The first time I ever visited Uchi Houston, I was lost in translation. I knew my way around a sushi menu just fine—words like hamachi (yellowtail), maguro (tuna) or hotate (scallop) were ones I could rattle off easily. But that first time, I didn’t know my machi cure from my uzusukuri, and menu items like the cantaloupe okashi were absolutely foreign.
In the years since, I’ve grown comfortable enough with Uchi’s menu that I’ve learned their special lingo. Hama chili? Oh yes, that’s the yellowtail with the thai chile and the orange wedges in a ponzu sauce. Hamachi nabe? That’s the rice dish that comes out in a sizzling pot that gets mixed at the table, the one I order when I have a craving for something hearty.
But just when I thought I knew it all, I uncovered one of Uchi’s unspoken secrets. No, I’m not talking about the fact that you can BYOB (you can, with corkage fee, by the way). I’m talking about about the fact that you can have an incredible vegetarian meal there any day of the week, something I discovered by accident when I attended a dinner with a friend who had dietary restrictions and tasted, for the first time, their hana tataki.
The hana tataki at Uchi is a dish of cauliflower three ways. Pickled, crisp cauliflower and roasted cauliflower are plated in a wreath-like formation on the plate, with a thick, pudding-like cauliflower puree in the center. The puree is so smooth, it’s almost a whipped cream, and the thing to do is to pick up one of the pickled or roasted florets with your chopsticks, swipe it in the puree, and plop it in your mouth. It was like a gourmet cauliflower fondue, and I loved it.
When I gushed about it to the chef, Lance Gillum, he informed me that the hana tataki was a standard menu item, and further, that the menu was very vegetarian-friendly. Which is how I found myself dining at the sushi bar right in front of Patrick, the lead sushi chef, asking him to send me vegetarian-only dishes even as I watched him cut a beautiful slices of everything from o-toro (fatty tuna) to sake (salmon) belly right in front of me.
The first dish he sent out was a vegetarian machi cure. The non-vegetarian version of machi cure is one of their signature dishes, and is made with smoked yellowtail. In the veggie version, the yellowtail is replaced with avocado while the core of the dish—yucca crisps, marcona almonds and golden raisins—stay the same, except for a vegetarian san bai su dressing. We ate it greedily and didn’t miss the yellowtail.
A trio of vegetarian nigiri sushi followed: nasu (eggplant), kinoko (king trumpet mushroom) and avocado. The nasu, which I’ve ordered before on the happy hour menu, is grilled so that it has a beautiful smokiness to it. The king trumpet, scored to resemble ika (squid), and then swiped with a nikiri glaze, had a meaty texture that could have easily fooled a non-vegetarian, and was seriously good also. The avocado, while not revelatory, was nonetheless creamy and delicious.
The Uchi Salad, a staple on the menu which I’ve had before, never disappoints. Deceptively simple, it comprises several perfect leaves of baby romaine which are sprinkled with crispy somethings, and served with a dipping sauce made of whipped edamame and jalapeño. Eaten like chips and dip, when you bite into the romaine leaves, you get an immediate burst of refreshingly crisp juiciness that’s just fantastic.
As good as everything was, the best dish of the night was the vegetarian-ized uchiviche, which is normally made with salmon. Our veggie version had cherry tomatoes, radish, celery and orange wedges in lieu of salmon. It was dressed with lime juice and chile oil in place of leche de tigre, and I gotta say, the composition was perfect. Every bite left us wanting more.
In total, we tried seven vegetarian courses that night, each of them thoughtfully prepared and unique. The composed dishes—especially the signature dishes that had been reimagined as vegetarian ones—were among the best vegetarian dishes I’ve tried anywhere. So the next time it’s meatless Monday and you’re looking for a place to try? Head to Uchi and skip the fish.