According to traditional Japanese folk tales, Kintaro is a red-skinned wunderkind raised by a mountain witch. He sounds like an Asian version of Paul Bunyan: Immensely strong, he carries an ax and rides a wild boar. Kintaro nowadays is perhaps better known as the mutant monster star of Mortal Kombat video games, or as the boyish hero of a popular Japanese television show, said to be "good with his fists and lucky with girls."
All three faces of Kintaro may have inspired the name of the Kin Taro Sushi and Noodle House. Certainly its owner, Houston restaurateur Kin Lui, can be seen as something of a boy wonder: He and his Hong Kong émigré siblings, brother Denis and sister Mona, have opened no fewer than seven restaurants in less than a decade, five already wildly successful, two too new to call but both promising.
The legendary string of Lui winners began in 1990 with Japon Japanese Restaurant at 5901 Westheimer. Then talk about mortal combat: Only a superhero's powers could have saved Lui when a hammer-wielding bandit mugged him. Pow! Ouch! Poor Lui was comatose for three weeks. The rumor mill went wild with speculation. Was Lui attacked by envious competitors? If so, the attempt backfired. He bounced back from his hospital bed to open a second Japon in the Village.
Kin Taro Sushi and Noodle House,
3055 Sage, suite 170,
Six months later the Lui family unveiled its first Café Japon Japanese Restaurant, audaciously positioned eyeball to eyeball with Houston's original sushi headquarters, Miyako on Kirby Drive. Wall-to-wall crowds there begat a second Café Japon, near Wilcrest and Westheimer, within a year. But the family flagship, thus far at least, is the Sake Lounge in Bayou Place. This is it, the big time: The sleekly designed club room, more cocktail lounge than cafe as the name implies, caught the updraft of national attention when it made Esquire magazine's best new restaurant list for 1998.
The Luis finished out the decade by rapidly rolling out two more "concept" cafes last fall: In October their Little Japon fast-food outlet debuted on FM 1960, followed by our working-class hero Kin Taro, which opened in November in the shadows of the Galleria.
True to the mom-and-pop heritage of a noodle house, Kin Taro offers no entrée that costs more than ten bucks or takes more than ten minutes to serve. The unpretentious dining room sports a squeaky-clean tile floor and simple shoji screens, a minimalist environment that's clattery at lunchtime with a casual crowd of store clerks and sale shoppers and frugal businessmen, leaning over their steaming bowls with carefully rolled-up shirtsleeves.
Like the other Lui outlets, Kin Taro's central construct is Japanese cuisine. The 12-seat sushi bar at the rear of the room boasts a short list of the sushi that made both Café Japon and Sake Lounge famous -- impeccably fresh classics such as yellowtail hamachi ($1.50 each) or octopus tako ($1.25), lightly seasoned and very tender. There are the trademark sushi hand rolls ($2.95 each) with the famously un-fishy ingredients so accessible to beginners: I particularly like the hand roll formed around long green spears of asparagus tempura. The crawfish hand roll, with a bright red soft-shelled crawfish peeking out the wide end like a rose in a bouquet of lesser posies, is also good, the spicy crawfish complemented by long, cool strips of cucumber and green onion.
But the menu at Kin Taro is first and foremost a pan-Asian compendium of noodles. There are soba noodles and elegant udon noodles, ramen and glass and green tea noodles. There are noodles wound through soups for slurping with flat-bottomed spoons; tangled piles of noodles for twirling round chopsticks or forks; noodles made from rice or wheat, thick or thin, served fried or boiled, hot or cold.
"Those noodle soups are our very best items," the manager told me on my first visit. I believe he's right. My absolute favorite is the great basin of coconut bisque ($5), an ocean of tawny golden broth rich with coconut cream and curry, speckled with a hot dash of cayenne. The thick white china bowl is swimming with jumbo butterflied shrimp, vermicelli noodles and long, waving strands of fuchsia and white "snow crab." Surprise note: Paper-thin slices of ripe avocado and tiny circlets of green onions lend a perky, fresh, green flavor. Make no mistake, this soup is no dainty appetizer; it's a full, filling meal.
I also like the Thai-inspired thom yum soup ($5), though it's a smaller bowlful. The glorious lime broth glows deep red, translucent like stained glass, fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf. Slippery slices of fresh mushroom and halved cherry tomatoes bob about appealingly, kept company by three or four medium-size shrimp, tails on.
Kin Taro's salads are another meal-size treat, such as the beautifully composed smoked ika salad ($5), formed of concentric rings of sliced cucumbers, carrots and field greens dressed in soy vinaigrette. Tasty little treats are tucked in between: smoked baby squid, tiny, ginger-marinated green beans and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
Even the humble garden salad that accompanies dinner entrées is worth having, if only for the pair of house dressings minted at the Sake Lounge. I have never been able to decide which is my favorite -- the honey-mustard-peanut version called "creamy" or the balsamic vinaigrette all tingly with fresh ginger? -- so I order both on the side and divide the greens between them.
Once away from the triumvirate of sushi, soups and salads, though, Kin Taro's lineup gets wobbly. Forget about the pad thai ($8); there are too many much better versions around to waste time on this one. Kin Taro's sticky-sweet "house special thai sauce" is over-the-top, heavy on the nam pla fish sauce. Phew.
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I wasn't much happier with the yaki soba ($8); we wound up with a vegetarian mishmash of cabbage, carrots and green onions when we'd asked for chicken ($2 extra). The soba noodles were firm and nutty-flavored, but we'd ordered the thicker udon; the whole concoction was drowning in a peculiarly strong-flavored sauce that I still haven't figured out. Too much soy sauce? Too much something.
The vermicelli ribs ($9), on the other hand, were seriously underflavored, particularly by local standards. The pork spare ribs were described as "serrano-lemon," but I could detect neither the bite of hot pepper nor the slightest hint of citrus. Either would have helped. Those ribs were meaty, true, but quantity is no consolation when the meat in question is stringy and tasteless. I suppose the glass noodles in my portion were okay, but weren't they supposed to be vermicelli? And there were the usual stir-fry suspects mixed in, bits of cooked egg and flabby bean sprouts and thin shavings of carrot, but I'd already lost interest.
Never underestimate a wunderkind, though. Kin Taro rallies for a miraculous comeback at dessert time. That marvelous ginger-spiked crème brûlée, again a Sake Lounge favorite, can be had here for $5. The chocolate noir cake, also $5, is fudgy and dense and topped with Mexican vanilla-flavored ice cream. It's not the least bit Asian, of course. But who cares? Dining at Kin Taro is not meant to be complicated or excruciatingly authentic. It's simple, inexpensive and brightly colored, as universally appealing as a comic book. Pow!
Kin Taro Sushi and Noodle House, 3055 Sage,suite 170, (713)599-1530.