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Gobo sticks, $2.50 and fried chikuwa, $5.

Image: Alice Levitt

Most Japanese restaurants in America have very predictable menus—a California roll here, a chicken teriyaki there, maybe something more Chinese than Japanese for good measure. After all, the restaurant is probably Chinese-owned. But Taiko Japanese Restaurant, on FM 1960 in Jersey Village, breaks the mold in each of those ways. Though the restaurant is named for ever-present (and ever graceful) owner Taiko Nojiri, it's particularly appropriate: This is a restaurant that moves to the beat of its own drum.

The easiest way to introduce the fare at Taiko is to say what it isn't. There is no sushi. The only teriyaki you'll find dresses a piece of hamachi, or yellowtail. And Nojiri and her husband, Junichi, the restaurant's chef, are most assuredly from the land of the rising sun. They're sufficiently steeped in their native cuisine to serve dishes you won't see elsewhere — some because they're simply not well-known outside Japan; others, because they rose from Junichi's mind.

The appetizer list is a telling glimpse at the chef's eclecticism. There are $2.50 snacks like buttered corn or the fried sticks of burdock pictured above, but also a $30 butter-sautéed sea urchin served with spinach. I especially enjoyed the chewy fish cakes above, surrounded in tempura and seaweed flakes. I was correspondingly deflated when Taiko informed me that the mayo-corn-bacon toast was unavailable that day. 

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Fukui Plate, $11.

Image: Alice Levitt

Westernized yōshoku-style dishes are just as pervasive on Taiko's menu as are austere concoctions that would fit in on a kaiseki menu, but more on the latter later. What really matters is that among the hundreds of katsus I've eaten in my life (you don't want to know how many I ate this week alone), the chicken specimen above was the juiciest, crispiest, most ideal one I've encountered. It's served with omurice, a fat omelet filled with fried rice. Usually, the Japanese equivalent of feeding your kid buttered noodles comes topped with ketchup. When I make it at home, I like to make squiggles using ume-shiso paste. The point is, it needs acid, which, served with only brown gravy, the dish didn't have. I ended up adding ponzu sauce from the dish below to add the pucker necessary to cut through the fat.

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Sake steamed cod, $10.

Image: Alice Levitt

The sake-steamed cod is the Fukui Plate's polar opposite. Sakamushi (steaming in sake) is a technique so simple and refined that it can't help but conjure imperial Japan. It's not uncommon to see sakamushi fish on multi-course kaiseki menus, though, apparently, people use the technique in homes and izakayas on clams, too. Applied to cod at Taiko, the dish is ethereally light, elevated with the aforementioned ponzu for dipping and elegant sides of water spinach and enoki mushrooms to add to the accompanying bowl of whole-grain rice. In the same category of simple satisfaction is Junichi's hanging tender tataki, beautifully yielding, lightly seared beef served with a small salad and a long pile of ground daikon in soy dashi.

Doubtless, this isn't food for the California roll and teriyaki crowd. But that just leaves more of the broad menu for the rest of us to explore.

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Taiko Japanese Restaurant

$ Japanese 11037 FM 1960 W.

Taiko Nojiri is the ever-present hostess and lends her personality to every dish at this quiet Japanese oasis. The mix of austere classics, originals and Wes...