Tokyo Joe’s fast casual Asian food hits metro Phoenix

What’s in your wok? Tokyo Joe’s, a Colorado-based chain of fast-casual Asian restaurants, has set its sights on metro Phoenix, bringing such health-conscious dishes as yakitori chicken bowls, lettuce wraps, tataki salads and made-to-order sushi rolls.

The chain plans five locations in the next 12 months, the first of which opens Friday, May 30, at 1935 S. Val Vista Drive in Mesa.

“Arizona is our first state outside Colorado,” said Dawn Samuel, Arizona director of operations for Tokyo Joe’s. “We’re the healthy sector of Asian food. Everything else is wokked or fried. We are steamed or grilled.”

The menu features a variety of Asian-influenced cuisine including edamame, gyozas, spring rolls, a tea bar and more. Diners will have the option to make their own rice bowls, choosing such proteins as dark or white chicken, steak, salmon or tofu; carbs, including white rice, brown rice or udon noodles; and a variety of different sweet, savory and spicy sauces.

Additionally, Tokyo Joe’s offers signature made rice bowls, traditional Japanese ramen and seven sushi rolls, including Joe’s Roll made with grilled shrimp, avocado, cream cheese and cucumber; and the crab-cheese wonton roll made, with real crab mix, wonton strips, cream cheese, avocado, sweet-chile sauce and panko bread crumbs.

“We’ve always had this health skew to what we do at Joe’s,” said Tokyo Joe’s founder, Larry Leith. “So if it doesn’t have this high nutritional integrity either in what it is or how it’s prepared, then we don’t put on the menu. We have gyozas that are steamed rather than pot stickers fried in oil. It’s not that they’re bad. That’s just not who we are.”

That, in a nutshell, is how Leith plans to compete with other such fast casual food chains in Arizona as Pei Wei, Kyoto Bowl, Tokyo Express and even Chipotle.

Leith, a retired professional skier, opened the first Tokyo Joe’s in 1996 with the same intent: to create an inexpensive, quick-service healthful-menu restaurant with a unique design. Since then, the concept has caught on and the chain has grown to 29 restaurants across Colorado.

“It’s all about the dining experience, how it blends with the food. We have a theory that nothing should happen by accident here,” Leith said.

Oversize ruby-red Japanese lanterns will hover over diners in the contemporary-styled flagship location in Mesa. Red Herman Miller chairs will complement the lanterns, beside sleek wood-grain tables and dark-grey walls. The restaurant will feature an inside dining room and a patio.

While certain design elements will remain similar in future restaurants, Leith encourages each restaurant to have its own look and feel based the surrounding area and available materials.

“I just had this idea that people could be eating this style of food in these very invigorating architectural pieces,” he said.

Tokyo Joe’s, which merged with Gridiron Capital and restaurant CEO Greg Macdonald last year, also plans to move into California and Texas. As for Arizona, plans include opening 29 new locations over the next five years.

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