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I was caught off guard. While the menu changes every few weeks, today I think I've been blessed with what is one of my all-time favorite Japanese treats: a bento (combo meal served in a portioned lacquered box) described as pork katsu with caramelized onions and tonkatsu sauce, green salad with ginger dressing, stir-fried vegetables and my choice of brown or white rice.
I've been clear with my smiling server that I want katsu, too -- the crisp, panko breaded, beautifully juicy cutlet that's sliced and served with tonkatsu sauce. I don't want katsu-don, a soggy breaded cutlet capped with egg and onion over a bowl of rice (she doesn't know what the difference is, but checks with the chef). I'd eaten a few bites of Mika's katsu-don a week earlier and tossed it, turned off by cloying sweetness in the heavy caramelized-onion-drenched sauce over rice that tasted as if it'd been steeping in sugar water. Yet today's katsu is worse. The too-thin sliced meat is way overcooked, with what should be feather-light batter turned to Formica. And a thick coat of "tonkatsu" sauce is so fruity, it swamps any other flavor.
Sweetness crops up again and again and again -- even in kalbi marinated flank steak, grilled and served over black pepper rice noodles with charred scallions. Yes, I get it: At Hapa, sugar is one of the McDevitts' signature notes, but here at Mika, it's overkill.
3125 S. Alma School Road
Sun Lakes, AZ 85248
480-991-0471. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 10 p.m.; Late-night menu, daily, 10 p.m. to midnight.
Nothing could prepare me for an ahi burger, though -- described simply as such, seared with caramelized miso sauce and taro chips. Yet tuna, when ground, does not retain nice texture like meat or poultry. Instead, it's disturbing damp cotton blended with too much togorashi (a paprika-pepper-chile spice blend), and not helped by hash-brown-like searing or a stale grilled hamburger bun. A dip of nice, thick (sweet) caramel aids, but not enough; I like the bed of shredded green cabbage best on the plate.
And how can a silly California roll be such a letdown, but it is, with grocery-store deli-dry rice and no crab to speak of in the tiny rounds. Tuna tataki is overcooked and bland, seared to a gray interior ladled with (sweet) roasted onion soy purée atop chilled soba noodles. And five-spiced duck rolls are admirable for their lacy, crisp shells, but without the menu as a primer, I'd never have known I was eating anything other than vinegary carrot-stuffed bundles dunked in barbecue-like plum sauce. Chef McDevitt grinds his own five-spice mix, but perhaps is saving the stronger stuff for his fancier Hapa, where it announces itself in a beguiling butter poached lobster with potato blini and sake beurre blanc.
Not surprisingly, some of the best things at Mika include Hapa copies, like the invigorating "fiery" squid salad -- so true to its name that it burns my gums in a blissful S&M. The seafood circles and tentacles are perfectly chewy, and the lemongrass broth is bright-orange aggressive, barely tempered by plump lychee, mango chunks, shredded crispy noodles, radish sprouts and nori (dried seaweed). Try it here for about half the price of Hapa. I also like the Singapore chicken, a wonderfully juicy braised breast and wing ladled in lots of milky rich, chile-kissed coconut broth stocked with chunks of red potato. Chilled shiso shrimp rolls are winners, too, dunked in a sparkly Thai citrus sauce.
Dessert has always been stunning at Hapa; so it is at Mika. My favorite is coconut-lime tapioca in a symphony of taste and texture -- smooth rice pudding accented with chewy coconut strands, vanilla parked with tart lime.
The chefs are still finessing the menu, my server explains. Here's my tip: Keep the chu-hais. Lose the sugar.