For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Houston has two world-class sushi restaurants headed its way in 2012: Uchi, to open in the old Felix space at Montrose and Westheimer, and Katsuya by Starck, which will become another tenant in the tony West Ave development. Our sushi landscape will undoubtedly change dramatically with these two heavy-hitters, which could render this entire list moot shortly.
But for now, here are our top picks for when you get the raw fish jones.
Note: Many entries are excerpted from previous Best of Houston® entries, as many previous award winners have maintained the same standards of quality that garnered them awards in the first place.
In a city filled with swanky, upscale sushi restaurants serving up overpriced, Americanized fare, Oishii is a breath of fresh air. You won't find any pretentious decor, exotic cocktails or blaring techno music at the tiny restaurant just outside of Greenway Plaza; just warm, friendly service and traditional Japanese-style sushi. The happy hour -- $1.25 domestics and $1 sushi Mondays through Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m. -- is hard to beat, and the lunch menu is an all-out steal. But while the prices may be low, the quality is not. After all, "oishii" is Japanese for "delicious."
Although it's the downtown location of Azuma that I love best, there are several locations of the ever-growing sushi empire scattered across town. Founder David Cheng, who hails from Taiwan, also owns two other popular sushi restaurants: Soma Sushi and Kata Robata, which make Cheng and his sons -- Hubert and Yun -- something akin to sushi impresarios here in Houston. At Azuma, Chef Harold Wong prides himself on carrying the freshest fish he can get and coming up with unique creations and reinterpretations of standard Japanese cuisine.
This well-frequented restaurant in a strip center on Westheimer is known for the freshness of its fish. The chefs create traditional Japanese food with a contemporary flair; there are many special sushi rolls, all beautifully presented. The atmosphere is relaxed yet upscale, and the hostesses are even dressed in traditional kimonos. Private parties can be accommodated in three -- count 'em, three -- tatami rooms.
I had Zushi all wrong before I finally ate there for the first time. I expected cheesy, strip-mall sushi and instead I got Chef Chris Nemamoto's excellently constructed nigirizushi and beautifully folded tamagoyaki, the true sign of a talented sushi chef. All of Nemamoto's fish is fresh and his rice impeccably seasoned, even if the menu caters heavily to the Americanized roll set. Give it a chance and you'll be impressed too.
Chef Hajime Kubokawa -- or Kubo-san, for short -- is no longer at the sushi restaurant he helped found with owner Yoichi 'Yogi' Ueno. But it's still one of the best sushi joints in the city, a fact that's more impressive considering its longevity and the talent that it's worked with through the years, including Kata Robata's sushi master, Hori-san. Some of my most memorable meals have been at Kubo's over the years, from the night I tried my first idiot fish prepared by current chef Kiyoka Ito to the one-off kaiseki dinner I still dream about.
5. Sushi Jin
When it first opened, Sushi Jin helped raise the bar for Houston's raw fish lovers. Flown in straight from Japan, the mouthwatering pieces of salmon, tuna and yellow tail are sure to impress even the snobbiest connoisseurs. Wanna walk on the wild side? Jellyfish, sea cucumber and other exotics are hidden away in a secret stash -- all you have to do is ask and prove you're no novice. Private karaoke rooms allow diners to sing and dance, or you can just relax in one of the booths and enjoy the restaurant's simple, elegant decor.
It's refreshing when you find a place that's as genuinely comfortable as it is delicious. The menu at this diminutive Japanese joint isn't mind-blowing, but it's consistently refreshing, with delicious salmon, shrimp, eel and tuna offered in creative combinations, all at reasonable prices. You'll find the standbys on the sushi list, plus a bunch of more adventurous rolls that expertly play with textures and flavors. Beyond the food, the zen atmosphere is one-upped only by the amiable servers, who can make suggestions and customize orders. Perhaps best of all, every diner gets at least one small freebie with every meal -- from creative rolls and punchy dumplings or baked mussels and green tea ice cream.
3. Soma Sushi
A beautifully chic restaurant filled with equally beautiful, chic people, Soma serves up some of the best and most interesting sushi in town. Located along the Washington Avenue corridor, Soma helped make the area "cool" again and inspired an ever-growing number of trendy eatery owners to set up shop there. Sure, you can get your basic California roll or spicy tuna, and it'll be delicious, but why not try something more adventurous? There's New Zealand red snapper, yellow tail belly, sea urchin and flying fish roe, to name just a few. And don't forget the specialty rolls, like the Crazy Irish-Man, with salmon, tuna and avocado topped with spicy mayo, or the Relaxation roll, a mix of crab stick, avocado, fish egg and salmon on top of shrimp and grilled asparagus.
2. Kata Robata
It says a lot about the changing palates of Houston diners that a highly modern sushi restaurant with a strong undertone of French fusion was our choice as Best New Restaurant in 2010. But the food at Kata Robata (and the casual atmosphere that belies some of the menu prices) is truly the biggest draw of any place that's opened in the past year. Omakase platters prepared by the talented Manabu Horiuchi, formerly of Kubo's, are both playful and breathtaking at the same time -- as well as quite a bargain. And that's a recurring theme at Kata Robata: fresh, flavorful, high-quality food for a lot less than you'd expect to pay.
1. Sushi Miyagi
This mom-and-pop sushi restaurant in a slow-paced Chinatown strip mall doesn't look like much from the outside. The only indication of its quality lies in its name: Miyagi is an extremely common name in the Ryukyu Islands, and it serves to let other Japanese know that an Okinawan runs this place. Miyagi himself is the sushi chef, his wife the sole waitress (and creative force behind the restaurant's art). The two of them serve the most honest, authentic sushi in town. The rice is well-vinegared and hand-formed, while the fish is superbly cut, always served at a pleasantly ambient temperature. Best of all, the prices and the atmosphere make it easily accessible, and the Miyagis will always make you feel at home.