photos by Sam Nalven; Beef bulgogi

Zu Izakaya

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Food Reviews Issue: March 2016
Group Free

Work-weary tipplers, take heart: This multi-ethnic take on a traditional Japanese food pub offers plenty to pick at.

In Japan, izakayas are post-workday pubs where “salarymen” wind down with a bottle or two of sake after a grueling 10-hour shift. And they feast – often tapas-style – off the same shareable plate.

Owned by Chef June Kang of Scottsdale’s Bei Sushi, Zu – located down the street in North Tempe – captures the communal spirit of the izakaya minus some of the traditional rituals. There are no complimentary wet hand towels to start the meal or chef-selected appetizers in its oddly angled dining room. (The bones of Lo Cascio Italian Restaurant – its long-running predecessor – will be instantly recognizable to regulars.) What Zu does offer is a multi-ethnic menu of tempura, tacos, hot pots and grilled meats. Most are as flavorful and satisfying as they are wallet-friendly.

chef June KangKang’s skewers, for example, offer a taste of Asia for just $2.50 each during happy hour. Portions are small, a negative balanced by the tenderness of chicken thighs cooked in spicy-sweet sauce and the high-impact flavor of neobiani steak (marinated Korean-style pork and beef meat patties seasoned with garlic and onion). Pork-stuffed gyoza dumplings ($5.50) are decent but forgettable, while tempura sweet potatoes prove hearty and crisp ($5.50). For more adventurous types, there’s cheese spam katsu ($5.50), the product of an unhealthy marriage of the Hawaiian breakfast “meat” with a grilled cheese sandwich. The petite fried triangles are saltier than a margarita rim, yet snackable when paired with a smooth, tart beverage such as Hana Fuji apple sake ($15 per bottle).

Asian pear is a flawless foil for fresh fish in Zu’s tuna tartare ($15.95), lending sweetness to leaven the briny, soy-based sauce. This is Kang’s masterpiece – a dish so refreshing and delicious that it’s easy to down the whole plate before you can say “kanpai!” Try finishing a whole plate of rolled egg ($10.95), on the other hand, and you’ll feel like a 5-year-old facing down a plate of broccoli. What sounds like a fun take on the Chinese takeout classic is actually more of a giant omelet studded with flavorless veggies and spam. Skip it and fill your protein quota with tangy beef bulgogi in Korean barbecue sauce ($9.95) or tofu salad ($9.50) with crisp, beautifully golden soybean blocks and flavorful mustard vinaigrette.

Hot pots are a go-to Asian comfort food, plus they can feed a whole table. Topping my favorites at Zu are seafood-heavy Nagasaki ($16.95) and bulgogi mushroom ($15.95) with thinly cut beef strips, noodles and grassy enokis in flavorful soy broth. The former employs tonkotsu broth as a base, its naturally smoky pork flavor transformed by the addition of mussels, shrimp and baby scallops.

Tang soo yuk ($16.95) offers a more robust pork flavor. Breaded, fried and drenched in sweet and sour sauce, the meat remains moist and tender. It’s a surefire crowd-pleaser – and Kang’s signature dish – but Chinese takeout fans may nitpick the chef for heavy-handed cornstarch application that makes for a thick, gravy-like sauce.

No, Zu isn’t an authentic izakaya – hit Nobuo at the Teeter House before dinner hours if you want one of those – but its casual atmosphere, smooth sake and standouts like Kang’s tuna tartare make for welcome relief after a hard day.

tuna tartareDETAILS
Zu Izakaya
Cuisine: Asian
Address: 2210 N. Scottsdale Rd., Tempe, 480-625-4372,
Hours: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. M-Th, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. F-Sa, 4 p.m.-midnight Su
Highlights: Cheese spam katsu ($5.50); tuna tartare ($15.95); beef bulgogi ($9.95); crispy tofu salad ($9.50); Nagasaki pot ($16.95); bulgogi mushroom pot ($15.95); tang soo yuk ($16.95)