I’ve been thinking a lot about longevity lately. It is natural, of course, to consider one’s own mortality during a public health crisis such as a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans.
The loss of life was sobering, as was the economic ruin that quickly spread to all industries. In my restaurant reporting, I have been particularly concerned about the (metaphorical) death of small independent restaurants.
I’ve counted the coronavirus closures — a dozen restaurants in Monterey County so far. I now approach the end of the month with immense anxiety – will this be the end of this restaurant, of this café?
It has been heartbreaking to see so many restaurants abruptly shut down after decades of operation. Historic Deetjen’s planted its roots in Big Sur in 1939, Steinbeck House in Salinas welcomed its first guests in 1974, and Crazy Horse Restaurant debuted in Monterey in 1977 – they’ve been through rough times before, but now their stories seem to have come to someone close. All are now closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When considering my takeout for the night, I made long-standing restaurants my priority pick. I am not naive enough to think that my order – or even my article in the local newspaper – will spare them the fatal blow of the economic devastation of the pandemic. But as long as the purse strings of government aid are closed, I feel I must do something to save these beloved institutions that have anchored local communities for years, if not decades.
This brings us back to longevity.
I was particularly impressed with the many long-standing Japanese restaurants in town. Ichi-Riki takes the title of oldest, opening over 60 years ago at Seaside. Another wave came in the 80s – the decade of new wave and neon also saw Kenny Fukumoto light our fire for Japanese cuisine with Robata in the barnyard and Chris Fukushima started serving sushi at the original outpost of Ocean Sushi Deli in Pacific Grove.
The 80s also brought us the Japanese restaurant Michi. In 1984, Kyoji Michioka – nicknamed “Michi” – opened the first Japanese restaurant in Salinas. In 2006, Michi moved to Marina.
The menu is not terribly extensive. Michioka is clearly emphasizing lore over trends here, but he’s also (smartly) controlling the selections so they’re runnable with a lean, limited staff – these days, just him and his wife Kiyoko.
You won’t find those increasingly common sushi stunts like table buckling, inky black forbidden rice rolls or smiley face hot sauce streaks. Michi offers a refreshing throwback to simpler times, where a Dynamite Roll (shrimp tempura roll topped with spicy tuna and tempura chunks, $13.95) is about as wild as the menu gets.
On the sushi side, there’s a modest menu of nigiri (a slice of fish on a small handful of rice, served in pairs), temaki (hand rolls, served individually) and maki (rolls, served eight pieces per order), plus the required sashimi and chirashi (sashimi over rice).
The usual suspects make appearances – rolls filled with lightly sweet shrimp tempura ($12), nigiri topped with smoky and tender tako (octopus, $4.75), refreshing kappa maki (cucumber roll, $5.50 $).
As a sushi traditionalist, I appreciate Michi’s concise concept.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the creativity of sushi chefs these days, but I find flipping through page after page of rolls completely exhausting. Deducing the difference between this roll and that one, well, it ends up getting tedious. I default to the basics – spicy tuna roll and salmon skin roll, maybe also a spider or tempura creation if I’m feeling particularly hungry – knowing that I’m missing a sublime sushi creation obscured in the list of dozens of choices.
There’s no such dilemma at Michi, where I can happily embrace the basics.
A Spicy Tuna Roll ($8) trades in generous splashes of wasabi instead of Sriracha to create heat – each couple gently bites my sinuses, but leaves my palate unloaded by the hot sauce. A salmon skin roll ($8) straddles a fine line between sweet and smoky, though I wouldn’t mind a little more fish skin crunch. And a Philadelphia roll — salmon and cream cheese ($8) — brings retro nostalgia, a fusion of flavors first popularized 40 years ago.
Do I miss the flamboyant splashes of creativity? Sure. And with a simple menu, it’s tempting to criticize imperfections that have no gimmick to hide behind. But I sympathize with Michioka – he’s been rolling sushi for over 35 years, no doubt straining his hand dexterity, so I forgive the loose structure of my sushi. Family restaurants are barely holding up during the pandemic, so I can easily overlook the shortcomings in presentation.
