Japanese Treats

The legendary Benihana chain brings its fun, if slightly unpolished, dining experience to Tucson

About a year and a half ago, Benihana bought the Oracle Road Sakura location. With that, the well-known chain--credited by some with bringing sushi and Japanese food into the American mainstream--brought its legendary teppan yaki to Tucson. Its legendary sushi was already here, in a sense; Benihana also owns RA, its (more expensive) sushi restaurant chain, entrenched at La Encantada.

So, nearly 43 years after the first Benihana opened, how does the Tucson location stand up to the competition it helped spawn? The answer: It holds its own, although some details need polishing.

Garrett and I first visited Benihana on a recent weekday evening. There are four seating options at Benihana: the lounge/bar (featuring karaoke), the sushi bar, a regular table or one of the 20 or so family-style teppan yaki tables. We requested a teppan yaki table, and we were the first seated at that particular eight-seater. A server came and took our drink orders, and about 10 minutes later, we were joined by a party of five: a family composed of a mom, a dad and three kids--one celebrating a birthday--visiting from San Diego. Garrett and I wondered how long we would have sat without service had that family not arrived.

Before the family arrived, I wandered the restaurant to check the place out. The lounge looked pretty dead, but it could be a fun place with the addition of people, awful karaoke and sake. The metal hibachi hoods dominate the simple décor in the main room, with some subtle art (small red rectangles with what appear to be Japanese characters, for example, and either wooden or metal fish hanging down from the ceiling in the middle of the room) providing a bit of variety. The green carpet needs to be replaced; there are dead potted trees in the front of the restaurant; and I could do without the piped-in adult-contemporary music (like Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart"), but those are small complaints.

More concerning was the fact that three of the seven brown plates being used at our table were dirty--mine had several pieces of rice unattractively caked on the surface. A server swapped them quickly and without apology.

The dinner teppan yaki offerings range in price from $16.50 (for hibachi chicken or yakisoba) to a pricey $41.50 (for an 8.5-ounce center-cut tenderloin and cold-water lobster). All meals come with Japanese onion soup, a salad, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, white rice, sauces, green tea and ice cream. (Be warned: You'll be offered fried rice; it's $3 extra.) Garrett decided on the splash 'n' meadow (bite-sized steak and grilled shrimp, $26.25), and I picked the deluxe treat (filet mignon and cold-water lobster, $35).

Our server soon brought us the onion soup (with mushrooms and scallions; it was watery, but adequate), followed by the salad (romaine lettuce, purple cabbage, carrots and a tomato wedge topped with ginger dressing), which we ate as we watched the show at the adjacent table. Soon, our chef came out with his cart full of food to be prepared, and we waited for our own show.

The verdict: The food was pretty good, but the show needed some work. Our chef seemed to have the dropsies (and the fact that he was speaking Spanish with one of our tablemates didn't exactly enhance the Japanese experience), but the kids at the table were all smiles at the fork-banging, shrimp-tail-tossing, egg-spinning antics. Meanwhile, we were savoring the lemony shrimp appetizer and the fried rice, aided nicely by a heaping spoonful of garlic butter. Garrett wasn't wild about the vegetables (primarily onion, zucchini and mushrooms), because he likes neither onions nor squash, and I thought they were only OK, although they were helped by the ginger and mustard sauces.

We were also pleased with the main entrées. My lobster, enhanced with ample amounts of lemon and garlic, was fantastic, if a bit overcooked. I enjoyed dipping my filet pieces in the ginger sauce, and I was impressed with how tender the pieces were. Garrett also enjoyed his steak and shrimp, although he commented that he could have used a little bit more.

After bidding our chef adieu, conversing with our tablemates and enjoying some green tea ice cream, we paid our pricey bill and headed out the door.

We returned several days later, on a Saturday, for lunch. Two things worth noting right away: one, we had the entire place to ourselves, for our entire meal; two, Benihana does not offer lunch specials on weekends. On weekdays, you can get a special for $8.50 to $17, but not on Saturday. Perhaps some specials would bring in some weekend lunch business; just a thought.

We were unconcerned, however, because we were there for sushi. Benihana's sushi menu has all the usual rolls and sushi offerings, at competitive prices. We ordered the Boston roll (crabstick, avocado, cucumber and tuna, $10.50), a Benihana roll (crabstick, avocado, cucumber and smelt roe, $4.75), a caterpillar roll (eel, avocado and cucumber, $10.50), and pieces of crabstick ($1.25 for one piece), salmon roe (2.25), eel, octopus, tuna, shrimp and yellowtail (each $1.75). We each requested miso soup (an overpriced $2.75).

While it took a bit longer than it should have for us to receive our sushi--we were, after all, their sole clientele--we were impressed when we got it. Garrett raved about how everything seemed fresh, and all the fish tasted fantastic.

So, yes, after four decades, Benihana still has it, even if the carpet needs to be replaced and the teppan yaki chefs drop things a bit more than they should. It's definitely a worthy option if you're hungry for fresh sushi, or if a kid's having a birthday, and you want to go all out.