Every February, Downtown Phoenix’s Heritage Square is home to the Arizona Matsuri, a festival of Japanese culture. Of course, that means dozens of vendors selling popular Japanese-influenced foods like teriyaki. When the tents have been folded and the taiko drumming has stopped, the question then becomes where to enjoy teriyaki the rest of the year. One of the best answers is the Blue Fin, a quick service Japanese restaurant located just a mile to the north, across the street from the McDowell / Central light rail station.
The Blue Fin has been around for decades in a modest standalone building at Central and Willetta. The location is close to both the Burton Barr Central Library and the Phoenix Art Museum, and, after years of delay, vacant lots in the area are finally giving way to much-needed multi-story housing construction. There’s no bike rack on the premises, but a few signposts along Willetta usually work well enough. For an official location for bicycle parking, try either the library or the nearby CVS store.
The restaurant’s building has a little decor on the outside: a mural of fish along one wall and some appealing metal work on a staff entrance. Inside, it’s a plain, tight space. There’s more seating on a patio facing Central and on the sidewalk along Willetta. Blue Fin’s endurance has generated the type of popularity that means a line, albeit one that moves quickly, during the peak time at lunch. Since the restaurant is not open weekends or evenings, a lot of its business is concentrated into one midday burst of teriyaki enthusiasm.
Blue Fin’s teriyaki is of course the main attraction here. Before lunch, it’s possible to smell the meat grilling from Central Avenue. Like most entrees, the teriyaki comes in either a bowl or on a plate paired with a salad. There’s also something known as the “daily special.” If that suggests something that changes from day to day, let it be known that it’s actually the same assortment all the time: a generous serving of chicken on top of rice, greenery on the other side of the plate, and two crisp vegetable egg rolls at the summit of it all.
When marinated in the sweet, salty, and smoky teriyaki sauce, a mix of white and dark meat chicken yields the most flavor. Nevertheless, there is a “healthy special” available for those who prefer only chicken breast. Not every part of the dish is white, though. As expected, the rice in the healthy special is brown, an upgrade available for a small extra charge with most dishes served here. There’s also teriyaki beef, available in a “beef bowl” special with a side. The flavor is as satisfying as the poultry, but the meat is tougher.
Look around the dining room and the patio, and you’ll see a whole lot of teriyaki. The second most popular item is probably the panko. A thin cutlet of chicken is coated in light bread crumbs (made that way by omitting the crusts) and fried. The result is filling but not particularly greasy. The chicken’s enjoyable, but the poultry is so thin that the ratio of meat to coating is about even. The panko fish is an even better choice because the generous slabs of flesh hold up better when fried, producing a flaky, moist interior in each piece.
A similar approach is evident in the katsu pork and the coconut shrimp, the other fried entrees on the menu. With these items, there will be a default sauce served on the side, but feel free to request another one that seems more enticing. The tonkatsu sauce takes a base of ketchup and amplifies it with soy and spices. The chili sauce is, as expected, more spicy, and the tartar sauce served with the fish is the least exciting. These sauces are provided on request, but there’s also an array of condiments on a table near the front door.
Beyond food marinated in teriyaki sauce or covered in panko, the Japanese curry is worth sampling at the Blue Fin. It’s a mix of chicken meat and carrots in a mild, medium brown sauce, a distinct taste that evolved as British colonists adapted Indian food traditions and created commercial curry powders, which were later adopted by Japan. If there’s a weak item here, it’s the yakisoba, a mix of flaccid noodles and vegetables with sauce on the side. It’s among a few vegetarian items here, but the meatless egg rolls are a better choice.
Those egg rolls, with or without meat, are one of several choices worth having as a side dish or appetizer. The gyoza come four to an order with with a ground meat stuffing and a dipping sauce featuring both chile and vinegar tastes. Vegetable sides include the inevitable edamame; a crunchy, chewy seaweed salad; and a sunomono salad of sliced cucumber. Drinks are all of the non-alcoholic variety: fountain sodas, lemonade, iced tea, Japanese orange soda, and a selection of canned Hawaiian Sun fruit drinks.
To end the meal, there’s a little cheesecake and some ice cream, but the Blue Fin’s most interesting dessert is the mochi, a cake made with glutinous rice and stuffed with a sweet red bean paste. The exterior is then studded with either black or white sesame seeds, producing an initial layer of crunch followed by a softer core. Order one of these, and you may be congratulated on “really being Japanese” by the staff. The Matsuri festival may come only once a year, but the teriyaki train stops right in front of the Blue Fin every day.
1401 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
McDowell / Central Station