Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: A Song of Rice and Fire From Two New Japanese Eateries

Octopus Tiradito with Gyoza at Kaizan.
Octopus Tiradito with Gyoza at Kaizan. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
For our September café review, we visit two new Japanese eateries. The first: Nanaya Japanese Kitchen, where the menu is mostly Japanese with a few imaginative dishes that fuse old Southwestern dishes with Japanese. The other is Kaizen PHX — a warehouse-district sushi kitchen that offers raw fish beyond the usual nigiri, maki, temaki, and sashimi. Let’s go.

A Surprise Pivot to Japanese Comfort Food in Arcadia

In spring, as COVID crept in, the owners of Nanaya Japanese Kitchen, a then-unopened restaurant in Arcadia, had to think fast. They had planned to serve izakaya. But izakaya doesn’t translate well to takeout, so they reshuffled the menu, shifting to “Japanese comfort food.”

The result? One of my favorite openings of the year.

click to enlarge The takeaways from Nanaya Japanese Kitchen — both food and thoughts. - CHRIS MALLOY
The takeaways from Nanaya Japanese Kitchen — both food and thoughts.
Chris Malloy
Those owners, Eddie Chow and Akira Nakasu, are Valley newbies but industry veterans. Nakasu is a restauranteur with supermarket and bakery experience in Japan and Shanghai. Chow has run eateries in Taiwan, including cafes, an American restaurant, and a pho concept. Looking to the U.S. for their next projects, they settled on metro Phoenix. They have big plans for downtown Scottsdale and hope to cut ribbons in early 2021.

But that’s another story, and you can taste this one now.

Nanaya’s chef, Spencer Shin, is a somewhat recent transplant from the Bay Area. Most of Nanaya’s food is Japanese, like ramen, karaage, gyoza. Some veers into improv or a playful fusion of Japanese and Southwestern. You'll observe smart touches of thought and care: ribs cooked both sous vide (slow) and frying (fast), or the use of dehydrated lime and tomato for a Japanese take on frybread.

Where to begin with this exciting starter? At the beginning: it’s a plank of dough, deep-fried.

Shavings of beef rich with miso-yuzu marinade adorn chewy bread, finished with cheese, dehydrated lime, and dried tomatoes. If you strain, it vaguely calls to mind a simple red chile frybread eaten from a roadside stand, but with a new direction. I would spend more time plumbing this, but we’ve got a lot to chew over.

The other starters are enjoyable. Iidako, baby octopuses the size of ping pong balls, are crunchy-fried, jacketed in potato and corn starch. Gyoza ripple with flavorful, juicy ground pork. If you want, grab elote with Japanese mayo, but I’d save room.

click to enlarge "Damn, that pork cutlet is thick!" - CHRIS MALLOY
"Damn, that pork cutlet is thick!"
Chris Malloy
Entrees fall into three camps: ramen, katsu sandwiches, and grab bag.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t order ramen from a spot that specializes in dishes far beyond the soup. But the tori paitan ramen, created, as with several of Nanaya’s dishes, in consultation with chefs from Japan, makes a case against this rule. It has a whisper of creaminess and a ton of rolling depth, its broth imbued with the wholesome, roasty quality of good poultry.

I would say ordering the ramen is optional but ordering a katsu sandwich is mandatory. You’re at home, rifling through your takeout containers in a brown bag or two. You come to your katsu. Its package — butcher paper fastened with twine — stops you in an unexpected moment of small beauty. You unwrap your sandwich. Damn, that pork cutlet is thick! But ah, the cutlet looks dry. On soft Japanese milk bread, the sandwich gets all the slight juiciness it needs from its pork, not to mention muted sweetness from sponge-soft bread. This is a very pleasant sandwich.

I enjoyed every entrée at Nanaya. Another hit was the tempura-fried pork ribs, all but sloughing from their bones. Unfortunately, the kitchen tends to run out of salmon yuanyaki — salmon belly skewers turned over charcoal. Oh well. Once the pandemic wanes, the folks behind this promising young restaurant hope to steer back into kaiseki territory.

click to enlarge An Alaskan King Roll from Kaizen PHX. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
An Alaskan King Roll from Kaizen PHX.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

An Exciting Sushi Outpost in The Warehouse District

Not far from Seventh Street, in the same lofty complex that houses the technology incubator Galvanize, Kaizen is adding new wrinkles to Phoenix sushi. Of course, maki, temaki, nigiri, sashimi, and much of Kaizen’s on-paper menu can also be spied on a hundred Valley sushi restaurant menus. Kaizen’s charms come, rather, from main dishes that channel flavors of the Americas.

Kaizen shares space with The Larry, a low-key, all-day restaurant. Both are by Conceptually Social, a hospitality group that recently sold a few holdings, like The Dressing Room, in an effort to regroup in the boiling wake of COVID.

The culinary talent behind Kaizen includes Gustavo Munoz, a Mexican chef who also helms the sushi arm of Conceptually Social’s catering. At Kaizen, Munoz draws from raw-fish preparations and flavors from Mexico and South America.

Technically, in the creative main dish section, he moves beyond sushi, introducing original touches, some centering great maritime foods like tiradito.

Tiradito is a sashimi-adjacent, Peruvian-Japanese food of slivered fish, often served in the creamy, chile-citrus sauce leche de tigre. At Kaizen, gingery spicing warms a silky sauce. Its chile tingle? Fiery habanero, fruity flashes brightened by lime. This is an elegant, brilliantly fresh-tasting plate of seafood, though you should opt for snapper rather than octopus, as the octopus’s slight rubber grabs outsize focus.

click to enlarge Kaizan’s Hotate Aguachile. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Kaizan’s Hotate Aguachile.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
In a city blessed with aguachile options, Kaizen shoots its shot. A green sauce zinging with citrus and unripe chile heat checks a key aguachile box: the screamingly intense cool broth that gives the dish its name. Coin-thin scallops from Hokkaido, raw and slippery, encircle cucumber beneath herbs with intense grassiness. The herbaceous influence is a nice touch, jiving smoothly with delicately sweet slices of scallop.

Other zones of the menu are worth exploration, though the pleasures are less riveting. King crab nigiri spill sweet meat over its tight ledges of well-cooked rice. Handrolls are decent, simple, and fresh in the way of good sushi. Gyoza are linked by a dumpling skirt, though its lacy snap may soften on the road.

No worries. If you live near Kaizen, they’ll deliver. By “they” I mean Kaizen, as Conceptually Social doesn’t work with third-party delivery services, hoping, rather, to control quality all the way to your doorstep.

Inside your takeout or delivery bag, you’ll find color-coded packaging, conveying which sauces go with which sushi box. This is a small thing. But it’s the kind of wise move that speaks to the precision and intention that makes these Japanese restaurants, though new and grappling with a pandemic, surprisingly exciting.

Nanaya Japanese Kitchen
3606 East Indian School Road, Suite B
Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m., 4 to 8 p.m., Wednesday to Monday

Iidako $6.50
Nanaya spareribs $14.50
Tori Paitan ramen $11
Tonkatsu sando $8

Kaizen PHX
515 East Grant Street
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

Hane gyoza $9
Hotate aguachile $17
Tiradito $17
King crab nigiri $10
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy