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New culinary shop owner is tripping the light gastronomic

Henry Ota wants to build the

7-Eleven of the future. The enterprising 29-year-old newcomer to La Jolla envisions a shop where patrons can buy fresh, mouth-watering food in place of corn dogs and 99-cent taquitos, where customers can reach into the fridge for an icy, imported bottle of non-alcoholic ginger beer rather than pouring themselves a Slurpee.

He is halfway there.

Ota’s store, called simply The Shop, houses a variety of both prepared food and luxury ingredients. The business is somewhere between a deli, a gourmet food store, a restaurant, a meeting house and a cafe.

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“Basically, we want to incorporate a variety of specialty food,” said Ota, “and prepared food and catering and coffee and sodas and drinks and beer and wine, all in one small place, just to make it convenient, more of a modern-day convenience store.”

While this is the first time Ota has started a business, the enigmatic businessman has been involved in food for his entire professional life. He began flipping burgers at Carl’s Jr. and until recently was a part-owner of Stroh’s Gourmet, a luxury food store and quasi-restaurant in Santa Monica. That enterprise started when Ota and a partner decided to bring a concept they had seen work in Boston to southern California.

The partnership dissolved, but Ota said The Shop is a mirror-image of Stroh’s and that his former partner has helped him tremendously in opening the La Jolla store.

The Shop is not a deli. The chefs in Ota’s full kitchen - including Kyle Daley of the La Valencia Hotel, who comes in on weekends - set the menu for their patrons. Buyers do not decide how their sandwich is made. The ingredients are always fresh, often imported and always high quality.

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One thing you won’t find on the menu is mayonnaise. Ota has a life-long hatred of the stuff. Instead, his chefs use other sauces and tapenades to pep up their sandwiches, pasta salads and even potato salad. The Shop’s kitchen does not have a microwave - chefs heat up meals and sandwiches in the oven - and has an accent on old-fashioned preparation over modern, labor-saving techniques.

The meats at The Shop are not sold deli style by the pound, but the wide selection of cheeses, including such highlights as Humboldt Fog goat cheese from Arcata, Calif., a delicacy that has won dozens of fine food awards, can be bought by weight.

“You can buy a dollar’s worth of cheese here,” Ota said. “Nothing’s too small for us. That’s what makes us different to a deli.”

Chef J.P. Marengo, a life-long La Jolla resident who has worked in a number of restaurants in the Jewel, said he became involved in The Shop because he loved the concept Ota was trying to bring to the community.