If I had a piece of nigiri for every time someone said something incredulous about how they could open their own sushi bar… Let’s be honest, the best fish comes from Japan. Even if you are neck deep in hipster Portland, where there is a sushi joint on every corner, their Hamachi is still flown in on the regular.
While I was sad to see Maizie’s Café closing, I watched with excitement as what appeared to be a cool little Japanese spot grew in its former home. When the telltale red lanterns appeared announcing the arrival of Yama Sushi House, I couldn’t wait to go.
The name Yama means mountain in Japanese, and that motif is mirrored in the wooden mountain scene behind the bar. Natural elements adorn the walls, with striking wood accents and live moss art that make me wish I was more Martha with a glue gun, because I would be making these as Christmas gifts.
Fans of Maizie’s will recognize the layout, but that is essentially where the similarities end, except that Yama also shares the warm, welcoming vibe that happens when a charming family runs a business. On each visit we were welcomed by the chef and owner, who wrote down names and remembered them along with orders on our next visit. Our servers told us they were cousins of the owners, and the commitment to hospitality never wavered.
Neither did the excellent food. Their inventive happy hour runs from 2 to 6 p.m.—seven days a week. Small dishes include a hearty miso soup ($1), which is thicker and more substantial than most mediocre watered-down versions. I’m in love with the strikingly designed spoon that rests on the end of your finger. The squid salad ($4) is a delectable mix of tender squid and spices atop a mesclun salad mix. Round out your happy hour with an excellent spicy salmon roll ($4), and you can still quaff a small sake bomber ($5) without breaking $20. Yama defies convention and proves that great sushi doesn’t have to break the bank.
Normally I would skip the appetizers at a sushi place, but here you would be missing out. The Golden Avocado ($6) is almost an entire avocado in four pieces, miraculously warmed, loaded with spicy tuna tamago and drizzled with a kicky finish. Eat this now. The Agedashi Tofu ($6) comes in a bowl, where the fluffiest pillows of tofu perched above excellent broth. I can’t wait for this dish to chase the coldest winter blues away. It is truly delightful. The Gyoza ($5) were fantastic, too. Classically flavored and perfectly executed—your friends who don’t dig sushi will love this.
Sushi is where Yama shines. To be honest, my fear is that they won’t be able to survive with their incredible prices. On every visit, literally every friend I brought there commented on the accessible pricing. The quality is so far above what they are charging, it feels almost like eating there is getting away with something. Like the Poke ($12), a heaping plate of perfectly cubed fish, tossed in spicy nirvana, or the Yellowtail Carpaccio ($12), a plateful of excellent fish with slices of jalapeño on top. The chef told us that we got the last of the yellowtail belly from that fish, with no upcharge. Silky, flavorful and fantastic—and flown in that day from Japan.
Fans of sashimi will enjoy the Chef’s Sashimi ($21), a dizzying array of 11 pieces. I was anticipating small slivers, but not so. A delightfully arranged plate adorned with real shishito leaves arrived, with enormous wedges of fish. The big surprise for me was two-fold. First, these combos change with availability (obviously), but also the customer’s preference, so that if you don’t enjoy a particular fish, you won’t be saddled with it. Second, the variety. I was pleasantly surprised to see white tuna in my selection. White tuna is no descriptive lie—it’s paper white. It’s also firm, buttery, and delectable. To be honest, I hadn’t tried this before, nor have I seen it on other menus around town.
The Chef’s Nigiri Sushi ($18) comes with nine pieces, and again it is a combination of chef’s choice and your personal preference. I particularly enjoyed the flavorful salmon. Let’s be honest, salmon is fairly ubiquitous. It is also seldom this good. Ask for the fresh wasabi for an added kick.
The showstopper is the Tidus and Yuna Love Boat ($55). This comes with a mind-blowing 15 pieces of nigiri, eight pieces of sashimi, and two rolls (spicy tuna and dragon) in an adorable and celebratory wooden boat. The quality of the fish was superlative, and we didn’t feel like we lost out on quality or selection. The red snapper was so fresh it almost moved, the salmon resplendent, and the spicy tuna roll knocked it out of the park. Sometimes I think the spicy tuna roll is a way to move questionable product, and here that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was a little forlorn when Maizie’s left. The love from the family that ran the place was infectious. I really felt like they did miss me between visits. I’m glad to say that legacy appears to live on at Yama Sushi House. The adorable chef, owner, and all the servers are always welcoming and efficient. I have never seen a misstep in service or charm. And the food lives up to that endearing and engaging desire to please, as well. Sushi in the desert? Yes, please. Especially when it is this well priced.
Yama Sushi House
4750 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Tuesday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 12 noon to 9 p.m.