Downtown Tempe has been the site of a battle over noise and urban priorities. Shady Park, a venue specializing in electronic dance music (EDM), has been the subject of complaints from Mirabella, a building for senior adults. Mirabella opened while Shady Park was largely inactive due to the pandemic. As live performances re-emerged in 2021, the sounds of bass and beats traveling across University Drive became a source of controversy. What is less controversial, however, is Shady Park’s other identity as a restaurant serving Japanese-influenced food.
Shady Park is located on the north side of University Drive, just under half a mile from the light rail station at Mill Avenue and Third Street. It’s also a block away from the route of Tempe Streetcar. A bike rack is found right outside the entrance and the shaded patio, both of which are in the shadow of recently built high-rises, including Mirabella, that are increasingly dominant in downtown Tempe. From the street, there’s no indication that Shady Park is a live music performance space. The venue itself is in back and generally closed pending legal resolution.
Seen from the street, Shady Park is a lively restaurant with a patio offering a view of busy University Drive. Beyond the outdoor dining space lies an interior with a retro mid-century man cave feel. Dark booths line one side of the room with a bar on the other side. Towards the back, near the now-shuttered music space, are some better lit four-top tables with swiveling chairs upholstered in tan leather. The acknowledgement of a Japanese influence is found in the colorful lanterns suspended from the ceiling and some art reminiscent of anime on the walls.
The menu begins with selections of hot and cold appetizers. Edamame are of course available in a classic format seasoned only with coarse salt; however, the wok-fried “black” version adds notes of umami and spice from soy sauce and chiles. The seaweed salad surpasses the usual small bowl of greens. Instead, it’s a much larger plate in which the aquatic greenery coexists with assorted lettuces and cherry tomatoes. Gyoza, either pan-fried or steamed, are available with a choice of chicken or vegetable fillings. Many of these items are discounted at happy hour.
Shady Park’s signature has always been ramen, dating back a decade to the restaurant’s origins under the name “Umami” at a location a few blocks away. Since the move to Shady Park, ramen has at times been paired with pizza of all things, but now it co-stars on a menu with sushi and cooked entrees inspired by Japanese traditions, along with some inspirations from China and southeast Asia. The menu offers several signature bowls, as well as a build-your-own option that enables customers to choose their own combinations of broth, protein, and toppings.
Among the house bowls, two soups are standouts. The curry paitan has a creamy base punctuated by moderate spice. The bowl is filled with grilled chicken, shiitake mushrooms, roasted corn, scallions, and garlic in addition to the house ramen noodles. Spicy shoyu has a higher heat level and relies on roasted pork shoulder as its primary protein. Other bowls focus on a simpler mix with the anodyne label of “chicken noodle” and a vegan ramen with a plant-based broth given substance with the addition of tofu and shiitake mushrooms to the bowl.
At Shady Park, sushi has long been an adjunct to the ramen, and that section of the menu has expanded to include more specialty rolls, as well as a build-your-own option for poke. Nigiri and sashimi choices include a limited selection of popular fish species such as yellowtail, salmon, and ahi, along with other aquatic species like eel and shrimp. The land-based option with a Hawaiian touch is spam. Typical rolls such as spicy tuna, caterpillar, and rainbow are offered while specialty rolls become unsurprisingly more clever in both their names and their structure.
“You Used to Call Me on my Shellphone” is typical of the approach here with soft shell crab, ahi tuna, and radish sprouts given a little crunch with a topping of puffed rice. Other rolls with slightly simpler names are Squid Games, naturally with calamari, and Cuban Links featuring braised pork and shrimp tempura. Besides sushi, there are cooked entrees of east Asian origins. The house fried rice with vegetables, egg, and the option to add meat is seasoned with a salty, umami-rich “loud sauce,” which also appears on the Vietnamese-inspired shaking beef.
The house curry, touted as made with “true curry paste” seems most like a Thai green curry in terms of its herbal essence and coconut milk base. With the options to add various proteins and other ingredients, there’s a certain level of customization offered here to match the restaurant’s approach to ramen. In terms of dessert, however, there is only one choice:mochi, which are served in a rotating assortment of flavors that can be combined into six pieces when three of them are split. Recent flavors available have included mango, strawberry, chocolate, and match.
Shady Park’s interior bar (There’s another in back in the concert area) features craft beers, sake, and cocktails that are both sweet like the rum-based Matcha Colada and “Who’s Down with the P.O.G.” and savory such as “Drop it like it’s Hot” made with tequila, mango, and togarishi seasoning. While the war over live music at Shady Park continues with legal and rhetorical shots fired in both directions across University Drive, enjoying a bowl of ramen or a plate of sushi with a drink continues to be a less contentious experience in downtown Tempe.
26 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281