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Stranger Than Sushi
The president of the Benihana Japanese steak-house chain was recently in Houston not only to check out the newest Benihana in Sugar Land (2579 Town Center Boulevard), but to scout potential locations for his new restaurant concept called Sushi Doraku, translated as "joy of sushi." Joel Schwartz says he's looking for a location with lots of foot traffic, and is quite interested in the Rice Village area, or possibly downtown.

Schwartz's Sushi Doraku blueprint sounds like a Jetsons cartoon: The restaurants feature a large oval bar where patrons pluck fish, seafood, rice and vegetable dishes from a revolving conveyer-belt system. Prices of the various items are indicated by color-coded serving plates, which are added up at the end of the meal to compute the check. "Sushi's popularity is proving to be lasting," Schwartz concludes. Yeah, it's popular, all right; but would a Tokyo native recognize what we're serving here?

My first encounter with Houston sushi was at Tokyo Gardens, decorously overdecorated but with the distinct advantage of being the only game in town.

Since then, me-too sushi bars have sprouted like mushrooms after rain. The first evolutionary twist was discount sushi. The little Miyako chain, whose three locations include one in the downtown tunnel system, is the first place I remember to offer a buck-apiece sushi happy hour. Now it's $1.50 per order, but still a bargain.

Then came the mammoth all-you-can-eat sushi buffets -- is that Texan, or what? -- the latest rendition being Sake Sushi & Seafood Buffet (5610 Richmond), with a groaning table laden weekdays with 30 different sushi items and 80 kinds of seafood. Not bad for only $9.95 (lunch) or $17.95 (dinner).

The ripe-for-franchising Japon operation, whose management umbrella covers two Cafe Japons and two Japon Japanese restaurants, added a new spin with its glitzy Sake Lounge in Bayou Center: a slick, lounge-lizardy blend of sushi, sake martinis and Sinatra. The Lounge prices are as upscale as the ambiance, starting at $2.75 for a single hand roll and running to $5.25 for a set of four sushi rolls, but you can sometimes find a plate-lunch special in the under-$10 range.

Now fusion is setting in, and improbable combo restaurants, whose proprietors are not even Japanese, have appeared on the landscape. Like Shilla Korean Cuisine & Sushi Bar (11328-A Westheimer), or, even more unlikely, Frank's (417 Travis), which dishes out pizza, sushi and bagels.

But the weirdest mutation of them all has to be drive-through sushi. Yan Sushi (2264 West Holcombe) offers eels-on-wheels from the window of a former broiled chicken stand. Yan's "all-day happy hour" prices run $2 for two pieces of sashimi, sushi or temaki, or six pieces of maki.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

 
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