Have we found Fairborn’s friendliest restaurant?
By Tom Baker
Lately I’ve been looking at a handful of truly hidden gems around Dayton that, even though I know exactly where they are and have been many times, I sometimes still drive by. So this time around, we decided to check out Saya Korean and Japanese Restaurant in Fairborn. Located at the end of the economically depressed strip of Kauffman Avenue, Saya should warm even the most sullen of souls with good food and friendly people.
I mention this warmth as there are few places that you’ll go in town where you’re literally greeted with a cheerful chorus of “Hello! How are you?!” from behind the sushi bar. It’s a great introduction to a place my wife discovered while working in Fairborn. Open since 2007, the interior is bright, the staff cheery and the food consistently good. Service can be shaky at times, especially during a busy dinner service, but generally fades to a slight annoyance considering the overall experience. Once you’re situated you can choose from both Japanese and Korean menus, as well as a full bar. There is no proper libation zone, but you can sit at the sushi bar and watch staff assemble rolls and other items while enjoying an adult beverage. Both menus are executed well — the sushi is fresh and tastefully presented, and both Korean and Japanese items have been satisfying — as a bonus, they’ve always been willing to step in and educate.
Sushi here doesn’t disappoint, ranging from vegetarian rolls like the Avocado Roll, raw rolls such as the Spicy Tuna and cooked rolls such as the signature JH roll. The JH roll is a favorite — a perfect marriage of cold and hot, seemingly raw and cooked (the cold and spicy crab mix on top of a shrimp tempura roll gives the impression, but is actually cooked crab) — it’s a great roll for those wary of actual sushi and raw fish. Japanese dishes like Yakisoba, Tempura and Teriyaki (served on a sizzling platter) are all tasty and well presented, and entrées are served with the ubiquitous miso soup and lightly dressed iceberg salad. You can also stop by at lunch Monday through Friday and try a lunch box. These Bento-style box lunches can be made Japanese or Korean. Providing a nice array of items, it allows for sampling before committing to full portions of dishes with which you might not be familiar.
The Korean portion of the menu is probably the road less traveled for most. It’s a shame really, as Korean cooking offers a range of great meat, seafood and vegetarian options, with a little sour and hot touch from their unique, highly revered, ancient (the original recipes are said to be thousands of years old) and fermented ingredient, Kimchi. I remember being a kid and an uncle from Chicago coming to dinner with “something interesting” he had found at an Asian market. When he opened the jar, the table cleared. Today, I’m excited to mix this fantastic and underappreciated item into my dishes to give them an added layer of flavor.
At Saya you’re provided Baechu (napa cabbage Kimchi), Kkakdugi (cubed radish Kimchi) and bean sprouts with classic dishes such as Bulgogi and Bibimbap. Their Bulgogi is probably the best starting point for those unfamiliar with Korean food — consisting of marinated strips of beef cooked with carrots, onion and scallion, it is served with rice, both Kimchis and bean sprouts. Saya’s version could use a bit more vegetable and a bit less sweetness (enter Kimchi), but it’s a nice, more accessible introduction to Korean food. When you’re ready to take the next step, try Saya’s Dolsat Bibimbap. This dish of rice, thinly sliced beef, egg and vegetables is accompanied by the above garnishes, but is served sizzling hot in a clay pot and also comes with a spicy paste called Gochujang for bonus flavor. Traditionally, sesame oil is placed in the bottom of the pot, then the other ingredients are added and it’s finished with an over-easy egg — all of this is then stirred in the pot, cooking the egg and creating crispy bits from the heat of the pot and the oil. There is something immensely satisfying about stirring together the half-cooked egg, vegetables, beef and hot, sizzling rice that gets crispy as it sits — that being said, it’s somewhat lost when the egg has been fully cooked prior, and it’s my only other complaint about their dishes thus far.
As mentioned, prior service is at times less than efficient, but this is in my experience predominantly an issue in the evening — sometimes it takes a few extra minutes to get started, and sometimes you’ll have to wait on the check. That said, the folks running the show recognize and happily acknowledge repeat offenders and active duty military (10 percent off), and it’s this friendly, almost family-like vibe that reminds you why you keep coming back — that and those crispy bits.
Saya is located at 1030 Kauffman Ave. in Fairborn and is open seven days a week. (937) 412-1058.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.