4609 Convoy Street, Suite F, Kearny Mesa
Third time’s the charm? I’m hoping so. I’ve come early, around 5:30 pm, to put my name on the iPad outside the front window. It comes right back at me, “Guest #371: Welcome to Kura San Diego! Your approx. wait time is 225 minutes.”
Divide by sixty: Mamma mia! Three, nearly four hours! On a Sunday night! Sure, they have this gimmick of revolving sushi plates traveling round in front of you, but they opened four years ago, so they’re not the new kid in town any more.
But I really want to get in, because of the little neon sign they have in their window: “All Plates $2.60 each.” Wow. This could be a big deal.
And an hour into my 3¾-hour wait, Lady Luck strikes. At the bar, they unexpectedly have space. In like Flynn! And in front of me, bright green ceramic dishes coasting by with labels announcing anything from “soy sake marinated tuna sushi” to “kura norimaki” to rainbow roll to New York Cheesecake.
This is what they call Kaiden Sushi style, or “sushi train.”
“Have you been here before?” says Sheena, one of the waitresses.
“Well, I’ve tried. But no.”
Sheena explains the system. Just grab the plate, not the little dome it’s in. You pay by number of plates you empty.
I order a tall bottle of Sapporo beer ($6.70), mesmerized by the food passing by, until this guy comes sits down beside me. He reaches out straight away and picks two plates of nigiri, squid and yellowtail. He grabs chopsticks and picks out some ginger (“Gari” is the slang. If you wanted to be formal, you’d say “shoga.”) from a box in front of us.
His name’s Kohji Kawamura. He eats rapidly, always looking at the sushi train, and then grabbing something. Now, it’s octopus. Now it’s toro. “Toro’s the fatty belly of the bluefin tuna,” he says. Then, a negitoro. Just the same fatty belly, but leftovers that aren’t pretty enough to be served on their own, and so are minced up and decorated with green onion.
I notice he takes a leaf of ginger every now and then. “To clean the palate between dishes,” he says.
Now Kohji reaches up to the screen (we each have one) and punches on a little box labeled “udon.” It’s a kinda wheat noodle soup, and before you can say udon noodle, it comes zipping along an upper level track and stops in front of him. So cool. It’s steaming hot and has tofu — deep-fried, looks like — plus large noodles, and green onion. This might be the kitsune udon — “fox noodles” — so-called because in ancient Japanese tradition, foxes would put a piece of aburaage — deep-fried tofu that’s part of the soup — on their head and it made them disappear when they needed to escape.
That’s what’s I like about Japanese food: there’s so much story and tradition attached to every little thing.
Meanwhile, Kohji dives into it deftly and swiftly, and before you know, it’s gone.
“I get the soup mainly to fill me up,” he says. Half a dozen empty plates sit in front of him. He tips them down a slot in front of him. That’s how they count how much you’ve had. I reckon he’s gotten all this for under $20. Turns out he’s bilingual, has lived in Japan, and manages a cannabis farm up in Oregon. “This revolving sushi bar is how to eat economically in Japan. They’re very conscious of labor costs there, so this automation helps. But what we have here is a good, economic American version of Japanese sushi. In Japan, you expect to eat fish caught the same day. Here, it’s usually frozen. In Japan, sushi is served warmer. Here it’s served cold, because it’s illegal to warm it.”
So how did he get in without waiting for hours? “I reserve online. That way you can time it.”
And then he hits the pay button and is gone.
Time for me to make some decisions. I realize how ideal this setup is for us gringos who don’t understand the Japanese language. Your eyes can do the deciding, and at $2.60, you’re not breaking the bank if you blow it once or twice. So I try copying Kohji, and just grab at three plates passing by.
First turns out to be squid. A couple of slices. Not bad. Second’s “umami oil salmon,” like, nigiri, meaning the slab of salmon flesh is laid over the top of the rice, rather than put inside. And it does have a lovely little tangy taste going. Umami? Susumu Kamimura, the manager, says the umami - savory - taste here is to do with sesame oil and seeds and their combination with the salmon. What I like is the lemony twang that overlays the salmon taste.
But the most luscious of my three plate picks has to be the shrimp avocado roll. Again, a citrus taste from the Yuzu cream on top, then the shrimp with the avo and rice and seaweed and shrimp mayo in the middle. Fact is, I probably could have found good tastes in any of this endless procession of rice and fish - and meat, like the seared beef with yakiniku (sweet and gingery BBQ-flavored) sauce - passing before me. Susumu says most people get about five before they’re done. I swear, I’m full after three.
Sheena says they throw everything out if it hasn’t been eaten after a strict time limit. She admits that that can result in a lot of food wasted. But the formula’s working. Susumu says the Kura company has created over 400 revolving sushi joints since 1977. Mainly Japan, Taiwan, and the US, with a dozen in California already. Yes, it’s a little mechanical, which can make it feel impersonal. But hey, just to be able to have at it, choose and chomp, is a big plus. No waiting!
Once you get in, that is.
- The Place: Kura Revolving Sushi Bar, 4609 Convoy Street, Suite F, Kearny Mesa, 858-715-4605
- Hours: 11am-10pm, Monday-Thursday; 11am-11pm, Friday; 10:30am-11pm Saturday; 10:30am-10:30pm Sunday
- Prices: Each dish, $2.60; extra choices, different prices