Call them “ghost”, “virtual,” or “cloud” kitchens. Regardless of the name, the idea of restaurants with their own menus and brands but no on-site dining was already taking off in 2019. The pandemic of 2020 has only accelerated the trend, sometimes without much transparency. A single kitchen may prepare several types of food under myriad brands with availability limited to third-party delivery services with steep fees. Kaizen, named for the Japanese idea of quality improvement, lives up to its name with a better version of a virtual restaurant focused on sushi.
Kaizen occupies the same space as the Larry, a sort of fast-casual restaurant meets tech company cafeteria in the Warehouse District’s historic Lawrence Building. The site is also the center of parent organization Conceptually Social’s catering efforts. The Larry, like many restaurants, is currently operating with its dining room closed, so everything from either the Larry or Kaizen is packaged to go with great care. The attention to detail extends to putting hot and cold items in separate bags and using color-coded stickers to match entrees with sauces.
For those who want to eat on site, or nearly so, the Lawrence Building’s lobby, situated in between the restaurant and technology trainer Galvanize, is still open. Its tables can serve as a sort of self-service dining area with a view of the lively and topical murals on the WebPT building across Lincoln Street. The location is just under half a mile from both the Third Street stations on the existing light rail line and the Lincoln Street platforms now under construction as part of the South Central extension. Plenty of bike racks are found right outside the door.
Otherwise, Kaizen’s food is available for delivery within a five-mile radius or as takeout that turns out surprisingly fresh after even a half-hour trip from the Warehouse District to home. Some of that endurance comes from the way in which Kaizen’s food is packaged. If one were treated to an omakase menu on site, perfect plating with all sauces and garnishes artistically applied would be expected. With portable food, however, some assembly is left to the customer so that foods don’t mix prematurely resulting in soggy textures or messy presentations.
To see this approach in practice, start with one of Kaizen’s most distinctive appetizers, the tuna poke cones. Three sesame wonton holders, roughly the size and shape of ice cream cones, are packaged side-by-side with a poke mix of diced fish, cucumber, and avocado and a side sauce. Use a spoon to scoop the poke into the cones and suddenly an appetizer looks like a dessert. Other starters include Japanese classics like karaage, small bites of fried chicken thighs with a yuzu aioli, and tempura of vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans.
Kaizen’s version gyoza are unlike those seen in most local restaurants because they’re joined together with “hane,” the Japanese word for wings. Instead of separate, crescent-shaped dumplings, the individual gyoza are joined by a thin, crisp film of the same starch used to wrap them. With either vegetable or ground pork fillings, the disc-like final product fits perfectly in a circular to-go container and keeps the dumplings from sticking to one another during transport. Like almost everything at Kaizen, the gyoza are paired with a dipping sauce, in this case ponzu.
The fish selection is typically nine species available as two pieces of nigiri or six of sashimi. Expect the customary salmon and tuna, as well as king crab, scallops, red snapper, and striped bass. Maki, or hand rolls, include classics like California, spicy tuna or salmon, and vegetarian options such as avocado or vegetable tempura. Kaizen offers seven signature rolls of its own creation. The Señor Larry, named for both the building and the Latin American influences on the menu, is a hearty mix of tuna and panko shrimp with crab mix, cucumber, and avocado.
With sports franchises rethinking team names based on indigineous peoples, the Eskimo roll might be better off with a different moniker. Just think of it as an Artic roll with its cool blend of salmon, crab mix, asparagus, lemon, and ponzu. The Alaskan King has an even more distinctive flavor profile with accents of dill and creme fraiche placed on top of a roll of salmon and king crab. With no rice, the Tic Tac Toe is perhaps the most striking roll of all. It relies on a thin strip of cucumber curled around yellowtail sashimi enhanced with a spicy shiso pesto.
Chuzara, named for a type of Japanese plate, are fish-based entrees. The Hamachi Supreme is Kaizen’s take on a timeless combination of uncooked yellowtail with citrus notes of grapefruit and yuzu. The Cebiche is a nod to Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) cuisine, a combination of South American traditions and a Japanese emphasis on minimally cooked fresh fish. Sea bass is served with crisp, large kernels of corn seasoned with leche de tigre, a Perurvian marinade made from bold flavors such as garlic, ginger, lime, habanero, onion, and cilantro.
Anyone unable to decide can just order an omakase, or chef’s choice, assortment and wash it down with a Japanese beer or a bottle of sake sourced from Holbrook of all places. There’s no dessert menu, but the Larry’s counter, where Kaizen orders are picked up, may sometimes have giant cookies to sell. A table near that counter is full of Japanese decorative objects, suggesting a possible post-pandemic future for Kaizen as a full-fledged restaurant. Until then, Kaizen is proving that not only can there be good sushi in the desert, but also good sushi for takeout.
September 12, 2020 Update: Since the publication of this review, Kaizen has started offering limited on-site dining with reservations recommended.
515 E. Grant St., Phoenix AZ 85004