With Candice and Da Man at Izakaya Sakura

Izakaya Sakura

3904 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

My first meal at Izakaya Sakura was an especially joyous occasion. Not only did I get to enjoy sharing bites with Candice Woo (former CityBeat food critic who just replaced David Nelson at San Diego Magazine — that alone is occasion for joy, as I find her more trustworthy both in palate and in facts), but at my request, she brought her friend Kirk, better known as “mmm-yoso,” a great food blogger and Da Man when it comes to Asian restaurants. I brought my buddy Sam to round out the foursome.

I rarely get to meet other local food critics, so Candice and I had a lot to talk (or vent) about. And Kirk, whom I’ve been longing to meet, knows his way around the two long menus at Sakura, which meant I could leave the ordering to him instead of flailing about blindly. The food he chose was mainly delicious and unfailingly worth trying.

Typical of Convoy Street, Izakaya Sakura is buried in a mini-mall, and here your adventure begins. There are several other, larger Japanese restaurants across the court with big, bright electric signs, but Sakura is the only one that has no sign at all, just #121 over the door. (Look for the black-painted hookah place next door.) Sakura is a clean, well-lighted small restaurant with a sushi bar along the right wall, tables to the left. The chairs are comfortable and the music on weeknights is quiet Asian pop. The left wall displays small, beautiful paintings and large B&W photo posters. (What’s Marilyn Monroe doing there?) It’s not fancy, but it is civilized.

There are two menus — one a large plastic-covered sheet replete with Post-It notes of the specials, the other a folded four-page, regular-size plastic-robed menu booklet with a few more conventional Japanese-restaurant choices, but not entirely. (Kirk’s selections came from both.) Both list drinks on the back.

Over the customary table snack of edamame (soggy that night, crisper on my return visit), Kirk quizzed me gently on my food taboos. As a reader of his blog, I knew I couldn’t share all his enthusiasms. I definitely didn’t want “mountain potato,” aka. gooey-wet white wallpaper paste. (“They do it well here, with tuna,” said Kirk, “but I can understand why you dislike it.”) And after cleaning hundreds of raw calamari over the years, I didn’t think I could handle a dish of raw, salted, marinated squid intestines. (“They can be disgusting at other places but here they’re quite good,” he said. “Salty and chewy, good beer snacks.” Still — no squid guts for me. Let Anthony Bourdain eat ’em.)

Agedashi tofu (lightly fried tofu over fish broth), a favorite of everyone’s, was delightful, the tofu just the right sensual compromise between soft and crisp, with a slightly sweet and very tasty broth. Ankimo (monkfish liver) is the fish kingdom’s version of foie gras. In most restaurants, they treat it like foie gras, too, serving a little in a pâté, leaving you longing for more. Here, you get a medium-small bowlful of the precious stuff, cubed and dressed, enough to taste and keep tasting. I felt like a kid at Christmas who actually got her wish.

I’d read on Kirk’s blog about Sakura’s warm spinach with uni (sea urchin). I’ll take uni any way I can get it, and this was a new, pleasing way to taste it — warm and comforting. (At the second meal, with a larger, more diverse posse, it sort of flopped.) Candice and I compared notes on buying live sea urchins and “butchering” them ourselves to eat raw, straight from the shells. (Go away, PETA: an artichoke has more heart and probably more soul than a sea urchin.)

Then we tried a few indulgent adaptations of Western dishes. Potato croquettes were crisped and tender, accompanied by both Japanese Kewpie-brand mayo and a ketchup-red sauce that turned out to be a light-textured, amiable sweet-and-sour dip. There was a gooey bowlful of chewy lobster meat (origins unknown) in a glutinous white sauce thickened by cornstarch or its ilk. I didn’t love it.

Skewered rectangles of juicy, fatty belly-pork were irresistible. “So bad for you, but tastes so good,” Kirk sighed. The tempura medium-hot shisito peppers were just okay. I’d also requested skewers of chicken skin because I loved them at Yakitori Yakyudori in Hillcrest; here, they were dull, neither crisp nor ultra-tender.

Two fishes arrived, from the opposite ends of the spectrum. A tail-half of a small halibut was deep-fried very crisp, such that you’d never guess it was bland halibut. But I wouldn’t order it again. Much more fun was our grand finale, Spanish mackerel (aji) sashimi. This is a very fatty fish with a luscious texture when raw, although a few pieces can be chewy. The skeleton was bent back into the shape of a sail swelling on the breeze (a favorite trick at Sushi Ota and Hane Sushi). When you’re done with the cubes of flesh, the head and skeleton go back to the kitchen to be deep-fried, then are returned to the table to be crunched up. It’s fun, and all that calcium has got to be good for you.

The next day, Kirk and I emailed thanks to each other, and he mentioned that we’d barely scratched the surface of the menu. Feeling this was true, I emailed Sam, proposing a second visit — and he’d liked the first one so much, he’d already enrolled a gang of six to eat there again, and I’d be welcome to join them. Then back to Kirk to find out which great dishes we’d missed.

