Going to San Diego is always a treat. I have many friends here, from my University days, and good friends at that. And new friends.
July is always a must for a roadtrip to San Diego, because the SD Comic Con is this month. My brother and some of his friends have been on the staff for a number of years, and this is a perfect time to see them, and get a glance of all the latest and greatest film/sci-fi/cosplay that sends its fans into a frenzy.
But first, we must eat. And we must go to Sakura for izakaya. Valerie and Rob had been there earlier in the week, and I had been to izakaya earlier in the week too, but the plates are so small and the morsels so good that there is always room for more.
1. Crab cream croquettes – served well hot. So much, I burned my lips on the searing hot cream and dealt with the blister on my face all weekend. But worth it.
2. Grilled seabass – whatever sauce they use, like a sweet miso glaze, it transforms a delicious fish into a heavenly delicious fish. There is not enough of fish in this dish for three people. Next time – order a second one.
3. Spinach and uni. I love spinach, I love uni. We gobbled it all up.
4. Fried burdock root. Loved this. More please.
5. Eggplant gratin – it was cheesy and okay. But the other dishes were so much better that this was comparatively did not impress.
6. Seafood fried rice. Another acceptable but not wow-ing me dish. The seafood element was not terribly relevant. We had some of this leftover.
7. Cucumber and eel. Oh, this was a very good one. Valerie threatened that if we did not dig in and eat it fast enough, she would, so we dug in and finished it fast. I thoroughly liked that was eel was prepared differently than the sweet eel sauce way I often see in Japanese restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I like that way too, but appreciated a little more variety.
8. Grilled tomato and bacon. Another very good one. The token vegetarian at the table ate it too, it was that good. The smokiness of the bacon came from the grilling.
Finally, I had an order of Chirashi Don, $22. It’s a handsome portion that would have been a meal itself, but can be a part of a larger meal if you skimp on eating all the sushi rice as I did. It also came with some miso soup and vegetable spaghetti. Oh, what, was I supposed to share this dish? I’m sorry, I did not.
The bill was about $90 for three people, after tax, before tip. A great value for all the good things we got. Parking is tough. Seating is tough if you want to dine during prime time. Just fyi.
Sakura (Convoy area)
There was a time when I was under the impression that this little Japanese hole in the wall was much like the Japanese hole in the wall near my home. Maybe there was shared ownership at one time?..
Anyway, I was working remotely on this day and went to the harbor, initially in search of fish and chips. Well, the fish and chips restaurant was packed with a 30+ minute wait, so that plan was scuppered and there was no way we were giving up our awesome parking spot in the Marina. So, Sushi GoGo it was!
I got the Korean BBQ beef bento, which was a lunch special, at a good price. About $7. The food was filling, but a little underwhelming. What you get in compensation, outside of the price, is eating in the Marina. Personally, I’m not that cuckoo for a view of the ocean (prefer the mountains or gardens myself) so I wasn’t hugely enthused. The Korean beef, like just about all Korean food in Santa Barbara, was disappointing. But the remaining items were perfectly adequate.
The winner item was the eel bowl. This had a higher price, and was less food, but did taste more interesting. It’s hard to go wrong with the sweetness of eel sauce. Unfortunately, I don’t really recall exactly what all was lurking underneath all the bonito flake. Rice, eel, eel sauce, flying fish roe…and other mysterious items.
Our greatest entertainment of the lunch was the tourist couple dining next to us. They were Australian and the guy was a bro and the chick had big big fake boobs. It’s reassuring to know that white trash isn’t confined to just Americans.
Like last year, the first thing we did upon returning to Santa Barbara is get dinner at Kobachi. A birthday dinner, in fact, for Pauline. We got a lot of the old favorites, but tried a couple new things.
Top: cold sake, mame aju nanban, chicken tsukune.
Above: Gobo chips, salmon roe nigiri, and raw oysters.
Now for the cool new stuff. An item I’ve had a couple times before, but never had a good photo is the crispy shima ebi. It’s a big bowl of little shrimps, battered and fried, and lightly dusted with curry powder. This is not a snack for one person, but a hefty portion to be shared with several people. Amazingly, it only costs about $6.
Also new to the standard menu is a beef dish, recommended by Yoko. It’s seared beef that’s served cold with a fruit sauce. There was not enough to go around.
When Ken-san heard there was a birthday girl in the midst, he prepared a few custom dishes which we were not expecting at all, and they were lovely. One was a selection of sushi rolls, but rather than using nori, these were wrapped in grape leaves. In the rolls was snapper sashimi and it was topped with cheese, apricots, pecans and lime slices. Like nothing I’ve ever had before.
The second custom creation from the chef was also great. It was salmon sashimi with dried apricot, fresh figs, salmon roe and a curry cream sauce. A great reminder that figs were in season and to get down to the market to buy loads.
Finally, a little strawberry ice cream and fresh fig. It’s a small picture because it’s a very small serving! We couldn’t eat more anyway, we were utterly stuffed by this feast. Abel still managed to lick a plate or two!
