If you haven't yet had a hand roll, don't despair thinking you've been missing out on some long-revered food here in the U.S. The truth is the hand roll has only been around as a restaurant item since 1987, first made in Los Angeles and slow to take off. In Japan, it historically has been more of an at-home item served to guests. There it's called temaki, and traditionally consists of ingredients wrapped in a sheet of crispy nori, usually in a conical shape. Most often it's seafood surrounded by rice that's wrapped, but the possibilities are relatively endless and the experience is the same no matter what's inside: You bite into the hand roll using your hands, and it's crispy and chock full of fresh flavors.
Houston sushi restaurants have been serving hand rolls for years, but two hand roll concepts—the first of their kind here—opened in the last month, and both started up in the Heights, just a baker's dozen of blocks from one another. Hando, at 11th and Ashland streets, is a collaboration between Jason Andaya of Family Meal Group and Man Nguyen. And I recently visited Handies Douzo, the newest project from Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee of Kokoro, Bravery Chef Hall's sushi and yakitori counter Kokoro.
Between the two, Handies Douzo is more romantic and cool, where Hando leans brighter and cheerful. And like its competition across the neighborhood, Handies is primarily a horseshoe bar. Guests sit at the bar and are served by someone behind it, whether it's a roving general-manager-type host or one of the chefs. It doesn't matter who, as nearly everyone will talk with you at some point during your visit. The room seems to be running on the same focused, electric, and casual rhythm.
And once you get a menu and settle in, it becomes easy to figure out how to chart the evening. You could do some sashimi and crudo dishes—available here because Pham and Lee are passionate about serving fresh fish at their projects—opting for a single hand roll in the middle of the meal just try it. Or, you could pace yourself and do a roll here, a roll there. I did the no-bull order: the flight of five hand rolls, one after the other, just to knock 'em all down, one after the other. (You can also order a set of three or four each.)
When I visited, Handies Douzo's five rolls were king sake, or salmon; negitoro, or fatty tuna; kani, or crab; spicy tuna; and avocado. I loved the kani, since they pack in some fried shallot with the crab for an extra crunch. Same goes for the spicy tuna.
Handies Douzo is a little pricier than Hando, with the three-roll, four-roll, and five-roll sets going for $17, $23, and $29 at the former and $15, $20, $25 at the latter, respectively. But the rolls are terrific—the nori is crispy, the rice is soft and warm, and the fish is superb. Handies also has a plethora of sashimi offerings; there's plenty to engage here.
The bottom line is hand rolls aren't going anywhere any time soon. We'll see if the movement brings more concepts to the city, but for now, both Handies Douzo and Hando offer something unique. And at least at Handies, you can expect top-notch ingredients and a convivial atmosphere.