Pacific Rim specialties draw sushi-lovers to Café Japengo in La Jolla

By Kelley Carlson

Its name means “land of mystery,” yet Café Japengo appears to be well-known among San Diegans. Although Café Japengo is located across the street from the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine, in Restaurant Village, it’s more of a local joint than a hotel restaurant. By day, it tends to draw the business crowd. At night, it becomes louder and more trendy. During the summer, there are concerts in the common area shared by the nearby eateries.

Inside, much of the activity centers around the sushi bar. Among the sushi chefs’ creations is the Protein Roll with spicy tuna, albacore, scallop, crab, avocado and scallions wrapped in soy paper and topped with garlic-ginger ponzu.

Meanwhile, guests sit around the large, square counter, under drapery crafted from noreen (material wrapped around sushi carts in Japan) and keep an eye on the action.

The chefs can prepare delicacies based on customers’ preferences, according to General Manager Monia Tonazzo. She recommends patrons become acquainted with a particular chef. “Our chefs are all artists; they all have their own styles,” Tonazzo said.

Frequent diners also can take advantage of membership in the Sunday Night Tengu Club. Every half-hour, a prize wheel is spun, and sushi bar patrons wearing Café Japengo anniversary T-shirts are eligible to win gift cards and food. In addition, they receive $10 gift cards for every $50 they spend.

Guests who opt to sit in the bar and sip on beverages like Rock Sake Cocktails and Ginger & Cucumber Fizz are watched over by the long-nosed mask of Tengu, the Japanese god of virility. Nearby are framed kites featuring images of actors who starred in kabuki theater productions.

In the main dining room, shoji screens separate booths. The screens — some of which can be seen through — represent the secrecy of the East and mystery of the West.

The cuisine is a combination of simplicity and freshness, Tonazzo said. More organic, farm-to-table types of ingredients and sustainable seafood are being incorporated into the dishes these days, and the menu changes every six months. “We want to keep it exciting,” Tonazzo said.

Yet there are staples, some of which are shared by Café Japengo’s related restaurants in Hawaii. One appetizer that seems to be popular is the Roasted Shishito Peppers with ponzu and bonito shavings. Another favorite starter is the Curry Dusted Calamari with Thai lime vinaigrette and chuka salad.

A few sandwich and burger selections are available during lunchtime, such as the Kobe Beef Burger.

Main entrees served throughout the day include the flaky and delicate Miso Butterfish with Asian truffle broth, shrimp dumplings, jemiji mushrooms, bok choy and gobo root; and Ten Ingredient Fried Rice, which incorporates chicken, shrimp, pork, egg, mushroom and various vegetables.

On the Menu RECIPE:

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Just click ‘Get The Recipe’ at the bottom of the story. This week: Café Japengo’s Kobe Beef Burger