The izakaya may be one of my top-five favorite dining experiences. You walk in, order some Japanese whiskey or a cold, inexpensive beer, then start picking away at yakitori and fish dishes on an expansive menu. How can you lose?
Thankfully, we have a few pretty good izakaya experiences in town. There's Zen Japanese Izakaya, Izakaya Wa with two locations (River Oaks and Memorial), and the well-liked Kata Robata sister Izakaya over in Midtown. Last year saw the opening of Blackbird Izakaya in the Heights, a personal favorite here. And now there's Toukei, yet another concept from restaurateur Mike Tran situated in Chinatown's Yun-Lu Center.
Toukei, like other izakayas in town, prefers a modern look with bold, colorful murals on both the walls and ceiling. The bar is separate from the dining room, though, which isn't my favorite configuration for a place where booze and food are meant to be on equal footing, but the dining room also has a sushi counter.
Having a range of seating options signals to me a place that wants to draw all kinds of diners. Further confirming that suspicion, Toukei has a vast menu of the usual izakaya offerings—cold and hot snacks, yakitori options, sushi, and a collection of composed rice and noodle dishes—where a photo accompanies every dish listing. It's super helpful for the first-timer or the relatively uninformed.
But more, Toukei seems to want people to give Japanese whiskey a shot. It offers four Japanese whiskey flights of three pours each, with costs in the $12-$14 range. My bartender was helpful when describing the flights and was excited to get my reaction after drinking. All of that makes me want to return to Toukei.
And I'm looking forward to it, if only to have more whiskey with some yakitori. I enjoyed the tender ribeye, plus a fun, street-style skewer of meatballs and American cheese, and a more adventurous chicken thigh topped with ume (tart plum) jelly. I also liked the cold snack of soy duck breast, though I'm not sure about the pile of sliced white onions that provides a bed for said meat. The dish begs for a more thoughtful presentation.
I'm glad to have another izakaya in Houston. Next time I head out to Chinatown for dinner, I think I know where I'm going for a pre-meal whiskey.