The Best Bet for Novice Diners at Taiko Is to Stick to the Basic Menu

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The tempura at Taiko Japanese Restaurant is wispy light and incredibly crisp at the same time. It doesn't matter if you order the shrimp, the vegetable or the bakudan (which means "bomb"), a big ball of vegetable tempura the size of a small football. Each bite, dipped into the scratch-made tempura sauce steeped with freshly grated daikon radish, is delectable, an explosion of texture and flavor.

The shrimp tempura arrives in a small bamboo basket with a peep-through lattice-patterned lid, giving a glimpse of what's beneath. This attention to presentation, this small artistic touch, is just one of the things that make this restaurant so special. The fact that it's owned and operated by first-generation Japanese who have been working in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years is another.

Taiko is one of those mom-and-pop places that might be considered a hole-in-the-wall, though the space itself is too large to be called exactly that. It's certainly a family operation. Mom is Taiko, the restaurant's namesake, who is at once the hostess, the waitress and, on slow nights, the buser. Pop is the chef, cook and Taiko's husband, Janichi Nojiri. On busier nights, they might have one other woman helping with service, which tends to be slow. One night a week, their daughter, Kei, comes in to help as well, but Taiko is always there, overseeing the front of the house.

The duo used to own a similar Japanese restaurant in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, before moving to the States about ten years ago to work for Benihana. Looking to escape the corporate world, they struck out on their own two years ago, using their life savings to open Taiko, a restaurant featuring a modestly priced menu of traditional Japanese dishes. The location -- on the corner of a strip mall on FM 1960 near Jones Road on the northwest side of town -- wasn't ideal, but it was all they could afford at the time. It wasn't long before word spread among the Japanese community about this humble gem.

Taiko is usually quiet and never too busy. The owners favor jazz music, and though they often forget to change CDs, leaving the restaurant blanketed in quiet, the playlist includes classics from artists such as Chet Baker or Frank Sinatra. The lighting, which is rather harsh and an unattractive yellow color, could be improved, but the restaurant is clean and nicely appointed in a homey fashion with bright-yellow-tablecloth-topped tables and shiny wooden chairs covered in dark red faux leather.

The clientele is primarily Japanese or Japanese-speaking, running the gamut from couples to families to men having dinner while sharing a six-pack of beer or a bottle of sake. Taiko doesn't have its liquor license yet, so it welcomes guests to bring in their own, and people do, often lingering over a meal and a glass of whatever they've brought with them.

Some nights, when the melodic staccato of the Japanese language surrounds diners, you can make believe you're actually in Japan. In fact, you'll definitely have an advantage if you speak Japanese or bring someone who does. Taiko is much more fluent in Japanese than she is in English, so many things get lost in translation or don't get translated at all.

This is what happened when we ordered the omakase, or chef's tasting menu, lauded by one of her regulars as an experience so exquisite, one would have to pay five times the amount for a similar meal in Japan. The booking was made over the phone with Taiko, who explained that she needed three days to prepare for the meal. We arrived with high expectations, and though the restaurant definitely gave it a good effort, we couldn't help being disappointed when course after course -- eight total -- arrived at our table without any real explanation of what the dishes were.

A gorgeously plated square bento of cold items ended up being a box of surprises because we didn't know for sure what anything was until we bit into it. There was a ball of something that looked as if it had been rolled in short matchstick-size crisps and then fried. It tasted like a fish cake, but we couldn't get any confirmation of what it was, and though it gave the plate wow factor, the crisps had a porcupine effect, very prickly and hard to eat. The box also had two nigiri sushi pieces shaped like small round balls. One was topped with ika (squid), scored and shaped to resemble a large scallop; the other was maguro (tuna) that had an overwhelmingly strong fish taste. A small persimmon salad and a bowl of seaweed were the highlights of the box.

Some of the other omakase courses were more readily identifiable but tasted average or unremarkable at best. A soup made with matsutake -- a fungus highly prized by the Japanese -- was clean and fragrant and full of mushroom but came out rather dry, hard and sort of undercooked. On the flip side, a dish of sliced beef tenderloin, served with a mash of daikon that looked like a brown salsa, was overcooked, tasting somewhat like liver, while the daikon was too bitter to be enjoyable. One of the courses that had us scratching our heads was a strange and slightly fishy-tasting gray triangle that had the consistency of sponge cake. It could have been made of fish or tofu, but these were only guesses. "I don't like it," said my dinner companion. "Maybe if we knew what it was, I would like it more."

