Quite a Show at Sushi Tora

The sushi is good, and the spectacle great.

You have to know that ­Sushi Tora doesn't take itself too seriously from the second you see a black T-shirt for sale in the front window emblazoned with Engrish words in a bright-blue font: "You had me at herro." Your second indication should be the framed concert posters that line two long walls of the small, shotgun-style space, The New Pornographers next to Cold War Kids next to White Zombie. Your third indication should be seeing items like the 420 Roll and the Bitch Preaze roll when perusing the short menu.

And the fourth — and final — indication that Sushi Tora doesn't take itself seriously comes when you hear the bellowing, bass cries of "Meredith! Stop fucking with him, you fucking bitch!" coming from chef and owner Ken Tanagi. Knife still in hand, Tanagi has stopped slicing fish long enough to notice that his sole waiter — L.T., a kid with long, scruffy hair — has left the restaurant to fight with his girlfriend, Meredith, on the small patio out front. This doesn't sit well with Tanagi, whose screams of "Goddammit, L.T., get back in here!" are going unnoticed.

It's an otherwise quiet Tuesday night, and Sushi Tora is only half full, compared to weekend nights when it's a struggle even to find a seat in the dark, neon-lit space. My friends and I are settled into a high four-top with a view of both the sushi bar on one end of the restaurant and the impending brawl on the patio. We'd expected a quieter evening compared to the Friday before, when Tanagi was in full "sushi Nazi" mode and the restaurant pounded and thrummed with the dual sounds of his frenzied yelling and the dubstep music Tanagi blasts through the speakers at night.

The 420 roll features shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and avocado.
Katharine Shilcutt
The 420 roll features shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and avocado.

Location Info


Sushi Tora

920 Studemont
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Heights


Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays, noon to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 6 to 11 p.m. Sundays.
Red snapper nigiri: $1.95
Sweet shrimp nigiri: $3.95
Negihama Roll: $8.95
Tuna sashimi: $9.95
420 Roll: $13.95
Adam's Bomb: $13.95

BLOG POST: Ken Tanagi Joins the List of Houston's Biggest Food Personalities

"I've got a half order for a 420 Roll, chef," L.T. had told Tanagi at one point that Friday night.

"No half orders of rolls tonight!" Tanagi bellowed back. When L.T. questioned him further, Tanagi erupted: "No half orders because I don't fucking feel like it!"

On this comparatively quieter Tuesday night, Tanagi strode out onto the patio to involve himself in the fight between L.T. and Meredith, a willowy blond who flipped her hair dismissively at Tanagi and, in doing so, further invited his rage. Before long, the threesome were all screaming at each other in the inky night and Tanagi's own mother, Mami, had toddled out onto the ­patio in a futile effort to stem the fighting. Longtime Houstonians will recognize Mami from her own, now-closed restaurant: Coco's Yakitori.

Mami wandered back inside and shook her head with exasperation. "They live together," she told a table of regulars. "Fight day and night." Tanagi eventually stomped back into the restaurant and began slicing fish again, seemingly unfazed by the fight. Meredith and L.T. were nowhere to be found. With no other waiters in the restaurant, the sole busser began taking orders, Mami helping out where she could. And somehow neither our food nor the service ever suffered for it once.

Safe to say, you don't come to Sushi Tora for a nice night out. But for as much of a show as Tanagi puts on, it still doesn't distract from the fact that his sushi — especially his rolls — is quite good.

When Tanagi and his mother decided to close Coco's Yakitori, it felt like the end of an era. Mami was a famously garrulous host at the Montrose sushi restaurant, where she once showed our assistant music editor photos of herself in a bikini in the 1950s. The sushi was never that great, but you went to Coco's for the atmosphere. Tanagi and Mami have applied that same attitude to Sushi Tora, tucked into a garish strip mall on Montrose near Washington Avenue, with one notable exception: The sushi has improved significantly.

Part of the reason for this is the fact that Tanagi keeps his offerings short and sweet. There are no menus here, only nigiri, sashimi and a small assortment of rolls. Edamame comes standard as soon as you sit down, the Sushi Tora version of chips and salsa. Stay long enough (or make friendly enough conversation with Tanagi), and the sake is likewise gratis. The sake menu itself is even short. I recall asking Tanagi across the bar one day what kind of sake he had.

"Hot and cold," came his gruff reply.

"I'll take cold," I said.

"Filtered or unfiltered?" he asked.

"Unfiltered, please." In a hot second, a large bottle of sweet, cloudy nigori sake was on the bar in front of me. It was the first of three bottles I consumed that night, one of which was on the house. That seems to be a trend here. It's as if the free sake that's distributed to most of the tables each night is a desultory thank-you gift from Tanagi to his customers, almost to say: Thanks for coming in every night even though I use the F-word more frequently than Quentin Tarantino.

The free booze is welcome, although unnecessary. I go to Sushi Tora as much for the show as anything else, because you're always guaranteed some verbal fireworks from the 39-year-old sushi chef with a long, thick ponytail and a penchant for plastering skateboarding stickers all over his mostly open kitchen.

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My Voice Nation Help

This place is epic. Love the small sushi/nigiri only menu. The one time I ate there about a year ago, Ken got pissed and stormed out. I was by myself and when he came back in he stopped by my table and made sure I got my squid nigiri. This is after his mom stopped by and apolozied for the tirade. He almost lost one of the Mexican lady bussers/waiter he had as she yelled at him too. I agree, it is part show part Ken's real personality. Whatever it is, the ambiance and food both made it one of my favorite dinning experiences in a long time.


Ken Takagi is not the cute curmudgeon you think he is....he is really bad news, and has been ever since I met him at the original Coco's on Richmond/Fountainview, where his drug habit undermined most of the decent work his mother was doing at the restaurant. His latest trick involves stealing bikes and fencing them.


It seriously sounds like I wrote this review of the restaurant. Everything from the fighting outside to the free sake happened the one time I was there. We must have been there the same night! Trust me, I will be going back soon.

kshilcutt moderator editor

Please note: I just realized that I misspelled Ken Takagi's name throughout as "Tanagi" by mistake. We'll have a correction in next week's paper.


LT is capable of stepping in and keeping things rolling when the chef has had enough and storms out.  Ken's drunken tirades were legendary at the original location on Fountain View.

erichenao topcommenter

This small space just got a lot more crowded. Hope he holds up, I'll make sure to visit in about a month…

gossamersixteen topcommenter

It goes without saying Mama-san rules.. I will be going here post haste, long time coco's regular.

kshilcutt moderator editor

 @FRL713 I knew that L.T. had been with Ken for the better part of a decade, but I didn't know that! Love it.