The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Sushi

For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2012 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.

It wasn't too terribly long ago that most Houstonians found sushi to be a terribly exotic and occasionally daunting meal. My first sushi dinner was had at Cafe Japon on Kirby early in high school, with my worldly mother as my guide. It was terrifying and exhilarating, this unique experience of eating fish...raw.

"It's not raw in the way you're thinking," my exasperated mother kept trying to tell me. But I was fascinated by the idea that great hunks had simply been flayed off a live fish, then draped across a ball of (room temperature! not hot!) rice, so she let me run with it. For many years, I went back to Cafe Japon or its neighbor across the street, Miyako, when I wanted to feel the shivers of excitement that came from experimenting with a completely new type of fish or moving up the sushi ladder to pure sashimi, slowly but surely.

Nearly 20 years later, our sushi options have expanded greatly from basic purveyors like Cafe Japon and Miyako. The greatest sushi restaurant Houston has ever seen sits right down the street from these two pioneers, and our choices are only getting better by the day. Los Angeles import Katsuya by Starck offers a slick, chic scene to go with your sushi while mom-and-pop places like Sushi Miyagi in Chinatown provide a homey hole-in-the-wall in which to have a slow-paced, contemplative dinner.

10. Osaka

It's refreshing when you find a place that's as genuinely comfortable as it is delicious. The menu at this diminutive Japanese joint isn't mind-blowing, but it's consistently refreshing, with delicious salmon, shrimp, eel and tuna offered in creative combinations, all at reasonable prices. You'll find the standbys on the sushi list, plus a bunch of more adventurous rolls that expertly play with textures and flavors. Beyond the food, the zen atmosphere is one-upped only by the amiable servers, who can make suggestions and customize orders. Perhaps best of all, every diner gets at least one small freebie with every meal -- from creative rolls and punchy dumplings or baked mussels and green tea ice cream.

9. Kaneyama

This well-frequented restaurant in a strip center on Westheimer is known for the freshness of its fish. The chefs create traditional Japanese food with a contemporary flair; there are many special sushi rolls, all beautifully presented. The atmosphere is relaxed yet upscale, and the hostesses are even dressed in traditional kimonos. Private parties can be accommodated in three -- count 'em, three -- tatami rooms.

8. Soma Sushi

A beautifully chic restaurant filled with equally beautiful, chic people, Soma serves up some of the best and most interesting sushi in town. Located along the Washington Avenue corridor, Soma helped make the area "cool" again and inspired an ever-growing number of trendy eatery owners to set up shop there. Sure, you can get your basic California roll or spicy tuna, and it'll be delicious, but why not try something more adventurous? There's New Zealand red snapper, yellow tail belly, sea urchin and flying fish roe, to name just a few. And don't forget the specialty rolls, like the Crazy Irish-Man, with salmon, tuna and avocado topped with spicy mayo, or the Relaxation roll, a mix of crab stick, avocado, fish egg and salmon on top of shrimp and grilled asparagus.

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Katharine Shilcutt