“This building has been here forever,” said owner Joe Ueno, who recalls going by his now-Japanese eatery when he was a kid in the ’70s when it was a Luigi’s pizzeria.
But the historical roots of 5049 Newport Ave. go back even further.
“James of the James Gang printers and the OB Historical Society said this place used to have a cigar shop inside back in the ’30s,” said Ueno. “Planes would land in the middle of the dirt road to pick up cigars from the shop that was here.”
Added Ueno, “It has been a restaurant since the 1970s.”
One of Sapporo’s past incarnations was a restaurant-bar named Tuba Man’s Grandslam in the 1980s. Tuba Man’s owner back then, Jim Eakle, was known as a performing musician at Padres games. He and his tuba, along with other amateur musicians, formed McNamara’s Band. Together, the band would go through the stands playing music encouraging Padres fans to cheer.
Back to today, Joe Ueno described Sapporo, which has won best sushi several years in a row now, as “basic Japanese food, sushi, and Japanese noodles.”
Ueno said he, his mom, and his sister started Sapporo.
“My family has been in the restaurant business forever,” Ueno said. “My dad owned a restaurant. My great-grandfather had a restaurant back at the turn-of-the-century.”
Of his cuisine, Ueno said: “Our fish is mainly raw served over rice, though we do a lot of spring rolls creating a lot of different layers of fish on top. There are a lot of different flavorings you can do on top of the sushi. It’s just light comfort food that’s not going to weigh you down a whole bunch, not like steak and potatoes or a turkey dinner.
“We’ve got customers who’ve been coming in for all 22 years,” said Ueno of his clientele, noting one of them, John, “was just here last night. He was here on our first day 22 years ago. He comes in weekly.”
The restaurateur changes up his menu to keep things fresh.
“We have new things all the time,” Ueno said. “We also do more traditional Japanese food every now and then, like for summer.”
Sapporo’s top two selling items?
“Saki and Sapporo beer tops the list every time,” Ueno said.
But Sapporro is now known as much for its outside as its inside. There’s the mural of a Japanese woman adorning the building outside.
Ueno said his wife Michelle, about a year ago when she was working for Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, commissioned the mural to be painted on the side of Sapporo as part of a Shop Saturday promotion.
“She had talked to a local artist who had contacted her about painting murals,” said Ueno. “So she told him, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and do the side of this building?’ The original design was something different. But he painted that (Japanese motif).”
“The mural helps advertise it,” said Ueno, which is a new landmark and Instagram spot in the beach community. Which is no surprise. Next to Barrio Logan and all its murals at Chicano Park, OB has more murals than any other San Diego community.