Izakaya Sakura, or just "Sakura" to us, is one of those places dear to the hearts of Chowhounds in San Diego. And over the last 3 years or so, Sakura has developed a bit of a cult following beyond the range of the locally stationed "Salarymen" and Japanese Nationals. Located in a strip mall between two military recruiting centers on Convoy, you'd never know it's there, unless you really made a concerted effort to find it.
You'll notice, no signs, no banners, no ubiquitous "Sushi" roadside sign. In fact, I believe that Sakura is slowly collapsing upon itself in a way. I remember there being some kind of store front sign the first time I recall seeing this place. And I distinctly recall some signage existing as recently as last year. Now there's just the stark, plain entrance. When people ask for directions, I get to use a favorite line of mine, "when you see nothing, you're there". At least they let you know they're open!
I met Ed from Yuma in the parking lot and we walked into Sakura. Ed started moving toward his favorite position on the sushi bar (left end), but I asked him to sit on the right corner (better light), and Ed in his easy going way moved over to the right side of the sushi bar. I had wanted better light so as not to use the flash on my camera. After all, we didn't want to give the people passing by the wrong impression. That due to the flashing strobe, that there was some kind of "rave" going on inside! Actually, there was a "rave" of sorts going on, just not the dancing kind.
We started things off with Ed's favorite Tako Wasabi, real wasabi is used, so the usual edges associated with a dish of this type are rounded. I also ordered one of my favorite dishes here, Shishito Tempura. The tempura was done to perfection. The batter is light and crunchy, the Shishito has become soft and creamy, a very nice play of textures. My one problem with the dish during this encounter had nothing to do with preparation. The quality of the Shishito was not quite as good as on previous visits. There is usually a very slight heat and nice sweetness, and the seeds are soft and you almost don't know they exist. I think that the peppers were a little older this time. There were a number of hard seeds and the peppers were not as sweet as I'm used to.
Next up was the Buta Kakuni, braised pork belly, one of the standard Izakaya dishes.
There was a nice balance of flavor; shoyu, mirin, a dab of hot mustard, et al, blended together, and the pork was cooked to perfection. I think Ed enjoyed this, he ended using his chopsticks to "fish out" all the little bits that remained. As we finished our Omakase Sashimi was delivered:
Hamachi, Hamachi Toro, Maguro Toro, and Mirugai, and most of all the headliner, Aji (Spanish Mackerel) laying in all their perfection. I don't know how, what, or where Kazu get's and prepares his Aji, but it's among the best I've ever tasted. Slightly oily, but creamy, the skin of the sashimi provides just a slight resistance, with just a bit of grated ginger and green onions. This is the star of the show! As we started in on the sashimi one of the waitresses came by and removed the carcass of the Aji, to return in a few minutes with the bones of the Aji fried! For many, this is the best part of the dish. Again, remaining completely in character the bones were fried to perfection. Usually there are always one or two bones that are hard and can't be eaten, not in this case however! With a squeeze of lemon and a dip in ponzu, these superlative "crackers" were delici-yoso!
You may think that this would be enough, quite a grand meal. But oh no, not for "me and Ed down at the Izakaya" (sorry Paul Simon..). Ed ordered Ika no Shiokara! For those who don't know what this is....to put it simply it's salted or fermented squid intestines.
I have had Shiokara before, and had found it to be really terrible, bitter, salty, yuck! No Mas! But this version was a revelation. Slightly salty, sweet, with a nice aftertaste. Mid-bite I asked Ed to try and describe the taste, which made him stop mid-bite as well. Kind of at a loss for words or at least colorful adjectives, I thought Umami with a touch of bitterness. This little "cup of guts" kept us occupied, grasping for a description. As Ed began to speak, I waited in anticipation for maybe an Shakespearean Sonnet or two. He answered simply, "savory". Anti-climatic, but good enough!
The last time we had sushi at a different locale, Ed noticed the Sushi Chef grating a long tubular radish looking vegetable. I told him it was naga-imo, he seemed interested. So to finish our dinner off, I ordered Maguro Yamakake. Diced Maguro is seasoned with a bit of shoyu and is covered with gluey, gloppy grated Mountain Yam (naga-imo) and topped with shredded nori with wasabi on the side. Forget the wasabi, no need for it. Naga-imo is pretty much tasteless, and looks alot like Elmers Glue, but in this mix it somehow seems to amplify both the salty and sweetness in the maguro, and the texture is unique. Another dish that's hard to describe, I think you'll need to try it to see, it was an apt end to a great meal. Thanks for coming along Ed!
Notes: Ed and I were amazed that it even though it was Wednesday, the place was packed when we left, not only with the "usual" clientele, but with a really diverse group. The price for dinner was $75, without any alcohol. There is a pretty extensive sake list, and beer and wine are available.