Cafe Reviews

Soys R Us

Although various people have encouraged me to partake of Japanese fast food, a real ambivalence about raw fish, skepticism about fast food in general and, yes, perhaps a little jingoistic jaundice have conspired to keep me away from speedy sushi at low, low prices. Now I must admit that I've missed out on many truly delicious, wonderfully healthful and astonishingly affordable meals. Japanese fast food is a major revelation and I regret having delayed so long in giving it a try.

If you, too, are among the uninitiated, set aside culinary doubts, cancel out cultural animosities and forget everything you think you know about the possibilities of cheap wedded to good. The quality and variety of the local Japanese fast-food emporiums make the native burger-and-fries boys look like kids diddling with mud pies.

My initiation takes place at Yoshi's, a newcomer to the local market. (Let me say right here that I will be discussing restaurants in the order of my experience, not my rating, of them. In style, food selection and general accouterments, these restaurants are as interchangeable as McDonald's, Burger King, and Rally's; if you like one, you'll probably like them all.)

As central as burgers to American fast food are "rice bowls" to the Japanese. In these preparations, foam- plastic bowls (easy to seal and take out) are filled with steamed white rice and topped with a wide assortment of stir- fried, broiled, stewed or steamed meats and/or vegetables. An attractive option at Yoshi's is that brown or fried rice may be substituted for the steamed white for a small surcharge.

Of the Yoshi's rice bowls we sample, my group's favorites are the katsu (pork) and chicken curries. The meat in both these dishes is very tender, and while the curry sauce is a bit tame in the heat department, it is resonantly flavored and punches up nicely with the addition of crushed chili or wasabi (a seriously potent green horseradish paste generally reserved for sushi). Other enjoyable "bowls" include tender Teriyaki Chicken and an ugly but tasty preparation called Katsu Bowl, a breaded pork cutlet steamed with egg and onion that in combination unfortunately looks like crusted-over oatmeal.

Like other Japanese fast-food places, Yoshi's does have some signature items in the appetizer/side dish category, but this is not Yoshi's strongest department. Shumai (steamed pork dumplings) are flavorful but the pork used in the filling is distressingly fatty, while egg rolls which somehow sneaked on the menu lack flavor definition. A side dish of stir-fried vegetables is dominated by chopped greens and zucchini, a combination made not much more enticing when added to pan-fried noodles in a traditional dish called Yaki Soba. Truly the greatest delight of my visit to Yoshi's, however, is learning the capacity of this sort of place to put out high-quality/sensationally priced sushi. While you are excused if your upbringing gives you a predilection for fish that is cooked, you're really missing out on something special if you pass up Yoshi's seaweed-wrapped Tuna Rolls or its distinctive Futomaki, an extremely pretty and interestingly textured egg- and-vegetable variation. At Yoshi's and its competitors, all sushi items are served with wasabi and paper-thin slices of vinegar-marinated ginger, condiments that are light-years beyond anything you've ever squeezed out of a packet at an American fast-food place. For the rest, Yoshi's looks and behaves amazingly like a clean, modern, well-run hamburger stand. Although there is an Oriental theme to the wall hangings and chopsticks are available, the total feel is anything but foreign. You've encountered the billboard menu listings, the lines at the service counter, the booths, the drive-up window and the youthful, multi-ethnic staff a thousand times before. You just never ate this well.

The Tempe edition of Shooting Star is the plainest of places--just a gray-walled box with lots of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a few subtle Oriental wall prints and a clock with plastic sushi where the numbers should be. Surprisingly, this turns out to be my favorite Japanese fast-food restaurant. I'm sure part of the explanation for that is its unpromising first impression.

My guests and I visit on Thanksgiving Eve, and the adjacent ASU campus is deserted. The only other patrons in the restaurant are a somber Japanese family. We approach a likely booth and find it encrusted with sauce. We call this to the attention of the jockish-looking ASU student behind the counter and from this moment our appreciation of the restaurant takes off like, well, a shooting star. My guests and I expect to be handed a pile of napkins or a dirty, wet rag, but this considerate and friendly soul apologizes sincerely and comes out quickly to wipe down the table himself. Throughout our meal this fellow and his colleagues give us better service than I've received in restaurants costing ten times as much and serving food not one-tenth as satisfying.

Considering the let's-get-the-hell-out- of-here holiday circumstances, the culinary workmanship upon this occasion is nothing short of wondrous. Every dish is cooked and served perfectly. "This is fast food?" observes one of my guests incredulously, and the comment is apt.

In general, Shooting Star's rice bowl dishes are similar to Yoshi's, although the latter may claim more flavorful rice and the former a more generous hand with the meat and vegetables. Chicken curry is also a standout here, although it's more of a stew with tasty bits of carrot, potato and onion complementing the chicken. Shooting Star also manages a first-rate version of Teriyaki Beef featuring a hefty portion of marinated, charbroiled meat of surprisingly good quality. The pre-Thanksgiving timing does force us to endure the disappointment of no sushi, but where Shooting Star shines most brightly is in the side dish/appetizer area. A couple of the interesting offerings in this category are Teba Wings (a novel, Japanese-style chicken wing seasoned with soy, garlic and chiles) and Shumai (here the stuffed dumplings include the unlikely but interesting addition of melted cheese). Best of all, though, are Gyoza (pork-stuffed won tons that are both steamed and fried, then served with a piquant chili-oil sauce) and Potato Croquettes (light and luscious potato filling encased in a toasty exterior and paired with a molasses-thick tonkatsu sauce and hot mustard).

As we leave Shooting Star, the staff inquires after our satisfaction, bids us a cheerful farewell and wishes us a Happy Turkey Day. For us, the feast of good food and good will has already started.

These other places owe some ah-ree- gah-tos--that's "thanks" in Japanese-- to Tokyo Express, the outfit that pioneered the Phoenix market in 1982 and which has grown to four restaurants today. Here, too, the food is generally excellent, although this outfit's wizened Sukiyaki Beef can't hold a candle to the succulent stuff at Shooting Star. The contrast is all the more curious because Tokyo Express turns out terrific Teriyaki Chicken made of large and juicy poultry pieces.

Be that as it may, the true temptations at Tokyo Express are the sushi and the un-Japanese homemade cakes. Possessing oddly similar virtues of variety, lightness, color, geometrical form and strong, focused flavors, these cross-cultural courses are the stars of the weirdest and most wonderful lunch this side of seven dollars. Of course you can eat a bit lighter and get out the door for a lot less, but you're going to have a yen for more than a small repast once you start sampling this stuff. Sushi-wise, my preference is the Sushi Tray, an artful and appetizing assortment of all the varieties the restaurant serves. These mouth- watering morsels run from the familiar tuna and salmon to the uncommonly delicious smoked eel (don't knock it until you've tried it). Every one of these species, about six varieties in all, has a remarkably distinct flavor and all seem but moments from the ocean.

As for the cakes, these are sweetly novel notions that chalk up about half the calories/bloat of usual multilayered dessert indulgences. Apparently a lot of air is beaten into the batter and the sugar is reduced, but speaking from the experience of Tropical Fruit Cake, this is yummy stuff. Other selections include Cheese Cake, Black Forest Cake, Banana Rum Cake, and even Chocolate Eclairs.

So, if you deserve a cake today . . .