Category Archives: Japanese

Japan Festival

JF-1Houston may have many faults but it certainly does not lack festivals. On any given weekend there will be one or more festivals, usually country themed. Greece, Lebanon, Jamaica, Germany – sure, you can visit all of those in a 2-week span.

The Japan Festival, which has been going on for decades, I always seem to miss. But not this year. While you can sample ‘Japanese food’, its really more food trucks with generally Asian offerings. The pulls here for me were the patrons themselves, dressed up as their favourite anime characters, and the Taiko drumming concert.  If you happen upon this mid-April festival in Hermann Park, definitely make time for the Taiko concert. The drummers with their wide stances, intense focus and intermittent yelling appear both as musicians and martial arts warriors. You have to love drumming you can feel in your teeth.

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After discovering a sensitivity to rice I cut back a little on my sushi outings. Sad but luckily there are rice-free options in sushi restaurants and there is a new crop of Japanese ‘farmhouse’ restaurants featuring even more rice-free options.

Izakaya is one of the new “farmhouse” entries and I’m happy to say, excellent across board.

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Casual anime chic, I suppose. Polished concrete floors and walls surrounding raised booths, big anime murals in the brightest of colours. We were late in the lunch cycle so it wasn’t busy, making conversation pleasant. However, I’ve seen this place mobbed beyond capacity on Saturday night.


Edamame. Use caution if you are hot pepper sensitive. I loved the super spicy version with soy-ginger-garlic sauce but my lunch partners were eating one or two, smile-turned-surprise, then gulping down a quart of water.

Scallop Banh Mi. Open faced scallop banh was good as well as creative. Nice sized scallops, lightly marinated in a fish sauce base then seared, placed atop a pillowy French bread round. Cilantro, julienned carrots, peppers and radish mixed and topped to finish the assembly. Good mix of salty and herbal which, surprisingly, did not detract from the flavour of the scallops.

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Snapper Crudo. Snapper sliced thinly, topped with extra virgin, ground pistachios and quartered grapes.  Simple flavours which work surprisingly well together without muddling the flavour of the snapper.

Wasabi Beef Skewers. You can’t go wrong with skirt steak strip marinated in a sweet soy then grilled to crispy-out, juicy-in texture topped sparingly with wasabi.


Gelatinous Peach Sake. OK, this was not what I would call good, however I would still recommend you try it once as a rite of passage. Sake mixed with gelatin, peach flavouring and something carbonated. Its a chewy, bubbly, whirlwind on your tongue and just its plain weird. It comes in a can and our server tried to pour it out but it had to be coaxed out like ketchup from of a bottle.

Consider it a conversation piece.


Its a little pricey. Three small ‘tapas’ plates and a weird sake drink – $45. The quality is excellent, however.

Very friendly and efficient with good knowledge of the offerings but they lean a little towards overselling. Quick turnaround but we were on the late side of lunch with only three other tables in play.

I’ll definitely be back to try some of the other offerings, perhaps at a busier time to see how the crowd and atmosphere evolve.

The peach-gelatin sake will not be on the menu.

Lunch: April 2016

Izakaya| 318 Gray | HTX 77002


Eggplant “Sushi”

While in Miami Sister and I found an interesting dish at a sushi restaurant, Doraku Sushi, eggplant prepared and presented as a sushi roll. It satisfied Sister’s vegan lifestyle and my sensitivity to rice, plus it was amazing in texture and flavour.

So impressed with the dish I set out to recreate. Overall this rendition is good. Not having used miso before, now I know its much saltier than expected; next time I’ll cut the miso in half.

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  • 2 Japanese Eggplants (the skinny ones)
  • 2-3 T Yellow Miso
  • 2-3 T Mirin
  • 1 T Chives, chopped, dried
  • 2 T Oil (any light flavour)
  • 1 t Sesame Oil
  • 2 t Garlic, chopped
  • 2 t Ginger, chopped
  • 1 t Red Chili Flakes
  • 2 t Sesame Seeds, roasted

To prepare the glaze, take miso, mirin, oils, garlic, ginger and chili and process in a food processor until smooth. You could also do this with a whisk if you want a chunkier glaze.

To prepare the eggplant, slice 1-2″ rounds, depending on how high you want them to stand. If you’re going for pick-up appetizers, 1″ is better. If you’re going for a side with visual appeal, 2″. In the 1″ case, it worked out better to pre-cook the rounds by slightly basting with oil then baking them for 15 minutes in a 375 oven. Remove from oven, let cool slightly then top each round with a  few teaspoons of glaze and a few toasted sesame seeds. Pop them under the broiler until the glaze starts to char around the edges. Remove and sprinkle with the remaining toasted sesame seeds and chopped chives.

