For most diners, the word “Japanese” means nothing but sushi, maybe some ramen. But it should mean much more. These are some of our favorite places to take advantage of the Land of the Rising Sun’s culinary diversity, from delicate tofu dishes to Easternized versions of spaghetti.
The food at this sequel to the now-shuttered Rice Village original is intensely comforting. There’s a rack of dog-eared manga to read while you wait for your lunch special (Wednesday’s gyudon, for example, rings up at $4.99) or simple, inexpensive sushi.
Western-influenced pub food accounts for most of the menu here. The yakiniku (Korean-style beef) is almost fork-tender, with a wash of spice. In the mood for real comfort food? Get the meaty, cheesy macaroni gratin or the chicken, onion and corn-filled Cream Croquettes, and wait for the singing to start.
Most Japanese restaurants use a premade roux for their curry. Not this eatery located inside a turreted home: Though it’s more sweet than spicy, the sauce is simmered for 48 hours before being spooned over well-marbled Berkshire pork katsu, beef ribeye, or a collection of vegetables. If the supple caramelized eel special is available, order that, too.
Sukiyaki was the first Japanese dish to break through to American audiences, in the middle of the last century, but it’s not easy to find in restaurants nowadays. The version served at this stalwart brings an overwhelming amount of food: pork dumplings and agedashi tofu come with a sizzling bowl of mirin-sweetened beef broth filled with raw beef, yam noodles, cabbage and tofu. Think of it as Japan’s answer to pho.
You’ll have to valet park, but it’s worth it for the comfort food at this circa-1986 classic. Noodles are unusually prominent on the menu, and the bowl of udon with tender beef in a thick curry broth is the gustatory equivalent of lithium. Still not happy? Order the green-tea-and-red-bean crêpe cake.
Located right next to Seiwa Market, Houston’s largest Japanese food store, this ramen bar always seems to have a line, but it moves quickly. The soup is serviceable, but the real fun is in the small plates, including karaage (marinated chicken nuggets), a duo of creamy mashed potato salads, and a cha siu bowl that takes the best part of the ramen and places it over rice instead of in broth.
Shabu-shabu, the Japanese hot pot that originated in Osaka, traces its roots to China, so it’s no surprise to find this paean to the boiling pot in Chinatown. Soup bases here include Japanese dashi, but also spicy Szechuan, Indian curry and even “zesty tomato” broths. Take your pick, then choose sauce, proteins, veggies and noodles for a DIY meal that you cook yourself at your table.
Not many diners overlook the name of this Upper Kirby classic when ordering, but they should skip the sushi in favor of a number of hard-to-find cooked dishes. We especially like the hiyashi chukka, cold noodles in a sweet citrus soy sauce with a collection of toppings including cha siu pork, kani, candy-striped fish cakes, cucumber, ginger and tamago.
It’s invariably quiet at this hidden gem, but that only makes the mix of austere classics, originals and Westernized dishes feel even more special. Make a Japanese fritto misto of fried burdock and fish cakes coated in tempura and seaweed flakes to go with your mayo-corn-bacon toast. Then go a bit more elegant with your entrée. Perhaps the $10 cod filet steamed in sake and served with enoki mushrooms and ponzu sauce?
A window allows diners to watch a cook work at the robata grill, but skewers are just the beginning at this quirky eatery. There’s a range of poke dishes and Japanese tapas, but don’t miss the tender beef curry smothered in mozzarella cheese. It’s not as weird as it sounds, we promise.
An Uchi alum makes the sushi here, but we’re just as tempted by the refined, kaiseki-style meals that come from the kitchen. At lunch, get a Kyoto-style bento lunchbox filled with wagyu beef and tiny vegetable treats like orange-flavored sweet potato. At dinner, try the eel over rice, intended to be eaten three different ways, alongside delicate egg custard. Or don’t decide, and simply choose how many courses you’d like for a tasting.