Kobachi Izakaya Dining
I think I can squeeze one more trip to Kobachi before going on vacation. This dinner was for a visiting Belgian woman, who was staying with my parents while researching another Belgian that my mother dated many many years ago. It’s a long story.
Top: octopus and scallops, pork belly skewers with red miso glaze, oshinko mori – assorted pickles.
This was the first time my parents tried the pork belly skewers and the chicken meatballs, they loved those. The hanpan before was “katsu” with fried breading and this wasn’t breaded. I was underwhelmed, as the fish cake now tasted dry and puffy. Nobody complained, though, so it was fine.
Finally, an eel roll. Sated!
Kobachi Izakaya Dining
After a week of detoxing, we needed sushi. Edomasa!!
Nothing huge or fancy, just some tea to drink, and eel handrolls, roe sushi, a little California roll, and half a dozen assorted nigiri to split between two people.
Some people come to Vegas to gamble in the casinos. I took a culinary gamble at Tokyo Japanese Restaurant and hit the jackpot.
Glitz and bling doesn’t dazzle me. Feeling the soul of a chef in the food does. And this unassuming restaurant off the strip overwhelmed me with good vibes and good food.
For those without cars, expect to pay $20+ each way for a cab to the Commercial Center from just about anywhere on the the strip. For those with cars, lucky you, there is heaps of parking. The vast parking lot encircled by a small collection of ethnic restaurants is disconcerting, but patience and courage will pay off.
The men behind the counter will shout their greetings upon your entrance and the women in kimonos will bring you hot tea, a hot towel, and a small bowl of edamame to start you off. Included with the platter of wasabi and ginger (which you will hardly need, because the food is seasoned adequately) is a little marinated cucumber salad.
Everything we ate was delicious. Hamachi belly and smelt roe nigiri, freshwater eel roll, spicy tuna roll, and live ama ebi shrimp that the sushi chef pulled from the tank to order. I’ve had the ama ebi shrimp before, but the bodies we ate had been separated from the moving heads. This time, they were still attached and very much alive. One jumped off the plate and another struggled after I’d bitten the body. I admit, this one made me squirm a little.
They also served us a sizzling platter of king oyster mushrooms, and a fillet of broiled hamachi, which the kitchen sent out. From others’ reviews, I see that the mushroom dish is not an unusual nibble to get from the kitchen. Everyone appreciates that little gesture!
We had another sushi roll coated heavily with smelt roe. So much roe! And finally, the ama ebi shrimp appeared again, tempura fried and all lined up.
Expecting a large bill, we were stunned to have dined in Las Vegas for just $45, feeding two. The fact that every other business in town is driven to separate you from your money as quickly as possible, this was such a refreshing change.
There are tatami rooms for fancier folk, small group booths in the common dining area, and the counter. We ate at the counter, chatted with the other diners, who all seemed to be locals rather than tourists like us, and everyone insisted that *this* was the place to come for sushi.
Sure, there was no douchey bartender with a faux-hawk shaking mediocre $13 cocktails by bouncing them off his shoulders, and I do acknowledge that this seems to be a quality in high demand at most places on the strip, so if that’s what you like, you won’t find it here.
Thankfully, I like a little quiet, and I like dining in well-lit spaces where I can actually see my food and see other happy diners.
If there is one place in this city I will go out of my way to recommend to my friends, and say it is worth the effort, it is here.
Photos by Ted Mills.
Tokyo Japanese Restaurant
It was *supposed* to be a late night snack, just 3 dishes or so. But everyone there was so nice and and we ran into friends who came to a group happy hour a couple weeks earlier, and that put us in an everything’s-great mood. PLUS, I told them we were leaving for vacation until after Labor Day. And yummy treats came forth.
Kaki Fry – panko fried oysters and homemade tartar sauce. Then, Aburi sabi, of course.
Chicken tsukune – chicken meatballs with homemade sweet soy. Mmm, delicious. The chicken had a lovely smokey flavor that Ted described as yakitori style and Yoko nodded knowingly.
And once the surprise sashimi came out, the floodgates opened and the kitchen went omakase style. First, they brought an item we’d considered ordering, but didn’t. And now we had it. Crispy curry calamari – crispy fried calamari strips, lightly dusted with curry salt. Then, a custom item (hello!), that was eel on top of a bowl of white rice that had been steamed with a sauce similar to that which comes with the eel. A wonderful comforting dish for late night snacks. Yoko said chef Ken brought in his personal rice cooker to make this dish, so I’m feeling honored to have been able to try it.
The ama ebi prawn made its appearance again, deep fried and served with a little additional sashimi and salmon roe. I nibbled a few legs and feelers, but let Ted have a go at this one as it was brand new for him.
Oh so good! Probably the best bon voyage meal I’ve ever had, and completely unexpected. With that, I am off to Burning Man, for a week of trail mix, pringles, beef jerky and soy milk. BYE!!
Kobachi Izakaya Dining