Living in Central Phoenix, I'm not about to state any allegiance between East Valley and West Valley restaurants. I'll go wherever there's good food to be had.
But I can't deny the overwhelming surplus of self-consciously hip sushi spots in the East Valley, where the trend is toward sleek and extroverted, with pretty people and loud, thumping music. In contrast, the West Side is anything but flooded with sushi joints, and the good ones are much more low-key than the Scottsdale standard.
Actually, one of the most appealing things about Glendale's Yen Sushi & Sake Bar is how much it feels like a speakeasy. It's so un-flashy that it looks closed even on a busy Friday night. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. If the people at Yen pimped their tasty sushi too much, there would likely be a line out the door, with nowhere to wait.
Yen Sushi Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.
Beef gyoza: $7.50
Salmon sashimi: $9.95
Caterpillar roll: $9.95
Planted on the northern stretch of a corner strip mall at 43rd Avenue and Bell Road, Yen is tucked behind darkened windows, with insufficient lighting for the outdoor signage. Even when you park right out front, it's hard to tell if there are any signs of life here. And yet you walk in the door, and it's buzzing.
The atmosphere is cozy, a sort of rustic Asian chic with dark wood everywhere, from the tables and chairs to the sushi counter and shelves behind it, bearing big bottles of sake. Kanji-printed paper covers the walls, and specials are hand-written on a chalkboard. Accordingly, the service is warm and down-to-earth, if a bit overeager at times (don't be surprised if your entire order comes up all at once, barely after you've had a chance to sip your Sapporo).
Sushi and sashimi comprise most of the menu, but that makes for a much broader selection than you might imagine. At Yen, there's equal emphasis on traditional and nouveau raw fish dishes, both done with finesse. I was perfectly content to slurp up thick, silky slices of yellowtail and buttery salmon sashimi — the portions were generous, the fish was pristine — but on another night, I really enjoyed an appetizer plate of yellowtail sashimi dressed up with sliced green chile, dots of sriracha, and tiny cilantro leaves.
Old-school nigirizushi was served in bite-sized pieces (as it should be) rather than ginormous slabs, and was competently prepared, from lightly marinated saba (mackerel) and tender amaebi (raw shrimp served with deep-fried heads on the side) to compact, nori-wrapped rice balls overflowing with mild, creamy uni (sea urchin).
Meanwhile, there was a huge variety of hybrid rolls, from cool "fresh rolls" to baked and tempura rolls, some served warm. The latter were filling, and were embellished with savory, unconventional ingredients. For example, the spicy tuna tempura roll was literally an entire spicy tuna maki dipped in batter and deep-fried. Artfully splayed out on a platter with a drizzle of sticky-sweet sauce, it was like a hearty entree, and activated an entirely different part of my brain from typical sushi.
I felt the same way about an avocado-topped caterpillar roll, its eel filling still warm from the broiler, and the "yellow stone roll," stuffed with lightly crispy fish cake, fresh crab, and avocado, and wrapped in raw salmon.
Among the fresh rolls, I liked the Firecracker, an inside-out spicy scallop maki topped with tuna, and the light, refreshing Rock & Roll, which combined tuna, salmon, whitefish, avocado, and crab, all sheathed in thinly sliced cucumber. Yen's Hawaiian roll was another entree-like cold dish, with seared albacore and pickled onions heaped on a garlic-albacore roll — a celebration of bold, tangy flavors.
Okonomiyaki isn't something you ever see at Japanese restaurants around here, and I'm not sure why. It's easy to love (the word itself means "cooked as you like it"), a thick meat-and-seafood-and-whatever pancake usually smothered with special okonomiyaki sauce, squiggles of rich Japanese mayo, salty katsuo-bushi (dried bonito shavings), and aonori (a type of dried seaweed). The whole point is to add what appeals to you, whether it's spicy fish eggs or chewy blobs of mochi.
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I got really excited when I saw it on the menu at Yen, but the result was sort of a letdown — I was craving all of those wonderful sloppy toppings, and this didn't have more than a meager drizzle of sauce. However, my dining companions that night had never tasted or even seen the thing I was hoping for, and as a basic, crispy seafood pancake filled with chunks of salmon, octopus, and whitefish, they thought it was pretty good. I couldn't really disagree.
Beef-filled gyoza weren't bad, with gently browned wonton wrappers and soy-based dip. Much more interesting were the "creamy shrimp," which didn't have a menu description but turned out to be a hit when they landed at our table, hot out of the fryer.
Imagine whole shelled shrimp packed with cream cheese, wrapped in a wonton pocket just like a dumpling, and then deep fried to a rich golden shade, with tiny shrimp tails serving as crunchy handles to grab. It's a pretty clever idea, but what truly made the dish was the chunky, wasabi-tinged sauce that came with it. Just a dab was enough to add some fire and some bite to balance the fried coating and creamy contents. You can only imagine how well those creamy shrimp went with a cold glass of beer.
Those are the kinds of details that make Yen stand out, in spite of its humble façade. I appreciate that these folks just work hard at serving decent eats to the neighborhood and leave it up to locals to seek them out.