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.
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.
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.
Much of that, of course, can be attributed to our rather lackadaisical attitude towards the stuff. Many Houstonians think that ramen is the cheap brick of crap that comes in orange-and-white dust jackets from your local Fiesta, so why seek out "real" ramen?
Even some Japanese don't really care for it. Witness the young Japanese woman behind the counter at Cafe Kubo's who, when I complimented the kitchen on my bowl of miso ramen, shrugged her shoulders and simply said: "Eh. I don't really like ramen."
Whether you like ramen or not — or whether you care to even find out if you do — Cafe Kubo's has other dishes to suit your palate, Japanese or not.
There are rolls here, of course. Deep-fried ones at that. These garish American creations seem to be becoming more popular even at the more authentically Japanese restaurants in town. The Rudy Roll — a deep-fried tuna roll stuffed with avocado and drizzled with a now-ubiquitous sweet soy sauce — is one of the most popular offerings, and is even more discounted during happy hour. It's not bad, but it's not good either. I might be alone in thinking that, though, as my table of dining companions picked the Rudy Roll's plate clean in a matter of minutes one night.
Cleaner rolls like the simple Spicy Tuna Roll are better, to my taste at least, although the eponymous Kubo's Roll is also good: fried shrimp topped with spicy mayonnaise and three kinds of tobiko (flying fish roe). Still, I can't help but picture Yoichi Ueno's face when a similarly gaudy roll was plunked in front of him during a sushi roll contest that I judged along with him last year. It was a look of horror mixed with disgust. And here we have a roll just like it on his menu.
You can't argue that he doesn't know his audience, however, because it sells like hotcakes. Sometimes you have to give the people what they want.
On the other hand, there are plenty of more traditionally Japanese dishes at Cafe Kubo's to balance out the deep-fried hand roll side of the menu: katsu don, available in a regular size or a large that will feed two people for just over $8. Several varieties of udon, which all give you the option of adding extra seaweed or egg. A kara age bento box that's a steal at $6.99, with a generous amount of that soft-yet-crispy dark-meat chicken that verges on addictive. And on certain days, there's even takoyaki. I haven't made it out there on takoyaki days, but am determined to get back and try Cafe Kubo's grilled octopus balls.
And, of course, there's plenty of shrimp tempura. An acquaintance of mine who is an expert on Japan and a former employee of the Japanese consulate here in Houston once remarked that the most common restaurant meal in Japan was a bunch of diners happily crowded around a table full of shrimp tempura and sake. Cafe Kubo's has shrimp tempura, sake and happy diners in abundance, as well as some exceptional bowls of ramen for a fast-food joint.
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