MY KIND OF CHOW, UNAGO IS . . .
Kampai, 2945 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 482-3260. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Japanese food, I think, is never going to be as wildly popular with Americans as other ethnic fare. Unlike, say, a Mexican, Chinese or Italian dinner, the Japanese meal seems to come with three strikes against it. First, a lot of people worry that at some point, they're going to be confronted by raw fish, and the prospect of swallowing it. This is not going to win over the hearts and bellies of squeamish patrons whose every dinner order includes the words "medium rare" and "ketchup." Second, just because Japanese food is ethnic doesn't mean it comes at Third World prices. If you're looking for low-cost peasant recipes served up on bargain combination plates, you'll have to track down national fare from a country that still has peasants. No one will ever confuse Japanese food with cheap eats. Finally, you can't expect to fill up. How often have you spotted a diner leaving a Japanese restaurant, loosening his belt with one hand and clutching a doggy bag in the other? You may as well scope out the State Capitol, looking for an Arizona legislator with a triple-digit IQ and a conscience.
In short, a Japanese meal is liable to leave some folks nerve-racked, broke and hungry. But a new kind of Japanese restaurant is starting to pop up in the Valley. You won't find teppanaki cooking, where knife-wielding chefs preside over a tableside grill, flashily slicing, dicing and chopping. Nor will you encounter elaborate hot-pot dishes, serenely prepared tableside by kimono-clad waitresses. What you will find are menus offering solid, nonthreatening meals in the $8 to $12 range that don't require a midnight-snack chaser. One such place is Kampai, unpromisingly located in a Bell Road shopping strip, a chopstick's throw from a bowling alley. It's a neighborhood place, crowded with locals, not visiting expense-accounted Japanese businessmen. Except for a few bamboo poles, a goldfish pond and a Japanese-language poster that gives the calorie count of the different sushi, Kampai doesn't hit you over the head with too many Japanese cues. However, the insipid, piped-in New Age music which assaulted us did bring to mind one ceremonial tradition--hara-kiri. Sushi is an integral part of the Japanese dining experience, and some of Kampai's offerings are topnotch. The gorgeous scallops are particularly noteworthy, shimmeringly tender with the faint aroma of the sea. Toro, the marbled underside of tuna, is not always available, but if it is, go for it. Texture is the key element here, and the piece we sampled was smoothly rich and opulent. Masago, crunchy, orange-colored smelt roe, is also an offbeat treat. The lackluster sea bass and chewy octopus, however, are not in the same class. If sushi doesn't work as a starter for you, don't despair. The waitress bragged about the homemade gyoza (Japanese pot stickers), and the kitchen backed up the boast. They come five to an order, stuffed with meat and cabbage, and accented with garlic and ginger. Tempura, though, is a weak link--the breading is thick and heavy, not light and lacy. The main-dish list isn't very extensive. But the quality runs deep. Both chicken and steak are enlivened by a zesty teriyaki sauce. The lean, eight-ounce New York steak is well-fashioned, grilled and sliced in strips. This moist, beefy cut is perfect for the one person in your group whom you had to drag here kicking and screaming. And at $11.95, the price is right, too. Pork katsu is another first-rate option for lovers of animal protein. You don't usually think of the Japanese as a nation of pork fanatics, but it's a much cheaper alternative to expensive beef. This is a Japanese worker's dish, a thick slice of loin dredged in flour, dipped into egg and coated with breadcrumbs. Then it's deep-fried and cut into chopstick-size pieces. You dip the katsu into a piquant sauce, made especially to accompany this dish. Chefs like to keep their recipes secret, but the basic ingredients are soy, sake and Worcestershire sauce. Nabeyaki udon is another traditional dish that shouldn't take Westerners long to get used to. It's a meal in a bowl, served in a big, earthenware vessel. The version here features thick wheat noodles, floating alongside shrimp tempura, hard-boiled egg, chicken, tofu and fish cake, in a fragrant, scallion-flecked broth. It's a good choice on a nippy autumn evening. But by far my favorite entree is the unaju, a dish I haven't seen on other Japanese menus in town. It's made from