There's eating a good meal in a restaurant, and then there are dining experiences. There's a vibe, an atmosphere and the feeling that you're sharing something special with the diners at the next table. Yu Me Ya Sake House is a tiny outpost on Highway 101, just before Leucadia turns into Carlsbad. It's the kind of place you want to share with everyone, yet simultaneously keep to yourself to maintain that indefinable sense of mystery. The dining room has table space for 16 (I counted),and the bar maybe seats a slender grouping of 10, so planning ahead is critical. They don't take reservations on weekends, so either hit it up on a weeknight or be prepared to wait.
The menu is ample, ranging from cold and hot tapas to noodles, rolls and seaweed salads. Though sushi is certainly available on the Yu Me Ya menu, this isn't a sushi bar—it's a Japanese restaurant, a more traditional yet refined dining experience that's frustratingly difficult to find in a world full of Benihanas.
I eat a lot of delicious food, which is an absolute joy, but few meals are write-home-to-your-mama memorable. Weeks later, I still have a visceral craving in my belly for the BBQ Beef Salad with the house dressing. I dream of ordering a whole bowl to myself and hogging all the butter-soft strips of beef, each piece sensuously glazed with a sweet coating of rich sauce.
When thinking of the Japanese diet, I think fish, rice and the occasional wacky dehydrated treat brought home to share by friends in the Navy. Rarely does one think of “mayonnaise.” Call me late to the party, but had I known how much house-made ume mayo I'd be allowed to consume that night, I would have darkened Yu Me Ya's pagoda doorway much sooner.
I am—how you say—emotive when eating.
One bite of the baked bay scallops with shimeji mushrooms and I was doing one of those Ray Charles-like swaying dances in my chair, eyes closed, savoring the puffy little nubs of wee scallops and meaty mushrooms, all baked together in the velvet-rich ume mayonnaise.
A can't-miss cold tapa is the spicy tuna carpaccio—tiny chopped morsels of perfectly bright tuna, snowflake soft and piled atop lush chunks of avocado. The crispy won ton cup it arrives in is a great crunchy delivery system for the spicy, delicate, creamy raw fish.
Besides being fun to say, kushi-katsu, or, rather, things that are breaded, deep-fried and served on a stick, are fun and tasty to eat. I dug the potato version and was astonished to find that the crispy panko coating housed a creamy center of perfectly smooth mashed potatoes. How did this concoction stay on the stick? It was a magical mashed-potato lollipop.
If your previous experience with sake is limited to dropping a shot into a glass of beer, consider doing a sake tasting. Choose three samples of regular or premium sake, or let your server choose for you, and enjoy learning about the regions from which each sample hails, along with differences in flavor profile. It's a thing of beauty to watch the Yu Me Ya staff fill your sake cup—and when I say fill, I mean above the rim. The sake hovers, its meniscus ready to pop like a soap bubble, unable to take one more drop. Good luck getting it to your mouth without spilling, but that's half the fun.
Though my selfish heart feels conflicted and wants to keep the secret of Yu Me Ya all to myself (and the hundreds of fans that pack its walls every week), the food lover in me just wants everyone to experience this cool little building, packed with flavor and hospitality. Just try to save me a seat.