If you haven’t yet caught a whiff of the steam from the yakitori grill crawling down 4th Avenue, your nose will be leading you there shortly. Now that Gaijin Noodle + Sake House has opened their doors, San Diego is getting swept away into a frenzy of ramen noodles and Pan Asian bar cocktails.
And while sitting down at the table to dine is undeniably the best way to fraternize with our new neighbors, it doesn’t quite answer just who is giving elaborate noodles and sake the comeback they deserve.
We interviewed the key players behind the scenes of the new Gaijin Noodle + Sake House urban restaurant and lounge. Discover more about the man behind the menu, Executive Chef Antonio Friscia and the energy propelling the Pan Asian Bar Program, Snake Oil Cocktail Co. Team Co-Founder Lucien Conner.
Executive Chef Antonio Friscia
DiscoverSD: What is your inspiration for the Gaijin menu?
Executive Chef Antonio Friscia: Gaijin’s menu has been a real passion project for me. Years ago, I used to meet my chef friends after working up at an izakaya up in Hillcrest. We’d drink beer and sake, eat skewers and talk about food. I wanted to create the kind of food real people want to eat to feel full, happy and satisfied. I wanted to bring in that feeling of community and relaxation into Gaijin so that it will become somewhere that people feel at home and want to spend time in--and the food I created reflects that feeling. It’s comfort food.
DSD: Where did your knowledge of Asian cuisine come from? Tell us about the process of preparing this menu.
AF: Years ago I spent a year cooking experiencing life in Bali, from there I spent months traveling throughout the rest of Southeast Asia. Cooking and experiencing the different cultures there gave me a great respect for the food that comes out of that region. And even though I never made it to Japan, I am fascinated with their culture. To me, everything they do is in the pursuit of beauty and perfection. From the way that their language is written to the food; everything is very precise and done with purpose, I like that. Some people might be surprised that as an Italian chef, I want to do Japanese food, but it’s my belief that you can cook anything. You just have to have the passion and the dedication to put yourself out there and try something new and then stick with it to turn it into something really delicious.
DSD: For someone’s first time dining at Gaijin, what three items do they have to try?
AF: The Seven Samurai Sampler--the PERFECT introduction to yakitori. We’ve put together all the “greatest hits” of skewers on our menu and gathered them up on one plate. You’d be able to try 7 different selections, one of each, and decide what you like best. Notable inclusions here are the nueske bacon wrapped jumbo asparagus, chicken meatball, pork wrapped kim chi and extra juicy chicken thigh.
You definitely have to try the ramen--if you like spicy, throw a bit of spicy kim chi miso paste into it to give it a little kick. My ramen dashi (soup stock) is a true labor of love. It takes 2 days to make and requires constant care. I start by getting duroc pork and jidori chicken bones. These pigs and chickens have had a good life--I get them from a local sustainable farm. These bones are roasted and seasoned, then are added into my kettle to make the actual stock. This is an 18 hour process of skimming off the fat. By the time it makes it to your table we’ve added high quality, thin cut ramen noodles, mushrooms, salted pork belly, scallions and a soft boiled egg. Is your mouth watering yet?
The Crying Tiger Steak is another favorite--but be warned--it’s SPICY! After all, it’s supposed to make the “Tiger Cry.” This is a thinly sliced marinated skirt steak that’s quickly sauted then dressed with cilantro, chili peppers, green onion, mint, toasted rice, fish sauce and LOTS of red chili.
DSD: For those who have never tried yakitori, can you explain the preparation, presentation and experience?
AF: Yakitori is one of the oldest “beer foods” in Japan. From its humblest beginnings, this dish was meant to be eaten and enjoyed with a frosty brew after a long hard days work. Because of that, the flavors are simple and smoky. We’ve stepped it up a bit and use extremely clean, high quality proteins from sustainable farms. But traditionally, most yakitori is supposed to be “hormone,” or organ meat. That’s why you see items like chicken heart and liver or beef tongue on our menu. We also combine strong flavors to give an additional punch--the bacon wrapped enoki mushroom and pork kim chi skewers are good examples of this.
Our grill itself is a beast--custom made in Hawaii and air-frieghted to San Diego, it weighs close to 600 pounds. We’re burning binchotan-style Japanese charcoal to cook the food--which what is traditionally appropriate. This particular charcoal is special because it burns very evenly and doesn’t smoke--two very important factors when considering the integrity of flavors.
And our yakitori chef, Komei Nishiyama, is a natural back there. Approachable, friendly, always smiling and throwing salt around on the skewers--he really completes the look and feel of what we were trying to create. He’s a young kid with a lot of talent and passion for what he does and will bring a lot of interesting flavors and perspectives to the menu. While you’re here, buy him a shot of sake or a beer--he’d like that.
DSD: What culinary trends do you play with? How are sustainable foods and fresh produce implemented?