unagi, succulent, grilled eel fillets. The six small pieces, brushed with soy and sweet sake, have a marvelously smoky fragrance and meaty texture. The dish comes in the traditional manner, too, in a lacquered box over a bed of rice, accompanied by pickled vegetables. And unaju's benefits extend beyond taste. The Japanese believe eel is an aphrodisiac. This may be just the sort of boost reluctant diners need to gather their courage to try this outstanding dish. Dessert? Why bother? Banana fritters and raspberry sorbet are odd ways to end a Japanese meal, and neither is anything special. Instead, linger with soothing green tea. Kampai dishes out hearty, tasty Japanese fare, fit for expert or novice, at prices that don't require an extended stop at the ATM. Whatever you may hum when you leave here, I suspect it won't be "Sayonara." Tokyo Inn, 3409 West Thunderbird, Phoenix, 548-2200. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Tokyo Inn aims to fill the same niche as Kampai, except on the west side. The offerings are almost identical, and so is the level of quality. It's a bit prettier, with a spare, serene decor. The tiered dining area gives the room a little class. So do the plum tablecloths, green linen napkins and vase of silk flowers on each table. A few paper lanterns hang over the small, nine-seat sushi bar, and low Japanese music plays in the background. My favorite touch: a voice chime by the door, that welcomes you (in Japanese) when you enter, and thanks you for your patronage when you leave. (I thought of a much better use for this technology. Every time the kids walk out my front door, it would chirp, "Did you put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket?") The food here is not fancy, but it is effective. The waitress told me that fresh fish for sushi gets flown in every other day. The maguro (tuna) certainly sported all the right qualities. So did the crunchy shrimp roll and ikura, golden-orange salmon roe. And someday I'll come back and just fill up on the sushi topped with unagi, the meaty strips of charbroiled eel I'm so fond of. Like Kampai, Tokyo Inn offers finicky diners alternatives to sushi. The gyoza here don't have much of a taste zip, but they come with a pleasing crunch. Vegetable tempura brings a generous portion of sweet potato, cauliflower, green pepper and squash. But it comes up a bit short in quality. This time, the problem isn't heavy breading, as at Kampai. It's oiliness. There's better tempura at Ayako of Tokyo or Kyoto. The main dishes offer good value, especially since Tokyo Inn recently lowered its already reasonable prices.
Pork lovers can get cheap thrills in two ways. The pork katsu here is distinguished by its noticeably fresh-fried taste. There's also pork shogayaki, an unusually strong-flavored Japanese dish. It's made with thin strips of marinated pork combined with snout-clearing amounts of ginger. Less adventurous diners shouldn't have any problems with the salmon teriyaki. It's a smallish piece, perfectly cooked, and coated with a light, sweet teriyaki glaze. Like all the dinners here, it comes with miso soup, sunomono (vinegary cucumber salad) and rice. There's almost no difference between Tokyo Inn's nabeyaki udon and Kampai's version. The ingredients are identical, except Tokyo Inn stocks the bowl with shiitake mushrooms and skips the chicken. The subtly aromatic broth also plays a helpful role. Unfortunately, there's no unaju here. But you can get an individual order of sukiyaki, at a budget $10.95 price. Most Japanese restaurants serve this specialty for two for somewhere between 15 and 20 bucks a person. Of course, you can't expect the full treatment: tabletop preparation, the constant attentions of deferential waitresses, colorful platters of millimeter-thin sliced beef and heaps of exotic vegetables. The sukiyaki here is prepared in the kitchen. The beef isn't cut to transparency. The vegetables are limited to bok choy and mushrooms. But the ingredients, simmered in a soy-and-sweet-sake-accented broth, are fragrant and filling. The one area where Tokyo Inn could use some work is service, which is sweetly ineffective. If there was any sort of schedule for food to come out of the kitchen, I couldn't figure it out. Confused servers occasionally dropped off dishes that we hadn't ordered, and didn't bring the ones we had. Still, Tokyo Inn offers west-siders a Japanese dining destination that furnishes a good combination of taste and value in a relaxing setting. Japanese meals, like Japanese cars, seem utterly reliable.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.