Lunchtime in Kearny Mesa

Kearny Mesa’s best selection of bento boxes — a great way to grab an authentic Asian lunch on the go — is at Najiya Market.
  • Kearny Mesa’s best selection of bento boxes — a great way to grab an authentic Asian lunch on the go — is at Najiya Market.

I’m just an average guy who likes to eat, cook, and travel. Food is the window through which

I see the world. It’s through various cuisines that I learn about history and culture. It’s the same with travel; a wonderful cebiche with a bracing leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) inspired us to visit Peru. Nam khao, a symphony of textures and flavors, had us crossing the Mekong and into beautiful Laos; tasty mezeler and lahmacun led us to Turkey. I’ll go as far to say that meeting and marrying my wife was inevitable. She is originally from China, where one of the usual greetings (in Chinese) is, “Have you eaten?”

I was overjoyed when my office was moved to the Kearny Mesa area two years ago. It’s where we did the majority of our shopping and eating. Having access to the fruits of Convoy Street at lunchtime is a work benefit almost equivalent to having my own private parking space. Here’s a listing of my Kearny Mesa lunch rotation.

Nijiya Market, 3860 Convoy Street, 858-268-3821, nijaya.com

Marukai Market, 8111 Balboa Avenue, 858-384-0248, marukai.com

Mitsuwa, 4240 Kearny Mesa Road, 858-569-6699, mitsuwa.com

Zion Market, 4611 Mercury Street, 858-268-3300, zionmarket.com

The unfortunate reality of working behind a desk with deadlines, meetings, and whatnot is that many meals are eaten at our desks. When that is the case, the usual on-the-move lunch would be a bento from one of the three Japanese markets in the area, or from the Korean Zion market. Being of Japanese ancestry and growing up in Hawaii, bentos — basically a box lunch — is a way of life for me. The composition of the bento is pretty basic: a starch, usually rice, along with okazu, loosely translated to be something to be eaten with rice. The best variety and most friendly and fastest (i.e., check-out) is Nijiya Market, which is my favorite. Marukai has a smaller selection, but is the most inexpensive. Marukai is a membership market, but you don’t need a membership to purchase bento. For a change of pace, I’ll grab Daeji Bulgogi (spicy pork) or the chicken version at Zion, though you’ll have to work with the terrible parking and long lines at the cashier. Hopefully, this will soon be a thing of the past, as Zion is moving to the huge spot on the corner of Clairemont Mesa and Convoy. Mitsuwa has a variety that’s just a level below Nijiya and a rather large food-court area to eat in. For some reason, I find the cashiers in Mitsuwa to be the least friendly, sometimes even surly.

Kayaba Japanese Restaurant and Santouka Ramen
4240 Kearny Mesa Road, suite 119, Kearny Mesa, 858-974-1101, In the Mitsuwa Marketplace, mitsuwa.com

When someone mentions “food court” here in the States, it usually invokes visions of generic mall food. I call this same-chicken-different-sauce syndrome. The food court in Mitsuwa Marketplace, though it consists of only two shops, is an exception. Kayaba is a rice bowl and tonkatsu shop. I stick to the tonkatsu, a pork cutlet coated with panko and deep-fried, served with an addictive mashed-potato salad with onions cleverly mixed into it. The pork is served on a metal spring contraption to make sure all the oil is drained off. I also enjoy the katsu curry, Japanese curry with a pork cutlet. Even though it seems like a shop serving ramen is opening up every couple months, I still enjoy Santouka’s tonkotsu (simmered pork bone broth) and toothsome noodles the most. The shio (salt) ramen toroniku style, with the fatty braised pork cheek and fixins on the side. Trips here fulfill the usual 10-30-10 criteria for lunch; a 10-minute drive, 30 minutes to order and eat, and a 10-minute drive back to the office, with a 10-minute buffer for the hour.

Cali Baguette Express

4425 Convoy Street #200A, Kearny Mesa

Cali Baguette Express
If I want something lighter with a fast turnaround, a banh mi will usually do the trick. I’ll usually grab one from the Convoy location of Cali Banh Mi Express. The company bakes their own bread, and you can get a banh mi for three bucks. I usually go with the Dac Biet, which has cha lua, defatted pork sausage (think bologna, ham, and pâté). The sandwiches are finished off with the usual cilantro, cucumber, and pickled vegetables, including jalapeños, so if you’re sensitive to heat, have them deleted from your sandwich or proceed with caution. If I’m in the mood, I love a Banh Mi Trung, basically a fried-egg sandwich. It’s comfort food for me, even with the pickled veggies, cilantro, and peppers. These aren’t super-stuffed sandwiches here; it’s all about proportion, and I find this one right for me. I’ve even picked up a baguette, French pâté, and spread on the way back to the office. Friendly staff and a usual quick turnaround make it a pleasant experience.

