The chicken-fried fish insanity starts out as a long chunk of fresh tuna that is quickly fried and then coated with the house special sauce, a sweet concoction not unlike unagi sauce. The fish is then chopped into six pieces, and each serving is topped with shredded scallions, hot chiles and sesame seeds. It's sushi, yet it's fried fish; it's delicate, yet it's hot and spicy -- madness, I tell you!
The fiery fish parade continues with a spicy salmon roll and a spicy tuna roll. Along with the raw fish, each contains cucumber, jalapeños, scallions, spicy Japanese sprouts, shiso leaves and lots of pepper sauce. These are two of the hottest sushi rolls I've ever eaten. My tablemates are blown away. They've never tasted sushi this spicy before. I'm glad we came here for dinner. Especially since I almost crossed the place off my list after a disastrous first visit.
A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch at Blue Fish House, and I wasn't impressed. I had ordered the "Thai me up, Thai me down" lunch special and it was very disappointing. The menu promised sliced steak over a spicy Thai salad with a chile-and-lime dressing -- a preparation usually known as Thai beef salad. This dish can be absolutely fabulous, especially in hot weather.
There are lots of ways to make it; sometimes tomatoes, cucumbers and onions are marinated in a complex Thai dressing and thin slices of cold medium-rare sirloin are spread over them. Sometimes it's a mix of cool field greens and vegetables tossed with herbs like Thai basil, mint and cilantro served with sizzling hot steak on top.
Unfortunately, the version at Blue Fish House consisted of iceberg lettuce with a few wedges of tomato and some cucumber slices throw in. There may have been a mint leaf or two in there somewhere, but they were easy to miss. The lukewarm "steak" looked like fajita meat or maybe flank steak. It tasted like the high school cafeteria version of Thai beef salad.
The "U Pick 4" sushi special made a much better impression. It included your choice of a tuna, salmon or shrimp spicy roll, plus four pieces of the traditional nori-wrapped rice and fish rolls. Called nigiri, these are made from your choice of tuna, salmon, red snapper, eel, crab, shrimp, white tuna or mackerel.
The salmon, red snapper and shrimp were all top-notch nigiri rolls, and the unagi eel preparation with slow-cooked sweet soy sauce was excellent. But what caught my attention were the wacky names on the menu like "fisherman madness, ooh! honey breast," and "some young guy." Those, along with the bizarre treats on the blackboard above the sushi bar, like sushi pizza and the asparagus hot dog thing, were what convinced me to give the place another try.
We started out our dinner with a "cutie hama roll," which is listed in the section of the menu titled futo maki, which means four pieces. Made of succulent yellowtail rolled up with jalapeños, avocado and mayonnaise, the cutie turns out to be one of the richest things on the menu. It reminds me of sushi à la mexicana, the spicy, mayo-slathered style of sushi that's popular in Mexico City.
There are several other rolls under the futo maki heading, which I plan to try soon; like "swirl roll" with eel, yellowtail, salmon and cucumber; and a shrimp tempura roll. The "no meat roll," a combination of cucumber, picked radish, carrot, sweet squash and egg, is available for vegetarians. And for vegans, there is an entire section of tofu dishes (including "fry me to the moon," and "udon it this time") under the heading of "I don't eat meat."
As our meal nears an end, I look around the innocuous little restaurant trying to figure out what is going on. Blue Fish House is in a rickety structure on Richmond, just in front of the Hobbit Cafe. The wood floors consist of lovely wide planks in a creamy blond color. But the ceiling is little more than a black wood grid below the ductwork, and the walls are flimsy at best. Compared to the high-dollar minimalism and austere formality of the average Japanese sushi bar, this place looks like a hut on an Asian beach somewhere. And true to the theme, most of the patrons are wearing shorts and sandals.
By now we know that a Houston restaurant with hot and spicy sushi probably isn't Japanese-owned. Houstonians are familiar with spicy sushi from Korean, Mexican and Taiwanese sushi chefs. Personally, I love it all. But I can't quite put my finger on which style Blue Fish House is serving. It's not made with the chile paste that Koreans often use in place of wasabi. And although there are lots of fresh peppers and mayonnaise like you see in Mexican sushi, the sushi chef looks Asian. Finally, I give up and ask our waiter about the chef's nationality.
"His name is Net and he's Thai," the waiter says. "Most of us here are Thai."
Net, short for Neti Techakamthorn, worked at a sushi restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, before coming here, the waiter tells me. He was recruited by some fellow Thais to move to Houston and start Blue Fish House, which is owned by the same people who own the three Thai Cottage restaurants in the Houston area.
"Thai?" I mumble. I've never heard of Thai sushi before. It's an odd idea on several levels. First of all, the Thai community in our city is comparatively small, so good Thai chefs have always been few and far between. The idea of a Thai sushi specialist is pretty exotic.
And then there's the fact that Japanese food and Thai food are Asian opposites. Japanese food is known for subtle seasonings and restraint. Thai food is famous for flavors that leap off the plate and grab you. Since Thai cuisine is one of the hottest in the world, Thai sushi is especially intriguing to people like me who love hot and spicy food.
Blue Fish House brings a welcome new twist to the ever-less-Japanese Houston sushi scene. I highly recommend it for the innovative sushi rolls, the beachwear- welcome dress code and the bonhomie of the Richmond Avenue slacker clientele. As for the lunch specials, I'm not sure whether the Thai beef salad debacle was typical or just an isolated flaw. But if you want to play it safe, I'd say go for the madness.