Authentically Inauthentic

Ramen and breaded pork cutlets, not sushi, are the stars at Umai Japanese.

I wish the same could be said of the shrimp shumai – fluted dumpling squares surrounding diced shrimp – that were delivered to the table still cold inside. Like any restaurant, Umai has the occasional stumble. Mochi ice cream balls with an incredibly mealy exterior and a dish of white fish batayaki that was nearly too salty to eat were among the offenders, but Yu already seems aware of these things, as he offhandedly mentioned on the phone, without prompting: "We recognize that we need to make our food more consistent, and we're working on that." He further sighed, "There are things we'd like to do — we'd like to make hand-made noodles and we'd like to break down whole pigs and use the bones — but it's hard to do right now." A businessman first, Yu knows that the demand for such items needs to be there before the volume can exist.

I recommend trying the "sets" Umai offers during lunch and dinner in the form of the aforementioned "Texas-sized bento boxes." You can order most items a la carte, but for only a few dollars more you can splurge and get the set. And it's worth it.

Each set comes with a salad coated with your typical ginger dressing, a bowl of silky miso soup, a bowl of white rice and three "appetizers" that change depending on the whims of the kitchen. I quite like the adventure of never knowing what's going to come out on the tray in the three small appetizer bowls. One day, it could be a mild dish of pickled cabbage, the next it could be a bowl of sauteed eggplant in inky tentsuyu sauce. My favorite has been a cold salad of noodles, bean sprouts and carrots drizzled with an invigorating vinegar dressing.

Get the breaded pork chop, and splurge for the "set."
Troy Fields
Get the breaded pork chop, and splurge for the "set."

Location Info


Umai Japanese Restaurant

8400 Bellaire
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Outer Loop - SW


Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Shiso hasami age: $5

Shrimp shumai: $4.50

Okonomi yaki: $6.50

Umai ramen: $8.50

Beef nege maki set: $9.50

Curry pork chop set: $11.50

Umai Japanese Restaurant

8400 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-750-9222.

Perhaps the best "set" I've tried so far is the least Japanese-sounding dish on the entire menu: a breaded pork chop in curry sauce, or katsu-kare. Breaded pork cutlets – called tonkatsu – have been popular in Japan since the late 1800s, when they seem to have been created as a means of catering to Westerners' palates. It's similar to a piece of schnitzel or milanesa, but breaded with enjoyably crunchy panko instead of standard bread crumbs. Topped with a thick, ginger-based curry sauce that tastes vaguely Indian, the delicious katsu-kare embodies the non-traditional approach that Yu has taken in Houston with Umai by offering traditional Japanese food in a city saturated with "authentic" cuisine. It may sound like a paradox, but that's the beauty of the place. That, and the wonderful food itself, which seems to be Yu's guiding principle.

"Life is short," he laughs. "Might as well enjoy good food."

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