I loved the flavour (savory with a little garlic-chili bite) and texture (pillowy on the inside but still sturdy enough to pick up) of these, although they were not as good as the Doraku version. The secret here seems to balancing the miso with the other flavours and finding the right pre-bake time and temp for the desired texture.

I’ll try these again, perhaps with less miso or  a little agave and a longer time under the broiler.

Wafuu Chicken Curry

I was doing some restaurant research for a trip and stumbled across a curious dish, Wafuu, which is a Japanese curry. In my mind curry does not correlate well with Japanese cuisine, however it was the oddness that caused me to try it out at home.

Its a much more subtle curry, which may appeal to those who find Indian or Thai curries to be too intense.

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  • 1 lb Chicken Thighs
  • 1C Water
  • 1/4 C Soy Sauce
  • 2 T Garlic, chopped
  • 2 T Ginger, chopped
  • 1 t Ground black pepper
  • 1 T Sunflower oil
  • 1 T Cornstarch
  • 1 t Sesame Oil

Cut the chicken into 1/2-1″ strips. Whisk together the water soy, garlic, ginger and black pepper in a small bowl. Add the chicken and the marinade to a Ziploc bag, seal, shake a few times then refrigerate overnight. You might want to turn it once or twice.

Drain the marinade. Whisk together the sunflower oil, sesame oil and cornstarch in a large bowl until blended. Spoon in the drained chicken then stir with a wooden spoon until the chicken is coated.

Heat a large frying pan to medium-high. Spread the coated chicken into the pan in a single layer. Let the chicken brown on one side, then flip the lot in sections to the other side. About 2-3 minutes on each side or until you see a nice brown crust form. Set aside and keep warm.

If you’re wondering why all this prep for what is stir-fried chicken, I’ll tell you. Chicken is notorious for drying out while stir-frying. Preparing it this way will have predictably juicy results.

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  • 3 C Chicken stock
  • 3 Red potatoes, cut into rough chunks
  • 3 Carrots, cut into rough chunks
  • 1 Onion, diced
  • 1 Onion, cut into rough chunks
  • 1 Tomato, diced
  • 2T Garlic, chopped
  • 2T Ginger, chopped
  • 1 Fuji Apple, grated
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, chopped
  • 1 T Ginger, chopped
  • 2 T Sweet curry powder
  • 1 T Almond meal
  • 2 T Whole whole flour
  • 1 T Soy Sauce
  • 1 T Agave or Honey
  • 1 T Butter
  • 2 T Olive Oil
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • 1 t Ground black pepper
  • 1 t Salt

Its a lot of ingredients but the rest goes quickly,

Heat the butter and oil over medium-high. Add the chopped onion (not the chunks), ginger and garlic stirring constantly for 1-2 minutes. Add the curry, stir briefly, then add the almond meal and flour and stir constantly until the flour turns golden. Basically  you are making a roux. Add the tomatoes, stir to incorporate the spices then add 1 C of chicken stock and stir to form a soupy paste. Reduce heat to low.

Add onion chunks, carrots, potatoes, grated apple, bay leaf, black pepper and the remaining stock, stir to incorporate the lot. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add soy and agave, stir and taste. Add salt if necessary. Let cook for another 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.


You could do any carb base here like rice but I went with Soba noodles. A cup of base, spoon over the curry then top off with chicken and chopped green onion.


Wafuu-5Next time I will leave out the bay leaf. It doesn’t work for me, adding a totally inconsistent flavour.

The apples and curry, while both subtle,  work exceedingly well together. I think I might add a bit more agave to enhance.

While they don’t have much flavour on their own, some grilled Shimeji mushrooms might add to the aesthetic appeal.

This curry is definitely substantial enough to leave out any carb base.

Fusion Taco

IMG_3231_FotorTaco wars are constant and usually heated in Houston. Some Houstonians are purists wanting their tacos with specific ingredients and from specific family-owned venues located in Hispanic communities. Others are more adventurous, leaning toward the fusion fare originating in the food truck arena now infiltrating every neighbourhood. Some people may still be surprised to find tacos with a Korean bent, filled with bulgogi, kimchi, cilantro, queso fresco and gochujang, but locally these have been around for decades and there are dozens of vendors dishing them up daily.

I stumbled across a new fusion bent on tacos at a venue near downtown’s Market Square, aptly named, Fusion Taco. I was surprised by the combinations; mostly Indian, Japanese and Lebanese. However, I was not surprised they started out as a food truck not too long ago.

