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Slurp Heaven

For a fast-food place, Cafe Kubo's knows how to produce one good bowl of ramen.

Check out Cafe Kubo's bustling dining room and busy kitchen in our slideshow.

The tonkotsu ramen at Cafe Kubo's has an instantly calming scent: thick, nutty and full of the promise of satisfaction to come at the bottom of the bowl. I dip my spoon into the milky broth and use chopsticks to retrieve messy tangles of dark, fawn-colored noodles, tender slices of pork and a single half of a hardboiled egg. There's nothing fancy about the ramen here, and that's just the way it should be.

Cafe Kubo's has been a success in its improbable location — a neglected side of the otherwise busy Dun Huang Plaza, home to more Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants than anything else — for the last two years by offering something rarely found in Houston: solid, inexpensive Japanese comfort food. Its crowded daily happy hours attest to this, when Japanese expats pack into the strikingly modern and airy space, hovering happily over bowls of ramen and cheap plates of shrimp tempura, all washed down with towering, golden cans of Sapporo.

Think of tonkotsu ramen as the Japanese version of pho.
Troy Fields
Think of tonkotsu ramen as the Japanese version of pho.

Location Info

Map

Cafe Kubo's Sushi

9889 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

Hours:11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Shrimp tempura $3.99
Kara age $4
Spicy tuna roll $4.99
Miso ramen $5.99
Tonkatsu ramen $6.99
Katsu don $6.49
Chicken udon $6.49
Kubo's roll $6.99
Nigiri combo $8.99


READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: Japanese Fast Food Rules at Cafe Kubo's
BLOG POST: Handmade Ramen! Get Your Handmade Ramen!


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This is Japanese food as the Japanese eat it.

Umai, another Japanese restaurant further east on Bellaire Boulevard that is temporarily closed for the summer, made its mark this way too, albeit with a very different concept. Where Umai was a sleekly dark and chic, exotic brunette of a restaurant, Cafe Kubo's is a bubbly blond with charmingly manic energy and vibrant food to match.

Take the miso ramen, with its tangy bite and nearly mahogany-tinted broth, filled with noodles that require joyfully loud slurping and a piece of seaweed draped cheekily across the side of the bowl. Or the poppable bites of kara age — Japanese fried chicken — that demand to be ordered en masse and shared with a group over a few bottles of sake. You don't just come to Cafe Kubo's for the food, after all; you come for the atmosphere.

And although not everything at Cafe Kubo's is up to par — bland, almost rubbery sashimi and nigirizushi that suffers from mushy, underseasoned rice are two of its biggest problem areas — it's difficult not to love the little place.

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Cafe Kubo's is the younger, irrepressible sister of the staid, gentlemanly Kubo's in Rice Village, one of Houston's most respected sushi restaurants. Kubo's has employed masters such as Manabu Horiuchi and Kiyoka Ito since it opened ten years ago, so it came as a bit of a surprise when I first tasted the sushi at Cafe Kubo's and found it very wanting.

Nevertheless, I can't help but feeling that sushi isn't owner Yoichi Ueno's primary concern at Cafe Kubo's. Instead, the restaurant is more focused on filling, cheap, fast-food staples. It's what one would expect from a restaurant in a neon-saturated portion of Chinatown that typically caters to younger diners or those looking to get a lot of food for a very reasonable price. Fat, tattered manga are scattered near the entrance, sitting on bookshelves and lying out on comfortable, inviting chairs. There is free WiFi here, as well as daily specials that rarely breach the $5 mark for a huge spread of food. Cafe Kubo's is not in the business of attracting the serious sushi eater.

Instead, it's drawing in people like myself and my friend Ricky, who was eager to try the Tuesday special one recent evening: a large plate of katsu kare, or curried pork cutlet, for $4.99. The cutlet typifies Cafe Kubo's pork-heavy menu: a breaded and fried cutlet covered with a thick sauce that tastes almost like Bisto Chip Shop Curry (in other words, not at all spicy) and served with a generous portion of white rice.

Was it as good as the katsu kare at Umai? No. The rice was overcooked and had acquired an unattractively sticky texture, while the curry sauce was vaguely gummy and tasted eerily like a powdered, prepackaged mix. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed it for what it was: cheap and fast.

What I didn't have any bones to pick with was the tonkotsu ramen I was slurping down across the way. While the noodles were most assuredly not handmade — does any place in Houston hand-make their ramen noodles? — they were cooked to a perfect al dente, tangling and swimming cheerfully in a creamy, husky broth that testified to its piggy origins: Tonkatsu ramen is made by slowly boiling pork fat, pork bones and pork collagen for hours at a time. Think of it as the Japanese version of pho.

And although I would have enjoyed more vegetables in the soup, I couldn't complain one iota about its deep, rich, resonant taste. Really, though, it's a triumph just to have gotten this far with ramen.

