Is there an east wind blowing?
I mean food culture–wise. Just last week I was eating Korean-cooked Japanese fare in Mission Beach, and now here I am, totally seduced by this food truck at the back of a boiler factory in Barrio Logan. And, guess what they’re serving? Sushi.
This started when I wandered into the new farmers’ market in Barrio Logan. It’s held in the old Fraser’s machine shop, where they used to make ships’ boilers.
Now, the outside’s been painted bright orange, and every Wednesday and Sunday stalls loaded with everything organic fill the aisles. Like, carrots as big as your arm (Maciel Family Farms); and sausages as big as your other arm, from Mr. Kappeler, the Swiss sausage-maker in San Marcos (T&H Prime Meats and Sausage — must visit sometime); or soups as thick as a stew, like the mushroom-and-wild-rice one I got after stopping under a canopy that advertised “Organic Vegan Soup.” That place is run by a Chilean civil engineer named Camilo. Paid $5 for an eight-ounce cup, with bread.
Tasty and filling. For the moment, anyway.
Afterward, I headed to the back of the cavernous space, where I noticed this food truck parked inside, with folding chairs and tables set up in front of it. Quite a few people were eating at the tables.
A bright-eyed gal pops down and out of the truck. Everybody calls her Kate. She’s carrying a couple of paper plates loaded with sushi rolls as colorful as all get-out. One, a veggie tempura roll, she gives to this guy Ron. His two buddies are already chowing down on spicy tuna salads.
“We’re open ten more minutes,” she tells me. “Want something?”
I hadn’t thought, but seeing as I’m here, and those rolls…
“Is it good?” I ask Ron.
“And these spicy tuna salads are terrific,” says his buddy Patrick. According to the chalkboard menu, they’re spicy tuna with “cucumbers marinated in rice vinegar and ginger, topped with seaweed salad, avocado, sprouts, and ponzu [a lemony sauce mixed with soy],” $10.
The menu lists a bunch of sushi: like, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, even “live sweet shrimp” and “live sea urchin,” all selling at “market price.” Not everything is expensive. A spicy tuna roll goes for $3. Plus, they have cute takes on east-meets-west: a yellowtail tostada ($4) is “local yellowtail or spicy tuna” served with seaweed salad, avocado, sprouts, and ponzu, all sitting on a crisp wonton shell. Chicken katsu sliders (two for $6) are fried chicken and cabbage with orange zest and katsu sauce on a Hawaiian bun. There’s even plain asparagus on rice, “drizzled with eel sauce and Sriracha” (market price — can’t be much).
“You want my advice?” says Matt, guy I met at an Alaskan salmon tent (his buddy John catches ’em up there, freezes ’em, sends ’em down), on my way through the market. “Just tell Kate to choose for you. I eat here a lot, and I always say, ‘Gimme something interesting.’ She always does.”
“Leave it to me,” says Kate when I repeat this to her.
Five minutes later, she appears with two different lengths of sushi, each cut into two pieces. Oh, man, the colors. The green and yellow-striped one has tempura-fried veggies, with seaweed salad and avo wrapped around the outside. The red-and-yellow’s got crab inside. Lots. And so-oo tasty.
“It’s because it’s real crab, Pacific stone crab,” Kate says. “From Baja. None of that processed ‘krab.’ Everything I use is organic and local and real and fresh, not frozen.”
I pay $6 for it.
Then I have to ask.
“Is this…unusual, what you do? I mean, how come you’re the first woman sushi chef I’ve ever seen?”
“Long story,” she says. “But you’re right. Women don’t do sushi — traditionally, it’s men. Old-school chefs have told me, in no uncertain terms: ‘Women should not try to be sushi chefs. Sushi is about raw fish. And women are warmer than men. You put raw fish in their hands, and the fish starts to cook right there in their palm. Also, their perfumes contaminate the taste of the sushi.’”
With attitudes like that, how did she pull it off, becoming a sushi chef?
“When I was at Grossmont College, I heard about the California Sushi Academy in L.A., the first sushi-chef training academy in the U.S. I loved everything about sushi. Of course, my parents were horrified when I said I wanted to go.”
Turns out, her sushi-pioneering got noticed and documented in a book: The Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corson, the guy who wrote The Secret Life of Lobsters.
“He followed my class around,” says Kate, “and ended up focusing a lot on me. Maybe because I was a woman.”
Kate says she learned plenty at the academy, about the samurai traditions of the knives they use, the samurai attitudes of the instructor chefs, and how “sushi” doesn’t actually mean “raw fish,” but “rice seasoned with vinegar.”
At age 20, she graduated, returned to San Diego, and started working the farmers’ markets and in sushi joints. This March, she found the truck, took a deep breath, and bought it. “It cost me $25,000.”
Now she runs what’s very much a one-woman operation.
“I do everything, from buying to prepping to cooking to driving,” she says. “But I love it.”
Her recommendation for next time: the Red Head Roll. Shrimp, crab, spicy tuna, with “something crunchy” on top ($7.50).
I leave a fuller, happier, and, yes, wiser man.
This gal ain’t just a sushi chef, she’s a bona fide revolutionary.
The Place: Miss Sushi San Diego, 4637 Market Street, misssushisandiego.com, 619-233-7010; at Barrio Logan Farmers’ Market, 1735 National Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-233-3901
Prices: Veggie tempura roll, $5.50; caterpillar, with crab, eel, $9; spicy tuna salad, $10; spicy scallop, $3; yellowtail tostada, $4; chicken katsu sliders, two for $6; asparagus on rice with eel sauce, market price
Hours (Barrio Logan Farmers’ Market): 9:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays
Buses: 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stop: National Avenue at Beardsley
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Barrio Logan (at East Harbor Drive and César E. Chávez Parkway)