Japanese barbecue is simply beautiful. You have plates of premium raw meats, such as Berkshire pork cheek and Kobe beef short ribs, a built-in, gas-powered charcoal grill at your table, steady flow of ice cold beer, good conversation - and that’s it.
The social dining experience at Tsuruhashi Japanese BBQ on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa is so basic that even a caveman could relate. Everything about it is elemental, with staff merely facilitating the making of your meal
Fewer than a dozen tables that each seat two to four people make up the dining room, with partitions between them for added intimacy during long bonding sessions over sizzling meats. Choose your dining mates accordingly; in other words, if you wouldn’t want to go on a road trip with ‘em, then they probably won’t make good company here. If you do it right, then dinner turns into a journey; absolutely no one swings through this place to fill up. That would be missing the point.
The tradition of Japanese barbecue (adapted from Korean barbecue) is to grill a few bite-sized morsels at a time, eating them the second they leave the fire, with dipping sauces of the soy- and sesame-based sorts. Menu items like kimchi, including rice fried with the fermented cabbage, with a sunny side up egg on top, serve as a reminder that this style of eating, yakiniku (Japanese for grilled meat), has Korean roots.
Besides dipping sauces, the Japanese twist on barbecue is the use of offal, from cow tongue to tripe. Tsuruhashi has an strong reputation in this category, however, my boyfriend and I only scratched the surface with an order miso tongue, choosing to stick to the most popular cuts.
Kobe beef is an obvious treat, with so much marbling, that a cooked slice feels more gelatinous texture wise, melting in your mouth like the best fat on a steak you’ve ever tasted, and less like actual beef. It is a true delicacy to savor, making it ideal for the tantalizing process of yakiniku.
The ribeye and pork belly were also good, but paled in comparison to the Berkshire cheek and Kobe that we started off with, which proved far more rich and tender. We let the cheek go a little longer than the other meat, crisping its exterior, which reminded us of the coveted salty, fatty lip running along the top of a fried pork chop.
But the show-stopping underdog, and what we’ll return for again and again, is the prime skirt steak, with its super tender meat and intense beefy flavor. Throughout both visits, we hardly touched the dipping sauces, nor the lettuce wraps and miso sauce that come with some meat presentations. And even though a fried egg on anything makes it better, on our second visit, we opted for plain rice instead of the Korean, kimchi version.
Simplicity is contagious at Tsurahashi Japanese BBQ, making it easily one of the best places to slow down and connect with your company while performing the fundamental ritual of cooking meat over a fire. It turns out that our stomachs, and hearts, are stuck in prehistoric times.
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org