Two North County chefs are creating Japanese food with local influences

Ethan Yang of Glass Box, left, and William Eick of Naegi.
(Ethan Yang photo by Pam Kragen/William Eick photo by Leo Cabal)

Chefs Ethan Yang at Glass Box and William Eick of Naegi have been developing their signature brands over the past year


Ethan Yang and William Eick have a lot in common. Both North County men are in their early 30s. They’ve both spent most of the past decade cooking in North County-area restaurant kitchens. And over the past year, they’ve both launched unique signature restaurants that combine their passion for Japanese food with local ingredients and culinary influences.

Yang heads up Glass Box, an Asian coastal cuisine and sushi restaurant that opened Jan. 21 in the Sky Deck restaurant collective at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Del Mar Heights. Eick has opened two Japanese restaurants in South Oceanside: Matsu, a fine-dining tasting menu-only restaurant, and Naegi, a casual restaurant serving Japanese-inspired sandwiches and salads. Matsu recently marked its first anniversary and Naegi moved from a food truck into a brick-and-mortar location a few weeks ago.

Here’s a taste at Glass Box and Naegi and the chefs behind them.

Glass Box

Ethan Yang searing Japanese golden eye snapper nigiri inside his Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
(Pam Kragen/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ethan Yang’s family moved to the U.S. from Japan in 1986, and he was born two years later. From the age of 6, he was washing dishes in his family’s restaurants and he learned how to cook beside his father, Henry Yang, who owned Mr. Charlie’s Fortune Cookie, which closed in 2009 after 20 years in Rancho Bernardo, and more recently Zen Modern Asian Bistro in Sabre Springs. Then he served as director of restaurants at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula.

A few years ago, Yang decided to strike out on his own with a bold concept he called Glass Box. As a longtime sushi chef, he was accustomed to having customers watch him making rolls and nigiri behind the glass boxes of a sushi counter. So when he decided to launch his own restaurant last year, he created a supersize glass-walled sushi restaurant with 18 seats around the counter, and tables with another 35 seats outside the glass box.

Softshell crab salad at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights
Softshell crab salad with deep fried avocado and garlic chips at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Glass Box serves Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai and other Asian-inspired dishes, as well as Yang’s own style of sushi, which is clean, fresh and simple, with a vibrant mix of flavors that are sweet, sour and umami, but never too salty. Besides raw seafood dishes, there are also hot items like a Taiwanese beef noodle soup; lamb chop with crispy rice; seared salmon with asparagus and Singapore chili sauce; softshell crab salad with deep fried avocado and garlic chips; and green tea tiramisu.

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Working with his trio of sous chefs Anson, Tony and Ivan, Yang offers 5-, 10- and 15-course omakase dinners. The restaurant also offers a dozen cocktails created by general manager Terry Tse, including a purple house margarita tinted with butterfly pea flowers, and the Lycheetini, a sweet martini made with Haku white rice vodka from Japan, yuzu syrup, lemon juice and lychee fruit.

Hamachi of yellowtail belly, watermelon, crispy burdock root at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
Hamachi of yellowtail belly, watermelon, crispy burdock root and togarashi salt at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What to order: All of Yang’s food is fresh, tender, flavorful and prepared with care, but several items stood out during a recent omakase meal.

A nigiri portion of yellowtail belly over rice with a small cube of fresh watermelon, a crispy accent of dehydrated daikon and dash of togaroshi seasoning was the perfect mix of sweet, tender, crunch and juicy surprise.

Savory yellow squash soup with crab at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The seasonal yellow squash soup with cooked crab is so savory and rich, I could be content eating just that for dinner. The madai nigiri, a bite of red snapper simply dressed with lemony ponzu sauce and shaved scallions is the epitome of Yang’s minimalist and citrus-forward style of using a minimum of elements to accentuate, rather than overwhelm, the fish flavor. The salmon nigiri is accented with a dab of garlic paste, which surprisingly tickles the back of your throat when you swallow the whole bite at once.

Salmon nigiri with yuzu pepper paste at Glass Box restaurant at Sky Deck in Del Mar Heights.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The meaty scallop nigiri is served with the mollusk cut in a V-shape and wrapped around the black truffle-infused rice and topped with smoked truffle sauce and salt. The albacore nigiri, served with ponzu sauce and garlic paste is so juicy it explodes with flavor, like dim sum. And if they’re available, ask for a kumamoto oyster, which Yang serves raw in the shell with delicious accents of tamarind chile sauce, mango chutney and lemon ice.

Glass Box: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Sky Deck, 3790 Townsgate Drive, San Diego. (858) 289-4800.


A selection of dishes at chef William Eick's newly opened Naegi in South Oceanside.
(Courtesy of Leo Cabal)

William Eick’s passion for Japanese food springs from his childhood, when he grew up in a mostly Asian section of San Jose. With both of his parents away a lot — his father was a disc jockey and sports announcer and his mom went to college later in life to study child development — Eick became the home cook by default, making simple meals for himself and his brother. When the family did have time to sit down for dinner, it was usually takeout sushi, Vietnamese food or Dungeness crab.

At 15, his family moved to Carlsbad. He’d planned to become an auto mechanic but while working at a sushi restaurant during college, he fell in love with the restaurant industry and trained behind the counter in classic Japanese techniques. After working at several restaurants around North County, including his own short-lived 608 Restaurant on Mission Avenue in Oceanside, Eick launched his prix-fixe Matsu concept as a pop-up in 2019. The full-scale restaurant opened in April of last year.

Meanwhile, Eick launched two other concepts: Hokkaido Bread Co., which makes and sells Japanese milkbread for his restaurants and for wholesale customers in the grocery and restaurant trade; and Naegi, a fast-casual Japanese sandwich concept. He came up with the idea after falling in love with Japanese convenience store sandwiches and milkbread during a visit to Japan several years ago. Naegi also started as a pop-up in May of last year, then transitioned to a food truck operation last January before moving into a brick-and-mortar location in September.

The chicken karaage sandwich at Naegi restaurant in South Oceanside.
(Courtesy of Leo Cabal)

Naegi’s star menu item is the karaage sandwich, a breaded and fried Japanese-style chicken sandwich. Eick’s karaage sandwich begins with five ounces of chicken thigh meat, which has more flavor and moisture than breast meat. He marinates the chicken in shio koji (fermented rice marinade), soy sauce and mirin rice wine, then breads it with potato starch, fries it and seasons it with salt and togarashi seasoning. The oversize karaage patties are served on Hokkaido bread with shredded raw cabbage and a creamy spread made from Japanese kewpie mayo and various seasonings.

The Ebi-Filet-O sandwich at Naegi restaurant in South Oceanside.
(Courtesy of Leo Cabal)

There are also Japanese-style egg salad sandwiches, tofu karaage and kanikame (imitation crab) sandwiches, and sides of Japanese-inspired potato salad, cucumber salad and crisp green beans tossed in sesame tofu dressing.

What to order: Eick’s juicy, spicy, tender karaage sandwich is the best chicken sando in town. Don’t believe me? Check out the customers queued up in line each day. Many of them are cooks and chefs who are coming from restaurants all over North County.

But my favorite menu item (and Eick’s, too) is the Ebi-Filet-O. Inspired by the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s outlets in Japan, it’s a hearty-sized patty of katsu (fried) shrimp with cabbage and house Thousand Island dressing on sliced Hokkaido bread. It’s addictive.

Naegi: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 1902 S. Coast Highway, Oceanside. (760) 696-3069.

The Japanese egg salad sandwich at Naegi restaurant in South Oceanside.
(Courtesy of Leo Cabal)