By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Sushi snobs might scoff initially at many of the rolls available at Fire Horse Nine Dragons Pan Asian Bar & Bistro before granting fast forgiveness.
The “crab” used in a majority of them is actually “krab,” meaning it’s the imitation stuff aficionados know right off the bat as pollock and fish paste. The tradeoff, however, are the five-star presentations of nearly everything served here.
Sushi and other Japanese fare dominate the menu, but with footnotes of Korean dishes such as stone-potted bibimbap and kimchi rice plus a few Chinese standbys like orange chicken, kung pao stir-fries and salt & pepper shrimp.
Helming the kitchen is an unnamed Korean woman with 25 years of Asian-cooking experience who prefers to be called “chef.” Respecting her wishes for anonymity is owner Edward Chuh, also Korean, who previously ran House of Nine Dragons in Bonita for 36 years.
Fire Horse sits on a quaint block of Juniper Street that was home to the failed Juan Chou. The sushi and booze bars were kept, and the interior is optically warmer with colorful paper umbrellas hanging overhead, a festive come-on to the impressive sake inventory Chuh has acquired, which includes a $300 bottle of imported Kikusui Kuramitsu.
“It’s made with very fine rice and tastes as smooth as water,” he told us.
Starting with “the tower” appetizer, we didn’t mind the sweet, tender krab at all as it complimented precise layers of spicy tuna, cucumber, seaweed, avocado and bright-orange roe, known as masago in sushi speak. A little ponzu sauce in the scheme added an overall addicting flavor. Priced at only $6, we were stunned at its artful construct.
Ditto for the Fire Horse roll, which contained shrimp tempura and spicy krab inside and tuna and avocado on top. Dotting each of the eight pieces were tiny droplets of gold gelatin called angel tears. Though flavorless, Chuh says it’s an expensive aesthetic priced at $100 for a 3-ounce bottle. Upping the presentation was a hollowed-out cucumber in the center of the plate filled with flaming Sterno. It looks edible after dying out, but it’s not.
Arriving unknowingly during happy hour, which is held daily until 6 p.m., the fried shrimp dumplings (shu mai) were discounted from $6 to $4. Draft beers and several other plates also come down by a couple bucks.
The bite-size dumplings were mediocre until swiping them through the accompanying plum sauce and tame hot mustard. But neither condiment seemed to rescue the lost flavor of the shrimp. Nor did the crisp, icy cold Tsingtao beer we drank along the way.
Judicious measures of spicy mayo bind the ingredients set atop delicate, fried dumpling skins in Fire Horse’s tostadas, served four to an order. For good reason, they’re a top seller – easy to handle and stimulating on the palate as sushi-grade tuna and salmon mingle with green onions, tomatoes, cilantro and masago.
Curious as to how the orange chicken would match up to the classic Chinese version, we opted for that as well. Unfortunately the tang factor went missing. So did the chili and green onion elements. Instead, the battered thigh pieces were coated only in teeth-sticking simple syrup, which to our relief wasn’t as cloying as it appeared.
In addition, there are more than two dozen rolls using a variety of house-made sauces that are sure to keep South Parkers well sated as the restaurant approaches its one-year anniversary in August. Despite the couple misses we encountered, Fire Horse is a cheerful and welcome addition to a neighborhood largely deprived of Asian kitchens.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.