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The ‘cherry tree’ of Mission Hills

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

The year was 1975. “Saturday Night Live” debuted on NBC and the Vietnam War had ended. In San Diego, Led Zeppelin played to a sold-out Sports Arena while down at the foot of Washington Street, restaurant-goers with pedestrian palates began digging on miso soup and udon noodles at a humble, little joint called Yoshino Japanese Restaurant.

Other than moving a few addresses away several years later, little has changed at Yoshino, which translates to “blossoming cherry tree.” Its hospitable owners, Yama and Kat Yamamoto, say the recipes for classics such as beef teriyaki and vegetable tempura have remained exactly the same since the restaurant opened 40 years ago.

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Potato croquettes (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Yoshino’s façade appears dull and forsaken in a small stucco strip plaza set back from the street. Inside, however, the atmosphere is bright, clean and linear in its layout. A sushi bar was added about eight years ago, adding contemporary flair to an acceptably dated motif adorned with several framed photographs of Yama showing off his prized catches from fishing trips.

Our trio began with crispy potato croquettes and a refreshing cucumber-seaweed salad accented with lemons. Both appetizers were simple in their approach, with no sauces or accouterments needed.

An order of steamed house-made gyoza floating in a bowl of hot water proved irresistible, with or without the mild soy-chili sauce served alongside. Akin to Chinese dumplings, these pillowy pork-filled beauties leave out the ginger in lieu of finely minced vegetables, resulting in a more delicate flavor that becomes apparent as you continue eating them.

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Spicy tuna rolls (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

From the entrée list, sesame chicken jumped out at me only because I’ve never had it outside of a fast-food Chinese eatery. Unlike those versions, which are riddled with palm sugar and taste often like donut holes, the Japanese recipe is far less cloying, allowing you to taste the sesame. Also, the chicken (all thigh meat) is served on a bento-style plate in neat, organized strips opposed to the lump cuts doled out from steam trays at certain “express” places.

The red meat lover in our group ordered beef teriyaki, plated in the same elegant fashion as the sesame chicken, with lightly dressed bean sprouts and iceberg lettuce sitting in separate compartments.

Expecting skirt steak, he got top sirloin instead – a nice surprise yielding a rich, supple texture that had me believing at first it was filet mignon. In addition, the dark, clingy teriyaki glaze was balanced in soy sauce, brown sugar and mirin; it’s not overly sweet and certainly not from a jar. For a dish that’s become so commonplace, if not outdated, this authentic and straightforward version triggers waves of renewed appreciation.

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Sesame chicken (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The vegetarian among us was pleased with her vegetable tempura, which revealed a bounty of judiciously battered organics ranging from super-sweet onions and chunky broccoli to Japanese pumpkin and snappy green beans. The tempura was frilly and non-oily in a way that only Japanese kitchens seem to achieve.

Miso soup is included with most meals. It was comforting and rightfully salty and contained a few cubes of tofu bobbing within its cloudy broth.

From the sushi bar one of my companions tried the spicy tuna rolls, served six to an order and made by a young Japanese employee under the watchful eye of Yama. To my dismay, the companion shoveled them down before I could get my hands on one, telling me afterwards that both the fish and rice tasted spot-on fresh, and that the spice level was mild enough for his vulnerable palate.

yoshinoThe rolls and sashimi across the menu are familiar in the traditional sense, meaning that you won’t find bacon or zany sauces in their constructs. The regular menu, too, sticks to dishes that have long appeased American consumers: chicken katsu, broiled salmon (or mackerel) and udon noodles prepared in tempura or Nabeyaki styles, the latter containing chicken, fish cakes, shrimp and carrots.

Green tea cheesecake is perhaps where the kitchen steps into modern times. But it was dry and underwhelming and really not necessary after plowing through a parade of time-honored savories that left lovely, residual flavors on our lips.

—Contact Frank Sabatini Jr. at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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