So on this second visit, I wrangled the order — favorites from the last visit, Kirk’s new recommendations, and a few random dishes that I generally like. When I ordered the ankimo, our adorable waitress, squatting by the table, said, “Oh, boo-hoo! Boo-hoo! No ankimo today!” “No ankimo? Oh, boo-hoo!” I answered. I explained that we all wanted at least a taste of every dish, so would she double the order whenever necessary? She got it; she did it.

We began with Kirk’s new recommendations, starting with tako wasabi, diced raw octopus in a fierce wasabi-based sauce. The more I ate, the better I liked it. “This is the most tender octopus I’ve ever tasted,” said the Lynnester, a posse regular and the voice of the Midwest. (Her mom’s a gourmet French cook, but they’re from the frigid suburban wilds of northern Michigan — Lynne can only be pushed so far with exotica.) Ikura oroshi was easy — clean-tasting salmon caviar over grated daikon. What’s not to like? Lynne, the toughest critic, loved this one.

Everyone was melted by the melting miso-marinated black cod. It’s one of the world’s richest fishes (sometimes called “sable”) and served smoked in Jewish delis at a price only slightly lower than smoked sturgeon but higher than the best lox. The flesh was utterly tender, the soft skin savory with the marinade. Many upscale restaurants serve this prepared no better than here but at triple the price.

Salt-grilled shioyaki, sea bass, came in small portions. Nice, but not really that thrilling in so extensive a meal for so many people. (It’s too small and subtle to withstand all the conversation, whereas the black cod stopped the conversation as we tasted it.)

In addition to the uni with spinach, we ventured on the uni pasta (not one of Kirk’s favorites, but he says that other people like it, and we did). It offers spaghetti in a thin, creamy coral-colored sauce with bits of sea urchin and a polka-dotting of salmon roe. It’s a big bowlful o’ fun. Better yet, it comes with a small salad and a small bowl of mysteriously delicious miso soup — big, bright flavors (maybe from sweet cooked scallions?) in this usually reticent potion. I’ve never tasted a better one.

Kirk’s wife likes the shisamo, grilled tiny freshwater smelts served whole. (The best part, as Lynne discovered to her shock, is the crispy head; until this meal, she’d been a fish-head virgin.) The flesh of the little fish was fairly dry, but a splash of the house’s light soy sauce helped a lot. And chicken karaage, Japanese fried “chicken nuggets,” were lightly battered and tender, alluring with real chicken flavor and a mayo-based dip. The Spanish mackerel sashimi was once again a showpiece — it made me wish I had time and money to come back a third time before deadline, sit at the sushi bar this time and find out what else the ruggedly handsome itamai can do.

With seven people at this meal, I diverged from Kirk’s recommendations to try several dishes I often enjoy at other Japanese restaurants. These proved that Sakura isn’t perfect, after all. Mixed tempura (with dry whitefish substituting for the customary shrimp, plus succulent fried veggies including sliced sweet onion) was merely standard, as were fried oysters, with dips of the same light mayo and sweet-sour mixture we’d enjoyed earlier. Chawan mushi, usually a delicate egg custard, was rather indelicate, even coarse in texture. Skewered sausage was just sausage, nothing exciting.

All that food ran about $20 a person for the first meal, $28 for the second, not including drinks, tax, tip. (Beware! Draught beer is inexpensive, but the sake list runs high. The cheapest Nigori, for instance, is $18 for a 375 mm bottle, and tastes just like Takara, which runs $6 at most sushi bars.) But Izakaya Sakura still offers a gracious welcome and a comfortable setting, fascinating food, and charming, competent service. ■

Izakaya Sakura

★★★1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)

3904 Convoy Street, #121, 959-569-6151; izakayasakuramenu.info (a third-party website with truncated menu, not directly from restaurant)

HOURS: Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–midnight; Sundays noon–11:00 p.m.
PRICES: $2.50–$20. Small plates average about $6, rice- or noodle-based entrées about $9, large fish dishes and sashimi plates $15 and up.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Full spectrum of Japanese dishes from tapas to noodles, rice bowls, tempura, hot pots, sushi, sashimi. Beers, sakes (expensive), soju.
PICK HITS: Miso-marinated black cod; ankimo (monkfish liver); aji (Spanish mackerel) sashimi; agedashi tofu; spinach with uni (sea urchin); uni pasta; miso soup; tako (octopus) wasabi; ikura oroshi (salmon roe with daikon); chicken karaage (Japanese “chicken nuggets”). Also likely worth trying: an evening at the sushi bar.
NEED TO KNOW: Located in the back of the mall with House of Pancakes, next to hookah joint, with no sign (look for #121). Two huge menus, “pick hits” on both. Website menu is third-party, inaccurate, covering only the most conventional dishes. Small restaurant: Don’t all invade it this weekend, or the kitchen will be overwhelmed and you’ll be displeased — please spread yourselves out over a few weeks.

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cool! i've been soo curious about all the restaurants in kearny mesa for a long time.its about time someone started to go through that neighborhood. does anyone know of a food blog about San Diego especially Japanese food?

The print edition had an error in identifying the fish in the photo. That's what our photog called "holy mackerel!" -- the Spanish mackerel sashimi, ooh, so yummy. The print caption identified it as smelt, a much tinier fish. Lynne ate the head of the smelt. I took the head of the mackerel. Fish swim in schools, so I went to the head of the class.

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