"Uh, Jacky?” I say. “I’m…looking…at…the…fish…skin. It’s…moving.”
Honest. A hundred little shreds waving around the octopus tentacle balls like curious sea worms.
Jacky’s just laid this dish down in front of me. It’s called takoyaki.
“Oh!” she says. “The katsuobushi. They’re bonito shavings. No. Not alive. They’re just so thin, they wave around in the lightest breeze.”
Except, no breeze. I mean, they are only $2, so I shouldn’t worry. Because, heh heh, think I’ve discovered maybe the most hidden happy hour in the Gaslamp.
I’m down at what feels like the oldest part of the Gaslamp, down by Island and Fourth, where the Stingaree raged in its day. Was a little lost, then I recognized a couple of old brick buildings, especially the one with a balcony reaching out over the sidewalk, New Orleans–style.
If I remember right, in back of that building was Ida Bailey’s House of Sin.
Ida, right? Queen of the Courtesans, back in the day? Or, should I say, back in the night? Her “Canary Cottage” was the most famous bordello south of Frisco’s Barbary Coast. And next to it, you had the Pan Tan Gambling House.
So, yeah. Right here was where you came to go crazy, lose your money, your head, your virginity, whatever. Most of the town’s businessmen and all of the sailors in port couldn’t keep away, 100 years ago. They said the mayor himself was Ida Bailey’s favorite customer.
So I’m lost in imagining all this when I notice the open menu beside this little patio that’s here now. It’s a Japanese place, “Nippon.” And you can’t beat the happy hour specials. Food at $2, $4, $6 until seven o’clock.
Uh, seven? We’re five minutes away. Without further ado, I rush in.
“No hurry,” says the waitress, Jacky. “As long as you’re in by seven, you can take your time.”
Whew. Great to see these guys are not slaves to the computer cut-off, like so many places. As I come in, I’m still imagining all the ghosts of those rowdy frontier San Diegans. Now it’s a small, traditional Japanese, but somehow spacious area with a few tables and a sushi bar of mottled black marble. First thing you notice is the river pebbles, panels of them, highlighting walls and columns. Those and a giant fan and three TVs are pretty much it, decoration-wise.
I take a sushi counter seat. Jacky brings the menu. And what deals! For two bucks you can get a miso soup, edamame (natch), and two things I don’t recognize. Inari tofu sushi and takoyaki. But heck, only two buckeroos, I order a plate of each.
And, because it’s only $2, a pot of sake and, okay, a Sapporo beer ($3).
What follows is the most delish first course in many moons. I mean these are supposed to be simple amuse-bouches to whet your appetite. But when Jacky brings the inari tofu sushi and the takoyaki, I’m looking at a mini-meal. And because they’re so beautifully and simply presented, you don’t lunge at them like a grouper at a minnow. You make a ceremony of pouring the soy, mixing in the wasabi mustard or horseradish, and ginger. You gulp the sake while it’s hot, and the beer while it’s cold. The inari are basically seasoned deep-fried tofu pockets loaded with rice. Jacky says they sometimes call it sushi in a bean bag. The tofu skin (aburaage) is seasoned sweet, so it goes well with the slightly sweet but vinegary sushi rice inside. Why “inari?” Seems Inari’s a god of fertility — and of foxes — in Japan. Nobody knows beyond that.
Then we come to the Medusa dish. The moving wig of fish skin “hair” that covers four luscious balls of diced octopus tentacles in a deep-fried doughy mix of like tempura scraps and veggies, covered in dark takoyaki sauce (a kind of Worcestershire sauce with mayo). So squelchy, chewy, crunchy. And two bucks. Dang, but it’s good. And I forgive Sapporo for not being hoppier. And honestly, the whole impression here is so classy. Even the sake bottle — art!
While I’m noshing these, I check out the $6 HH items. I mean, the rest of the sushi starts at $7 but is usually high teens and tops out at $21. Fuggetabout that. I could double down and just have a couple more inari and takoyaki. That’d be four bucks. Also for $4 each: avocado cucumber roll, fried potstickers, or seaweed salad. But for six, ika geso (“ugly squid?”), basically fried calamari legs, or a California roll, or a spicy tuna roll, or fried shrimp roll.
Fried shrimp roll? “That’s the one I have most,” says Jacky.
Good enough for me. It’s your basic krab and avo and cucumber and rice squish-up, but with the fixins, it’s totally filling and delish, including a nice sweet eel sauce. And the bonus is you get two decent-sized shrimp poking out of the rice at the end, with plenty of flesh on them. And of course, visuals count. Add the orange mayo-Sriracha stripes and the upright shrimp, and it looks like a longboat with 14 rowers and two Vikings standing in the stern.
See? That’s what sake will do to you. By the time I’m done with my second bottle (hey, it would be an insult not to honor this $2 gift), I’m also seeing bonito shavings crawling past my eyes, and I swear, hearing whoops and giggles from the rooms upstairs and some voice hollerin’ “Ida! C’mere! Another bottle of whisky for the mayor and his friend!”
532 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Happy Hour Prices: Miso soup, $2; inari tofu sushi, $2; takoyaki (octopus) in doughballs, $2; fried potstickers, $4; seaweed salad, $4; avocado cucumber roll, $4; ika geso (fried calamari legs), $6; California roll, $6; spicy tuna roll, $6; fried shrimp roll, $6; small hot sake, $2; small Sapporo beer, $3; large Sapporo, $5
Hours: 5-10pm, Monday to Friday; 12-11pm, Saturday, Sunday
Happy Hours: 5-7pm, Monday to Friday; 12-7pm, Saturday, Sunday
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest bus stops: For #3, Market and 6th, northbound and southbound; for #11, Market and 3rd (southbound); Market and 4th (northbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp