I'm loathe to say that Houston has any "soup Nazi"-type characters dominating its dining rooms or kitchens -- only because I hate to start any post off with Godwin's Law. Instead, I prefer to think of people such as the late, great Darawan Charoenrat of Kanomwan (a.k.a. the Thai Nazi) as Houston's biggest food personalities: restaurant owners, chefs or even simply waiters whose mere presence is both awe-inspiring and intimidating.
That's how it is with Ken Takagi at Sushi Tora, the subject of this week's cafe review. Armed with sharp knives, a belligerent attitude and a foul mouth, Takagi is as much a reason to visit Sushi Tora as the sushi itself.
"We don't do half rolls!" I heard Takagi yell at Sushi Tora's sole waiter on a busy Friday night recently. When the waiter asked why, Takagi's response came viciously fast: "Because I don't fucking feel like it!" And within seconds, he was back to slicing fish with a smile and chatting gregariously with customers at the bar in his narrow, shotgun-style restaurant on Montrose.
A few days later, we witnessed Takagi, the aforementioned waiter and the waiter's girlfriend get into a screaming row outside on the patio. Seemingly unfazed, Takagi trotted back into the restaurant once the fight was finished and sent out a few bottles of hot sake to the tables who'd been nearest to the action. The customers who filled out the restaurant seemed as unfazed as Takagi, quickly going back to their hand rolls and chuckling amongst themselves about his latest outburst.
And that's the thing with Houston's big food personalities: Love them or hate them, they're as much of a draw as the food in most cases (and, in most cases, they're actually softies on the inside).
Takagi's own mother, Mami, was known for her own shenanigans when she operated Coco's Yakitori on Westheimer. While you can't get berated by Charoenrat anymore when you order Thai the wrong way at Kanomwan, you can still visit Mami most evenings at her son's restaurant, Sushi Tora. And you can visit these big food personalities in their own restaurants, too.
Kaiser Lashkari at Himalaya
Best known for: Steadfastly refusing to give up the space in the middle of Himalaya's dining room that also houses his office desk and computer.
Jonathan Levine at Jonathan's the Rub
Best known for: Kicking out Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook after she requested her steak re-cooked at a different temperature.
Julie Lu at Doozo Dumplings and Noodles
Best known for: Being the famous "dumpling Nazi," who keeps the long lunch line at Doozo running smoothly by making sure customers order with machine-like efficiency.
John Katsimikis at Byzantio
Best known for: Refusing to take your order at the 24-hour diner once known as One's a Meal and bringing you what he thinks you should eat instead, although Katsimikis can now be found at Byzantio, just a few streets over.
Ricky Craig at Hubcap Grill
Best known for: Long, vicious Twitter spats that occasionally spill over into real life.
Ken Takagi at Sushi Tora
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Best known for: Yelling at anyone who stands still long enough (customers typically excluded) while weaving an impressive tapestry of profanity.