Restaurant Reviews

Fish Frenzy at Tokyo One

The salmon sashimi at Tokyo One had such wide diagonal stripes of white fat running through it that each slice looked like an orange-and-white candy cane. And one by one, a half a dozen of them melted in my mouth.

I followed the salmon with some succulent escolar slices. Also known as "white tuna" because of its snow-white hue, escolar is so high in fat, it's like eating shavings of fish-flavored butter. Then I had some chewy octopus sashimi and a couple of slices of the local favorite, red snapper. At any regular sushi restaurant, this pile of sashimi alone would have cost me $20. And I was just getting started.

I followed the sashimi with some eel and asparagus roll, some spicy tuna roll, some salmon roe sushi and some chopped scallop sushi. And I decorated my plate with a little pile of pink pickled ginger shavings and a scoop of wasabi. That was on my first of three trips through the buffet line.

Break apart your chopsticks, ladies and gentlemen, and get ready to go to the all-you-can-eat sushi bar. A month ago, the sushi restaurant that used to be called Dozo, located just south of Westheimer on the Beltway 8 southbound access road, changed its name to Tokyo One and started offering an all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet, including a decent selection of sushi. The price is $22 at dinner and $12 at lunch. The restaurant has been crowded with sushi lovers ever since.

The original Tokyo One is located in Addison, outside of Dallas. The big-­sister restaurant evidently has a much larger buffet — the Web site brags that "sushi lovers will be amazed by our huge spread of 80+ types of sushi and sashimi."

The perils of eating sushi were the subject of a story by Marian Burros two weeks ago in the food section of The New York Times. The Times bought tuna sushi in October at several high-end sushi bars in New York, including Nobu's Next Door, and had them tested for mercury. Five out of 20 samples tested above one part per million, a level high enough for the F.D.A. to order the product to be taken off the market. The F.D.A. has never actually taken any tuna off the market, of course, but it could ­happen.

E-mail messages from fish industry sources and other concerned parties accumulated in my inbox last week. Fish is still healthy, the fish people countered. Some faulted the article's science and warned journalists that The New York Times would run a correction. There was a correction, and an appended correction, but it all amounted to a lot of hair-splitting over what constitutes a "reference dose."

I am betting Marian Burros has cut back on her tuna sushi, but then again she has also said she wouldn't eat a hamburger unless she ground the meat herself. Marian is a little more cautious than I am, to say the least. So what's a reasonable food lover to do?

Everyone agrees that pregnant women, women who intend to get pregnant, nursing mothers and small children should avoid fish that is high in mercury because it affects early brain development. The medical expert interviewed for the Times story suggested that healthy adults shouldn't make a meal of tuna with mercury levels as high as those reported in the story more than once every three weeks.

And according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, "nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern." The agency recommends that women and children avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because they contain the highest levels of mercury.

Why is it that I seem to be attracted to the riskiest foods? My diet includes lots of raw oysters, rare hamburgers and ­mercury-laden varieties of fish. Just last week, I was raving about the tilefish at Denis' Seafood. And the week before that, it was the ahi tuna salad at Dry Creek Café. It figures that this New York Times tuna alert would catch me in the middle of reviewing an all-you-can-eat sushi ­restaurant.

Luckily for me, the tuna sashimi at Tokyo One wasn't very good. I got a couple of pieces on my first visit, but I found them watery-tasting and didn't eat any more. And salmon, which I ate lots of, is one of those fish that are usually low in mercury. So maybe I'll live.

Besides the sashimi, my favorite buffet offerings at Tokyo One were the wonderfully chewy marinated baby octopus salad, the crunchy seaweed and sesame salad, the gelatinous jellyfish salad and the mixture of salmon sushi bits and vegetables called "sushi salad." I also managed to choke down a half a dozen boiled jumbo shrimp and a cold crab claw or two. Unfortunately, there weren't any raw oysters to be had.

The hot items were the least interesting things on the buffet, if you ask me. The shrimp tempura was the best of the lot, but if you are going to eat tempura, it's better to get it right out of the fryer and piping hot — not from a stack sitting under a heat lamp. A bowl of ramen came with so few noodles, I had to go back and ask for a double order. The lamb chops, beef strips and the other meat dishes looked too well done to bother with.

On my last visit, I invited a sushi lover from the Inner Loop to join me. We tried to strike up a conversation with the young sushi chef while we stood at the buffet line, but either the man didn't speak much English or he wasn't very talkative.

He said "yes" when I asked if he was Taiwanese, and he said "yes" again when I asked if the owners of Tokyo One were Taiwanese as well. When I asked where his last place of employment was, he said, "Ra," meaning Ra Sushi on Westheimer. And when I asked him what the chef's special sushi roll contained, he said, "fish."

My friend the Inner Looper sampled the California roll and a couple of other rolls that I had skipped. And he complained that the ratio of rice to fish was way off. It was easy to see that the rolls were mostly rice just by looking at them. I wondered why he wanted to eat a California roll when he could get an unlimited amount of sashimi. He said he preferred sushi rolls to sashimi and that he used the California roll as a benchmark.

He was surprised that most of the crowd at Tokyo One was Asian. I told him that I once assumed that Asian buffet restaurants were targeted at Anglos, but when Kim Son opened one on Bellaire, down the street from Hong Kong City Mall, I realized that Asians love buffets, too.

I asked my Inner Loop friend if he would recommend Tokyo One to his fellow sushi lovers. He said he would recommend it to anyone who loved sashimi, but not those who preferred sushi rolls. That seemed like a fair summation.

But as we both sat back and groaned a little, we agreed that for $22, we had just eaten one helluva meal. And it's not often you get a chance to complain about getting too full in a Japanese restaurant.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh