3.95, with imitation crab and avo. Compare that with its already good-priced non-HH version: $6.75.. (Although in HH, you get eight pieces per roll. Regular one’s ten.) They also have a bento box for $9.50.
Ooh. Soft shell crab roll, five pieces for $5.95. So tempted by that, except I start feeling sorry for the crabs who have to come out of their shell to grow a bigger one, and then get caught naked, when they have no protection. So I start off with the California, and let’s not forget the incredible saké deal: small flask, $1.50! Large, $2.75. Natch, have to splash out and get the large. Hot. And a bottle of Sapporo, cold, $3.50. Or for the pint, $4.50. Who’s complaining? I gets the pint.
Crunchy sushi - Shrimp, krab, crumbs, crunchiness. For $6.95, sweet deal.
Yoko (she’s also been here forever) brings out the hot saké and cold Sapporo. And then a snake of California roll. I pour the soy sauce, pick up the chopsticks.
Ah. Let the evening begin.
So I’m mixing the wasabi into the soy, adding bits of ginger, taking a slurp of Sapporo, a hot drag of saké, and a chunk of the roll, when I get talking to this guy you’d swear must hang out with Brad Pitt. David Block. Sound engineer. Works up in LA. Was neighbors with Neil Finn (Crowded House, now with Fleetwood Mac), Alice In Chains, on and on. “You don’t want to know,” he says. “That whole name-dropping thing. But I’ve known them all. Van Halen, RIP, Gary Busey, Stevie, Dylan, Crosby, Stills. You just cross paths. Then I went and lived in Borrego.”
He’s eating a spicy ramen bowl ($13). “I always end up here. Just love the ambiance. Rice can be dry, but I always love the sashimi. Fish is always fresh.”
He’s an interesting guy. Taught middle school for the Peace Corps in Swaziland. “I taught agriculture. They have created the biggest man-made forest in the world! Incredible experience.”
So now I’m hungry again. Order a Crunchy Roll, with fried shrimp, tempura crumbs, imitation crab ($6.95. Sweet, but umami, beautiful), and a Sunny (California topped with salmon and avocado, $6.25).
Now I’ve eaten too much. Gotta go. But I’m like David. This is the kind of izakaya I could end up at near the end of every day. It’s dark already, of course. I head west. Nearby, Baja Betty’s outside additions are looking spectacularly attractive. Have to give them the prize for best outsidified cafe in town. They’ve built red-wrapped cabins on the street side of the sidewalk that you long to get inside. Just hope the City doesn’t make them pull them down once these vaccines do their thing.
One way or another, I’ll be back. If only to nail that Real ID up on Normal Street.
- The Place: Ichiban, 1449 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619-299-7203
- Hours: 11am-9pm daily
- Prices: (Happy Hour) California roll, $3.95, bento box, $9.50; spicy tuna, $4.95; soft shell crab roll, five pieces for $5.95; Sunny roll (salmon, avo), $6.25; crunchy roll (fried shrimp, krab, $6.95); large saké, $2.75, large; Sapporo pint, $4.50;
- Regular prices: 3-piece pork egg roll, $4.75; gyoza, $6 (five shrimp or chicken); chicken breast katsu, $5; 10-piece California roll, $6.75; Rainbow (sashimi atop California roll, $13; chicken entrée, rice, salad, $10; baked salmon, veggies, $11; ramen, $13
- Buses: 1, 11
- Nearest Bus Stops: University and Normal (westbound); University and Herbert (eastbound)