207 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
I knew it the moment I hauled open the door. This. Is. A. Mistake. Could see the businessmen inside cracking their chopsticks apart, flattening down their silk ties. I mean, this is Nobu, right? The ultimate Japanese eating experience. Business expense account paradise.
But then I thought: happy hour! It’s five o’clock. Who knows? Nobu may do the most fabulous HH deals this side of Mount Fuji. Besides, I could always ask for edamame.
I pull up a stool to the walnut wood bar.
Ben the barman slips me two menus. One is cocktails, the other’s a happy-hour food page. Drinks-wise, the HH choice is short: a large Hokusetsu Jyunmai sake, $20; select wines by the glass, $7; Prosecco by the glass, $8; select beer, $4; and six cocktails, such as a lychee martini, $9 each.
I go for the beer, of course. Bottle of Kirin Ichiban (“Number One”). Foodwise, happy hour applies only to the Nobu tapas. They have a list of about 20, going from $4 to $12. The $4, natch, is edamame. The two $12 plates are four wagyu poppers with sweet-and-spicy mustard or Nobu-style sashimi (raw fish) tasting spoons — three, each a different style.
In between are a bowl of sweetish shishito peppers for $5. Black cod butter lettuce cups are $6; fried okra, in a black garlic tosazu (vinegar sauce), $7; a “new style” salmon roll for $8; a warm mushroom salad ($8); an eggplant moromiso sugi-ita ($9); and also for $9, rock shrimp creamy spicy or ponzu (tart, lemony sauce).
“That shrimp’s probably your most filling,” says Ben. I see he’s got my number.
On the other hand, move up to $10 and we’re talking two king-crab tacos, salmon tataki jalapeño, or steamed black mussels with bacon garlic miso and crunchy potato. The $11 items are oyster, ceviche, yellowtail, spicy tuna, crab, squid, or scallop.
Decision time. “The mussels,” I say. Ben brings cutlery, napkins, and a hot wet napkin on a little boat.
Talking with one of the customers, seems Nobu is a person, Nobu Matsuhisa. He is a celebrity chef who started fusing Japanese and Peruvian ingredients when he had a restaurant in Lima. He became friends with Robert De Niro and together they have created an incredible international chain in, like, 20 years. Maybe 40 Nobu restaurants and a couple of hotels, not to mention four cookbooks. The guy is a certifiable celebrity.
My mussels arrive in a pretty nice bowl, sitting on an arty piece of paper, with a miso mix in the bottom. I crack my chopsticks and have at them. Count maybe 20 mussels, and delicious? Yes. But even more delicious is the growing soup in the bottom. Have to ask for a spoon to slurp it up.
I pay up — $15.12, plus tip — so, like, there goes a Jackson. But a nice experience.
This feeling lasts exactly one block and five minutes. My gut’s mumbling, “That was it?”
715 J Street, East Village
Happens I’m passing Bub’s, the good-time burger place at Seventh and J. One thing you know: they’re good and open. Music’s blasting out. “Hot Tots till 1 a.m.,” their permanent neon sign says. Thing I like about this place? Its openness.
“Yes, we have a happy hour till seven,” says Joe the bouncer when I ask. “But maybe it’s better to wait till after.”
Seems Tuesday night they have a skillet deal going. “It’s half-price, but only after happy hour ends at seven,” he says. He’s talking about “Steakums Skillets,” meaty dishes that arrive sizzling at your table. There’s the standard skillet, the “Black and Blue,” and the “Montreal.”
“They’re really filling,” he says, “really tender meat, and they’re half price after seven tonight.
Half price? Hmm... First of all, I sit up to the big square counter and sneak in an order for HH onion rings ($2.75!) and a Yellowtail ($4) before happy hour ends. “There you go, brother,” says Chae, the big Hawaiian-looking barkeep. He has a smile that lights up the entire place. I mention the Steakums Skillets deal. “The best,” he says. “Half-price skillets right now, and Tuesdays you get tater tots tossed in, too.” The basic skillet’s $14.50, “Black and Blue” (with blue cheese) is $16, and the Montreal (with the famous Montreal seasoning, plus garlic butter, plus garlic bread, plus those tater tots) is also $16. So it’s looking like a bargain, $8 max. I end up going for the Montreal.
It arrives hissing and steaming on an oval iron platter. The chunks of meat are surrounded by tater tots and garlic bread and sitting in a slithering lake of sautéed green and red peppers and onions. I take a bite. Had asked for rare. It’s rare. Had asked for tender. It is tender. Had hoped for tasty. Oh, man... Totally tasty, especially when you add those delicious sautéed peppers and onions and mushrooms onto your fork. This is really, really good.
The “steakum” thing? These are mighty chunks of what Chae says are cut-up “teres major” steak. Never heard of that cut before. Big shoulder muscle, seems. Tender as a filet mignon but cheaper, even though it’s harder to cut out.
Whatever, these big chunks are swoon-worthy.
How good? Carla doesn’t even ask about the money when I get back and heat that sucker up for her (there’s over half left) in ten seconds flat. She shuts down everything except her nose. And eyes. And taste buds.
“You know where you’ll be going Tuesday nights from now on,” she says.
“Not a problem,” I say.
The Place: Nobu, 207 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp, in Hard Rock Hotel, 619-814-4124
Happy Hour Prices: Edamame, $4; Wagyu poppers, $12; Nobu-style sashimi tasting spoons, $12; shishito peppers, $5; black cod butter lettuce cups, $6; fried okra, $7; salmon roll, $8; warm mushroom salad, $8; eggplant moromiso sugi-ita, $9; rock shrimp, creamy spicy or ponzu (tart, lemony sauce), $9; two king-crab tacos, $10; salmon tataki jalapeño, $10; steamed black mussels, $10
Hours: 5:30–10 p.m. daily
Happy Hour: 5–7 p.m. daily; all night Fridays
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp Quarter
The Place: Bub’s at the Ballpark, 715 J Street, Gaslamp, 619-546-0815
Happy Hour Prices: Tater Tots, $2.40; sweet potato fries, $2.75; Steakums Skillet, $14.50 ($7.25, Tuesdays after 7:00 p.m.); Black and Blue Steakums, $16 ($8); Montreal Steakums, $16 ($8)
Hours: 11 a.m.–2 a.m.
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest bus stop: Sixth and Market
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp Quarter