Takamatsu Returns

After a devastating fire, a longtime Asian favorite is back

Great restaurants are more than just places to enjoy a meal. They're places that get wrapped up in our emotions; after all, restaurants are spots where we celebrate special occasions, go on exciting first dates and create everlasting memories.

Takamatsu is a restaurant that has special meaning to me, because it's one of the first restaurants I dined at after moving to this dusty little burg; almost nine years ago, a new friend took me there. From then on, it was on my unwritten list of semiregular places to eat.

At least it was until a June 2010 fire devastated the restaurant. For months, the building—or what was left of it—sat surrounded by a temporary, chain-link fence, and reconstruction was delayed for so long that I began to fear that Takamatsu might never reopen. I remember driving by it once and seeing that taggers had basically covered the place with graffiti. The sight simultaneously saddened me and pissed me off.

Finally, reconstruction got under way, and an August reopening date was announced. I was thrilled. One of my Tucson places was literally rising from the ashes, at long last. After three visits—two of which were rather enjoyable—I am glad to have Takamatsu back.

On my first visit, I discovered that the new Takamatsu is similar to, yet different from, the old. The sushi area appears to have been expanded, and the enlarged and spruced-up sushi bar now has about three dozen seats. Behind the sushi area sits the lunch-buffet area, and the front of the restaurant still has those ventilation hoods over some of the tables—but gone are the teppan yaki stations, replaced instead by burners for grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue. (You can still get teppan yaki meals, but they're prepared out of sight in the kitchen ... so what is the point?) All in all, I enjoyed the new, tidier, brighter look.

Unfortunately, the rest of my return visit to Takamatsu was pretty dreadful. We stopped in for all-you-can-eat sushi ($19.95), and ... well, let's just say the back of the house was having a bad day. To start, our server informed us that the kitchen was out of miso soup. (At a sushi joint? How does that happen?)

Later, there were numerous delays in getting our food. While the tasty shrimp shumai ($4.95 separately; included in all-you-can-eat sushi) arrived quickly, most of the items were slow in coming. Twice, food orders arrived out of sequence, which means that either the sushi chefs were filling requests out of order, or food was sitting around undelivered. One order was so delayed that our server—who was profusely apologetic throughout—put it in a second time, figuring it had been lost. Of course, we wound up receiving that order twice.

The quality of the sushi itself was up and down. For example, the red snapper and the sea bass were delightful, but the octopus was rubbery, and the salmon roe tasted like it was past its prime. As the evening progressed, the long waits became grating, meaning that even the good stuff—like the lobster-tail roll—didn't seem as good.

Our second visit, to try out the $9.95 lunch buffet, was a blessed improvement. Garrett and I met a visiting Tucson Weekly veteran, Arek Sarkissian II, and we liked the vast majority of the stuff we tried. A dozen or so entrées, a couple of soups, a half-dozen sushi offerings, and the requisite salads and dessert choices made up our choices. The bulgogi—marinated and barbecued slices of rib-eye—was one of my favorites; it had a nice sweetness without being cloying. I liked the kick offered by the barbecue chicken with green onion. The Las Vegas roll was a pleasant surprise, especially since I don't normally like deep-fried sushi rolls. Not everything worked—Arek said the Korean kimchi-and-bean-sprout soup was disappointingly bland, for example—but all in all, it was an enjoyable lunch, even if $9.95 is on the higher-priced end of lunch buffets around town.

We decided to return for a third visit to try some cook-it-yourself Korean barbecue. Takamatsu offers a wide variety of pan-Asian entrées, from donburi to Japanese dinners to teppan yaki, but the emphasis seems to be on the Korean side of the menu, where there are almost four dozen options.

We picked the bulgogi ($14.95) and the pork belly ($14.95). The Korean-barbecue entrées come with a variety of intriguing side dishes and sauces: kimchi, a spinach dish, several radish dishes, bean sprouts, a lettuce-and-green-onion salad sort of thing, a bean-curd sauce, a rice-vinegar sauce, a sesame-oil sauce, and some garlic and jalapeños to add at will.

We also wanted to give the sushi another shot, so we decided to start with the shrimp tempura roll ($6.25; $4.25 during happy hour) and the S.O.S. roll (with avocado, crab, salmon and shrimp; $7.75, or $5.50 during happy hour). The rolls were delivered quickly, and they were both fresh and delicious. It made me think that Takamatsu must have been having a bad day during our initial sushi visit.

Our server, who was quite good, did fail in one respect: She gave us do-it-yourself-Korean-barbecue neophytes little to no direction on how to proceed. During cook-it-yourself dining at other restaurants, I've been given do's and don'ts—advice on how long to cook the meat, and recommendations to handle raw meat and cooked meat with different utensils, for example.

Here, we got two platters of meat and a hearty, "Enjoy!" So we winged it, and learned some interesting lessons along the way, including: Pork belly will catch on fire if you're not careful.

Despite our bumbling, Garrett and I enjoyed ourselves and our food. I liked the pork belly better—I mean, it's basically bacon, so what is there not to like?—whereas Garrett enjoyed the bulgogi much more. His only real beef (no pun intended) was that while the pork belly came in semi-uniform shapes and sizes, the rib-eye slices varied substantially—and therefore, so did the self-cooking time.

Obviously, Takamatsu isn't perfect; our first visit was a semi-disaster, and I wish we'd have been given more guidance on the Korean barbecue. But I am so happy to have one of my Tucson places back. Takamatsu, you were missed.