OBON Sushi + Bar + Ramen debuted in Tucson only about three years ago, but its ascension into the canon of modern downtown Tucson restaurants and bars has been impressively swift. It’s hard now to imagine a night out on Congress Street that doesn’t include the option of swinging by OBON for a bowl of ramen, or at the very least, one of the bar’s famously inventive cocktails.
This summer, Tucson-based Fukushu Restaurant Concepts — whose team includes owner Brandon Katz, chef Paulo Im, and beverage director Matt Martinez — opened a second OBON location in metro Phoenix. The restaurant, featuring a sharply modern menu of classic Japanese and Korean dishes, is situated inside the upscale shopping and dining fortress that is the Scottsdale Quarter. The location is one of the more obvious departures between the original and its Scottsdale cousin: Whereas the Tucson OBON feels urbane by virtue of its downtown neighborhood, the Scottsdale OBON feels distinctly suburban and slightly cloistered.
Like its predecessor, though, OBON Scottsdale is an attractive and polished restaurant, with a modern industrial scheme of pale wood, concrete walls, and clean lines at every turn. Cushioned banquettes, paired with wishbone chairs, give the space some comfort and style, and a nice wraparound outdoor patio offers access to an indoor-outdoor bar.
It should be noted that OBON is the kind of restaurant where the drink menu demands the same amount of attention and gravitas as the food. You’ll find a decent selection of hot and cold sake, but a visit to OBON demands a serious inspection of the cocktail menu. The restaurant earned national raves last year for its cosmic David Bowie-inspired Space Oddity cocktail, and although you won’t currently find anything as elaborate, you will find the robust and cheekily named Hentai Old Fashioned. It’s made with Japanese whiskey, decorated with a Pokemon card, and subtly tricked out with a laundry list of fanciful-sounding ingredients: sassafras soy sauce, artichoke, squid ink. It’s novel, but also wholly well-balanced, a little stiff, and delicious.
Another highlight is the Creatures Comfort, a tall, aromatic, lightly sweet drink adorned with a fresh orchid blossom. Tequila, pineapple matcha, and fizzy hints of Japanese yuzu produce a drink so highly palatable, even squeamish drinkers might be willing to embrace the earthy, dark honey traces of homemade bitters.
You’ll want to spend some time with OBON’s small plates menu, too, especially highlights like the house Fuku wings, extra-meaty drumettes rubbed with the delicious and intensely sweet-savory Korean spice paste gochujang. Pork-stuffed gyozas are even better; the dumplings, beautifully pan-seared and crisp around the edges, smolder with savory, porky flavor.
At OBON, it’s common to seesaw between the restaurant’s two central options: ramen or sushi. The best dish I’ve ever tasted at OBON, though, hails from the tiny yet highly satisfying crudo menu: An umami-rich plate of yuzu yellowtail. The thinly sliced fish, elegantly dressed with dashi shoyu broth, is carefully layered with bright, bold condiments — crispy ginger, and the irresistible tangy-spicy notes of dashi shoyu, a Japanese condiment made from fermented chiles and yuzu zest. Every quivering tendril ripples with fresh and aromatic flavor.
OBON will probably not replace your favorite sushi bar, although there is much to admire about signature rolls like the Tataki Maki. Its exhaustive list of ingredients — shrimp tempura, avocado, seared tuna, Asian chimichurri, grape tomato, and micro basil — belies how naturally and pleasantly the flavors and textures come together in one bite. And the Snowflake, a deluxe roll that features ultra-rich escolar piled atop of snow crab and oyster mushroom, is somehow both subtle and indulgent.
From the small ramen menu, the standout bowl is the restaurant’s namesake OBON ramen. Its creamy base, a fusion of pork bone and soy, dappled with some smokey black garlic oil, is lovely and rich. Hunks of pork belly, and a jiggly, perfectly unctuous 64-degree egg, melt right into the lovely broth.
OBON’s small menu of steam buns — pillowy, taco-like bao nibbles — are made with fillings like fried spam and kimchi; citrus-sluiced softshell crab; and pork belly touched with spicy mustard and pickles. One of the best, though, is made using fried chicken, mayo, and hot sauce — the small bun crackles with crispy and savory flavor.
Surprisingly, entrees are the least exciting part of eating at OBON. Amid the restaurant’s selection of large plates, a standout dish is the restaurant’s wonderful kimchi fried rice, whose deep and heady tangy-sweet flavor is buoyed by sausage-like hunks of Spam.
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Street noodles served with minced chicken, though, are lackluster. On a recent visit, the skein of thin, yakisoba noodles were sluiced in a one-note chile sauce. And Korean bibimbap, a colorful dish mosaicked with marinated strips of beef and chilled veggies, is more texturally interesting than it is delicious.
Still, OBON is a compelling example of postmodern pan-Asian cooking. Its potpourri of Japanese and Korean dishes are steeped in tradition, but rarely feel governed by convention. In other words, eating here usually makes for an interesting and delicious experience, and that’s surely a cause for celebration.
OBON Sushi Bar Ramen
15037 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (inside Scottsdale Quarter)
Hours: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
Pork gyoza $9
OBON ramen $15
Yuzu yellowtail crudo $15
Kimchi fried rice $16