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Yokushi Robata's beef curry smothered in mozzarella cheese. 

Image: Alice Levitt

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.

Café Kubo’s Sushi

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.

Genji Japanese Restaurant & Karaoke Bar

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.

Izakaya Wa

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.

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Kaneyama Japanese Restaurant

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.

Nippon Japanese Restaurant

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.

Ramen Bar Ichi

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.

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Shabu House

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.

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Sushi King

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.

Taiko

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?

Yokushi Robata

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. 

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Image: Alice Levitt

Zen Japanese Izakaya

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. 

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Editor’s Pick

Uchi

$$$$ Japanese 904 Westheimer Rd.

The original Uchi in Austin earned chef Tyson Cole a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. The Houston location of this Japanese gem resides in the stil...

Zen Japanese Izakaya

$$ Japanese, Sushi 2015 South Shepherd Dr., #700

Shokado bento boxes, featuring beautiful seasonal small bites, are the jewels in the crown at this Montrose izakaya. The ones featuring wagyu beef sell out e...

Yokushi Robata

$$ Hawaiian, Japanese 3837 Richmond Ave.

A window allows diners to watch a cook work at the robata grill, but skewers are just the beginning at this quirky Japanese eatery. There's a range of poke d...

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...

Sushi King

$$ Japanese, Sushi 3401 Kirby Dr.

Due to its prime location on Kirby, Sushi King is certainly one of the most visible Japanese eateries in Houston. The large menu is packed with inventive rol...

Shabu House

$ Chinese, Japanese 9889 Bellaire Blvd.

Dun Huang Plaza's hot pot palace follows the standard formula: Pick a broth, proteins, vegetables to cook at your table, then enjoy. The Japanese dashi broth...

Ramen Bar Ichi

$$ Japanese, Sushi 1801 S. Dairy Ashford #108

Nippon

$$ Japanese 4464 Montrose Blvd.

Nippon, a quaint Japanese restaurant on a pleasant, tree-lined part of lower Montrose, has been a low-key gem and a favorite of Houston’s Japanese expats sin...

Kaneyama Japanese Restaurant

$$ Japanese, Sushi 9527 Westheimer Rd.

Diners are greeted by hostesses in kimonos and traditional tatami rooms are available at this Japanese restaurant. The sushi is consistently fresh and the sp...

Editor’s Pick

Izakaya Wa

$$ Japanese 12665 Memorial Dr.

True to the informal izakaya format, at this low-key, high-energy spot, grilled skewers of Japanese beef and pints of Kirin Ichiban are more commonly found o...

Genji Japanese Restaurant & Karaoke Bar

$$ Japanese, Sushi 11124 Westheimer Rd.

This Westchase haunt specializes in two things—Japanese bar food and karaoke—and it offers both until 2 a.m. every day of the week. You don’t have to sing fo...

Café Kubo’s Sushi

$ Japanese, Sushi 9889 Bellaire Blvd.

The sushi rice is just right and the ramen is rightfully popular, but we find the most comfort in the subtly spicy, $7.99 pork cutlet curry rice at this chee...