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August 12, 2011

Sushi Ken

Nigiri Sushi Dominic Armato

Apparently it's Japanese week here at Skillet Doux! Since we covered the high end with ShinBay on Monday, why not round out the week with a little casual neighborhood Japanese?

I've been spending a good deal of time down in Ahwatukee at Sushi Ken recently, and not just because there's something magical about the place that makes my two year old decide she actually wants to eat green things. Sushi Ken, as one might surmise from the name, is a sushi bar. But that's only part of it and, frankly, I think it's the less interesting part.

GyozaDominic Armato

My instinct is to call Sushi Ken a little Mom and Pop joint, but it's not really that little. Between the dining room and the sushi bar, it looks to me like it can seat about 75, and I've been for a few lunches where every seat was filled. I was rather taken aback that they have no website, but it sure doesn't seem to be hurting them. The reason, probably, is that it's the consummate neighborhood joint. It's casual, no-frills, inexpensive and family friendly with a menu chock full of homey foods. The sushi menu is vast, if awfully roll-heavy for this traditionalist's tastes, but not nearly as vast as the regular menu, which easily boasts a hundred examples of casual and homestyle Japanese cookery that we often overlook in our obsession with raw fish and rice. I love these kinds of foods, and having them close at hand makes me happy, even if their execution is sometimes a little uneven.

TempuraDominic Armato

Appetizers include all of the usual suspects like sunomono, agedashi tofu, korokke and the like. At places like these, I'm a sucker for a little iceberg lettuce salad with a sweet, gingery dressing and this one doesn't disappoint, even if it makes me feel guilty about not getting something else. The little fella's a sucker for dumplings, so we've had their gyoza on a few occasions. While not transcending the genre, they've been ably prepared, fried to a nice crisp on one side with a steamy, moist interior. And while I shouldn't be so easily pleased, it's nice that they aren't unceremoniously dumped into the deep fryer like they are at so many places. The tempura, sadly, I found to be less consistent. It's been acceptable at best, but more often a little heavy, lacking any crispness and retaining a little more oil than it really should. It'll do the job, but it doesn't seem to be a strength.

Yellowtail TatakiDominic Armato

Everything coming from the sushi bar has been capably prepared, though the quality of the fish can be a little uneven and I'm not sure price performance is there. The nigiri trio you see above included a solid salmon, passable yellowtail and weak tuna. On another day, the yellowtail tataki on the right was actually rather nice, a generous helping of good fish with a little ponzu, scallion, chili daikon and grated ginger. I find the pricing a little hard to wrap my head around. Their smaller combinations are only a few dollars cheaper than it would be to order the same pieces a la carte at a place like Hana Japanese Eatery, where I've always found the fish to be of excellent quality and very consistent, so I'm not sure I see the draw there. But on the other hand, a $5 spicy tuna roll markerboard special was fresh and tasty and overloaded with enough fish for two and a half normal rolls, so I'm a little puzzled by some weird inconsistency in the pricing. I'm left to conclude that unless it's your neighborhood joint, I don't see a compelling reason to come here just for sushi, but it's nice to be able to grab a little raw fish to go with something off the regular menu.

Beef CurryDominic Armato

The regular menu, you see, is what brings me back to Sushi Ken. It's full of simple, homey stuff like Japanese curry, of which I can never get enough. It's undoubtedly a brick base, doctored up in house style, but I'm okay with that. It's thick, beefy, just a little sweet, and comes on a large plate with plenty of rice and a little bit of sweet pickled daikon. The curry can be paired with a number of proteins. Pictured here is the beef curry (a smaller portion as part of a combination -- I believe a regular order features more meat), which has historically been my go-to variant, but lately I've been hung up on the pork katsu curry, half slathered in sauce and half crisp and dry.

TonkatsuDominic Armato

Speaking of tonkatsu, this is one of Sushi Ken's stronger offerings. For the uninitiated, tonkatsu is little more than a pork cutlet, panko-breaded and fried up crisp. It's served here in minimal, traditional fashion, with a big pile of finely shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is essentially a slightly sweeter, thicker Worcestershire. I've certainly had better, but the folks at Sushi Ken do well by it. The coating is always hot and crisp, and the meat is juicy and reasonably tender, and there's little more you can ask of a dish that's nothing more than a breaded and fried slab of pork. A small cup of marinated chives(?) adds a little greenery as well.

