Cafe Reviews

Raw Power

As a food critic, I often find myself meticulously planning my restaurant visits weeks or months ahead of time. Too bad, because I love spontaneity — so I try to toss some last-minute dining choices into the mix. My friends and co-workers seem to get a kick out of random invitations to unknown restaurants, and sometimes, satisfying a craving is the best way to find a great spot.

I'm always craving sushi. Left to my own devices, I could eat it a few times a week, but lately it's been a rare treat. Finally, I decided it was okay to seek it out, as long as I avoided my usual haunts and tried someplace different. Luckily, Sushi Kee, located in a sleepy south Tempe strip mall, turned out to be a smart choice.

My friend was in the middle of lipstick shopping at Neiman Marcus one afternoon when I caught her on her cell to see if she'd go for sushi that night.

"Sure — I'm already getting hungry," she said. "Is this place any good?"

"I haven't been there yet, so we'll find out."

"Oh. Well . . . I don't know. I only eat sushi at places I trust."

I twisted her arm and promised to be the guinea pig. "You can order something else if you don't like it," I told her.

Finally, she agreed. From the outside, Sushi Kee is easy to miss, especially at night, when the blue glow of its sign blurs together with all the other signage at that corner of Warner and Rural Road. Inside, the walls are painted an inviting, radiant shade of saffron, hung with framed art depicting kimono-clad beauties. A dynamic mural of a fish leaping from the ocean adorns the front of the room, and there's an elaborate aquarium behind a sleek sushi bar. Seeing a chef slice up sashimi is usually all the entertainment I need, but here I could zone out for hours watching the underwater antics behind the glass.

The looks of Sushi Kee made a good first impression and, before long, our dinner did, too. We picked a bottle of sake from among 14 different kinds, then ordered what we thought was a reasonable amount of food. Turns out, the servings were enormous, and our small table ended up covered with different dishes.

We sampled the moist shrimp shumai (twice as big as what you'd likely get elsewhere) and a refreshing bowl of tako su, thin slices of octopus and cucumber tossed in sweet rice vinegar. On subsequent visits, I also enjoyed age dashi, thick squares of lightly breaded and fried tofu served in a warm pool of dashi. Yama kake was an uncommon offering, with silky chunks of raw tuna topped with sticky grated mountain yam, shreds of dried nori, and real wasabi (which has a sweeter, smoother taste than the stiff, green horseradish paste we Americans are accustomed to).

I wasn't so keen on the blue-crab wonton. They were perfectly crispy, as far as fried food goes, but the filling was just imitation crab and a plain pat of cream cheese. They were served with a bowl of sauce that tasted like a blend of wasabi and ketchup.

Should've seen that coming, I guess. Crab wonton doesn't belong on a Japanese menu, but, then again, Sushi Kee calls its broad offerings "Asian Cuisine." Besides traditional Japanese items, there are 10 different Chinese dishes, as well as a few kinds of bulgogi. I tried a bland plate of orange chicken that, at most, tasted more like lemon. And my bulgogi was suspiciously silent — at a Korean restaurant, I would've heard a platter of snap-crackle-and-popping marinated beef before it even arrived at the table. Here, the dish didn't even manage to cook the bed of raw onions it was served on (the beef was thoroughly cooked, though).

You should stick with the Japanese options — I thanked myself when I did. Chicken katsu, a fried, breaded white-meat cutlet, was light and crisp, topped with tangy sauce. At lunch, it came in a generously sized bento with California roll, rice, miso soup, pickles, and pot stickers. The seafood nabe udon was a belly-warming pot of slippery noodles, shrimp, fish cake, and scallions in clear broth. And the tuna teriyaki was exceptional — and not even close to what I imagined. The sashimi-grade fish was seared, sliced, and fanned over a bed of cabbage, drizzled with a light, gingery sauce that was a far cry from common teriyaki sauce.

I'd definitely go back to Sushi Kee for a raw-fish fix. There were more than 30 nigiri options, including excellent toro (fatty tuna), saba (mackerel), and aji (Spanish mackerel). There were just as many kinds of "special rolls" on the menu — all of the standards, such as spicy tuna roll and rainbow roll, as well as some fun novelties.

I'm not sure how Arizonans will take to natto (sticky fermented soybean), but Japanese sure love it. One of my Japanese friends insists it keeps you young, so I got over my longstanding aversion and gave it another chance. Here, it was perfectly paired with scallions and raw squid, which has a similarly gooey texture. The red dragon was a California roll topped with eel, sweet eel sauce, and red chile sauce, with about 10 huge pieces in a serving. It looked like they put an entire eel on the thing. (That's fine by me.)

The most comical item on the menu — the Sponge Bob — was one of the tastiest, surprisingly. The sushi roll was bursting with cucumber, avocado, grilled salmon skin, teriyaki sauce, and a rectangular strip of fluffy omelet that really did resemble the hyperactive cartoon character.

For my friend's sake, since I dragged her out, I would've been relieved if Sushi Kee were merely decent. But after a few bites of nigiri, we both realized it was much better than that — the food was extremely fresh, and totally delicious. And after seeing how much of it she ate, I knew that trust wasn't an issue at all.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig