Throwback to 1994

By Dr. Ink

In restaurant years, Benihana is ancient.

The national chain, founded in 1972 by the late Rocky Aoki, sizzled its way into San Diego 24 years ago.

I was among the flocks of consumers back then who got all goofy sitting around the habachi grills at communal tables while gawking at the “performance chefs” slicing and dicing my teriyaki steak with rapid precision.

A Mission Valley mainstay for teppanyaki dining (Photo by Dr. Ink)

After a couple of visits, the thrill wore off. I concluded that the food wasn’t that good. And until recently I never gave the place another thought.

Now, more than two decades later, I found myself flowing with the herds through the faux-palace doors again, if only to take a trip down memory lane.

Salmon nigiri (Photo by Dr. Ink)

Everything seemed the same except for the bar lounge, which might have grown larger to accommodate weekday happy hour, which is the main reason I decided to return.

Also, within the lounge area is a sushi bar. I’m not sure that even existed back in the day.

Rum-based Benihana punch (Photo by Dr. Ink)

Happy hour is available only at the bar or when seated at any of the tightly arranged tables in its shadow. The food and drink specials are printed on small cards hidden inside Benihana’s regular, laminated menus. My rushed but friendly waitress kindly pointed that out as soon as I sat down.

Discounted drinks start at $3 for hot sake and graduate to $4 for Kirin Light and Lagunitas IPA. Premium well drinks are $6.50, and wines by the glass and specialty cocktails are $7.

The latter includes items such as sake sangria, yuzu margaritas, lychee blossoms and Behihana punch, which felt like the right drink to order there. Not since I lounged at some beach bar in Honolulu ages ago have I raised a cocktail to my lips with a paper umbrella poking into my face and a maraschino cherry and a lime wedge floating on top.

But the drink wasn’t as frou-frou as it looked. The blending of Myers’s Platinum Rum and various fruit liqueurs yielded a sinister kick.

Numerous noshes are also on the cheap during happy hour. They include California rolls and beef gyoza ($4); chicken tempura and Philadelphia rolls ($5); chili shrimp rolls and poke ($7.50); and dragon or rainbow rolls ($7).

I took a $4 gamble on the two-piece salmon nigiri and loved every bite. The fish was velvety and melt-in-your mouth fresh — and not such a graceless match to my silly glass of punch.

Assuming both Benihana and I stick around for another 20-plus years, I’ll likely saunter in sometime again for drinks and sushi.

As for eating in the main dining room with culturally-starved suburbanites who think they’ve been transported to Japan, I’ll give that a hard pass.

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