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.
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.
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.
Ginza is by far one of the most traditionally appointed Japanese restaurants in the city; you almost feel like you're in Tokyo here. That feeling doesn't always extend to the food, which is heavily Americanized, but of high quality nevertheless. Ginza's lunch specials are some of the best deals you'll find in town considering the quality of its fish, while you'll find a sizable Japanese expat population there at dinner. Chef Danny Trace of Brennan's is a noted fan of Ginza's super-fresh uni.
6. Sushi Miyagi
This mom-and-pop sushi restaurant in a slow-paced Chinatown strip mall doesn't look like much from the outside. The only external indication of its quality lies in its name: Miyagi is an extremely common name in the Ryukyu Islands, and it serves to let other Japanese know that an Okinawan runs this place. Miyagi himself is the sushi chef, his wife the sole waitress (and creative force behind the restaurant's art). The two of them serve the most honest, authentic sushi in town. The rice is well-vinegared and hand-formed, while the fish is superbly cut, always served at a pleasantly ambient temperature. Best of all, the prices and the atmosphere make it easily accessible, and the Miyagis will always make you feel at home.
I had Zushi all wrong before I finally ate there for the first time. I expected cheesy, strip-mall sushi and instead I got chef Chris Nemoto's excellently constructed nigirizushi and beautifully folded tamagoyaki, the true sign of a talented sushi chef. All of Nemoto's fish is fresh and his rice impeccably seasoned, even if the menu caters heavily to the Americanized roll set. Give it a chance and you'll be impressed too.
Chef Hajime Kubokawa -- or Kubo-san, for short -- is no longer at the sushi restaurant he helped found with owner Yoichi 'Yogi' Ueno. But it's still one of the best sushi joints in the city, a fact that's more impressive considering its longevity and the talent that it's worked with through the years, including Kata Robata's sushi master, Hori-san. Some of my most memorable meals have been at Kubo's over the years, from the night I tried my first idiot fish prepared by current chef Kiyoka Ito to the one-off kaiseki dinner I still dream about.
3. Sushi Jin
When it first opened, Sushi Jin helped raise the bar for Houston's raw fish lovers. Flown in straight from Japan, the mouthwatering pieces of salmon, tuna and yellow tail are sure to impress even the snobbiest connoisseurs. Wanna walk on the wild side? Jellyfish, sea cucumber and other exotics are hidden away in a secret stash -- all you have to do is ask and prove you're no novice. Private karaoke rooms allow diners to sing and dance, or you can just relax in one of the booths and enjoy the restaurant's simple, elegant decor.
James Beard Award-winning Austin chef Tyson Cole's ultramodern Japanese import, Uchi, occupies the old building that housed Houston classic Felix Mexican Restaurant for half a century -- and the young restaurant is already just as popular thanks to chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards and his team, who run Uchi like a well-oiled machine. You'll have to make reservations for this dinner-only spot if you want to sit in the steely-chic dining room, but walk-ins can usually be accommodated at the surprisingly cozy bar. A spot-on sake list (as well as beer and wine) accompanies a menu of "hot" and "cold" "tastings" along with more traditional sushi, sashimi and hand rolls. Happy hour is every weekday and offers some of Uchi's favorites -- machi cure with smoked yellowtail, for example, and the skewers of pork belly called bacon sen -- for a drastically reduced price.
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SHOW ME HOW
1. Kata Robata
It says a lot about the changing palates of Houston diners that a highly modern sushi restaurant with a strong undertone of French fusion was our choice as Best New Restaurant in 2010. But the food at Kata Robata (and the casual atmosphere that belies some of the menu prices) is truly the biggest draw of any place that's opened in the past year. Omakase platters prepared by the talented Manabu Horiuchi, formerly of Kubo's, are both playful and breathtaking at the same time -- as well as quite a bargain. And that's a recurring theme at Kata Robata: fresh, flavorful, high-quality food for a lot less than you'd expect to pay, which is why it was awarded Best Sushi in the 2012 Best of Houston® issue.