Sakura Japanese Restaurant3904 Convoy St.Kearny Mesa858-569-6151
Dan, scratch golfer and semi-professional glutton, was the only other gaijin in the filled-to-capacity dining room. But I was the only gaijin feeling self-conscious.
"Oh, boy, do I have a place for you," Dan had told me a few days earlier. "They're so secret, they don't even want you to know about them."
So we had driven slowly through urban-sprawl hell, making U-turns, consulting the all-knowing Thomas Guide and squinting in vain to catch a glimpse of non-existent addresses in the dark. Finally, in the corner of one strip mall, we found a dapper businessman whispering Japanese into his cell phone, outside an unmarked door flanked with white Christmas lights.
"This is it," Dan gloated.
"What's it called?" I asked.
Dan shrugged. Great. Usually I'm anonymous, not the restaurant.
We walked inside, past a newspaper rack filled with Japanese publications and books. Signs in Japanese covered the walls. I searched in vain for something written in English. The waitress pointed us to the corner of the sushi bar.
"We don't serve, ah..." she rolled her eyes to think of the word. "California rolls. That is OK? You know how to use chopsticks, yes?"
The point of the questioning was obvious: look, whitey, don't come in here ordering your jalapeño tuna dynamite bullshit rolls.
"You know what would be great?" Dan whispered as she walked away. "A big, fat California roll. Could I get a spoon with that?"
This was about the time I started feeling self-conscious. I knew sushi, but sushi was only a small part of the extensive menu. Thankfully, there were typo-ridden English translations for everything. But then, ordering in English only confused the waitresses. Our other ordering method was to gesture to the people eating nearby. "What was that? What about that?" But inevitably, the waitresses could not name the dish in English. We spent a lot of time flipping through the menu like tourists with phrasebooks. Lest we starve, I pointed wordlessly to a few familiar dishes.
The diced octopus came in a little martini glass, softened in a spicy wasabi marinade (apparently, they use the real deal, not the powdered stuff, which is more akin to colored mustard). The strips of raw squid came in the same kind of glass, but swimming in tangy vinegar. Both dishes were only $5, as were most of the dishes, give or take a couple bucks. Only the sushi sampler seemed steep, at $18 for eight (single) pieces. That included only the second palatable piece of uni (sea urchin roe) I've enjoyed in my life-sweet and crisp, with only the slightest hint of that unique, under-the-boardwalk flavor.
We somehow managed to order the showy okonomiyaki, a shrimp and octopus pancake covered with eel sauce and topped with grated dried fish skin, which waved and curled as if under a flame. Tender seared ahi and seared beef were both delicious, both piled high with grated daikon, a common element in many of the dishes. Asari-clams in sake and butter-was familiar to our taste buds; skewers of grilled unagi (eel) livers, less so. Finally, we hadn't tried anything from the noodle section of the menu. A freckle-faced waitress recommended udon noodles in fish broth. The full-flavored, viscous soup gave Dan plenty of opportunity for snot jokes.
Later, I came back for lunch. The lunch menu was about half as long as the dinner, and the waitress even less bilingual. Most plates were $7.50 but came with a bowl of sticky rice, three salads-green, pickled cabbage and a full-flavored tuna and noodle-and a bowl of miso with oversized chunks of tofu. (Or try the smooth and creamy pumpkin soup, its sweetness contrasted nicely by the occasional chunk of pumpkin.)
Although I was still the only gaijin, the secret door was marginally easier to find in the daylight, and the restaurant was less mysterious in at least one regard: its name was written across the top of the menu: Izakaya Sakura. A-ha! Surely, now that the name has been made public, drunken 20-somethings from PB will leave behind their miserable sushi bars en masse and make a road trip to Kearny Mesa this weekend. Or not.
"Did you like the noodles?" The freckle-faced waitress asked as she brought our check.
We said we did. "They're Osaka-style," she beamed proudly. "You know Osaka? That's my hometown."
We nodded enthusiastically, and almost felt, for a moment, like we belonged. ©
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