The MSA Annex, home to Kukai, is a serene landscape of shipping containers housing a lovely array of small businesses in the Mercado San Agustin shopping district, just west of downtown Tucson.
Kukai is a term for a revered Buddhist monk, poet, engineer or scholar. It’s a word for sky and sea. Kukai is also the answer for my weekly Japanese food fix, especially in these times.
Even pre-pandemic at Kukai, one orders through a window and is called back up when the food is ready. There are lovely well-spaced tables scattered about to enjoy your fare. Kukai is also well situated next to the broadly curated bar and bottle shop Westbound, making it easy to enjoy a great libation with your meal.
Kukai is owned by chef Michael McCormack in partnership with his father-in-law and restaurant veteran Kazuo Senda. It is chef McCormack who runs and operates the shop. I don’t know McCormack well, but he strikes me as a very rare bird. He is truly eager and passionate about his work. McCormack’s eyes light up when talking about rice or broth. I love this excitement. I love where the focus is.
The star of each dish, the slow roast pork for the Hakata style ramen or buta don, the salmon in the sushi rolls, hand rolls and onigiri – they only truly shine like the stars they are when they are elevated by the foundation of each dish.
This attention and passion to the foundation play out in the poetry of details. The icy chill of the water in the ritual of the rinsing of the rice. The need to add actual ice to the rinse during our hot long summers (replete with perpetually warm tap water), so each grain is perfect. A slow 24-hour simmer on the pork broth — for me, the hallmark of a really great soup, untainted by additives.
Kukai is honest and simple. I am grateful each and every time I go, as that care is always evident. The delight the chef feels towards his little restaurant and its offerings shines through and nourishes. I have come to depend on the regenerative and curative power of the ramen.
Kukai has only been around since 2019 yet it has woven its way into the fabric of our town, becoming a part of what makes Tucson so special and brimming with tasteful delights. It is now part of the story of who we are. It is a family owned business. It is Tucson.
You can find Kukai at 267 S. Avenida del Convento, #11.