That's not to say that all the omakase courses were underwhelming. A starter of ankake, a thick brown sauce filled with shreds of softened dry bean curd, was delightful; a sashimi plate composed of two delicious slices each of grilled Japanese madai (seabream) and aji (horse mackerel) was excellent; and a dessert made of green tea mousse sandwiched between thin round tuile-like crisps was like something you'd find in a good French patisserie.

Best advice: Don't order omakase at Taiko unless you come with a translator or are really familiar with Japanese cuisine. The average diner would do well by sticking to the regular menu, which is actually full of affordable, generally excellent, traditional Japanese fare. The salmon salad, for instance, is a gourmet surprise hidden in the salad section of the menu. Served in a stoneware bowl, thick-cut chunks of seared, medium-rare salmon are attractively arranged around a mound of mixed greens and topped with slivers of crispy salmon-skin chicharrón and a mustard dressing. The dish was a masterpiece of conception and execution right down to the temperature of the fish.

A plate of butter spinach topped with uni (sea urchin) and served on porcelain with a deep blue and gold rim is incredibly generous in portion and an unbelievable value. Where a single piece of uni can cost anywhere from $3 to $5 elsewhere, this dish comes with approximately 20 high-quality pieces -- what look like whole trays worth of sea urchin -- for $30. Nowhere else in town will you get a plate with this much on it, and even though it's a bit much for one person to finish off completely, it's a worthy indulgence on any night. Taiko also offers an uni donburi, or rice bowl, that is similar in cost and quantity.

The fish dishes are on the whole very, very good as well. A sake-steamed cod arrives in a lidded russet-colored porcelain bowl painted with golden branches and flowers. Lifting the lid lets out a swoosh of aromatic steam, revealing a long rectangle of white fish partially submerged in the steaming liquid, sitting next to a bed of white enoki mushroom and steamed greens. Restrained and subtle, with just a hint of sake and the barest minimum of salt, the fish is moist and wonderful.

Salt-grilled fish of the day -- a yellowtail the day we tried it -- comes with a magnificently crisp sliver of fish skin wrapped around the outer edge of the filet. Cut into it with a fork and hear the skin crunch as it breaks apart, elevating a simple dish from ordinary to extraordinary. A butter miso Chilean seabass was the only misstep among the fish dishes. It sounded incredible on paper but ended up being way too sweet, tasting better when the miso was scraped away.

Ramen lovers will be happy to hear that there are two ramen on the menu, including a traditional tonkotsu that is solid and satisfying. Though it's not quite as flavorful as the versions found at ramen specialty shops around town, the noodles are thick, springy and delicious. The broth is what needed work. It was creamy but just shy of exhibiting that thick richness of flavor that aficionados tend to seek.

Then there's the deep-fried pork cutlet known as tonkatsu, simply plated on oval white stoneware and accompanied by a small mound of cabbage salad. Crispy yet moist and served with a chunky house-made sauce, it tasted homemade and could easily put to shame any Italian milanesa or German Schnitzel.

Dishes like these make up the heart and soul of Taiko. Tonkatsu or donburi, tempura or grilled fish -- humble, simple, authentic food that might typically be prepared in a Japanese home -- are made with loving care by a Japanese cook who has been making this kind of cuisine all his life. You don't go to Taiko for trendy haute cuisine or luxurious ambience. You go there to experience the hospitality offered by this hard-working couple, who welcome you with a sincere "Konichiwa," feed you with affordable, well-prepared food and then graciously bow as you leave, offering a heartfelt "Arigato!"

Taiko 11037 FM 1960 Road West, 281-469-0202. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.

Bakudan tempura $10 Shrimp tempura $11 Salmon salad $12 Tonkotsu ramen $9 Sake-steamed cod $10 Tonkatsu $10 Salt-grilled yellowtail $20 Uni with butter spinach $30 Butter miso Chilean seabass $25 Omakase tasting menu $55 to $100 per person

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