Sushi was a sensation in the United States in the 80s, but Japanese cuisine offers much more than raw fish and rice. Michioka’s menu features many savory staples. At first, many of these appeared as token alternatives for American diners wary of raw fish – the obligatory teriyaki chicken springs to mind – but they’re worth ordering regardless of your dietary preferences. .
Dinners include a cup of miso soup, salad, rice, and an entree. Selections are inspired by Japanese favorites, from teriyaki chicken ($16.50) to shrimp and vegetable tempura ($16.50) to fried tonkatsu pork ($16.95). If you can’t decide between entrees, some are available to mix and match in bento boxes (two courses with miso soup, salad and rice, $17.95).
Saba shioyaki ($16.50) epitomizes Japanese culinary simplicity. Shioyaki sees a fish sprinkled liberally with salt, left to cool overnight, and then grilled. Although traditionally served for breakfast, most American sushi restaurants have made the transition from shioyaki to dinner service.
Michioka expertly presents saba (mackerel), a favorite selection for shioyaki and a fish often overlooked in favor of its larger cousins, tuna. Both tenderloins – decidedly meaty and expertly cleaned with barely a single bone in sight – have beautifully blistered crispy skin. There is only a kiss of salt, deliciously brackish. A few drops of lemon really make the saba sing. But do yourself a favor and taste first, then (gently) squeeze some lemon to taste. Nothing is more tragic than soaking a fish in so much acid that it drowns out the flavors of the fish.
Hamachi kama ($18.95) celebrates a drop of fish with a delicious and decadent reward.
The kama, or “necklace,” is the meat just behind a fish’s head and gills. Resourceful sushi chefs don’t waste any of their precious fish, especially when the cooked necks are wonderfully fatty, even more so than the belly. Hamachi (yellow series) is the most common, although you may see salmon necks or even large tuna necks on some local menus. Traditionally, hamachi kama is an off-menu treat that a sushi chef shares with his regulars, but the secret is out and now many restaurants, including Michi, are offering this luxurious taste for sale.
There really isn’t much to Michi’s hamachi kama – the neck is grilled bone-in and fatty enough that it doesn’t need any sauce or seasoning. Again, this simplicity is deceptive – each buttery bite pleases the palate with lots of treats and no gimmicks. I push and push eagerly into every nook and cranny below the collarbone to extract every last morsel of meat. It is a rich indulgence. I want to savor every bite, so I refresh my palate with a few bites of rice or a few lettuce leaves from the side salad so that the next bits of fish I eat bring a boost of flavor and prolong the pleasure of my palate.
But beyond the food, I appreciate that certain charm of walking through an old neighborhood gem.
At Michi’s there’s the eclectic assortment of trinkets – from handwritten notes, well-worn posters, faded banners, animated figurines and, my favorite, miniature golden apples hanging from the ceiling – and you feel that line between the house and the work start to fade. When a restaurant feels like home, well, that’s hospitality. It’s not unique to Michi – it’s a secret ingredient for many long-running local restaurants.
Another critical component? Our support.
If we want these restaurants to thrive for another decade, they need us now more than ever — as customers ordering takeout tonight, as followers sharing posts on Instagram, as advocates writing to lawmakers to support relief programs, or even just as friendly smiles behind masks.
Raúl Nava is a freelance writer covering restaurants and eateries on the Monterey Peninsula. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @offthemenu831.
Michi Japanese Restaurant
3114 Del Monte Blvd, Marina. 384-6665, michirestaurant.com
- Hours: 4:30 p.m. – 8:45 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, closed on Monday
- Coronavirus Considerations: open for takeout only (no outdoor dining), masks required for guests and staff, hand sanitizer provided
- Food: Limited vegetarian or vegan options, but lots of seafood selections
- Drinks : small selection of beer and sake