“Japanese people NEVER drink hot sake.” I had no reason to doubt the authenticity of this statement, made by our waitress, Yuka Nakai, a daughter of the owner of the best sake joint in north San Diego county. Yu Me Ya is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sake bar and restaurant on the 101; we did, until one day we didn’t. Our first visit, a few years back, was a crash course in the art of sake drinking. The glasses are served on a saucer, and filled to the point of overflow (it’s bad form to pick up the glass for the first sip; instead, lean over and sip it as it sits on the table – and make sure you drink what spilled into that saucer). There are hundreds of sake brewers in Japan, and they are no less serious about their varietals of rice than Napa Valley vintners are about their grapes. And after you’ve had a glass of good, cold sake, you’ll never want to drink it hot again.
We’ve since become regulars – well, as regular as anyone can be at one of the worst “best-kept secrets” in SD County. Get there after 6:00 on any given night and you’re out of luck. The place is small; the bar seats maybe 12 people, and there are only a handful of tables. And it’s always packed. For good reason. The sake list boasts well over 100 different sakes, which can be purchased by the glass or the bottle. Newbies to sake are advised to try a flight – three 1 or 2 oz. glasses of either regular, premium, or super-premium sakes. Prices range from $5 to $14 per flight; it’s best to let Yuka or her sister Fumika pick for you (they’ll invariably recommend a sake that was the favorite of a particular Japanese Prime Minister – I have no way of verifying the accuracy of their claims, but I’ve yet to be disappointed). Sake is not a distilled “hard” alcohol; it’s sipped like wine, and good sakes have the complexity of a good Cab or Pinot. I found some amazing flavors in each glass – licorice, bourbon, citrus – that simply aren’t found in the stuff that you buy at your local chain grocery store. (And like good wine, drink a few and you’ll get a tremendously pleasant buzz.) On our last visit, this past weekend, I enjoyed…well, I couldn’t tell you the names of each sake, but they were all delicious. (Of course, at the end of the evening, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you the names of my kids.) In addition to sake, Yu Me Ya serves some excellent – and unusual – Japanese beers.
(I drank that bottle. It was excellent – hints of coffee and chocolate and a miso-y finish, and not at all oystery.)
Yu Me Ya has an excellent menu; the udon is legendary, and the hot and cold izakaya – Japanese tapas – are amazing. (Best bets – the spicy tuna “carpaccio” and the takoyaki, fried dumplings filled with diced octopus, and the BBQ beef salad.) But the sake is the reason to come here. Diving into Japan’s signature beverage is a treat, and Yu Me Ya is the perfect place to discover what real sake is all about.
(Photos: Jason Avant)