Goths and strippers eating sushi in weird little booths -- that's the rumor I received by e-mail about Coco's Yakitori/Sushi Bar out on the Richmond Strip. So the first time I went there, I showed up at 1:30 a.m. Doesn't that seem like the right time to mingle with goths and strippers? It didn't work. The restaurant closes around ten. Evidently the goths and strippers who hang out at Coco's are the kind who go to bed early.
So I try again at a reasonable hour. The restaurant is small and decorated in a cool, ultramodern style. But the big Sony flat-screen TV behind the sushi bar, airing a hip-hop video, and the tacky pictures of scantily clad body builders by the cash register give the place a sort of dorm-room feel. There are no goths or strippers, though; the only strange characters I run into at Coco's Yakitori are Ichi and Mami. The tall, ponytailed 27-year-old Ichi is the sushi chef; his diminutive mother, Mami, is the waitress.
I take a table in the back near a long line of Japanese pinball machines. Mami comes by and introduces herself. She delivers a pen and a menu that consists of two long sheets of white paper with little blanks. I order a Kirin draft. No, you can't play pinball, Mami tells me, those machines make too much noise. "Hai!" she says as she bows in that distinctly Japanese fashion that makes politeness seem like a martial art.
Coco's Yakitori/Sushi Bar
5959 Richmond Avenue
(713)266-1188 Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Dynamite sushi roll: $5.50
Beef liver yakitori: $2.75
Green onion yakitori: $2.50
Chicken meatballs: $3
Vegetable tempura: $3.75
At Coco's Yakitori, you check off the items you want on the menu pages. One page lists the sushi; the other, the yakitori and tempura items. It sounds easy, but it's not. There are no translations for some of the Japanese words, and no explanation for such mysterious English-language items as "veg ten, croquette and aspara mayonnaise." I am curious about some of the sushi rolls, which have names such as Dynamite, Rock & Roll and Jazz.
"What's on a Dynamite sushi roll?" I ask Mami.
"Hai!" she says, bowing respectfully. "I don't know. We'll see."
I can't help laughing. We'll see? I guess when you have sushi rolls named Dynamite, Rock & Roll and Jazz, you get to make them up as you go along. "Bring me a Dynamite roll," I tell Mami.
"Hai!" she says, backing away and bowing.
Meanwhile, I look over the yakitori list. In Japanese, yakitori means "grilled fowl," but at Coco's, the menu includes other grilled meats and vegetables. Like most cuisine from the Asian islands, yakitori items are simply prepared and elegantly presented. At this point, I must confess that while there is much to admire about the artistic minimalism and healthy attributes of the Japanese diet, I have never been much of a fan of Japanese cooking. It's too bland for me. And I never seem to bring enough money to get filled up. Reading the list of yakitori items isn't creating any great expectations for me, either. It reads: "chicken with g. onion," "chicken wings," "chicken meat balls," "chicken gizzards," "shrimp," "squid leg," "chicken skin," "anchovy," "beef/tori liver," "onion," "mushrooms," etc. They sound like tidbits to me.
Mami delivers my sushi roll and asks what I want from the yakitori list.
"How's the beef?" I ask. Mami looks at me like I'm an idiot.
"Where do you see beef?" she says, with her hands on her hips. I point to the line that says beef/tori liver. "That's liver!" she says, as she walks away. I drink my beer and try to imagine a combination of these yakitori items that might taste good. And for some reason I keep trying to make up a joke that starts with the line, "An Irishman walks into a sushi bar" I like beef liver more than chicken gizzards, so I end up putting little check marks next to the liver and onions. And then I call for Mami. Which sounds kind of strange.