Casual, open, lively. The floor-to-ceiling glass front facing Market Square makes for good people watching. Weekdays the crowd tend to be suits from the oil biz, weekends it tends towards those gathering for events at Toyota Center, Minute Maid or the Theatre District.


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Mostly wins. The Chicken Tikka Masala taco, which is an open face naan ‘taco’ topped with a dollop of spicy, creamy tikka masala sauce and ridiculously tender chicken, was a win. The Chicken Tikka taco is a ‘special’ taco which are larger and quite filling. For vegetarians, there is also a Tofu Tikka Masala taco.

The Agedashi Tofu taco was also a win, several panko-fried tofu cubes topped with a cabbage mixture tossed in a sweet soy, ginger and garlic sauce. A good texture play – soft tortillas, crunchy cabbage, toothy tofu.

The short-rib taco, not so good. The meat was stringy, overcooked and lacked flavour.

Counter-order, table delivery. I’ve been three times, mostly for lunch rush, order to delivery times are 10-15 minutes. Everyone is very friendly and helpful. The only downside is at lunch rush you might have to bus an empty table yourself, since the patron turnover is quick and their staff sometimes cannot keep up.

Regular tacos are $2-3. ‘Specials’, $5. At lunch they have a special meal deal – 2 tacos, one side, one drink, $11.

Lunch: March 2015

Fusion Taco | 801 Congress | HTX 77002



The Japantown neighbourhood of San Francisco is relatively small. However, the influence of the area spreads out across the city in many forms. In the Hayes Valley neighbourhood, just south of Japantown, I had the good fortune to stumble across a lovely Japanese “farmhouse” restaurant, Nojo. It was a memorable experience and of the dishes I tried there, I most liked Tsukune, a chicken meatball glazed in a combination of soy, mirin, lemon, ginger and brown sugar, then grilled.

Since, I’ve been making versions of Tsukune, better each time, and now I have one to publish.


  • 1 lb Ground chicken
  • 1/2 lb Ground Pork
  • 3 Shitake Mushroom Caps, chopped
  • 1/2 C Panko Breadcrumbs
  • 1 Egg White
  • 3 T Scallions, chopped
  • 2 t Ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 t Garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 t Agave
  • 1 t Salt
  • 1 t Black Pepper, ground
  • 2 t Cornstarch

Mix all that up and form into small-ish meatballs. Definitely let them refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably overnight


  • 1/4 C Mirin
  • 1/4 C Soy
  • 2 T Lemon Juice
  • 2 T Brown Sugar
  • 1 T Honey
  • 2 t Ginger, finely chopped
  • 1/2 t Black Pepper, ground
  • 1 t Cornstarch
  • 1 T Water

Mix the water and cornstarch, set aside. Place all other ingredients in a small pot, boil briefly then set heat to low. Stir in cornstarch/water and continue stirring for 4-5 minutes or until thick. Set aside to cool.

Now, these are best grilled out but here is my version if you don’t have a grill.

Place a small amount of oil in a pan over high heat. Sear the meatballs in batches about 2 minutes then flip over for another 2. Remove to ovenproof dish, glaze one side then broil for 3-4 minutes on one side, flip, glaze, then 3-4 more minutes.


Featured here with rice, snow peas and mini-squashes. Traditionally, there is a raw egg yolk dipping sauce that is served along side this dish; I did not care for it since it masked the other flavors.

As an aside, I typically double the recipe for the glaze and keep it on hand for stir frying. Some research assistants helping in this experiment loved the  glaze while others needed to bugger it up with unseemly amount of soy. Personally, I’m a huge fan of ginger and lemon together in the same bite. Tastes vary.

Little Lilly Sushi

There are sushi bars and then there are sushi bars. Little Lilly is the later. Lilly’s is running under an old-school philosophy – fish, raw, on a plate speaks for itIMG_1313self. I’m on board with that philosophy. Some newer sushi places have stopped short of adding rhinestone tiaras and sparklers to sushi but they still smother rolls in sickly sweet mayo sauces and misguided presentation as marketing gimmicks to distract from lower quality ingredients.

Lilly’s came as a recommendation from the Marketing Goddess, a good friend and fellow foodie in Dallas. I’m normally on the giving end of restaurant recommendations but Marketing Goddess and I have similar tastes and expectations, so off I went.

Lilly is the owner’s daughter. And the Lilly Roll featured under house specialties is a vegetarian roll created for Lilly since she is allergic to all seafood. If you picked up on the personal touch in those two facts, get ready to feel it up close and in real-time when you take a seat.

Minimalist but well-appointed decor. Small, 6 seats at the bar, 20 seats otherwise. No club music. The patrons seem to be the conservative, well-heeled variety, more concerned with quality than price. Lilly’s seems more the place for conversation, good friends and lingering.

