Three New Japanese Restaurants That Go Beyond Maki and Miso

Nikki BuchananJanuary 18, 2021
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Señor Larry roll at Kaizen; Photography by Rob Ballard
Señor Larry roll at Kaizen; Photography by Rob Ballard

Three new Japanese restaurants go well beyond maki rolls and miso.

It’s kind of funny to think that Japanese cuisine used to make Americans nervous. Today, rainbow rolls are no more or less exotic to us than bean burritos – and you can get both at your neighborhood Basha’s.

Still, it’s safe to say that Japanese food is having a moment here in Greater Phoenix during the plague season of 2020-2021. Ramen shops are springing up like so many matsutake mushrooms, as are new-look Japanese restaurants offering everything from sushi fusion to yoshoku – Japanized versions of Western dishes and a beloved part of the Japanese culinary repertoire for more than
100 years.

Kaizen – a lean, industrial-designed sushi restaurant in Downtown’s Warehouse District, located in the historical Lawrence Building – just might be my favorite of the new crop (515 E. Grant St., 602-432-0752, kaizenphx.com). Although the menu features typical sushi bar fare (miso soup, edamame, nigiri, sushi rolls) it seems original and slightly elevated, thanks to chef Gustavo Muñoz, who turns out Latin seafood classics as well as clever Latin-Japanese hybrids poised to become Kaizen signatures.

From the small plates section come delicate, sesame-oil-scented gyoza, named hane (feather in Japanese) for the lacy wisps of crispy cornstarch that connect them. Flecked with orange togarashi dust, the dumplings are an elevated take on a homey Japanese standard. Brittle, star-shaped wontons, generously stuffed with king crab and cream cheese, and served with a spectacular chile sauce, viscous with honey, are just as impressive. This is an elevated re-make of crab rangoon, an old-school classic found in Chinese American restaurants and tiki bars.

Many Latin-inspired dishes – all wonderful – land in the chuzara (main course) section, including hotate aguachile, a colony of pristine Hokkaido scallops in a lime-spritzed “chile water” of serranos and yuzu kosho (Japanese fermented chile paste), contrasted with bright bites of slivered cucumber, red onion and micro-cilantro. Tiradito, a Peruvian classic, presents tender octopus planks set afloat in a brilliantly yellow, faintly spicy aji amarillo sauce, amped up with Fresno chiles, tomatillos and citrus. Meanwhile, Hamachi Supreme is simple and refined: yellowtail sashimi slices set in a citrus-perfumed puddle of yuzu ponzu, each topped with pink grapefruit, asparagus and jalapeño.

What separates Kaizen’s florid specialty rolls from the sushi-bar norm is Muñoz’s creative use of ingredients – a knob of crème fraîche and sprig of fresh dill on the crab and salmon-based Alaskan King; mango salsa and tajín (a Mexican chile, lime, and salt condiment) in the salmon-based Caribbean King and savory soy-based tsuyu in the big-eye tuna and panko-shrimp-laden Señor Larry. All beautiful, all fun.

Muñoz continues to add to the menu. Pulpo asado, set in a nutty pool of romesco and surrounded by blistered cherry tomatoes, roasted cauliflower and fried fingerlings, rivals just about any grilled octopus offering in town. Meanwhile, I’m headed back any minute now for the brand new ancho tamarind ribs and chicken katsu torta because Kaizen, which means “continuous improvement,” fully lives up to its name.

Kaizen Highlights:

King crab wontons ($12); hane gyoza ($9); hotate aguachile ($17); tiradito ($17); pulpo asado ($26)

Vegeterian curry with potato croquette at Ramen Kagawa; Photography by Rob Ballard
Vegeterian curry with potato croquette at Ramen Kagawa; Photography by Rob Ballard
takoyaki at Ramen Kagawa; Photography by Rob Ballard
takoyaki at Ramen Kagawa; Photography by Rob Ballard

Nearby Ramen Kagawa in Downtown’s Monrovia district (111 W. Monroe St., 602-675-0833, ramenkagawa.com) is a different but no less impressive beast, an exactingly traditional ramen shop that also traffics in a handful of neighborhood Japanese restaurant standards, many of which classify as yoshoku. There’s excellent house-made gyoza and creamy, lavishly adorned takoyaki (octopus balls) as well as ramen two ways: tonkotsu (aromatic and pork-broth-based) and paitan (creamy and chicken-broth-based), both also offered in spicy miso versions. Brimming with cabbage and green onion, topped with a frizzle of fried onion strings and served with a soy sauce-marinated, soft-boiled egg offering up a rich, custardy yolk, both ramen styles are wonderful. But with a gun to my head, I might anoint the meaty pork ribs tonkotsu as your No. 1 option.

Tonkatsu (with an “a”) also deserves your attention. Imagine a juicy pork cutlet, breaded in panko, fried crisp and ladled with a glossy, deep umber curry roux which has a rich, nutty sweetness that bears little resemblance to the fiery curries of India. This is potato- and carrot-fortified comfort food, plain and simple, and it’s eaten all over Japan – with rice, of course. Ditto for potato croquette, doused in that same curry sauce. For me, a one-time expat in Japan, this sweet, authentic place is a little like dinner at the homesick café.

Daruma Highlights:

Crispy rice with spicy tuna ($7.95); tuna carpaccio ($10.95); hot soba ($9.95)

tuna carpaccio at Daruma; Photography by Rob Ballard
tuna carpaccio at Daruma; Photography by Rob Ballard
the Daruma roll at Daruma; Photography by Rob Ballard
the Daruma roll at Daruma; Photography by Rob Ballard

Mesa newcomer Daruma, which I love just as much, falls somewhere between the other two – a little traditional, a little edgy – turning out picture-perfect sushi at affordable prices (1116 S. Dobson Rd., Mesa, 480-590-7979, darumabyrie.com). Crispy rice with spicy tuna, an upscale sushi bar staple, is spot on here: rectangular pads of fried sushi rice, topped with spicy tuna, a jalapeño slice and a tiny dot of Sriracha.  Tuna carpaccio, so reminiscent of its beefy Italian counterpart, features rich, rosy-hued fish prettily splayed out over a puddle of creamy onion sauce. What’s not to love? For me, Daruma’s earthy, nutty, spectacularly good hot soba – the bowl brimming with bok choy, crisped onion, nitamago and nori – is the quintessential taste of Japan, not ramen.

I can’t wait to dig a little deeper here – but will I have the time? For the first time in memory, the Valley has more exploration-worthy Japanese restaurants than even a motivated consumer such as myself can deeply investigate. It’s a
pleasant dilemma.

Ramen Kagawa Highlights:

Gyoza ($6); spicy miso paitan ramen ($12.50); pork ribs tonkotsu ramen ($15.50); tonkatsu bento ($14)

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