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Noodle Noshin'

Carbaholics, unite! Chizuru Ishida's noodles will launch you into a starch-stuffin' frenzy.
Jackie Mercandetti

Pardon my language, but all of these low-carb-South Beach-Atkins fanatics can take a giant bite out of my billowy boxers. Why, I'm as dyspeptic as John Ashcroft with a grapefruit-size gallstone, and all because of this asinine Atkins drivel that would have us forgo one of the most satisfying gustatory gifts God has ever given man. I mean starch, dear hearts, glorious starch: pasta, bread, noodles, crackers, cakes and so on. I know we're all supposed to gorge ourselves on bacon and eggs these days until our intestines rot from the inside out. But to twist a phrase from the Immortal Bard's Falstaff, "Banish noodles, dear sir, and banish all the world!" What good would life be without them?

To answer my own question, about the same as life without wine, cheese, sushi, beer, gelato or beef Wellington. One day, I may be as old and crotchety as The Rep's Howie Seftel (fortunately, I'll never be as bald), and everything I eat will taste like boiled Spam. But until then, you can bet all of Melanie Griffith's collagen allowance that I'll be reveling in demon starch in all of its various paunch-packing forms. In fact, at least one or two nights out of any given week, you can witness me consuming vast quantities of carbs at Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe on Camelback Road, east of Seventh Street, in the strip mall beside Rosie McCaffrey's Irish Pub.

Essentially, Cherryblossom is a Japanese noodle joint magically lifted out of some Tokyo suburb and set down in central Phoenix. Now, when I say Japanese noodle joint, I don't mean to say noodles are all Cherryblossom serves. Nor is its menu without the influences of other cultures. There are Korean, Thai, Italian and American dishes on the menu, but the essence of Cherryblossom is much like the kind of place you'd find between a pachinko parlor and a coffee house in Kawasaki, or even as close by as Los Angeles' Sawtelle Boulevard, the hipper, trendier cousin of that city's Little Tokyo.

As often as I've visited, I have yet to exhaust Cherryblossom's entire bill of fare, and this is part of what keeps me returning. There's always some new surprise awaiting me, some uniquely Nipponese twist on Italian pasta, like spicy curry beef linguini, or ika mentai, fresh squid and spicy cod roe atop spaghetti, both of which are on my "to eat" list. Usually when I stop by Cherryblossom solo or with pals, I begin with hot sake and the appetizer du jour. One week running, the starter of the day was a platter of Cajun shrimp, the crunchy heads still on the bodies of those crispy crustaceans, and I came back three times that week just so I could have the same.

Another week, it was a combination of yellowtail sashimi and spicy yellowtail sushi, each morsel of which was fresh and savory. More recently, I began a meal with an old fave, a plate of whole, baby squid in a dark brown tomato and anchovy sauce. When you bite into their oblong heads, a white goo oozes out that's a little disconcerting at first, but if you persist, you'll learn to adore it. That sauce is oishi (delicious, as the Japanese would say), and yes, Cherryblossom does offer it over spaghetti, capellini, or penne as you wish. And the other day, for the first time, I tried the ahi tuna sashimi tempura and was blown away: ahi tuna encircled with seaweed, lightly fried tempura-style. Ten medallions of this seared ahi are sprinkled with pepper and yuzu, a Japanese citrus similar to lemon, and laid about a bed of mixed greens. Already I've gone back once for it, and I fear I'm hooked! Crikey, it may not be as chic as heroin, but it's a damn sight more enjoyable for one so palate-obsessed as myself.

After such Asian antipasti, I typically order another bottle of hot sake, and dive into a generous pile of noodles. Soba or udon are the two main choices, and I love 'em like a fat kid loves Fruity Pebbles. Yakisoba, as most everyone knows, are the stir-fry noodles, which are just a tad thicker than spaghetti. And yaki udon are thicker, chewier noodles almost twice the size of soba, also stir-fried. One can have either chicken or seafood, and I usually select the seafood, with shrimp and small scallops, mixed in with snow peas, bean sprouts, slivers of carrots, and so on. In addition, Cherryblossom serves several traditional Japanese noodle soups with either soba or udon, but I prefer the stir-fry versions by far.

Still, if I were marooned on a desert island with an unlimited supply of cold beer, a complete library of every National Lampoon magazine ever printed, and my choice of one dish to devour until I grew to resemble that geezer Blue from Old School, I'd have to pick the Korean spicy beef: sirloin slices stir-fried with egg-white noodles with enough green chiles and chile paste to fuel the space shuttle's next mission. For this eye-watering repast, I suggest you forgo the hot sake, and try instead a bottle of cold, sweet nigori-zake. Nigori-zake simply means "cloudy sake" in Japanese, and indeed this sake is uncharacteristically milky in appearance and thick and pulpy in taste. It's far more refreshing than hot sake while you're downing a mouthful of piquant Korean beef, as hot sake only inflames the situation, I've found. Plenty of water won't hurt, either, of course. And copious amounts of both liquids are likely to keep your noggin from spontaneously combusting.

I rarely have room left after making such a porker of myself, but if I do, Cherryblossom's desserts are light enough that I won't split my breeches while eating them. I'm an all-day-sucker for the green tea mousse, which is better even than my beloved green tea ice cream. And if you're up for a treat, try the coffee jelly, a coffee-gelatin topped with fresh cream that's big in Japan. It's a little like doing a coffee-flavored Jell-O shot.

Cherryblossom opened in 1994 as a bakery, according to its proprietors Chizuru and Charlie Ishida, the husband-wife team who operate Phoenix's Tokyo Express fast-food chain (there's one right beside Cherryblossom) as well as the new East Wind eatery in Scottsdale -- sort of a Pacific Rim la Madeleine in that you order your food at the counter and it's brought to you afterward. A slight, soft-spoken gent with a mustache and thinning hair, Mr. Ishida relates that when he was growing up in the boondocks of Japan's Kyushu Island, paying a call to the only bakery nearby was a big event.

"I remember the smell of the bread, and the fact that it cost 10 yen, which was a lot back then," he explains. "I guess in the back of my mind, I thought if I owned a bakery, then I would always have bread."

The bakery specialized in Japanese-style goods, but this didn't quite catch on as expected, so Ishida-san, a former Benihana chef who came to the United States in 1976, transformed Cherryblossom into a full-service restaurant two years ago with the aid of his spouse, Chizuru. The conversion has been enormously successful, and nearly every night of the week the modest, homey 13-table restaurant is filled to capacity.

The decor is pleasant, with a country motif aided by orange-beige wall paint, bunches of dried flowers hung here and there, and wooden shutters along the left-hand side that would look onto the Tokyo Express next door if they were ever open. To the right is a wooden bar facing a small open kitchen where you can eat if so inclined (the bakery is out of sight in the back); and simple, low wooden tables stained a dark brown populate the center.

The service is first-rate, and the wait staff especially takes care of its regular customers, of which there are many. My only complaint is that I sometimes wish that Cherryblossom were larger, but if it were, it would most certainly lose its aura of intimacy. And to be honest, I'm mostly concerned with sticking my snout in a pile of stir-fried starch! Dr. Atkins, whatever carb-free afterlife you're inhabiting, you've no earthly idea what you're missing.

E-mail stephen.lemons@newtimes.com

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Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe

914 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85014

602-248-9090

www.cherryblossom-az.com


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