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.
"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.
And I go to Sushi Tora for the food. Especially Tanagi's inventive rolls, such as the enormous 420 Roll (which L.T. claims to have created and named): Several fat lengths of shrimp tempura take up the middle of the roll, sandwiched with spicy tuna, albacore tuna, roasted garlic and slices of avocado on all sides. It's wrapped in snowy white soy paper instead of seaweed, then topped with a ponzu sauce, scallions and masago.
If you like the 420 Roll and you like heat, you'll have to try the Hectic Roll, too: It's more of the same, except topped with slices of fresh, unseeded jalapeño, habanero-infused masago and a squirt of Sriracha on each slice for good measure. The Negihama Roll, too, deals in large quantities of heat: hamachi and more of that habanero-infused masago are tucked inside a roll that's doused with chile oil and a spice blend that tastes of cayenne and Sichuan peppercorns.
The regular sushi at Sushi Tora is a bit less inspired. Tanagi himself admits that he only gets a small amount of really good fish each day, and it goes fast. "I only get two servings of tuna belly," he told me once while seated at the sushi bar. "You either get it or you don't." He's usually out of uni, too, and spicy scallops. And when the tuna belly is gone, the tuna that's served on all of the regular nigiri is stodgy and flaccid, with very little flavor.
On the other hand, Tanagi serves excellent red snapper that's firm and opaque, nicely briny mackerel, pleasantly chewy octopus, serviceable salmon and a fun plate of sweet raw shrimp (ebi) that's served alongside the whole-fried head of the prawn itself. And all of the fish is elevated by his rice, which is nearly translucent and holds cleanly together without being viscously sticky. You can taste the seasoning in the rice on its own, which is balled up neatly underneath each piece of fish and served at body temperature, a uniquely pleasant sensation when good sushi rice is so hard to find in Houston.
And down there on the very bottom of the short menu are the Adam's Bomb and the TNC Bowl — the only two dishes on the dinner menu that aren't strictly sushi. They're a sort of tribute to hwe, Korean-style sashimi salads that feature raw albacore tuna served over seaweed, cucumbers and various other vegetables in a very light application of tangy Japanese mayonnaise. Although they don't come with Tanagi's excellent rice, they're two of my favorite dishes on the menu.
Whatever you decide to order, though, sit at the sushi bar. Not only is it far less likely that you'll lose your waiter to a lovers' quarrel in the parking lot, you'll get to experience Tanagi — who is actually a hell of a funny guy, with a playful hint around his eyes that the patented sushi Nazi persona is all an elaborate show — up close and personal.