About a month and a half ago I pulled into the Original Pancake House strip mall on Convoy hungry for good sushi and sashimi. It had been a while since Id been in San Diego and out here in the desert one fantasizes about nice cold meals like sushi. My previous visit to San Diego had taken me to Katzra, where Id had some good sushi, but I wanted to go back to Sakura 1, where Id had some amazing fish on a couple of previous visits. So I was shocked when I looked and saw that Sakuras sign was gone, though Japanese lanterns still hung outside. With trepidation, I looked in and the sushi chef from my previous visits had been replaced by an older gentleman. But then a waitress assured me that it was still Sakura; it was just Sunday and the regular chef/owner had a day off. She also said that it was his idea to take the sign down. Anyway, I had some good (if not great) sashimi and sushi and reminded myself of what I had learned years ago, that Sunday is not the best day to eat sushi as there are no fish deliveries that day.
The next day, I went to The Noodle House of Otomoyon (sp?) for zaru soba and tempura, but they were closed. Looking around for someplace else, I discovered that Sakura was open. I came in and saw that the regular sushi chef was there. Over the next three days, I ate three lunches there. Zaru soba, unagi donburi, and chirashi. The unagi was superb, with wide, perfectly cooked and flavored eel filets. The chirashi was great also, though the tempura zaru soba was no better than the Noodle Houses. Over those three days, I got a chance to talk with the owner/sushi chef and look over the menu carefully. He explained to me that he took his sign down because he was tired of explaining to Americans that he didnt make California rollsthat he was trying to do an authentic Japanese restaurant. As we talked, I realized that he was somewhat embarrassed by his English speaking skills (though he really does OK), but that he was very friendly and somewhat amazed at my interest in real Japanese food. In addition, the more I read the menu, the more impressed I was by the range of food options. I had thought of the place primarily as a sushi bar (like Katzra), but Sakuras menu presents four pages of choices including several rice dishes (dons), a whole bunch of cooked seafood choices, shabu-shabu, all kinds of cold appetizers (including shiokara"salted squid guts" the menu explains), deep fried foods, etc. etc. As I read the menu, the adventurous side of me kept wanting to try new things, even while I was ordering old favorites.
Anyway, last week, as I was coming back from vacationing in Monterey, I stopped at Sakura again for dinner. The owner recognized me and we talked a little. I told him I wanted something interestingmaybe a sashimi combination. He rubbed his chin with his hand, smiled, and told me that I didnt want the sashimi this night, but that he would fix me some things interesting. The first course was spinach cooked with uni. I usually have uni as sushi, so having it as part of a cooked dish was great, a perfect start and a wonderful blend of tastes and texture. He followed it up with a spicy fish salad. The salad looked like something from a fancy restaurant, a mound of fish mixed with red onion slices, tomato pieces, julienned cucumber, and an excellent slightly spicy dressing, the mound topped with bonito flakes. Then I was served a dish of pork and kim chee. It was sortof like a Kim chee jigai, except that it was not soup and no extra red pepper flakes had been added, so the dish was milder than a comparable Korean dish would have been. Nonetheless, pork and kim chee are a wonderful flavor combination. I was very pleased. I should have stopped eating at this point but I figured I could stuff a few pieces of sushi in me, and this was my last chance for sushi until I could return to San Diego. First he served me sake (smoked salmon). Then I ordered suzuki (sea bass) and mirugai (giant clam), at which point he apologized for the smoked salmon, telling me that hed forgotten that I didnt necessarily want the standard items that other Americans liked. In any case, it was a wonderful meal and I plan to go back again next time Im in the city. There are more things on that menu (like dishes with natto) that I need to try.
Sakura has pleasant, friendly feel to it, even if it is mostly aimed at Japanese speakers. In fact, My neighbor at the sushi bar on my last visit was from Tokyo, just in California on vacation. Only once have I seen other gaijin in the place. Yet once they had discovered that I was interested in real Japanese food, I have been treated very well. The restaurant also has a nice selection of fine Japanese cold sakes, which are available by the bottle or glass, and one can have a sake sampler giving you a taste of three different brands. IMHO this is a real chowhound kind of place.