Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Tadokoro, San Diego

Some of the best food in California is to be found in strip malls. This isn't just my opinion, but the opinion of chef Ludo Lefebvre, who in his Mind of a Chef episode was referring to his own locale of Los Angeles but which applies just as well to its southern cousin. Yes, in San Diego there are plenty of decent ways to spend your dinner dollar downtown, the insanely flashy Born and Raised being the latest and greatest of them (and somewhere I would have positively reviewed already were it not for the fact it's pitch black in there after sunset and none of my photos came out). But if it's not a New York-style steakhouse (above), or boisterously over-designed late-night date venue you're after (e.g. Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange, Craft & Commerce), then you'll need to start looking towards suburbs like Lemon Grove or Kearney Mesa, where the real magic happens.

Over the years I've had charming hand-made dumplings from Tasty Noodle House in Kearney Mesa, table-sized bowls of fragrant Pho from Convoy Noodle House in Chula Vista (there's also, unsurprisingly, one on Convoy), and blindingly fresh fish tacos from TJ's Oyster bar in Bonita, all right at the very top of their respective games when it comes to the cuisines in which they specialise and all installed in unassuming strip malls where the prices are reasonable, service is friendly, and parking dreadful. These unassuming, ugly even, at least from the outside, slices of functional Americana are where frills and flourishes are (excuse the pun) stripped away, leaving the food to do the talking.

At Tadokoro, then, the food very much is the focus, but once you leave the rather workaday environs of this Old Town strip mall behind you and step inside the restaurant, it's clear just as much energy has been expended on the remarkably authentic Japanese interior and warmth of the service as anything that may end up gutted, fileted and served on a plate. It's a tiny place by San Diego standards, with only about 20 seats at tables and a further 9 at the bar. Needless to say, for the true 'omakase' experience it's critical you sit at the latter, where you can watch the bits and pieces of your dinner being assembled right in front of you, not to mention gawp at those destined for fellow diners as well.

One thing I took home from my trip to Japan back in 2012, along with a suitcase full of crazy flavoured noodles, was the sobering realisation that, despite my previous certitude, I was not the fearless food adventurer I thought I was. A salad bowl topped with cod sperm was the first shock to the system, and raw whole baby squid (giblets in situ) a few days later dealt my culinary confidence the mortal blow. Generalising hugely, whilst Japanese food is often intelligent and beautiful, it's not always very accessible, and their fondness both for fish semen as well as bland savoury jellies and bony freshwater fish fried whole along with their soily guts didn't always sit well on a Western palate. On this one, at least.

I had a flashback to the CSI (Cod Sperm Incident) watching our itamae open the biggest oyster I've ever seen in my life (from British Columbia), heave out the contents onto the counter, and slice it up into five pieces for my starter. It sat in front of me, dressed lightly in ginger and ponzu, looking like a bleached placenta, and for a moment I wondered whether I was up to the task. Fortunately - thank God - it tasted sweet and lean, with no hint of the horrid creaminess that can affect these bivalves in certain seasons. If you ever get a chance to try a giant Pacific oyster from British Columbia, take it, is my advice.

With the oyster came monkfish liver, as dense and rich as paté de foie gras, on top of an addictive layer of pickled mushrooms. And next to that, some pieces of conch mollusc, which to be perfectly honest didn't have much of a taste or a particularly pleasant texture (they were rather tough) but hey, at least I can now say I've eaten conch.

So clearly Tadokoro weren't afraid of pushing the timid Western palate, and good for them because over the next 14 or 15 "courses" (most just bite size) I got to try not only some world-class sushi, but a great deal of fish and shellfish I've never even seen on a menu before never mind actually sampled. Such as this local San Diego Bay spotted prawn, which was presented first as part of a sashimi set (antennae and legs still waggling away) alongside otoro (fatty tuna, as good as ever), a scallop from Japan (fine but not spectacular) and curls of "Bigeye" tuna and amberjack (apparently some relative of the sashimi-staple yellowtail).

At the relatively modest price point (for omakase anyway) of $85, it's perhaps unsurprising that some of the courses used cheaper fish, but I still would have much rather the usual black cod miso (of Nobu fame) than the presumably farmed and rather ordinary Chilean seabass used here. Still, it was nice enough, particularly the pickled ginger stem which was as colourful as it was tasty.

I got to try a bit of this tempura roll, which was my dinner companion's main course (I couldn't persuade her to go full omakase, and after the arrival of the giant oyster she was glad she hadn't) and it was packed full of good stuff, including a lovely fresh crab mixture and some of that gorgeous buttery California avocado.

The head and legs of the spotted prawn from the sashimi course now reappeared having been deep fried (you can also ask for it in soup form). Incredibly, aside from the thick carapace the whole of the rest of the animal was now entirely edible; the head had an incredibly complex, ever-so-slightly bitter concentrated seafood flavour, and the legs were like eating tubular prawn crackers. Hugely enjoyable.

Next began a run of the highlight of any omakase experience (at least I think so), the nigiri. I'll save you the exhaustive detail (and not only because I didn't take notes honestly guv) but amongst those pictured above are halibut cured in kelp, a remarkably spicy tuna relative cured in chili (the red one), a fantastic blowtorched mackerel, a sea urchin from Hokkaido (which wasn't actually as nice as the local San Diego ones but I wasn't about to start an argument) and finally a lovely fatty bit of smoked eel.

Towards the end of the meal, while we polished off our sesame ice creams, a whole, bright-red golden eye snapper appeared from the back and was carefully gutted and fileted in the front kitchen. The skill going into the separation of the light pink flesh from the bone was mesmerising to watch, a lovely bit of food theatre in of itself, but also neatly encapsulated just how much skill and effort goes into the food at Tadokoro. For a bill of around $140/head with a decent gutful of sake, this is almost certainly one of the most accomplished sushi restaurants in the city, and has become my new benchmark for the West Coast "omakase" experience.

In fact, it was so good I not only pledged to go back as soon as possible but it also gave me renewed vigor to venture forth on my next trip to the States and see if anywhere else can top it. I've heard good things from the usually reliable Eater (I would say that, as they occasionally pay me for work) about a little place called Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach, which despite a worrying habit of serving cod's sperm is many people's favourite for this kind of thing. They also operate out of a strip mall. I'll keep you posted.


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