The Dynamite sushi roll is made of tuna, crabmeat and salmon with a spicy mayo. It is an unusual sushi roll, spicy and very tasty. In fact, it reminds me of a new style of sushi that's emerging in Mexico City. There is a large Japanese population in the Mexican capital, and sushi restaurants there have become trendy. But Mexicans like their sushi a little zestier than the Japanese, and so the sushi chefs put jalapeño slivers in the rolls and serve spicy dipping sauces and chilied mayonnaises on the side. They call these creations "sushi à la mexicana." The Mexican sushi is akin to Americanized items such as the avocado-studded California roll, which aren't authentically Japanese but which suit the tastes of the locals. Ichi's list at Coco's includes a spicy tuna roll and a spicy sesame tuna ball. I think the young chef may be on the verge of creating sushi à la Texas. We'll have to keep an eye on him.
My grilled liver and onions arrive on wooden skewers. The liver is a thick and meaty rectangle about the size of a chocolate bar. Dunked in the soy dipping sauce, it goes very well with the beer. The onions are the green variety, and they're lined up like raft logs and pierced by two skewers. I pull a few off the skewers to eat with my liver, but there is nowhere to put them. This brings Mami over for a little remedial yakitori.
"Eat them off the skewers," she says, pantomiming the act of pulling the onions off with her teeth. It is apparent that my dream of combining liver and onions can be accomplished only by alternating bites. Oh, well, what kind of rube orders liver and onions in a Japanese restaurant anyway?
Several huge sushi platters with some outlandish presentations are delivered to the table next to me. Four young Asian males with dyed blond hair and one young Caucasian female are seated there. They're discussing classes and lecturers, so I assume they're college students. Ichi is bantering with them; perhaps they're friends of the house. Mami makes one of the boys take off his baseball cap when she sets down the fish.
"How come four boys and only one girl?" Mami wants to know.
"We share," says one of the boys, to the loud amusement of the other males and the feigned indignation of Mami and the girl.
On my second visit to Coco's Yakitori, my dining companion and I sit in one of the odd elevated booths by the front door that overlook the sushi counter. Olympic gymnastics are on the flat-screen TV. There is a portable telephone on the table. Mami introduces herself, and my dining companion begins to interrogate her, completely ignoring the menu lists and the pen.
"Do you have vegetable tempura?" she asks.
"Hai!" says Mami.
"Can you make it with a lot of sweet potatoes?"
"Hai!" says Mami again.
"Okay, can I have tempura vegetables, tempura asparagus and some dumplings? Oh, and some miso soup?"
"Hai!" says Mami once more.
I am searching the long white sheets of paper, but I can't find any of these items. But I quickly ask for chicken, chicken meatballs and yakitori eggplant, while Mami is being so accommodating.
"What's your real name, Mommy?" my dining companion and newly hired assertiveness trainer asks.
"Mami, M-A-M-I. I have tried to convince Ichi's friends that my name is really Mami," says the waitress. "They think he is calling me Mommy."
That's easy to understand. After all, Mami tells you what you should eat, how you should eat it, and to take off your hat at the table. On the flat-screen TV, the women's gymnastics is getting exciting, and the Russian girl with the one intermittently shaved eyebrow is having a big night. My dining companion, who is a mommy herself, picks up the phone and calls her teenage son.
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"Are you watching the Olympics?" she asks him. He is. "What do you think of the weird shaved eyebrow?" She listens a minute and hangs up. "He thinks it's cool. All the girls in his high school are going to have weird shaved eyebrows next week," she predicts.
The asparagus is my favorite of the tempura items. The chicken meatballs turn out to be the most interesting of the yakitori meats. But in my opinion, the eggplant is the star of the show. It is creamy and unctuous with a wonderfully big flavor. It's coated with a thick soy paste.
"It's too rich," says my tablemate.
"How's that saying go? You can never be too rich if you're an eggplant." In the end, this little difference of opinion points out the distinction between me and somebody who really appreciates Japanese food. I like the eggplant and the beef liver at Coco's because I am generally a sucker for the richest food I can find. My slender dining companion, on the other hand, is on a more or less permanent diet and tends toward the lowest-fat, lowest-calorie items available on the menu. She is delighted by a restaurant like Coco's Yakitori, where eating light and healthy is so easy. And I should be, too, because I need to diet a lot more than she does.