In other cities, the stuff is venerated much the same way as Houston treats its pho. While Houston isn't terribly behind the curve — after all, SF Weekly's Jonathan Kaufmann reported in October of last year that San Francisco, that melting pot of all things Asian, was just jumping on the ramen bandwagon — it's still difficult to find a bowl of ramen here, let alone a good bowl of ramen.

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17 comments
Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I hate doing this but unfortunately, I'm going to be the voice of dissension based on 1) never having tried it; and 2) just looking at your picture and the picture of a friend (who went there after reading this review).

Although your ramen looks studiedly more fresh, my observation of both pics I've seen are this: there's not enough topping, too many noodles and not enough broth. In your picture all the toppings sit on the top of the noodles. In my friend's picture, the toppings were drowned a bit below the surface and didn't look appetizing at all.

So for me, having had a sub-par experience with their tonkatsu curry plate (such a disappointment), the two statements "This is Japanese food as the Japanese eat it" and "it's difficult not to love the little place" are really a stretch. I would rate it as "just OK" Japanese fast food --at best. I've had far superior Japanese fast food in West LA / greater Los Angeles / San Francisco / Vancouver, and unfortunately Cafe Kubo's does not compare favorably to the generally excellent Japanese fast food there.

Craigley
Craigley

Where can I find the real stuff like you can get in Vancouver?

Ramenator
Ramenator

Thanks for the review. I tried it, and it was definitely delicious.

However, I have to say that I have never met a Japanese person who didn't like ramen. And I lived there for 8 years. It's regarded there with even more of a fervor than pizza is here.

I don't think the girl behind the counter is Japanese. She looked lost when I ordered in Japanese. She didn't even recognize the name of the ramen when I ordered it in English (tonkotsu shoyu ramen).

Noodlemonger
Noodlemonger

Thanks for the review. The ramen at the original Kubo's is a favorite meal of mine, but I've never had it at the Chinatown location. Will have to try!

Also, anybody know where else in Houston serves good ramen? I've tried Umai and found it not quite as good as Kubo's.

winelush
winelush

Please go an review the takoyaki asap!

Jaredrf
Jaredrf

I love the vague comparisons everyone makes between a particular dish at a particular spot in Houston and the "superior" food in LA or SF. We all have nostalgic places and fond memories of this place or that place, but cut the west coast food arrogance already, its so silly. When a good Japanese chef moves to Houston and makes the same exact dish he made in NYC, LA, Chi, or Japan, the food and ambiance immediately gets poopooed by everyone whose ever driven through LA. So weak.I went to this place, and while I am not Japanese, nor a ramen connoisseur, I do cook and eat good food, and my miso ramen bowl was very tasty.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Having never been to Vancouver nor tried their "real stuff," I honestly don't know. But maybe one of our readers can help out. What is it exactly that you're looking for in a bowl of ramen? And what kind of broth?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm guessing there are probably a few different folks who work the counter, because my ramen-phobe seemed to understand when I ordered a few things in Japanese. Regardless, I'm just psyched that you tried the ramen and liked it. :D

anonymous
anonymous

The pork ramen at Nippon Cafe is great as well.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I've been really impressed with the ramen at Soma Sushi. And I found out on Sunday that the chef, Jason Hauck, makes the noodles himself every morning. He's experimenting with a Hokkaido-style pork ramen right now that's garnished with Berkshire pork and a pat of Way Back When Butter. It is eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-your-head stuff.

Craigley
Craigley

Thinkg of big chunks of meat or seafood and even bigger chunks of fresh veggies. Clear broth. Everything is more less fresh and less of the freeze dried look. And the bowls are HUGE.

Noodlemonger
Noodlemonger

Thanks to both of you for the suggestions. I'll have to check them out.

Craigley
Craigley

Thanks for all the info. I guess I liked it so much becuase it's "not your average ramen". That and the fact it was Texas sized.

I'm thinking I could pull this off at home. Drooling!

Ramenator
Ramenator

The one you had was most likely shio (salt) ramen with seafood toppings. It's the only one with somewhat clear (it's still a bit cloudy) broth. But it's not anymore real than the cloudy broth ones that Kubo's serves. In fact, I'd say it's much more common for real ramen not to include seafood (unless you count kamaboko, which is a fishcake that often ends up in ramen).

The most common ones you find in Japan are the shio ramen (which is the basic one flavored with salt), shoyu ramen (which adds soy sauce), tonkotsu ramen (the pork bone marrow and fat make the broth cloudy and rich), miso ramen, and chashyu-men (which just adds lots of braised porl), and Hokkaido ramen (adds butter and corn).

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Hmm. You might want to try the stuff at Soma. I hate to sound like a broken record, but the seafood ramen has that clear, miso broth I think you're looking for. And the pork ramen has enormous chunks of Berkshire pork in it, although the only veggies are shiitake mushrooms.

 
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