Gaijin Noodle + Sake House | Japanese Fusion Takes Hold in the Gaslamp

If you click on the pictures
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August 1, 2012

With an Italian American chef running the show and not more than one Japanese employee in the whole lot, it’s fitting that the restaurant’s name means “foreigner” in Japanese.  Despite its play on words, Gaijin Noodle + Sake House successfully spins stylish Japanese Fusion all its own in the Gaslamp by bringing traditional Asian flavors and techniques to the 21st century.

Chef Anthony Friscia
Gaijin Noodle + Sake House is part of the West Group, owners of Bar West nightclub in PB and The Griffin music venue and bar in Bay Park.  The eatery is operated by acclaimed chef Antonio Friscia, the former executive chef of Stingaree, current partner of Campine Catering (along with Andrew Spurgin and Brian Malarkey), and a cuisinier generally known for his Italian-inspired dishes - not his Japanese-fusion cooking. That is until now.

Although less than a year old, Gaijin has received plenty of attention in San Diego’s culinary community.  This year, Gaijin was voted winner of San Diego Magazine’s critic’s choice for best Asian fusion and reader’s choice runner-up for Chef Friscia in the best chef category. Gaijin also nabbed 1st place in the non-traditional poke category at the 3rd Annual I Love Poke Festival for an amazing amuse bouche that combined local yellowtail, bay scallops, octopus, chili yuzu, uni and micro shiso atop a fried Okinawa sweet potato chip (a dish somewhat similar to the local yellowtail poke which is currently on their menu).

Inside Gaijin
Gaijin’s interior is inspired by Japanese gastropubs, and its menu relies heavily on ramen noodle bowls, Asian-fusion tapas (‘otsumami’) and sizzling skewers hot off the grill (‘yakitori’).  It is an elegant yet casual environment, where patrons can imbibe, ingest, and interact in a laid back, hip setting.  Gaijin brings the dining community together every hour with a (sometimes startling!) gong blast and a gratis shot of warm sake!  Kampai!

Blistered Shisito Peppers
For starters, patrons receive a complimentary serving of the spicy cabbage slaw.  We then ordered the edamame ($5), a customary dish served with toasted garlic, salt, and togarashi – a popular Japanese spice blend that you’ll notice dusted on a lot of Gaijin’s dishes.   The blistered shisito peppers ($7) are another favorite with an addicting char.  It is a simple dish that appears alive due to the topping of bonito flakes (paper thin flakes of dried, smoked bonito fish) which move around like little snakes as they flutter with the heat of the peppers.

Fish and Chips
We continued with starters and next received the yellowtail crudo “fish and chips” ($9), a light and refreshing dish combining perfectly sliced pieces of hamachi sashimi, tart ponzu, super zesty jalapenos, and served with a side of Okinawan potato chips.  Definitely not your established notion of fish and chips!

Crying Tiger
Next up we sampled the crying tiger skirt steak ($11), which was tender meat stir fried in red onion, garlic, cilantro, fresh mint, green onions and shallots and served room temperature to slightly chilled.  While we truly enjoyed the dish, there was an excessive amount of red onions on the plate that did nothing to emphasize the otherwise exciting and vivid flavors.

Carnitas Bao Bao
Continuing on, we enjoyed a sampling of Gaijin’s famed carnitas bao bao ($3), along with an order of the beef cheek and tongue bao bao ($3).  Both mini sandwiches were incredibly tasty and crave-worthy, enough to justify a return trip to Gaijin (especially when they’re on special during happy hour!), but out of the two, I became surprisingly more obsessed with the beef tongue and cheek, something I would have NEVER thought to order off the menu.

Seven Samurai Yakitori
We were nearly stuffed off our starters, but we continued on, next receiving the seven samurai yakitori ($21).  Of the seven beautifully presented grilled skewers, our favorites were the natural beef skirt steak, the duroc pork kimchi, and surprisingly, the eggplant with sweet miso, scallions, and bonito shavings (I only say surprisingly because eggplant is not my go-to protein).  The accompanying house made chipotle and sweet chili sauces were both original and complimentary condiments.  As much as I enjoyed the braised beef tongue in the bao bao is as much as the grilled beef tongue skewer repulsed me – not because of the flavor (which was actually pleasant), but due to the combination of texture and my extremely raunchy imagination.  Sorry, I couldn’t get past it.

We couldn’t leave Gaijin without slurpin’ some noodles, so next up we received the uni green tea soba noodles ($11) – an attractively presented dish that combines unlikely flavors (including lobster) to create a somewhat buttery and cheesy taste, not the distinct seafood flavor that I have come accustomed to in my previous sea urchin experiences.  One of my favorite dishes was the spicy miso chasu hakata ramen noodle bowl ($12), which combines miso, chili paste, bok choy, sliced pork, and a beautiful pink-swirl rice cake into an exquisitely flavorful and very spicy, savory broth.

Kakigori Shaved Ice Cocktails
While we didn’t have room for dessert, we plan on returning to try the grilled bacon s’more ($3.50) and the kakigori shaved ice cocktails (think sake infused snow cone).  Although Gaijin doesn’t have a liquor license, they have a large selection of sake (which come in flights), as well as plum wine, soju, and draft and bottled beer.  One recommendation on the beer list: in the land of craft beer, maybe offer local options, gaijin if you will (or non-gaijin if we're being literal - I dunno), like Stone, Green Flash, Ballast Point, etc.  I believe a good craft beer would serve as an encouraging platform by which I may explore some of the uniquely diverse menu items!  I would love some salty pork kimchi skewers with an icy IPA!

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House has a new happy hour every Monday – Friday from  5-7pm.  For more information, visit Gaijin online, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

627 4th Avenue, Gaslamp
(619) 238-0567

Sunday–Thursday 5pm-1am
Friday & Saturday 5pm-3am