OyakodonDominic Armato

Sadly, a big miss was one of my favorites, the oyakodon. Sushi Ken offers a number of donburi (various items served over a bowl of rice), and oyakodon has always been a benchmark for me. Chicken and egg are cooked together along with green onions and, in this case, sliced shiitake mushrooms and fish cake, then served over rice that's been doused with a light sauce -- almost more of a broth -- that's dashi and soy based. But while the components were there, this oyakodon was full of problems. The rice was oddly undercooked and most of the sauce just trickled right on through without marrying with it. More problematic, the mixture on top was very overcooked, resulting in rubbery chicken and rubbery eggs, not to mention an unpleasant flavor from the fish cake that I think was the result of having gone a little too long. When on, this is a wonderful dish, warm and filling rice beneath, tender chicken with lightly cooked eggs on top. But while I feel like I should give it another shot, I haven't yet mustered the strength to go back to the oyakodon after this offering.

Cold UdonDominic Armato

Noodles, however, have been lovely, both hot and cold. Cold Japanese noodles are one of my favorite hot weather foods, and an upside to the weather here is that it's always a good time for them. The cold udon is a generous bowl of thick, chewy noodles, swimming in a dashi broth and topped with tempura flakes, slivered cucumber, shredded nori, marinated chives and a few chunks of surimi. The sauce isn't the most flavorful and developed I've tried, but though a little light, it's tasty and refreshing and served exceptionally cold, which is a necessity for me. The vegetables are cool, the tempura flakes are crisp, and there's nothing wrong with surimi so long as it isn't billed as crabmeat, especially when it picks up the gentle, smoky fishiness of the dashi in the sauce. I could eat this for lunch twice a week and not grow tired of it.

Spicy Miso RamenDominic Armato

On the hot end of the spectrum is the ramen for which Sushi Ken has earned something of a reputation, and while my feelings about the ramen are well shy of glowing, it does the job. The tonkotsu won't be winning over devotees of the form, but it's a solid bowl of soup, milky white and pleasantly salty with noodles, scallions, sliced pork, shinachiku, fish cake and wakame. The toppings get lost in the broth -- the balance could be tinkered with, I think -- but it's a tasty broth, if not a notable example of the form. It needs a more intense pork flavor, and is much thinner than I'd like a good tonkotsu to be. Plus, the sliced pork was significantly overcooked. But still, an enjoyable bowl of soup, and light years beyond pseudo-ramen joints like Republic Ramen. Ditto the spicy miso ramen which, with just a little spice and fermented funk, has far more soul than anything to be found at the Tempe joint, even if it's a little clumsy. Short verdict: it kind of pains me to say it, but while I'm still looking, this is the best bowl of ramen I've tasted in town. At least until Josh Hebert stops daydreaming about opening a ramen shop and actually does it (hurry up, please). It leaves me wanting, but it'll do.

And while I suppose that's not much of a ringing endorsement, that's kind of how I feel about most of the food at Sushi Ken, and yet I'm happy it's here and I expect to be at least a semi-regular. It's the kind of place where I wish they'd cut 80% of the menu and focus on doing just a few things really, really well, but that doesn't mean it isn't a comfy place to get some reasonably well-executed homestyle Japanese food. I don't go expecting excellence. I go expecting to be satisfied by a big plateful of the downscale Japanese foods I love, and Sushi Ken hits that mark. It's not greatness, but when I'm contentedly scarfing down a plateful of belly and heartwarming katsu curry, it makes me very happy.

Sushi Ken
4206 E. Chandler Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85048
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM


Hey Dom -

Just got back from Boston/Cape Cod. Had about half a dozen lobster rolls but Kelly's was the best of the bunch (Arnold's Lobster in Eastham being a close second - it was the warm buttered style, and if the bun had held up to the butter a little better it might have tied Kelly's). Ate a lot of ice cream too - Sundae School (Harwich Port and Dennis Port) is the best, Four Seas (Centerville) is a close second, but the raspberry lime rickeys at Sundae School put it over the top.

Speaking of tonkatsu, the best I've ever had was at a place in Winnetka, IL called Takkatsu. They specialized only in tonkatsu and variants (chicken katsu, curry katsu, etc.). The tonkatsu made with Berkshire pork/Kurobuta was insanely good and their homemade tonkatsu sauce (made with something like 20 ingredients) was ridiculously good - I would order extra rice and just pour tonkatsu sauce on it so I could have more.

Unfortunately, they ended up moving to Arlington Heights because the owner thought that the huge number of Japanese ex-pats out that way would bring in more business. He lasted less than a year in Arlington Heights - rich folks in Winnetka were a better paying clientele. (Although, in his defense, whenever I went to the one in AH, it was *all* Japanese ex-pats plus my family.)

Man, I miss that place.

I remember that place! My folks were in Winnetka at the time. I never tried it myself, but I heard it was really good. That was one of those restaurant revolving door locations, if I recall. Too bad.

The Takkatsu space in Winnetka is now a Chase bank. I'm coming to the conclusion that every piece of unoccupied retail space in the country will eventually be a bank.

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