Dining Review: Icho Izakaya Exceeds Expectations

Nikki BuchananNovember 3, 2023
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Brimming with unusual fish cuts and delightfully idiosyncratic entrées, this hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant in Mesa is sure to reel you in.

Yellowtail Serrano at Icho Izakaya. Photography by Jill McNamara.

The makeshift sushi bar at chef-owner Shaun Chen’s tiny Japanese restaurant in Mesa fills up early six evenings a week because customers have seen the truth in the “you snooze, you lose” dictum. These early birds obviously know the bitter sting of ordering a chalkboard special of tender barbecue squid, served with a lemon wedge and a little hillock of house-made wasabi-soy salt, or a menu staple such as hamachi kama – succulent, fall-off-the-jaw-bone yellowtail – and getting no satisfaction.

Chen’s menu is surprisingly vast and varied, given the space’s size and designation as an izakaya (i.e. no-frills Japanese food tavern). However, availability is often limited, which explains the early arrivals.

Yelpers buzz about Chen’s experience at other famous sushi bars around town, including Nobu and ShinBay, but he downplays all that, saying he’s simply here to do his best, a work ethic that shows up in a dozen small but telling ways. The sushi-sashimi section features fish you don’t often see in your average sushi bar – seabream, kanpachi and horse mackerel, for example – as well as many you do, including fatty toro, lightly brushed with nikiri (amped-up soy sauce). Most sushi bars dispensed with tamagoyaki nigiri (a layered, oblong omelet, set atop sushi rice) years ago because it’s a hassle to make, and most Americans don’t care about it, anyway. But it’s also considered a litmus test for a sushi chef’s skill, and Chen’s sweet, sturdy version, darkened with soy in the style of Kanto in central Japan, is lovely. 

The “cold dish” section is where Chen gets fancy, offering serrano-topped yellowtail, set in a puddle of yuzu-soy sauce, and lightly seared albacore, topped with a crispy tangle of fried onion.


Soft-shell crab

Kushiyaki (skewered and grilled meats) are standard izakaya fare, but Chen offers harder-to-find beef tongue, charred and succulent, served with lemon and wasabi-soy salt. Tiny soft-shell crab legs, sparked with togarashi and lemon, make another affordable light bite – salty, sweet and crunchy at once.


Black pepper sizzling steak

Black pepper sizzling steak is a popular dish in the night markets of Chen’s native Taiwan, and you shouldn’t miss it, this ultra-rich stir fry of tender beef, lavished in a peppery sauce strewn with caramelized onions. The aforementioned squid, known as maruyaki, is mild, delicate and rustic. 

Icho is such a gem. This affordable, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant exceeds expectations. Don’t miss it.

Icho Izakaya

  • Cuisine: Japanese
  • Contact: 1911 W. Broadway Rd., Mesa, 480-828-3428, ichosushiphonix.com
  • Hours: Su-M, W-Th 5-10 p.m., F-Sa 5-10:30 p.m.
  • Highlights: Grilled beef tongue ($14); soft-shell crab ($9); yellowtail serrano ($18); seared albacore with crispy onions ($18); seabream and kanpachi sushi ($10)