Aug. 25 2010 09:19 AM

Chiba melds tradition and innovation into Japanese fare

Head to Chiba for the fancy-schmancy sushi rolls

San Diego's got plenty of small sushi joints tucked away in nondescript strip malls. Everyone's got a favorite. For me, it's Chiba Japanese Cuisine, family-owned and located near Qualcomm Stadium. I've been there dozens of times over the years. I've never been disappointed, and neither has anyone else I've brought along.

While the food is anything but simple—Chiba's big on the specialty rolls— there's an uncomplicated air about the place. It's a simple, cozy spot with a friendly staff, great nigiri and sashimi and stick-to-your-ribs Japanese comfort food, like chicken katsu, curry rice, bentos and donburi bowls. As for the fish, it's not the highest grade you might find in San Diego, but it's fresh and well-cut. Most of all, it's affordable. You can eat quite well here for less than $20.

First, let's get something out of the way:

Sushi purists might eschew the nontraditional rolls that more and more seem to be taking up space on the menus of Japanese restaurants

—crazy concoctions that are baked, fried and topped with sauces and seasonings that push the dishes into a multicultural realm. There's a reason why the California roll is the most prevalent sushi combination in the country. As opposed to sushi in Japan, where trained tongues measure the subtleties of varying blandness, Americans like their sushi to be boisterous and creative.

The best way to start a meal here is slow and simple with a plate of healthy edamame (steamed still-in-their-pods soybeans seasoned with salt). Other worthy appetizers include the vegetable tempura, with its large florets of broccoli and cauliflower and chunks of zucchini and carrot, and gyoza, which comes fried or steamed and filled with a fine mince of meat and ginger. Chiba's spicy, bright-colored seaweed salad is also surprisingly good.

Next, move on to a two-piece dish like the baked mussels, a standout that features imitation crab atop two green-lip mussels. The baked volcano comprises salmon wrapped around rice, seaweed, octopus and imitation crab and topped with bonito shavings and roe. For something that's a bit more daring, try the Las Vegas roll. All heat and excess like Sin City itself, it comes with coins of fresh jalapeños adorning each individual tempura-battered bite. There's almost nothing a good deep-frying can't make even better.

The fried-shrimp-filled dynamite roll features the ever-popular “dynamite” mix of imitation crab, scallops, shrimp, scallions and mayo. While it's tasty, it's also quite rich and is best shared.

Fried and baked goodness aside, I also love the caterpillar roll, covered with avocado slices and filled with eel, imitation crab and cucumber, and the sashimi-topped rainbow roll. The mission roll, with its tempura shrimp, cream cheese and avocado filling, is topped with raw tuna, shrimp and spicy crab, making for a nice blend of old-style and new, spicy and savory.

Chiba's a popular spot, but parties of four or fewer shouldn't have to wait too long. There are less than a dozen tables inside and out and about 10 chairs at the bar. Carry-out is also available.

One last note: Chiba has a busy parking lot that it shares with McGregor's Grill and Ale House. There are two reserved spots in front of the restaurant for Chiba customers and some designated spots behind the mall. To avoid the parking headache, visit the overflow lot at the business building next door.

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