Whenever a sweet spring turns into scorching summer, residents of the Sonoran Desert always begin to appreciate just how precious shade can be. Local communities have decidedly mixed records in cultivating shade, sometimes leaving master plans unfulfilled for years and relying on engineered shade structures that may be artistic but also less effective than planting more trees. When a place offers genuine shade, then, it’s worth celebrating. Shady Park, a combination of a restaurant and a nightclub in Tempe, calls out its two abundantly shaded patios in its name.
Shady Park’s main entrance lies along University Drive. It’s about five blocks from either the Mill Avenue / Third Street or Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail stations. A second entrance is found via an alley behind the restaurant, and bike racks are in both locations. There’s a front patio along University and an interior dining room that evokes a 1970s man cave (in the best possible way) in its decor. Those spaces are almost always available to customers of all ages. The back patio often hosts 21+ events at night, when it becomes a self-service environment.
Along University Drive, there’s also a sign proclaiming “Super Umami,” reflecting both a portion of the restaurant’s menu and its history. Shady Park originally began operaring with a menu based on pizza, wings, and similar fare. That aspect of the menu is still present, but it was augmented when Umami, a ramen restaurant that had a brief run in a nearby location before closing, was resurrected as part of Shady Park. After a while, sushi was added to the noodle soup offerings, resulting in the upgraded description of “Super Umami at Shady Park.”
Now, the Japanese-influenced side of the menu coexists amicably with the Italian-American one, often with some crossover between the two. On the Japanese side, meals can start with small plates as appetizers. Edamame, seaweed salad, and kimchi, along with both squid and octopus salads, can be combined into a sort of bento box full of shared sides or starters. On the Italian side, chicken wings come with a choice of both a flavor mix used during preparation and a sauce for dipping at the table. Dough knots are available in both sweet and savory varieties.
The core of Super Umami at Shady Park is a build-your-own approach to ramen. Customers specify one of six broths and an assortment of toppings selected a-la-carte. The noodles are of course included in all bowls, as are fresh spinach leaves, a thin sheet of seaweed, a carrot flower, bamboo shoots, a naruto fish cake, and scallions. Shio, a clear sea salt broth, and shoyu, a darker soy sauce broth, are probably the simplest of the soup bases. Miso adds a note of fermentation, paitan is milkier, and tan tan men combines miso and paitan with added heat.
There’s also a vegan broth available as an alternative to stocks made with chicken and pork bones. On top of the springy noodles, customers can choose pork, a traditional ramen component, or chicken. The former is available roasted, which is lean, or as pork belly, a richer choice. The poultry is available both fried and grilled. Spam and tofu are additional protein choices, and a vegan chicken alternative is a recent addition to the menu. Corn, butter, garlic paste, and hard or soft eggs are additional add-ons, as are extra quantities of noodles or naruto.
For those who want fewer decisions and more value, Shady Park also provides a selection of house bowls, popular combinations of ingredients priced lower than the same assemblage would be if built step-by-step. Most incorporate ramen, but the chicken noodle soup is full of much thicker udon noodles. Beyond soup, the Japanese half of Shady Park now offers sushi and sashimi, including traditional nigiri and rolls, as well as its own house rolls with creative ingredient combinations. A chef’s special roll is indicated on a chalkboard near the bar.
While ramen and, more recently, sushi have become principal attractions at Shady Park, there’s still a role for the restaurant’s original specialty: Chicago thin crust pizza. While non-Chicagoans may often stereotype the city in terms of its deep dish pies, there’s an equally strong tradition of pizza with a cracker-like crust, usually served cut into squares rather than triangular slices. Shady Park serves about a dozen pies of its own design, along with a build-your-own option involving a large array of available toppings, both traditional and cross-cultural.
Among the restaurant’s signature pies, the Tokyo borrows from the Japanese side of the menu with toppings such as roast pork, teriyaki sauce, sriracha mayonnaise, and nori. If that combination sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that the last item, dried sheets of seaweed, adds a salty, seafaring note not too far removed from anchovies, a far more common pizza topping. Most of the pies are 16 inches in diameter, easily enough for two or three to share, but an eight-inch personal pizza with a customer’s choice of toppings is also an option.
True to its after-hours role as a dance club, Shady Park has a full bar with cocktails, sake, and draft beer. Japanese brews such as Kirin are balanced with local craft choices such as Papago Orange Blossom. There is no dessert, but plenty of ice cream can be found around the corner on Mill Avenue. Shady Park lives up to its name with abundant coverage over the restaurant’s two patios. On a summer day, that’s certainly appreciated, but the revival of ramen in Downtown Tempe, along with its surprising marriage to pizza, is a sunny event even in the shade.
26 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street or Veterans Way / College Avenue stations