By Brooke Viggiano
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While eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) in new Chinatown with my faithful food companion Liz, I ask our waitress where a good karaoke bar would be. She tells us about Genji Japanese Restaurant and Karaoke Bar, mentioning first that "white people" never eat takoyaki, and second, that "Westerners" sometimes go to Genji. Yeah! She also says Genji gets crazy on the weekends and has really good Japanese food. I can't wait to try this place, even if I am a Westerner.
My first visit to Genji is at around ten on a Thursday night. I meet up with Liz and her friend, who have already finished off several appetizer plates and are well into a bottle of cold sake. The dim walls, grayish carpet, large aquarium and huge screen for projecting song lyrics give Genji a dive-bar feel. This is no yuppie sushi bar in Midtown. Genji is a hard-core karaoke bar with food; a hole-in-a-strip-mall serving Japanese pub grub, if you will. Everybody is smoking, drinking, singing bad karaoke (sometimes in English) and stuffing their faces with noodles and dumplings. Our waitress is a tiny Asian girl dressed in tight jeans and an even tighter T-shirt. This place is everything I could have hoped for.
I order a drink off the cocktail menu called "Genji's Special Drink for Men...Whiskey, Pineapple Juice $4.95." I also order spicy kimche and pork egg rolls. The drink comes to the table with a cantaloupe wedge three times the size of the glass. The three little fried rolls are extremely hot and spicy. As I bite into the first one, the pickled cabbage comes oozing out with a cloud of steam. The heat level is perfect and really tickles my appetite — and my thirst. Next I have to try the teba gyoza, stuffed chicken wings. What better to go with chicken wings than beer? Soon the Asahi and cold sake arrive. The sake comes in a small bottle with a neon plastic shot glass begging to be dropped in the larger beer glass to make a sake bomb.
11124 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77042
"Genji Special Drink for Men": $4.95
Cold Sake: $8.95
Ashi (16 oz.): $4.50
Teba gyoza: $4.95
Spicy egg rolls: $3.95
Tempura udon: $5.50
Liz is having the sunagimo nanban, or fried chicken gizzards, but I am a sucker for a good croquette, so I order the cream croquette stuffed with chicken, corn and onion. These turn out to be just as hot as everything else and full of flavor. The creamy center, cooked perfectly, is very filling. On every table at Genji, there's a bottle of what the waitress calls "barbecue sauce" but that I think tastes more like ketchup mixed with hoisin. Either way, it's good on everything we try.
Between the sake bombs and the Special Drink for Men, our first excursion to Genji turns into a drunk-fest. I blame the mood there — it's defiantly a party atmosphere.
My second trip to Genji is on a Friday night. The table includes my dad, my friend Sean, his date Sharon and, of course, Liz. One item on the menu that catches my eye is the omu rice, a ketchup-fried rice omelet. The gigantic, perfectly cooked omelet has a little strip of ketchup poured over the top. I tear it apart with my chopsticks and devour it. The center, filled with a pound of fried rice, is really delicious — and just what I need to start my night off right. Sean tries a spider roll that he gives a B+. My dad isn't taking his eyes off the skinny waitress long enough to look at the menu, and once again, the party at Genji kicks off. The omelet knocks my appetite in the dirt, and the karaoke bug is starting to bite...
After choosing a song at Genji, you must give a handwritten request to Mr. Genji himself. Standing at the end of the long wooden bar, he pretty much looks like a Japanese Harvey Keitel straight out of Reservoir Dogs. I find myself imagining that if things get out of hand, instead of shooting me with a nickel-plated .45, he's more likely to gut me with a samurai sword. When it's my turn to karaoke, Mr. Genji drops off a wireless microphone at our table. But apparently my karaoke style isn't good enough for him, because he takes the microphone from me midway through my song. Maybe it's because I've been making up my own words, or because at one point I'm out in the parking lot with it, singing. At least he doesn't gut me Kill Bill-style.
Liz and I agree we need to go back to Genji and eat more and drink less. It has to be a weeknight when things aren't so crazy and there's no singing, at least not by me. When Liz and I get to our table at Genji on a Monday at around nine, the place is near empty. The only people here are Mr. Genji, a table of older Asian men drinking, eating and chain smoking, and a cook in a wife-beater eating a sandwich and watching Monday Night Football on the bar TV. Perfect.
We start out with Genji potato salad, consisting of potatoes, eggs, onions and just enough mayonnaise to bind the other ingredients. It's really freaking good. My companion and I both agree that the isobeage, or deep fried fish cake, is a little gritty and doesn't have much flavor. The teba, grilled chicken wings, aren't as good as the teba gyoza or the stuffed chicken wings. For her entrée, Liz chooses the tempura udon, hot noodle soup with shrimp tempura. I get the yakisoba, pan-fried noodles with egg on top. The soba noodles are perfectly chewy and full of flavor. The light scent of sesame oil and the crunchy texture of the grilled onions and cabbage add a nice texture balance to the sunny-side egg on top. I ask Liz to save me some of her udon, which looks tasty. The broth the udon noodles are floating in is pleasantly beefy. Everything is really fresh, right down to the thinly sliced green onions scattered on everything. The tempura is perfect, light and crispy. Genji doesn't screw around with its food. It's consistent and fresh, totally unpretentious and on point.
And it turns out weeknights at Genji's aren't as slow as we thought. It seems like each time our cute waitress brings each dish, another crowd of young Asian couples files into the restaurant. I pour Liz and me another glass of Shirayuki, the white zinfandel of sake, and our waitress brings us each a glass of ice water, saying we look tired. Liz and I both start cracking up. I guess she didn't see us the other times we were here getting shanghaied.