Ume No Ya8650 Miramar Road, Suite BMira Mesa858-271-6162It's probably for the best that my first visit to Ume No Ya was when Miramar Road was almost obscured by a torrential downpour—because in the light of day, the street is no beauty-contest winner. Located in front of a slightly ramshackle set of storefronts, the restaurant is easy to miss. For navigation purposes only, look for the big sign advertising its neighbor, Goldfingers Gentlemen's Club (just please try not to get waylaid by the club's free-lunch offer).
The literal translation for Ume No Ya is “Shop of Plums” and is intended to make reference to the beauty of a blossoming plum tree. And, though the restaurant may be a bit lacking in the looks department, there is something lovely, sincere and sweet about this place that immediately won my affection.
Entering the dimly lit space is like stepping through a portal back to a decade since past. The atmosphere inside seems more like a living room than dining room; a small television is tuned to a barely audible level, and every nook and cranny is decorated with some small curio, from little Japanese dolls to painted fans and posters of famous Sumo wrestling stars. A slight woman in an apron will greet you and lead you to one of the mismatched booths. Her name is Mayumi Sato, and she opened the restaurant more than 20 years ago with her husband, Tsugio, after he spent time working as a teppanyaki chef at various local restaurants.
The menu is pretty concise. From the appetizer list, there's the not-recommended frozen gyoza and the very highly recommended eggplant in ginger marinade—warm, melting slices of eggplant simmered in a delicious, just barely tangy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. For all-in-one meals, there's a selection of donburi, bowls of perfectly cooked rice topped with chicken, onions and egg simmered in a seaweed broth base flavored with soy sauce and rice wine (oyakodon) or a similar combination subbing in the chicken for a fried pork cutlet (katsudon). Also popular is a version of nabeyaki udon, a noodle soup that comes bubbling in its own clay pot, the contents of which include good, still-chewy udon noodles, shrimp tempura, fishcakes and a poached egg.
One side of the lunch menu is dedicated to three-item sets that come in a sectioned bento box. There are suggested combinations, but you can also mix and match; some of the better options are fried oysters, saba shioyaki (grilled mackerel) and teriyaki beef, which is cooked to order. More options are found on the Japanese-language menu, so my friend Andy kindly helped translate to make sure I didn't miss anything delicious. We shared a pair of excellent fried chicken wings with almost confit-like meat encased in a crackly crust and a tempura of small, delicate-fleshed smelt called kisu.
To the restaurant's credit, it's frequented by native Japanese speakers who come in for the simple, comfort-food-style fare. I imagine that it's the kind of food your Japanese mom would cook for you when you came back from school after a particularly crummy day.
Ume No Ya is cash-only, and the restaurant's hours are somewhat limited—open for a brief two hours for lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. during the week, and re-opened at 5 p.m. for dinner. Sometimes you'll find me outside, just before the “closed” sign switches to “open,” for my favorite meal: a cup of hot green tea and a plate of katsu curry—a panko-crusted chicken thigh so tender it cuts with a fork, enrobed in a rich curry sweet with fruit and spices. It's mild, but still warming, fortifying and tastes totally like home. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.