No matter how refined my palate becomes, eating in the wonderful and diverse restaurants of Houston, I can still count on keeping a few of the unsophisticated tastes of childhood. The one of which I am least proud is Salisbury steak, as this was a well-executed dish by the lunch ladies of my grade school.
Despite growing up in a different world, my wife has a similar memory, and one day she surprised me with two Banquet Salisbury steak TV dinners, with the fakey mashed potatoes and the corn, and a Stouffer's Mac & Cheese, on the table. "What happened?" I asked. "Are we poor now?" The dinner turned out to be remarkably tasty, rather than a case of misguided nostalgia.
On a recent visit to Kubo's Sushi Bar and Grill in Rice Village, I was pleasantly shocked to see an odd item on the lunch menu. While most non-sushi items at Kubo's are traditional, as evidenced by several tables of Japanese businessmen nearby, one of the bento box lunches was Nikomi Hamburg, described as "Ground beef & pork, braised with a special sweet soy sauce. A Salisbury Steak Dish." My lunch choice was automatic.
The bento box that arrived was infinitely more attractive than the school lunch tray of my youth, and included spinach gomaee, pork shumai dumplings and Agedashi tofu, which is deep-fried tofu with bonito flakes (trendy in other cuisines but traditional here). Kobu's does a marvelous job with the sides, even the pickles, and the seaweed salad is so delicious I wouldn't know it was seaweed if I wasn't informed.
The Nikomi Hamburg didn't really look much different from the lunch ladies' version, but the first bite brought back a flood of pleasant memories, and a few faces of former classmates popped into my head. It tastes exactly as a Salisbury steak should, with the flavor of onion and gravy, but with the fascinating addition of soy sauce and sweet mirin rice wine.
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The entire bento box was a winner, but I can see through the nostalgia to even better lunch options at Kubo's. Nikomi Hamburg is one of those dishes I'm totally glad to have experienced but that I'll never order again. One great flashback is enough.