Seconds Over Tokyo

Ah-So, 6033 West Bell, Glendale, 978-1177. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Is Phoenix a big-league city? You can use all sorts of yardsticks to measure.

Is there a symphony orchestra? Are there museums? What about theatre? Professional sports? Foreign-language films? Neiman Marcus? Reliable public transportation? Well, six out of seven aren't bad.

But I think there's an even better big-league gauge: Count up the number of Japanese restaurants.

Why is the availability of Japanese food such an unmistakable sign of urban cosmopolitanism?

First of all, the fare is so utterly unfamiliar, so completely different from what the meat-and-potato masses are used to. Second, this cuisine requires a certain degree of dining sophistication. Not everyone appreciates the charms of elegant simplicity, both in presentation and taste. Even today, I suspect, most Americans' first instinct, after an encounter with sashimi, is to think "bait." Third, although a Japanese meal is undeniably foreign and ethnic, it certainly doesn't come at Third World cost. You could order a week's worth of tacos or chow mein for what it takes to fill up at a sushi bar.

In short, Japanese restaurants depend on an affluent, worldly, adventurous clientele to thrive.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that ten years ago, you could have counted the number of Japanese restaurants in the Valley on the fingers of one hand, and still have had enough digits left over to insert in a bowling ball.

These days, however, it's another story. New arrivals and well-heeled tourists are fueling a Japanese-restaurant boomlet. But the tale goes beyond sheer numbers. Look, for example, where the proprietors of Ah-So have chosen to set up shop.

The strip mall at the southeast corner of 61st Avenue and West Bell Road is unlikely to remind anyone of downtown Tokyo, despite the presence of Yamaha and Kawasaki dealers just across the street. No one's going to confuse the lot with swanky, high-priced Scottsdale real estate, either.

But the decision to open a Japanese restaurant on the west side strikes me as a stroke of genius. Yes, the west side is home to every chain and fast-food restaurant on the planet. No, the west side has never been an upscale-dining destination. But the demographics have changed significantly during the past few years. One west-side restaurant operator told me the area is home to more and more "upper-middle-class professionals who are familiar with fine dining," who've settled on the west side as "an alternative to the overpriced Scottsdale area."

And these folks have discovered Ah-So. At both of my midweek visits, I ran into an encouraging number of Japanese-food fans. And why not? This stuff is good enough to have a Scottsdale zip code.

Ah-So looks a lot better than most storefront restaurants. Sure, there's the usual parking-lot view. But your gaze will probably be diverted by the bucolic, koi-filled stream running down the center of the room. A couple of bonsai trees, a pair of pagodas, river rocks, a dragon and a stone turtle line the picturesque riverbed.

But once you sit down for the teppanyaki show, your eyes should stay glued on the chef. Eight chairs line three sides of a rectangular table, whose inner surface is a sizzling grill. (Unless you come with seven friends, expect to share the table with strangers.) The fourth side is reserved for the knife-twirling chef, who is armed with enough blades to take a serene stroll through Central Park at midnight.

The performance begins. After the chef fires up the grill, he takes an egg and repeatedly tosses it in the air, gently catching it each time on the back of a spatula. Suddenly, after an especially high toss, he whips out a knife and catches the egg dead center on the razor-sharp blade. The shell remains on the knife, while egg slowly drips down each side to the hissing grill. Then he blends it into a heaping pile of rice.

Next, he turns to the main ingredients--you can order shrimp, scallops, chicken and steak, either alone or in combination--and begins a series of rapid-fire slicing-and-dicing maneuvers. After the shrimp tails are cut off, for example, he bangs the grill with his spatula, launching the tails high in the air. They come down behind his back, into a waiting bowl. Then he works on the vegetables--onion, broccoli, carrot, zucchini--which get a quick sizzle.

Finally, everything gets doled out to the hungry spectators, whose senses of smell and sight, at this point, have already been stretched to the limit.

Happily, their sense of taste is in for a good time, too. The ingredients are first-rate: firm, meaty shrimp; big, juicy sea scallops; boneless chicken breast, glazed with teriyaki sauce; and tender, gristle-free beef.

And, I'm thrilled to report, there's no stinting on the portions. I still have vivid memories of my first visit to a teppanyaki restaurant, accompanied by three of my hulking fraternity brothers and our dates. I remember watching the chef attending to a small pile of meat and veggies, worrying that it would not be enough to fill me up. Then, to my horror, I realized that this wasn't my individual serving, but dinner for eight.

