IIn most cities, the term “avenue” implies a broad arterial street. In the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, any street west of Central Avenue can be a numbered avenue, and even on the east side of town, “avenue” is a term used more liberally than in many other places. In Tempe, Forest Avenue has a brief three-block span between the Tempe Transportation Center and Arizona State University, but that short length is packed with dense development and diverse dining options. One restaurant, Grilled Ave Teriyaki House, even incorporates the idea of an avenue into its name.
As its name implies, Grilled Ave obviously features teriyaki. It’s not unusual to smell the distinctives scent from the grill during the two-block walk or bike ride between the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station and the restaurant. The restaurant occupies a small storefront in a modest two-story building. This type of structure used to be common in this part of Tempe but is increasingly giving way to the 20-story towers that have sprouted all over the surrounding blocks. A bike rack is found next to an office entrance in a small parking lot immediately south of Grilled Ave.
Throughout its various incarnations, this place has always 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. There’s a second floor loft, accessible only via a flight of stairs imprinted with inspiring words: success, try, trust, passion, courage. Outside, there a few tables clustered near the entrance provide a limited opportunity for outdoor dining.
Approach the counter and the first item listed overhead is teriyaki, either as a bowl (with rice) or as a bento. Since Grilled Ave features a Hawaiian interpretation of Japanese and Korean cuisine, the bento is essentially a plate lunch, a popular combination in the Aloha State. Whether made with chicken, beef, or fried tofu, a good place to start at Grilled Ave is with its namesake foundational dish. The teriyaki here is a solid, straightforward recipe with sweet, salty, and smoky notes imparted to the protein that has soaked in the marinade prior to its time on the grill.
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 sliced poultry. Like all the meat entrees, it comes over short-grain rice with the option to add to two sides if upgrading from the bowl to the bento: macaroni salad, house salad, seaweed salad, kimchee, japchae, or bean sprouts salad.
The macaroni salad is staple of Hawaiian plate lunches. It’s an extra carbohydrate that might seem redundant when served side-by-side with a scoop of rice, but’s creamy texture and gentle seasoning with bits of celery offers some contrast with plain white rice. The house salad is lightly dressed lettuces, and the seaweed salad is a Japanese favorite. The last three sides are all Korean banchan, little side dishes served cold. Kimchee is the familiar preparation of pickled cabbage, japchae are chilled noodles, and the bean sprout salad is exactly like it sounds.
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 a spicy bulgogi option with a genuinely fiery marinade applied to pork rather than beef. There’s also orange chicken and orange shrimp on the menu, items that seem to fit an American-Chinese niche.
The small selection of 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 than the other plate lunches. 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 appetizer or side, are more successful.
Grilled Ave also offers a basic selection of Japanese noodle dishes: yakisoba, ramen, and udon. The yakisoba comes by default with vegetables and mushrooms, but benefits from being accessorized with teriyaki chicken, while the ramen offers the option to upgrade with seafood. The thick udon noodles are served with one big piece of shrimp tempura, as well as tofu pockets and slices of fish cake. The noodles are officially served only at night and all day on Saturdays, but a polite request during less busy weekday daytime hours will sometimes yield results.
There’s a soda fountain and a refrigerated case full of bottled water and fruit juices as one approaches the counter. A broader selection of beverages is found in the menu of smoothies and teas in myriad flavors such as mango or green tea, all with the option to add boba pearls. There’s no dessert per on the menu, but these drinks all do fine as liquid sweets. Forest Avenue may be short, just a few blocks here and there throughout Tempe, but it has plenty to offer along its brief length. Grilled Ave puts the “grilled” in the avenue and the teriyaki aroma in the air.
705 S. Forest Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
College Avenue / Veterans Way Station