Some say to make a great chef you need to do some travelling—see the sights, eat strange and exotic dishes and meet the good people actually cooking your food, so when you come back you have that experience to expand and find some creative outlets for your own dishes.
This is the case with the chef and family behind the fairly-new Asian eatery K Japanese Restaurant (2962 N. Campbell Ave.) who've done their fair share of travelling only to come to Tucson with some stories to tell, which are told—meticulously and sometimes capriciously—through their delicious and innovative cuisine.
Originally hailing from Hong Kong, the Kwan family wound up in New York then made their way through the central United States only to find a home here in Tucson. Once they settled into the Old Pueblo, their eldest son, Howard, began apprenticing at various restaurants but found solace in the kitchens of sushi chefs. Howard then began to hone his craft and passion for cooking Japanese cuisine and after 10 years of being the pupil it was time to become the master.
When another sushi concept closed on Campbell Avenue, the Kwan's moved in with the confidence their Chinese heritage, travel and their son's passion of Japanese food, would go over well with the good people and eaters of Tucson.
K Japanese is one of those stand-alone establishments well on its way to becoming a destination for true Asian food lovers that delights with a playfulness only a young sushi chef can accomplish.
Most of their seafood comes directly from Japan and when you bite into a particular roll or teppanyaki, or enjoy handmade nigiri and sashimi, you can almost taste the salty water from the North Pacific. The fresh oysters, one of their appetizers, are huge—about as big as your fist—and delicate yet brawny. Served in their own shell and accompanied with very little, perhaps some roe, a bit of spice and nestled in a soy broth, the oysters allow you to ebb into a near panic of bright and briny flavor when you slurp them down in one gulp. Then there's the salmon tataki, which are quite hot, and only made hotter as Howard uses a blow torch to sear them adding a depth to the buttery texture of the fish and the tart aspect of the spicy mayonnaise with which he finishes them. And it's fun to watch as well.
What makes K Japanese so extraordinary, outside of the cuisine, is the whole place is run by the Kwan family themselves. The always smiling and bubbly daughter, Eva, works as both host and server, while mom and dad Kwan are in the back cooking the hot food. Some of the highlights the parents dish out are the chicken katsu curry don, which is a large bowl filled with rice, and topped with a deep Japanese curry accompanied by potatoes and fried chicken. Then, of course, they do ramen beyond correct, or as they like to call it "soup noodle," because you get to choose the broth base, the style of noodle and the protein or vegetable feature. Served with corn, bean sprouts, fish cake, a perfectly cooked boiled egg and kikurage wood ear mushrooms, this heaping bowl of steamy near addicting scrumptiousness will, and does, challenge any ramen throwdown this city has to offer.
"I really enjoy cooking Japanese food and creating new sushi," Howard says as he assembles their signature roll, the Beardown, which is packed with tempura shrimp then topped with avocado, spicy crab, tempura flakes and sesame seeds, making it an intimidating yet delectable sushi beast. "When I have the time I always try new flavor combinations to see how the food will taste and present it in a better way. Customers always inspire me to create new dishes. Of course there are some failures but after many attempts and improvements we usually find a way to succeed."
According to Eva, K Japanese is busy on the weekends which is why she highly suggests going during weekday lunch. Not only do they offer various specials, but that's the time when you can beat the crowds and get a chance to sample the newest food brainchild of Howard and the patriarchs before anyone else.
The Kwan family have a rooted and proud heritage, and someday soon their history and restaurant will, with time and those willing to explore, become its own Tucson tradition.