Ue Kara Grill takes sushi beyond the California roll

These four spicy tuna rolls, plus four “crunchy rolls” and four California rolls — $6.99
  • These four spicy tuna rolls, plus four “crunchy rolls” and four California rolls — $6.99

UE Kara Grill

819 C Street, Downtown San Diego

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Is it Japanese? Or Mexican?

“Yes,” says Arturo, the chef. I know what he means: both.

“I use more jalapeño and lime,” he says, “and less wasabi. I do things a bit spicier than traditional sushi. I use fruit, like kiwi and mango.”

But, but, Ue Kara, where we’re at — it’s a sushi joint, right? Yet the sushi specials are things like mole roll and adobada roll. Maybe I just don’t know enough about sushi and fusion, but I’m confused.

This little lunchtime eatery is a funny space for a meeting of two giant cultures. Then again, it’s a funny space, period. Ue Kara (Arturo says it means “from above” in Japanese) sits cheek-by-jowl with a taco shop (Rolando’s) and next door to that is a Middle Eastern restaurant (Haji Baba’s). They’re huddled in a kind of oasis in the desert between Eighth and Ninth, between downtown and City College. East Village hasn’t quite taken off at this location, and these places face trolley tracks, a parking lot, and the beginning of Bankers Canyon. It seems just beyond easy walking distance for the hungry suits who pour out of nearby high-rises at midday, looking for lunch in, uh, all the right places.

Me, I pass these three restaurants every time I whisk by on the trolley, and I wonder how any of them will make it. The Churchill Hotel sets the mood, a big ol’ dowager of a place that’s closed, condemned, not exactly lighting up the area. And yet these three restaurants have survived even though, after two-and-a-half years in business, Ue Kara’s sign is still a temporary plastic banner.

Today, heading up C Street toward City College, I finally decided: Why not stop? Arturo was outside, leaning against his patio fence and watching the trolleys trundle by. Taking five, I guess, because, basically, there was no one inside. I mean, it’s already 2:00 p.m. But, yes, he told me, he was open till 3:00.

Inside, it’s all gray and black: gray walls with a black end-wall and ceiling. Black tables, cream-tiled floor. Some colorful Japanese prints hang along the left wall.

At the cash register at the end, Iris has a menu ready. “Sit wherever you want,” she says.

Hmm…deals aplenty.

Chef Arturo works Mexican influences into Japanese cuisine. “More jalapeño and lime, less wasabi.”

Chef Arturo works Mexican influences into Japanese cuisine. “More jalapeño and lime, less wasabi.”

For starters, those appetizers: you can get an egg roll for a dollar, fried soft-shell crab for $4.95, wakame salad for $6.99 (turns out, wakame is a kind of edible seaweed). A chicken teriyaki bowl is $4.25, and a chicken katsu (“cutlet”) with rice and salad goes for $5.25. So, now I’m kicking myself. How come I haven’t been here before?

“We have lunch combos, too,” says Iris.

Combo #1 is two egg rolls, two gyoza, and chicken teriyaki, with rice and salad, for $5.99. Number 2’s a four-piece California roll (crab, avo, cucumber, sesame seeds), plus a four-piece spicy-tuna roll and a four-piece crunchy roll, all for $6.99. Combo #3 is miso soup, edamame, vegetable tempura (fried veggies), rice, and salad for $5.99.

I order #2. When it comes, it looks pretty, and it’s pretty tasty, too.

Talk about fusion: I discover that the California roll was a 1970s invention in L.A. Seems the oils in an avocado make the perfect substitute for fatty tuna (toro). The chef who spotted this, Ichiro Mashita, also had the brainwave of turning sushi rolls inside-out: putting the seaweed (which Angelenos had a problem facing and eating) in the middle and the rice on the outside. In two strokes, Mashita started sushi on its voyage to American cool. You could say the California roll has led the charge to fusion-sushi worldwide — it’s the number-one roll everywhere.

Mine tastes great, but the crunchy roll (it has battered and deep-fried shrimp) is the standout.

It’s while I’m chowing away that I notice they have rolls with names such as “The Hank,” and the “Haji Baba.” The Hank seems to have everything in it, from crab, shrimp, yellowtail, and soft-shell crab, to lime, Sriracha, and chopped jalapeño.

“Well, Hank is a regular customer, and this is the combination he likes best,” Arturo explains. “And ones like ‘Haji Baba’ are to honor our neighbors.”

I guess Hank must like the Mexican connection, with all that lime and jalapeño. But how come Arturo is leading the Cali-Japanese–fusion charge here?

“I was taught by a Japanese sushi chef,” Arturo says. “But the guy who was my supervisor was Mexican-American. He started giving me these ideas.”

So, Arturo makes sushi specials like his mole, or adobada rolls with salsa in the middle. “I get away with it,” he says. “It’s a good time to be making sushi. People are always scratching their heads about what new kind of roll they can make. I try to keep them around $6.”

All this talk is getting me hungry again. I go for a piping-hot vegetable yaki-udon (stir-fry): a steamy bowl of broccoli, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, and carrots, all laced with thick noodles (perfect face-whippers if you suck ’em up too fast) and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

When I come out, I’ve spent nearly $13, but I could have totally filled up on the $5.25 vegetarian udon alone.

I want to come back soon for the deals, but also to learn more about different kinds of sushi, this whole galaxy of food I’ve been avoiding, mainly because, I guess, it seems like a whole ’nother universe. Like learning a foreign language. I didn’t know how to handle it. Now I want to learn quick, before it gets so fused with the West, you won’t know which side of the Pacific you’re chowing into.

Bottom line: I’ve been coasting on California rolls for too long. Arturo: bring it on!

Prices: Egg roll, $1; fried soft-shell crab, $4.95; seaweed salad, $6.99; chicken teriyaki bowl, $4.25; chicken katsu (cutlet), rice, salad, $5.25; lunch combo #1, two egg rolls, two gyoza, chicken teriyaki, rice, salad, $5.99; #2, four-piece California roll, four-piece spicy-tuna roll, four-piece crunchy roll, $6.99; #3, miso soup, edamame, veggie tempura, rice, salad, $5.99

Hours: Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; open till 5:00 p.m. for takeout orders only

Buses: All downtown

Nearest Stop: Ninth and Broadway

Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line,

Nearest trolley stop: Fifth Avenue

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