Great. Sushi chef was deeply knowledgeable about the offerings and very good at matching  personal tastes to whats on the menu. I’m not usually a fan of salmon nigiri but he highly recommended the wild New Zealand Salmon, claiming he had not tasted anything quite so fresh and flavourful in a long time. He was right.

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All wins.

Litmus Test: For virgin sushi restaurants I have a litmus test of Yellowtail and Fresh Eel nigiri. If those don’t pass, I won’t order anything else and usually, I won’t return. Both passed with exceptional marks.

Salmon Nigiri: Chef mentioned the wild New Zealand salmon was some of the best he had tried. While I’m usually not a fan of salmon nigiri, I had to agree with him, it was stellar!

Hawaii Roll: Since chef was spot on with the salmon nigiri suggestion I asked him to pick out a IMG_1316roll, something offbeat, something I could not not find elsewhere. He proudly made me a Hawaii roll which is tuna & avocado on the in, escolar on the out, topped with a small amount of light sauce made from lime juice and sriracha. An odd taste combination on paper but the flavours were truly a fantastic experience; lime, like lemon,enhancing the fish, sriracha sneaking in and lingering after the fish flavours dissipated.

Lilly is on the high side, however the quality is likewise high. Here, I believe you are getting what pay for. 3 nigiri (2pcs each), 1 roll – $38.

Lunch: 10 August 2013

Little Lilly Sushi | 6100 Camp Bowie | Fort Worth, TX 76116

AKA Sushi

IMG_1305The replicazzi have made sure there is a sushi joint on every corner of the Houston MSA. Fact is, no matter where you live in Houston, you can probably walk to a sushi place and its probably, at least, decent. But there are strata of sushi restaurants, some  high-end with ultra-modern design and presentation, some are old-school run by actual Japanese families and some are  serving sushi-like objects on boats floating down conveyor belts of water. We don’t eat sushi from conveyor belts, call us snobs.

Our work-lunch-sushi crew has a standing bi-monthly outing to AKA Sushi. The offerings here are good to excellent, its close and it has Tony, our absolute favourite server in all of Houston.

AKA is in a strip near the Whole Foods in Upper Kirby. Outside boring, inside is small, modern with plenty of natural light. The mood is always upbeat zen with the usual 80’s mixed with current modern music played at levels allowing conversation. It’s typically crowded for lunch after 12p but there’s always drop-in space. Comfy padded booths next to the glass front but our group is too big for those. Tables are close-spaced but comfortably so and  there are several tables in nooks for a feeling of separation.

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I’ve tried everything and everything is at least good, most great and some excellent. Highlights for me are –

Agedashi Tofu: It was actually at AKA that I tried this for the first time. Flash fried  tofu cubes in a light soy-mirin-dashi broth topped with green onion. I like the crispy out, silky in texture play. The taste is mostly delivered through the broth which reminds me of the sauce served with tempura.

Spicy Cajun Tiger:  Tony refers to this as my “usual”. And it is my usual 3-roll lunch special order: Spicy Tuna, Cajun and Tiger Eye rolls. These are basic rolls but the ingredients are fresh, the rice has flawless consistency and flavor and the assembly is expert.  Typically at AKA when they say spicy they mean it, so if you have low heat-tolerance, tell them to turn it down or order the non-spicy version.

This is reason we keep coming back even though there are loads of other sushi restaurants closer to work. At AKA, the reason has a name, Tony. He has been putting up with our group shenannigans for years and he is excellent. He remembers all of our previous orders, what we do IMG_1312and don’t like, what we usually have to drink including nuances like one of us takes 3 slices of lime in iced tea; he immediately notices if one of our crew is missing or if we’ve thrown a new person into the mix. You are going to be called either “Honey”, “Dear”, “Sugar”, “Sweetheart” or “Darling”. I’m “Honey”, so you’ll need to request a different name.

The preparation area is small so orders for our group of 6-8 do not always come out together but they will come out in quick succession. Tony will politely harass sushi chef if he notices its taking too long for the table’s order to be complete.

There is no need to ask for water, tea, extra wasabi or pickled ginger – the staff here circle like sharks, usually any low levels are replaced without your knowledge.

We have no idea what the a la carte menu prices are because we continue to order the 2-roll or 3-roll lunch special. $13.95 for 3 rolls, one salad with creamy-ginger or miso-vinagrette and one soup. $9.95 for the 2-roll version.

Until next time, thanks Tony!

Lunch: 8 August 2013

AKA Sushi | 2390 W Alabama St | Houston, TX 77098