Food for Thought

Giving in to the great Uchi hype: Japanese cuisine reigns supreme in Houston

Giving in to the great Uchi hype: Japanese cuisine reigns supreme in Houston

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Sushi Raku. Sushi Raku/Facebook
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"I Think I'm Turning Japanese" is all I can hum because Houston these days is filled with all things Asian in culture and food. And it’s absolutely wonderful.
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We have upscale, high-end places with great sushi, like Kata Robata. Courtesy of Kata Robata Suhsi + Grill
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The sushi is wonderful at Uchi, but some of the hot dishes are truly divine, like the Jar Jar Duck. Photo by Marene Gustin
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And for a quick grab-and go meal, you can’t beat the crunchy tempura shrimp rolls at Randalls. Photo by Marene Gustin
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I'm turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so

Man, I haven’t heard that song by The Vapors since about, oh, 1981.

But lately it’s all I can hum because Houston these days is filled with all things Asian in culture and food. And it’s absolutely wonderful.

First, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s permanent Arts of Japan Gallery opened on Feb. 19 with a special inaugural exhibition, Elegant Perfection: Masterpieces of Courtly and Religious Art from the Tokyo National Museum.

 I really didn’t want to buy into the hype that is Uchi, but I succumbed. 

And let’s not forget that the $48.4-million Asia Society Texas Center is set to open with four days of festivities April 12 through 15, which includes the annual Tiger Ball gala on April 12 and a members and guest cocktail party with Asian bites and themed drinks the following night before a two-day open house for the public with food, performances and kiddie activities.

These are both cultural milestones for Houston and attest to the growing trend of all things Asian in our city. But for me, the culture and art of a people is also tied to their food. And the true testament to our international love is in the diversity of food here. Houston has long embraced Japanese eateries, from the very first one opened by Glen Gondo’s parents long before he opened his first Japanese four-table eatery in 1971, back before the sushi craze hit.

I’m not sure when Houston jumped the shark and Japanese food became Starbuck-ized, but it may have been when Gondo started putting sushi bars in some 1970 Randalls grocery stores. It doesn’t get more mainstream than that. And even though the sushi in a grocery store may not be as good as some restaurants, you can’t beat the crunchy tempura shrimp rolls here for a quick grab-and-go meal.

Today you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great sushi bar or Japanese restaurant in Houston. I first loved the cocktail hour at Nippon where you could see Asian businessmen sipping sake at the sushi bar while loosening their ties and, back in the old days, chain-smoking cigarettes.

But then things started going upscale with Sushi King (although it sounds like a fast food raw fish bar, it is actually a high-end place with great sushi), Sushi Raku, RA Sushi and Kata Robata Sushi + Grill.

And, of course, we now have Uchi.

The New Master?

I really didn’t want to buy into the hype that is Uchi, but I succumbed. Not to the crowded late dinner set with an hour-plus wait, but if you sneak in when it first opens at 5 p.m., you can enjoy the Japanese farmhouse décor with all the lovely reclaimed wood without the crowds and dive into some divine contemporary Japanese food from Austin’s celebrity chef Tyson Cole and his team that includes the baby-faced Kaz Edwards who has come from the Capitol to head the kitchen here.

 Today you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great sushi bar or Japanese restaurant in Houston. 

The sushi is wonderful but some of the hot dishes are truly divine like the Jar Jar Duck, which should be called Duck Duck Duck Jar because of the three kinds of duck — duck confit, duck breast and duck jus — sealed into a canning jar with bourbon maple sauce and tomatoes and rosemary smoke.

While the American love affair with Japanese food began softly within early Japanese communities as far back as the 1930s, it didn’t really catch on with many Americans until after World War II when noodle bars, tearooms and Japanese steakhouses began to flourish. And eating raw fish and sushi rolls on a regular basis wasn’t really common for most of us until the 1990s when the craze for healthy, light fare drove Americans to discover the tasty benefits of this Japanese fare.

I can’t really remember the first time I tried Japanese food, but it was probably in the 1980s in San Antonio and it may have been at a Benihanas. I know, I know.

I tried real sushi in Austin in the early days long before Uchi and Uchiko were the zenith of Japanese food. There used to be a nice little sushi bar close to the university I liked. And of course in Houston I adored the above-mentioned casual Nippon and Kaneyama Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in West Houston. Although I haven’t been there in ages I think I remember them even serving blowfish on occasion.

Dad, of course, ate Japanese food long before I did and he ate it in Japan.

“Of course your mom and I ate out at local restaurants once in a while,” he says of their time in Japan right after the war. “But I didn’t eat that sushi. I don’t eat anything raw.” This includes vegetables.

Which leads to a dilemma when I want to satiate my sushi cravings. Dad and I eat out at lunch every day. Yes, every day. It’s our way to bond and spend quality time together, which is what eating should be about, not just shoveling food in your mouth. But just the other day I wanted something exotic, well, more exotic than Tex-Mex, burgers, pasta or the occasional salad I get him to eat.

I wanted Japanese, Chinese, Thai. I wanted to let the taste of something wonderful transport me to a rich culture where my imagination could run wild.

Dad, of course, just grumbled.

Luckily, The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen offers good English pub fare as well as some very good Indian food. I had a wonderful spicy chicken tikka masala and naan and he dug into a steak pot pie. Good times for all.

Now, if someone could just turn me on to a spot that serves excellent sushi as well as a plain ol’ American burger, we’ll both be happy campers.