Rice, salmon, tuna, seaweed, wasabi, avocado, octopus, daikon radish, cucumber -- it seemed the food would never stop coming. Last night at Kubo's, we were faced with enough sushi to feed two sumo wrestlers. One brightly colored roll after another crossed our plates and palates as we attempted the near-impossible task of choosing a favorite from the group.
Kubo's, the veteran Japanese restaurant in Rice Village, is known for its inventive rolls and -- apparently -- so are its customers. Owner Yoichi Ueno and manager Akira Asano arranged a sushi competition for their guests, many of whom often request speciality rolls from the sushi chefs, with the goal of featuring the five best rolls as specials for the month of December. As a result, the restaurant received 60 recipes throughout October, as patrons submitted their own ideas for rolls both traditional and outlandish.
Of the 60 recipes that Kubo's received, Asano eliminated those that were deemed too close to any of the current rolls on the menu or those that used items the restaurant doesn't serve, such as escolar (the fatty tuna was banned in Japan in 1977, and Kubo's only serves food that meets Japanese standards for consumption). He also worked with the sushi chefs to tweak the recipes slightly, such as replacing the squid that was called for in one customer's "takoyaki roll" -- which should have octopus to be called "takoyaki" -- before deciding on the final 10 to present to a panel of judges.
The result was an array of wholly different rolls that ran the gamut from elegant and traditional to fusion-infused and over-the-top. The judges -- owner Ueno, Houston Sushi Club founder Carl Rosa, KTRK reporter Miya Shay and myself -- were tasked with choosing the best five from the spread.
Some rolls sounded intriguing but were ultimately underwhelming. The "salmon shine roll" contained a glistening chunk of salmon and was topped with wasabi, yuzu juice and sea salt, but barely whispered across our tongues. The overall taste was simply too subtle. On the other hand, the "hot phish roll" went overboard with spicy yellowtail, peppered tuna, wasabi, fresh jalapeno and a dab of hot sauce. Asano himself could barely eat a bite of the ultra-spicy roll without breaking into a sweat; its overwhelming flavor slapped you hard and brutally across the face.
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The entire judging panel agreed that the best roll of the night was the "takoyaki roll," although the dignified Ueno was singularly unimpressed with the Japanese street food's inclusion in a roll. Nor was he was not a fan of the chaotic presentation. Rosa told us that if any Japanese person saw takoyaki in a roll on a menu, they would "instantly disapprove." Despite this, Ueno grudgingly rated it a 5 out of 5 on taste. And we loved the admittedly crazy roll. The battered and fried octopus was melded deliciously with scallions and ginger, all of it covered with shards of crunchy tenkasu and spicy mayonnaise.
The second runner up was the "bibimbap roll," which melded Korean chili oil and seasoned vegetables with a fat chunk of tuna and the tart vinegar rice that Kubo's uses in all of its rolls. It was an inspired bit of Korean-Japanese fusion with clean lines and an even cleaner flavor that everyone at the table enjoyed. All that was missing was a fried egg on top (which we don't think the Japanese would approve of at all).
The other three rolls to make it to the top five were a "Bevo roll" -- as Longhorn-inspired as it sounds -- an "Oompa Loompa roll" and a "Louisiana spicy cajun roll." You'll have the chance to try all five rolls for yourself at Kubo's starting December 1 through December 31. The restaurant will be tracking which roll is most popular and at the end of the month, it will reward the customer whose creation sold the most rolls with a $300 gift certificate.
$300 would buy a lot of bibimbap rolls. Perhaps we'll enter this competition ourselves next year...