The Noble Chef

6159 Balboa Avenue, Kearny Mesa

The Noble Chef
The Noble Chef, hidden away in a strip mall on Balboa Avenue does a couple of items well. None of them even closely resembles the orange chicken and beef broccoli you’ll see on the “fast food” menu. I avoid the chicken, beef, and noodle soup and go with either the shrimp fried rice or shrimp chow fun with XO Sauce, that pungent but tasty concoction based on dried seafood, garlic, and chilies. When the chef is on, you’ll even get a bit of wok hei, the wonderful flavor a well-seasoned wok will impart to food when used skillfully over high heat. XO sauce is pretty pungent, so it’s better to eat it during the lunch hour. The tangy shrimp tomato sauce rice is also a favorite, an almost radioactive red in color from ketchup — yes, ketchup, which, by the way, the Chinese claim was created in the city of Xiamen. Either way, it wakes up your taste buds.

Golden City Restaurant

5375 Kearny Villa Road, Kearny Mesa

Golden City Restaurant
Golden City Restaurant fills the void of a decent middle-range Chinese restaurant that’s not Sichuan. There is a huge multipage lunch-special menu during the week. Beyond all the Americanized Chinese food, I’ve found several dishes I enjoy. The Kwai Fei Chicken is on my desert-island-dish list. We called it “cold ginger chicken” in Hawaii. It’s a seasoned steamed chicken served with an addictive ginger-based paste, almost like a pesto, that I love. On the lunch-special menu you’ll also find a good variety of dishes and even items like steamed pork with preserved vegetable (psst, it’s pork belly), fish fillet with black-bean sauce, pork chitlins with mustard greens, and roast duck, all priced under ten bucks. The lunch menu is huge, with over 75 items, and is served between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

Koon Thai Kitchen

3860 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Koon Thai Kitchen
I enjoy two dishes served at Koon Thai. I usually avoid the ubiquitous “pick the protein, pick the sauce” approach and go for specialties. Once I found out that the chef is from Issan, the northeast region of Thailand, which borders Laos, I ordered the Nam Khao Tod, a crispy rice–sour sausage dish. Here it’s wet, almost like a larb, a bit different from the Lao version I love. Still, I find the flavor of the galangal and lime, along with the heat, refreshes me. The other dish that I enjoy at Koon takes me back to Thailand, the sweet-soy flavor of the Khao Karr Moo is a staple of food courts all over the “Land of Smiles.” As if having simmered pork leg and rice isn’t enough, there’s always half a boiled egg as well. The portion size of the dish isn’t overwhelming, and I’m usually happily on my way in about 30 minutes.

Yakyudori Ramen and Yakitori

4898 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Yakyudori Ramen and Yakitori
Yakyudori doesn’t serve Yakitori during lunch hours. They do have a pretty solid Shio or Shoyu Ramen, though. There are also “combos” offered during the week, which include a small ramen and one or two more items. My favorites are the Thursday combo of a small ramen with chicken karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken, though I’d gladly trade the shumai for a couple more pieces of karaage. I also like the BBQ pork bowl that comes with the Friday combo. It’s basically marinated chopped pork and sauce over rice, topped off with corn, scallions, and mayo, which I keep forgetting to tell them to 86. (Maybe I am a closet mayo lover?) If you get there at 11:30, you can be out in less than 30 minutes. Unless you get distracted by all that slurping.

Izakaya Sakura

3904 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Izakaya Sakura
Every once in a while I’m able to meet the Missus for lunch. During these all-too-rare occasions when I can get away, we’ll usually visit Izakaya Sakura. Yes, the restaurant with no sign. The lunch menu features rice bowls, combinations, and a whopping bento, consisting of over eight items, of which there’s a limited number available each day. My current favorite is the Ebi Kakiage, a tempura of sorts, where small shrimp and vegetables are combined to form a crunchy nest. This is served over udon or soba, with a broth that can be ordered hot or cold. I’ve been enjoying the cold version over the summer and the unseasonably hot fall. All the lunch combos come with miso soup and sometimes a salad, though the Ebi Kakiage lunch comes with an extra onigiri (rice ball). The hours can be kind of spotty; they’ll sometimes open a bit late and, if busy, the service can be carried out at a careful cadence, if you know what I mean. So, plan on a leisurely lunch at Izakaya Sakura.

Crab Hut Kearny Mesa

4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Crab Hut
Every so often it’s nice to get the folks in the office together for a lunch. Crab Hut in Kearny Mesa was where we’d have that once- or twice-a-year meal together. What’s better for team building than eating seafood with your hands while wearing a bib and the whole gang going back to the office reeking of Old Bay? I could go on about tracing the dots of the over 5000 shrimpers of Vietnamese ancestry who fished the Gulf Coast and how Cajun-influenced seafood boils made it to the West Coast. But I’ll save that for another time. The key at Crab Hut is to know what you like, your heat tolerance, and ask the young servers (all of whom I found to be forthcoming) what’s fresh today. Lately, it’s been live clams, which suited me fine with just some Old Bay in the bag. I recall asking my former coworker, Vickie, born and raised in New Orleans about how close she thought this was to a traditional boil. Her answer: “C’mon, you know this isn’t traditional, but that doesn’t stop me from licking my fingers and wanting to come back next week.” Well, that’s enough for me to brave the late opening time (12 noon) and the worst parking situation on Convoy, which says quite a bit. ■

More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | Spirit of Family Dinnertime | More Than Dish or Deal | Accessible Gourmet | Fried Chicken | Places to Try At Least Once

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