Kaizen: Great and Getting Better

Steamed Buns, Kaizen, 416 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2019

(Photos and article provided by AppalachianGastroventures for Inside of Knoxville. This is the third installment in their monthly series of restaurant reviews, allowing for further exploration of local restaurants after their opening. Check out their blog for many more dining experiences!)


“Anytime I’m eating spicy noodles in a bowl, I’m happy.”

Celebrity chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain left plenty of nuggets of wisdom during his too-short days on this earth, but one of the simplest might have been among his most prescient, and it’s that one that came to mind as we dug in for a recent meal at Kaizen.

Kaizen has been a downtown staple since 2016 when Jesse Newmister opened his first restaurant. He’s since opened Tako Taco in Old City, melding the Asian influences found at Kaizen with Mexican, but Kaizen remains limited only by the cozy confines of the Japanese-style pub restaurant.

Kaizen mixes inspiration from all corners of Asia, drawing from Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines, and that’s evident from the menu. There are steamed buns like those in China, Japanese-inspired fried chicken, Thai-style sausage, and Korean-inspired sauces.

It all adds up to a menu that can hit you from all sides, keep you on your toes, but most of all, make you very, very happy.

Those Chinese-style steamed buns are a perfect way to start a meal. They have a distinctive pasty white exterior but the steamed nature of their creation provides a delicate fold for an array of ingredients. Kaizen features buns of Thai sausage and tofu, but we tried the chicken Katsu and the Nashville bun.

Chicken Katsu, Kaizen, 416 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2019

The chicken Katsu featured small pieces of fried chicken with a zesty sauce and pickled cabbage, while Sambal chili and Maggi spicy seasoning gave a serious spicy bite reminiscent of Nashville’s hot chicken scene to the latter, only with a distinctive Asian flair.

Pork dumplings in the Chinese Shumai style are always on the menu, mixing well-seasoned pork, scallions and sesame seeds with soy dipping sauce in a happy little pillow of deliciousness. They’re easy to pop in your mouth, and easy to order over and over again.

The fried chicken theme is one that’s repeated several times on Kaizen’s menu, and for good reason: it’s not to be missed. The Karaage fried chicken, translated as “tang” fry in Japanese, produces a delicate but exceptionally crispy piece of chicken, and it’s tossed in Korean gochujang sauce, a spicy red chile paste that provides a Nashville-style kick of heat. Pickled cabbage and pickled jalapeno round out the dish, offsetting the spicy with a splash of sour.

Pork Dumplings, Kaizen, 416 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2019

Kaizen’s jungle curry is an amalgam of influences: self-described as “funky, spicy, & herbal,” the dish doesn’t disappoint, and adheres to Bourdain’s happiness mantra. While the fat udon noodles are Japanese-inspired, Thai-style green curry dominates, providing a perfect base for bok choy, onions, peppers, mushrooms, duck confit, and eggplant. The curry is topped with a perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast sliced thin which would have been the star in most dishes, but it instead is a perfect complement to a well-rounded dish.

If you didn’t quite get your fill (although we’d find it hard to believe with the options) Kaizen’s dessert menu is always inspired. While it may not be listed on the menu, there are a couple of options they will happily tell you all about. Green tea ice cream is one option that we haven’t tried yet but Kaizen’s creme brulee comes in a couple of different flavors.

Jungle Curry, Kaizen, 416 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2019

Our favorite? The Vietnamese Coffee Creme Brulee. It’s reminiscent of the coffee of our youth: creamy, sweet and like velvet covering your tongue. When you want coffee after dinner, this is the perfect, chilled alternative that has landed itself in our top three favorite desserts from exploring the world of writing about food.

A perfect meal? It was very close. But as “kaizen” means improvement in Japanese, it’s not hard to imagine things will be even better the next time around.


  1. Kaizen is one of our go-to favorites for downtown dining.

  2. One of the consistently best restaurants in Knoxville. Setting aside the quality of the food, which is always on point, the main reason Kaizen is so good is because it regularly changes the menu to feature new creations, which highlights the chef’s talent and creativity. It also allows Kaizen to feature vegetables and other foods that are in season. Never change, Kaizen! But don’t substitute the steamed buns–those are the staple of the menu.

  3. James Farmer says

    I used to go here every week with coworkers for nearly 2 years, until one day we showed up and they refused to seat us at any of the open tables, saying that they were all reserved. They gave us the cold shoulder and acted like we were intruders, not like we were regulars they had seen dozens of times before. We were always seated at the first open table and then it was just like they flipped a switch one day. We felt very unwelcome and I haven’t returned since. The food is usually pretty good but the preparation varies in consistency – the amount of spices/flavoring excessive one day and not enough the next, and sometimes parts of dishes are overcooked, egg in particular. I would also consider it extremely expensive for what it is you actually get here. $14 for a bowl of rice and some fatty pork is kind of ridiculous. I think it’s more the trendy atmosphere than the menu that attracts people here. Overall, I would give the food a 4/5, the value a 2/5, and the hospitality a 1/5.

    • Jerry Bugsly says

      Sounds like the tables were reserved James. Pretty common for a restaurant. Especially a delicious one.

      • James Farmer says

        I am aware of the concept of restaurant reservations. The point is that in 2 years of going there I never saw any tables reserved. During busy times it was never suggested that we call ahead to reserve a table. There was never any indication that reservations were accepted there. It seems far too casual and too small for that. And yet, one day they flipped the switch. Not interested in patronizing a business that turns away regular customers during a weekday downtown lunch rush when multiple tables are open.

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