If forced to eat only one continent’s cuisine for life, which would you choose? I like to pose this question to dining companions because it makes for good debate. A few recent meals at the cozy, comfortable and eminently enjoyable Phat Boy Sushi & Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale reinforced why my answer is always Asia.
Is there anything more sinful and simple than a slice of toro — fatty tuna belly — sliding off chopsticks into a waiting mouth? Is there anything more refreshing during summer’s punishing heat than pristine slivers of hamachi (yellowtail) swimming in vibrant ponzu sauce and topped with bits of scallion, jalapeno and briny black fish roe? Is there anything more satisfying than a steaming bowl of ramen — chock full of noodles, pork belly and mushrooms — no matter what time of year?
Phat Boy serves these and many more Japanese favorites capably and at modest prices, which explains why its newest location in Fort Lauderdale has been doing well and why chef-owner John Maser is exploring more locations.
“It’s light, it’s fresh and we stick to traditional Japanese — no Thai dishes on our menu,” Maser says in a follow-up interview, referring to the ubiquitous South Florida landscape of combination Thai-sushi restaurants.
Phat Boy Sushi and Kitchen launched in Oakland Park in April 2016, a partnership between the Swedish-born Maser and Vietnamese restaurateur Thuan Lam. Maser and his parents, Ted and Tina, bought out Lam last year and looked to downtown Fort Lauderdale for their first expansion outpost. The Masers pounced on a corner spot on South Federal Highway, just south of the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel, opening in March at the former site of New River Pizza (which moved across the street to its original location after the shuttering of short-lived Wok Asian restaurant).
The new Phat Boy borders the affluent Rio Vista neighborhood and is close to the Broward County Courthouse and Broward School District headquarters, assuring lively lunch and takeout business. Phat Boy also has carved out a late-night niche, with its kitchen open nightly until midnight (and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). A post 10:30 p.m. happy hour of bottomless hot sake for $10 and half-priced Sapporo drafts has been drawing a younger crowd.
Add it up and there is much to like here, even for those who do not like raw fish. The sushi is very good, but Phat Boy is notable for a menu that offers a range of grilled items, yakitori skewers, rice bowls, vegetarian options and specials that veer from hardcore Japanese ($6 slices of toro or $10 uni shooters) to comfort foods with an American twist. For example, Katsu sliders ($12) were a recent lunch special, with crisp and crunchy chicken cutlet squares perched on small Martin’s potato rolls and garnished with julienne carrots and daikon that evoked the flavor of a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.They were good.
Besides sushi, Phat Boy has sizzle — the rib eye tobanyaki ($14) is served in a skillet that bubbles and steams as it makes its way across the dining room. It is a delicious dish, sliced steak layered atop wispy enoki mushrooms and surrounded by a few blistered shishito peppers and grape tomatoes in a broth of soy, sake and butter. But the beef is not of the highest quality, with a few pieces leathery on my first visit and others sizzled to overdone. On a later, announced visit for a photo shoot, the steak was more tender and properly medium rare. It would be nice to have greater consistency, and I’d be willing to pay a few more bucks for better meat.
The rib eye presents much better when sliced razor thin and rare atop the Samurai roll ($22), an unconventional mashup of fish on the inside (salmon, tuna and white fish) wrapped with onion, jalapeno and asparagus. I’m usually averse to such busy rolls, but this one worked, with the buttery steak melding beautifully with the luscious tuna and salmon.
I made two unannounced visits, once for lunch and another for a late-night dinner, and left satisfied both times. Service is casual and friendly. The dining room is small (60 seats, including eight at the sushi bar) but not cramped. By day it is bright and airy, at night it is dark and sophisticated, with dark wood tables. A wall near the sushi bar details the culinary anatomy of tuna, spotlighting which cuts come from which areas, and a sign near the kitchen reads, “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.” The sushi bar is helmed by veteran chef Michihiro Hirano, a native of Japan.
John Maser’s path to sushi was more circuitous. Maser, 25, was raised in Stockholm, but he and his parents moved to South Florida, where they had a vacation home, six years ago. Maser was drawn to Japanese cuisine, and he began working at Sushi Song in Deerfield Beach. With the help of his parents, he struck out on his own. Tina and Ted Maser (who was born in California) help at both restaurants.
Dishes are meant to be shared, and there is enough menu diversity to keep regulars from getting bored. Crispy bok choy ($8) is a healthy way to start, crisp leaves that can be dunked in a pleasant soy garlic sauce. Spicy conch and octopus salad ($14) is light and tasty, thin slices of seafood and cucumber in a vibrant dressing spiked with togarashi red pepper. Yakitori grilled items such as miso eggplant ($6) and pork belly ($8) are simple and satisfying.
Ramen soups have been selling well, Maser says, even with the hot weather, but I found them to be the weakest link, perhaps because I was recently spoiled with a better experience in western Broward. At Phat Boy, Ramen is offered with traditional soy or miso broths, and there are also some newfangled twists such as kimchee ramen ($15) or spicy seafood ($17). I found the seafood version to be thin and dull, with noodles that were average.
Desserts provided a study in continental contrasts. On one visit I tried Japanese sweet potato with ice cream ($6), an authentic Asian treat that was part savory pudding and part sweet cream, simple yet satisfying in flavor and texture. At the photo shoot, Tina Maser insisted I try cheesecake tempura ($10), two triangles of cheesecake fried in heavy tempura batter and arranged over a mound of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. She says it has been the most popular dessert. I took one bite and shrugged. Typical Americanized excess and indulgence. No wonder my answer is always Asia.
Phat Boy Sushi & Kitchen
701 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale (also 4391 N. Federal Highway, Oakland Park)
Cost: Moderate. Sushi items cost $3 to $25, small plates $4-15, ramen and rice dishes $9-$17, desserts $5-10
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight daily (open until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Small selection of beer, wine and sake, with post-10:30 p.m. happy hour featuring bottomless hot sake for $10 and half priced Sapporo drafts. Corkage fee $20
Noise level: Conversational
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot