Attacking Macs with chopsticks

Yoshi's brings Japanese sensibilities to an American dining habit

The thing I like most about Americans--about being an American--is that we alone among the world's cultures really know how and what to eat. We consume food with speed, gusto, and purposeful inattention. For us, eating is nothing more than scheduled maintenance to be performed while immersed in other things. That explains why we chew greasy fries while doing 80 on Central Expressway, or chomp and smack lips into the phone, oblivious to the frightening, twisted sounds that come out at the other end after the feeding process has been filtered through miles of Bell system wiring.

By and large, we Americans don't dine; we inhale fuel constructed from three crucial food groups: fat, cholesterol, and sugar. And these groups provide two very important sensations pivotal to busy American lifestyles: fullness and energy. They also have given rise to one of the most important industries in the U.S. economy: fast food.

Now, you won't find much indigenous fast food among nations credited with creating the world's greatest cuisines. The French like to luxuriate over food for hours, and besides, sauteed rabbit with prunes doesn't go very well with cheese fries and a chocolate shake. And just try getting a woodcock souffle with chestnuts into a cardboard hamburger box. That's why it took someone like Ronald McDonald to convince the French that modern dining can take place in as little as four minutes and still be rich and full-flavored through the use of exotic spices such as canola oil.

But the fast-food segment has had some market shocks rattle its chicken nuggets as of late. Price wars are driving down profits. New menu creations are greeted with yawns. Parents are fighting over happy meal toys, or are threatening lawsuits because some of these cheesy playthings are "gender specific." And steaming burgers have become popular vacation destinations for E. coli bacteria.

Into this market turmoil comes Yoshi's, a Phoenix-based Japanese fast-food enterprise that has ambitious plans of opening up to 500 outlets across the United States over the next several years. Launched in 1989 by Yoshihiro Natori, Yoshi's has six outlets in Phoenix, and Natori is pushing a major franchising effort with the goal of making it the first national Japanese fast-food chain.

Observers doubt he can accomplish this. Nevertheless, Natori has forged ahead, granting the franchising rights for both Dallas and Houston to a group headed by a Phoenix attorney who plans to open 14 restaurants in each city within seven years. Dallas became the first test of the concept outside its Phoenix cradle when a Yoshi's opened in Addison this June.

The first thing that struck me about the place was the logo: a solid circle with the underscored name scrawled over it at an upward angle, the "Y" formed by chopsticks. But how can any food consumed with chopsticks be fast? Sure, in Asian countries chopsticks are used to move food from bowl to mouth at a furious pace. But this is America, and in America fast food is fist food: utensil choreography is antithetical to the whole mission of the cuisine. The second thing I noticed was the atmosphere. Not so much the clean counter, the bright red tabletops, the black chairs, or the screaming yellow and red tiles covering the ordering counter area. It was the people. There were no overweight couples with toddlers ordering Kobe beef and brown rice happy meals that include death-ray Godzilla action figures in the Styrofoam bowl of miso soup. No, these were snappy looking young adults with cell phones, laptops, and highly developed chopstick skills laying out elaborate marketing strategies for the next high-tech doodad. I have seen the future of fast food, and in it there are no curly-red-haired clowns, square burger patties, or plastic pouches of taco sauce that seem to replicate like personal injury lawyers. Instead, this future is filled with rice bowls, sushi rolls, and foil pouches of soy sauce.

Yoshi's has a fairly simple menu, except for the part where they list the fat grams for each dish, which means you'll want to bring a calculator so you can gauge your level of guilt. The core of the menu is those rice bowls that include a variety of chicken dishes plus a vegetable and a beef offering. The teriyaki chicken was a generous portion of juicy, tender chicken slathered with a light, lively, slightly sweet teriyaki sauce and dusted with sesame seeds on a bed of well-cooked, sticky rice. The vegetable bowl--broccoli, zucchini, carrots, and cabbage--worked almost as well except it was a little short on veggies, and the broccoli florets (there were just two) seemed a bit undercooked.

Among the sides, the pork and vegetable egg roll--an item often greasier than a Capitol Hill lobbyist--was a standout with a crispy crust void of the tiniest hint of oil. The house salad--fresh, crisp lettuce and carrots topped with a thick, tangy ginger sauce--was refreshing and flavorful, especially for 39 cents. Not as impressive was the Udon soup: a thick tangle of gummy square noodles with zucchini, carrots, and broccoli in a flavorless broth.

The thing that seems the most difficult to pull off in a fast-food setting is sushi. But Yoshi's does it well, mostly by avoiding those items that would suffer miserably outside the hands of a skilled sushi chef. Instead, Yoshi's serves imaginative house creations like the Alaskan roll, which contains pieces of unsushi-like cooked salmon. The Hollywood roll, a spicy version of a simple California roll, was fresh and supple with imitation crab, avocado, cucumber, and a coating of toasted sesame seeds, which added a nutty crunch to an otherwise soft texture. Substituting fowl for sea flesh, the Yoshi's roll creates a whole new flavor range for these tightly bound rice wads with fresh, moist chicken breast spiked with a good spice kick, avocado, lettuce, and carrots.

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