By that meal's end, my ravenous pals and I were struggling against the same urge that used to drive certain hungry Amazonian tribesmen into neighboring villages, armed with cutlery and mayonnaise. We sped to a nearby deli, where corned-beef sandwiches saved us from reliving the last days of the Donner party.

Although Ah-So emphasizes teppanyaki, it sets aside a few regular tables for other types of Japanese fare. The seafood nabe, prepared at the table by a kimono-clad waitress, is particularly outstanding. It features an enormous platter of salmon, yellowtail, lobster, shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels, mixed with vegetables and noodles in a fragrant broth. The sushi, however, is less compelling. The sushi menu isn't as deep as it is elsewhere in town, nor is the sushi presentation quite as artful.

It's risky being a pioneer like Ah-So. But if this place succeeds--and it should--it will certainly lure other operators out this way. Load up the restaurant wagons: Westward, ho!

Sushiko, 9301 East Shea, Scottsdale, 860-2960. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Sushiko is tucked away in the shopping-center storefront that used to house Yamakasa, at one time the Valley's premier Japanese restaurant. I think some of the fare at this new place is wonderful. Unfortunately, the restaurant experience isn't.

My biggest gripe: Where's that fabled sense of Japanese serenity?
Problems start with the hyperactive, discombobulated hostesses, who do double duty ineptly bussing tables. On my first visit, after one hostess sat us, the other promptly whisked away our napkins and chopsticks. Another time, on a busy night, they rushed us, trying to clear our dishes before we were through.

The overworked sushi chef got hopelessly backed up. We had to wait about 40 minutes for our sushi order to appear. There aren't enough servers, either. The poor waitress who had to do the tableside cooking for our hot-pot dish would come by and stir for a few seconds, then dash off, like someone who was just about to miss a plane. And, guaranteed to make my blood boil, an idiot box blared nonstop from a corner of the room. What is a television doing here?

If you're able to work your way past the service and decor distractions, however, you will be rewarded with some first-rate fare. The sushi is just about worth the wait, especially if toro is available. It's the prime part of tuna, the marbled underside with an astonishingly rich taste and silky texture. Ika sansai is also superb, thin strips of seasoned squid served in a bowl. Tobiko, crunchy flying-fish roe, may be too advanced for novices. But don't miss unagi, grilled, smoky freshwater eel. Your palate won't be the only part of you that's pleased--unagi is also considered an aphrodisiac.

Skip the tempura, battered shrimp and veggies of no particular distinction. Instead, go straight for the sukiyaki, the best version of this dish I've had in town.

It's a staple of Japanese one-pot cooking, prepared at the table. A deliciously sweet, piquant broth is stocked with tons of vegetables: bamboo shoots, spinach, shiitake and nameko mushrooms, radish, green onion, asparagus and nappa cabbage. Fish cake, noodles and bean curd add harmony, while an ample portion of thin-sliced beef provides the final flavor note.

Yosenabe, another one-pot favorite, isn't quite in the same class. Sushiko makes it with both chicken and seafood--mussels, shrimp, scallops, halibut. But the dish doesn't have the depth of sukiyaki, maybe because the broth is not as flavorful. And the chicken was disturbingly gristly.

Nabeyaki udon is a better, and substantially cheaper, way to get a seafood fix. Thick, starchy noodles share bowl space with mussels, scallops and tempura shrimp, all in a vaguely briny liquid. It's a hearty mix, and the $7.95 tag won't bust too many budgets.

Pork katsu is probably the best choice for skittish first-timers, because it doesn't seem very foreign. It's a well-crafted piece of battered pork, fried to a golden, crunchy sheen and sliced into chopstick-friendly morsels. Dip it into tonkatsu sauce, a fruity, spicy condiment that does for pork katsu what ketchup does for hamburger.

Potentially, Sushiko is good enough to be the northeast Valley's neighborhood Japanese restaurant. But, unless it works out the service kinks, finds some sushi-bar assistance and gets rid of the television, potential may not be enough.

Caterpillar roll (sushi)
Teppanyaki scallops and chicken
Teppanyaki shrimp and steak
Seafood nabe (for two)
Toro (sushi)
Pork katsu


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