AF: We use sustainable food and fresh produce--period. If it’s available fresh and locally, then that’s what we’ll use. As far as culinary trends, keep a look out for our “chalkboard menu.” It’ll be a revolving menu of about 7 or 8 items changed every 2 weeks or so. This menu will offer what’s in peak season, and will give Komei and I a place to get really creative. There’ll be a lot of fusion here--lots of exciting dishes mixing Italian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese.
DSD: What kind of vibe are you hoping for inside of Gaijin?
AF: We’re hoping it’ll be an “izakaiya” experience. A kind of pub, a hang out, a place to go to eat good food and knock back a few drinks. We want it to be warm, welcoming and relaxed. We’ll be open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights just for our restaurant industry pals; I’d love it if our seats were filled with chefs, bartenders and GMs after they’ve gotten off their shift.
DSD: How will Gaijin go above and beyond the normal Gaslamp dining experience?
AF: It’ll stand out because of the warm service and food. Downtown is full of “trendy” spots--which is great. But there needs to be somewhere for the normal person to be able to go a few times a month and enjoy themselves--we think that Gaijin will fill that void. And on top of that, there isn’t ANY PLACE LIKE US, literally. We just encourage people to stop in and check us out for themselves.
Snake Oil Cocktail Co. Team Co-Founder Lucien Conner
DiscoverSD: What is your vision and inspiration for the Gaijin Bar Program?
Lucien Conner: Gaijin bar program is about fun. We are not taking ourselves too seriously, but that doesn’t mean we are cutting any corners we are offering people something some really great products in a way that they have never experienced before.
DSD: What experience and background are you bringing to the Gaijin table?
LC: I love this style of dining! Yu Me Ya in Leucadia has been on my top three list for San Diego restaurants for a long time. The immediacy and accessibility of both Yakitori and Ramen were inspiration points for our bar program. We started looking at eastern street cart traditions and I fell in love with the aesthetics of Kakigori, or Japanese shave ice.
DSD: What is the vibe that you are hoping for inside of Gaijin?
LC: We have been calling it “Kampai Culture” an energetic convivial vibe. It’s all about people sharing good food and drinks and enjoying one another’s company. Simply put it’s a party, this is our house and we want everyone having a good time.
DSD: Tell us more about the sake list. What are some highlights?
LC: There is something for everyone on our sake list. We have some outstanding sparkling sakes that will give some of the worlds best bubbly a run for its money. Ever wonder what happens when you age sake in cedar? Come find out, whiskey drinkers, this means you…This stuff is awesome.
DSD: What makes this cocktail list unique?
LC: TEXTURE. You have not experienced this sort of light and fluffy snow anyplace in SD. Actually its all pretty unique: hand cranked snow, house made syrups playing on classic eastern flavors, boutique sakes and sojus, the careful construction and artful garnish. Yep, all unique.
DSD: What was your thought process when considering the beverage and food pairings? Which three parings do we have to try?
LC: Pairings….Matching……same thing. I fall back on my art education, in fact all the way back to something as simple as the color wheel. That is how I visualize flavors, then just like with color, I base pairings off contrasting (opposite side of wheel) or complimentary (adjacent) flavors.
DSD: Must-have match-ups?
Crying Tiger Beef…Cucumber Ginger Kakigori (Contrasting)
Pork Belly & Shiso…Plum Kakigori (Complimentary)
Green Papaya Salad…Mango Chili Kakigori (Complimentary)
DSD: How will a multi-sensory experience be created from the Gaijin Bar Program?
LC: Multi-sensory is a perfect descriptor for this program. The process of creating these cocktails is enjoyable from start to finish. The iron hand-cranked shave ice machine is a work of art. Seriously I’m starting a personal collection of these gorgeous contraptions. The sound of the block ice spinning on the stainless blade is like that satisfying sound of speed skaters going at it. The cocktails pop with vibrant colors and intense flavors. They are fun to hold, they are fun to look at, they are fun to eat.
DSD: How will fresh ingredients and sustainability be implemented into the cocktails?
LC: Snake Oil Cocktail Company is committed to using locally sourced sustainable products whenever possible. The syrups in our cocktails are all created from raw ingredients on a daily basis.
DSD: What cocktail trends will we find in Gaijin?
1. Kakigori: Japanese shave ice.
2. Jizake: Small production boutique sake, think multi generational micro brew that’s hundreds of years old
3. Fast Beautiful delicious and fun …That’s pretty much how to describe everything I like in life.
Insider Tip: Come and celebrate the official GRAND OPENING weekend of Gaijin Noodle + Sake House March 9-11th! Steamy noodle bowls, succulent skewers and lots of fresh special offerings from the Chalkboard menu. Be sure to stop in and enjoy one of our "community sake shots" with Komei and Chef Friscia!
Gaijin Noodle + Sake House is located at 627 4th Avenue.
Discover more local dining tips and trends in our San Diego restaurant blog.