First Dish: Nanaya Japanese Kitchen

Craig OuthierJanuary 19, 2021
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Set in the storied strip-mall spot formerly occupied by Crudo and, ages ago, an Italian restaurant with mob connections, Nanaya Japanese Kitchen opened in October to minimal fanfare – a “stealth opening,” one might say. This was dictated both by form (the speakeasy-ish, around-the-back location is easy to miss from the street) and function (the restaurant is evidently serving as a “test kitchen” for a future project in Old Town Scottsdale). When the tavern-style Japanese eatery finally did arouse my attention, a visit was all but mandatory.

Location
3603 E Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 623-432-9114, nanayajapanesekitchen.com

The Scene
Owned by Eddie Chow and Akira Nakasu – expat restaurateurs making their debut in the States after running a smattering of restaurants in East Asia – Nanaya takes the form of a classic Japanese izakaya, i.e. a casual tavern-style restaurant, where weary salarimen could pop in for a drink after work and dine on a limited but well-curated menu of Japanese standards. There’s a stylish, lounge-y bar area (essentially untouched since Crudo owner Cullen Campbell vacated the space in 2019), a spacious dining room (not yet operational when we visited in mid-January) and a wee but extremely pleasant patio (for dine-in and COVID-leery customers).

The Highlights
At first blush, the Nanaya menu is not slap-your-face extraordinary, comprising about 20 small-plate standards like karaage (fried chicken, $6.50), okonomiyaki (savory cabbage pancake, $8) and pan-fried shishitos ($6.50); plus a few ramens ($12-$14) and sandwiches (katsu-style, with breaded cutlets, $8-$10). No, the face-slapping part comes when these creatively-composed kitchen classics are placed in front of you. First off: the miso soup ($3.50). Like any American whose Japanese food fluency is mainly limited to what we’ve found in neighborhood sushi joints, I was expecting a warming but indifferently seasoned cloud of miso broth, perhaps with a bit of tofu and wakame seaweed if I was lucky. Instead, I got a stew loaded with onions, potato, carrots and other vegetables, with the onions in particular giving the soy-based broth a rich, almost French-onion-soup quality. Shockingly scrumptious. Next up: the gyukatsu sandwich ($10). Again, my expectations were exceeded in embarrassing fashion. Instead of a meek, pounded beef cutlet – which is only kind of katsu I’ve ever tasted – this one was excitingly thick and juicy, cooked to a perfect medium rare. More like an expertly prepared tri-tip than a cutlet, sheathed in a panko breading and wedged between two slices of Japanese milk bread, which were just as gloriously supple as they sound. Served with a tasty side of tangy tankatsu sauce, it’s a remarkable sandwich, and a remarkable deal at 10 bucks.

Though sushi was not available during my visit, Chow and Nakasu are working a limited menu of nigiri and rolls, according to my server. Unfortunately, my expectations are now pretty high, so if the fish isn’t at least a little revelatory, I’ll feel let down. Such is the burden of excellence.

According to the same staffer, the original plan was to keep this Arcade Lite location running on a limited basis until the Old Town Scottsdale space is ready – but the tavern has proven so popular with the local crowd, they’re considering keeping it. I hope so. This early visit suggests an unusual, almost mystical fixation on craft, and many secrets yet revealed. It’s perfect where it is.

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