There’s a section of Phoenix announced on the train as a “cultural district.” Signs on the I-10 off-ramp at 7th Street point to an “arts district” in the same area. For decades, this part of town, also sometimes called the “Midtown Museum District,” has been defined by major cultural institutions such as the Burton Barr Library and the Phoenix Art Museum. The space between these attractions has largely been vacant lots. One exception is Blue Fin, a quick service Japanese restaurant located across the street from the McDowell / Central light rail station.
Blue Fin has been around since 1981 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. The Circa apartment building, one of many new multi-housing developments rapidly filling empty land in the area, now wraps around the restaurant but leaves room for the drive-thru, a feature that persists despite the pedestrian traffic in the area. There’s no bike rack at the restaurant, but Circa has added some just to the east at Willetta and First Street.
The restaurant’s building has a little decor on the outside — mainly just some window decorations. Inside, it’s a plain, tight space. There’s more seating on a patio facing Central and on the sidewalk along Willetta. Despite the Spartan aesthetics, Blue Fin’s food and longevity have 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.
That teriyaki is of course the main attraction here. Before lunch, it’s often possible to smell the meat grilling while walking nearby on 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 spring 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 other 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 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 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. These small treats come in multiple flavors and even a few varieties of ice cream mochi. New apartments are rapidly filling the void between the library and the art museum, but Blue Fin remains an essential part of the neighborhood.
1401 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004