Sometimes there spaces that seem to have a certain role. They might serve another purpose for an interim, but then snap back to their original purpose. That might be true of the site on Forest Avenue in Tempe that was once home to the popular Mai Island Grill, known for its Hawaiian plate lunches. After Mai closed, the location hosted a gyros place for only a few months. Now, with the opening of Grilled Ave. at the same site, two blocks from the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station, teriyaki is back on the menu at Forest and Seventh Street.
|exterior from Forest Avenue|
That’s not to say that Grilled Ave. is a rerun of Mai Island Grill. To be sure, there are similarities: marinated meats cooked in small kitchens, producing powerful scents that can entice customers walking nearby, and combination meals that augments those meats with steamed rice and macaroni salad. Still, the emphasis is a little different at Grilled Ave. — a little less south Pacific and a little more Korean and Japanese. The terminology is different with “bento” now being used in term of “plate lunch,” even if the results are similar.
Throughout its various incarnations, this place has been a compact, bare bones space. Grilled Ave. has enlivened it a little with a few whimsical touches. The menu board above the counter is festive in its use of multi-colored magnetic letters. Off to the side, there’s a chalkboard where customers write in English, Korean, and unclassifiable slang. The second floor loft, closed during Mai’s run, is now open with a small seating area and a restroom. Outside, there a few tables, although the view is now of an unnecessary parking lot instead of the old Arches plaza.
|teriyaki chicken bowl|
Approach the counter and the first item listed is teriyaki chicken, either as a bowl (with rice) or as a bento (with rice, macaroni, and salad). This is probably a good place to start since good teriyaki is a foundational dish in a restaurant of this type. The teriyaki here, also offered in a beef version, is a solid, straightforward recipe with sweet, salty, and smoky notes imparted to the meat that has soaked in it prior to cooking. The portions are generous, although it might be nice to see a few more vegetables mixed in with the meat.
|chicken katsu bento|
If Grilled Ave.’s teriyaki ranks as very good, it’s the chicken katsu that is excellent. The restaurant’s take on this dish involves thin, lightly breaded breast meat — not unlike a Milanesa preparation in a Mexican torta shop. The result is crisp on the surface, moist on the inside, and not at all greasy. Tangy dark sauce with sesame seeds enhances the dish. Like all the meat entrees, it comes over rice. The mac salad added with the bento is worthwhile. The pasta is tossed with bits of celery and other vegetables and coated in a relatively light dressing.
The shop’s Korean influence is evident in its skillful handling of the beef-based dishes bulgogi and kalbi. The former is thin, tender slices of beef grilled after marination in a fragrant sauce tinged with ginger and garlic. The latter is short ribs, a heartier cut of meat but still one that comes out tender and highly flavored from the sauce in which it is anointed. There’s also orange chicken on the menu, an item that seems more targeted at an American-Chinese niche, and Hawaiian shrimp, another fried indulgence.
Besides the meat entrees, there’s a meatless tofu salad and three kinds of sushi. The sushi here takes the form of creamy, creative rolls. Expect some imitation crab, avocado, and cream cheese along with fish, whether “crazy lobster” in the roll of that name or salmon in both the New York and Las Vegas rolls. The sushi come six to an order and can also be upgraded to a bento with a slightly different assortment of sides. Instead of rice, there are two potstickers included. but their scant filling seems lost in the heavily cooked wrappers.
The egg rolls, available a la carte as an appetiter or side, are far more successful. Their filling of julienned vegetables holds it own against a firm exterior, and the side sauce provided with each order is good for dipping. Another side, kimchi, is a Korean staple. The variety served at Grilled Ave. is not fiery hot, but still flavorful and generous in quantity given that it costs only a dollar. Miso soup is a familiar favorite here with slices of scallions floating over its cloudy base. The seaweed salad provides some aquatic greenery over a bed of more familiar salad lettuces.
There’s a soda fountain and a refrigerated case full of bottled water and fruit juices as one approaches the counter. A freshly brewed icedtea would be a nice addition here. There’s no dessert on the menu, so walk a few blocks for a paleta or an ice on Mill Avenue if you have an appetite left. It’s a shame that Mai Island Grill is gone and that the gyros restaurant didn’t work out, but it’s nice to see this space once again filling a niche for teriyaki and the like near ASU and Downtown Tempe. Maybe Forest Avenue really is Grilled Avenue.
705 S. Forest Ave, Tempe AZ 85281
College Avenue / Veterans Way Station