Executive Chef and owner, Antonio Friscia, doesn’t exactly look like the guy to head an Asian noodle house. The husky, bearded Italian with brawny shoulders, hipster black plastic framed eyeglasses and an impossibly shiny bald head looks like he should be serving up plates of pasta in Little Italy. Be thankful he isn’t.
Friscia, formerly a chef at downtown’s Stingaree, and a current co-owner of Campine Catering, may have found his culinary home at Gaijin Noodle + Sake House downtown. Gaijin, pronounced GUY-jeen, means "foreigner" or "non-Japanese.” When I asked Friscia about the name, he explained that he's a gaijin who has loved and studied Asian food and culture for years (he lived in Bali and traveled extensively through Southeast Asia) and wanted to share his passion with others.
Friscia’s clear that he’s not trying to pass as Asian or mimic traditional approaches to Asian cooking; rather, he's presenting his own unique internationally-inspired versions of classic Asian dishes such as yakatori and ramen, and he's doing it successfully.
How successfully? He was recently voted winner of the critic’s choice for best Asian fusion and reader’s choice runner-up for best chef in San Diego Magazine’s yearly poll.
Then last week, he nabbed 1st place in the “any kine” (or non-traditional poke) category at the 3rd Annual I Love Poke Festival in San Diego for a brilliant dish that combined local yellowtail, bay scallops, octopus, chili yuzu and uni. (In full disclosure, I was one of the judges.)
Friscia, who prefers “aloha” as his greeting of choice, is soft-spoken and self-deprecating. He has a rare combination of great humility and mad skills. It’s easy to see why Gaijin has a palpable laid-back, playful vibe. Of course, that could also have something to do with the hourly complimentary sake shots they serve to diners. Yes, folks, when you hear the reverberating gong, it’s time to down some sake.
The first time I dined at Gaijin, Friscia explained to me that he wanted diners to have an “izakaiya” experience — a casual pub where people hang out, laugh, talk and drink good beer, something Friscia relishes doing with own his friends after a long night of cooking. And from this downtown resident’s perspective, it’s just what downtown San Diego needed. Sure, there are plenty of sushi restaurants and craft beer joints, but there isn’t a place that offers bowls of steaming ramen, plates of sizzling yakatori and a dizzying assortment of sake and sake cocktails created by the guys at Snake Oil Cocktail Co.
Indeed, Gaijin is fast becoming known as one of downtown’s hottest late night spots thanks to their late night happy hour with $5 sake bombs, $3 Sapporo draft beer and $2 carnitas bao bao.
I’ve enjoyed many dishes at Gaijin, but for this article, I’m going to share my three favorites:
The Carnitas Bao Bao, Friscia’s take on the traditional Chinese steamed bun sandwich, is appallingly good. A pillowy soft steamed rice bun is overwhelmed by saucy, tender carnitas (pulled pork) topped with crunchy house-made pickled cucumbers and onions and sprinkled with red sugar, colored with beet juice.
If ramen can ever be called “luxurious,” then Friscia’s Uni Green Tea Soba Noodles are it. This Italian-Japanese fusion dish which includes sake, lobster dashi, garlic chili oil, shiso and uni butter, is a decadently creamy, complexly flavored affair. Although I'd prefer the noodles al dente, I'm sufficiently appeased by the rich flavors and textures of the dish.
Friscia’s Crying Tiger Skirt Steak, so named because of its pain-inducing heat factor, is stellar. The meltingly tender steak, which is seasoned with red onion, garlic and a fiery chili paste, is hot enough to tingle your mouth and perhaps induce a sniffle or two, but not so hot, that you’ll regret ordering it.
I'm glad to see Friscia and Gaijin doing so well. They're good neighbors.
Gaijin Noodle + Sake House | 627 4th Ave. San Diego, CA 92101 | 619.238.0567 Sunday–Thursday 5pm-1am | Friday & Saturday 5pm-3am For more information, visit gaijinsd.com.
Last two photos, courtesy of J Public Relations, San Diego.