Friday, March 23, 2007

Tomo: What's in a Name (Change)?

You probably did not notice. Yan Sushi -- a little Japanese restaurant at 1517 Westheimer -- has changed its name to Tomo Japanese Restaurant. This change is significant to me because of my history with Yan Sushi. It is also significant because it says something about trends in Houston Japanese restaurants.

Why does a restaurant change its name? It might have new owners. It might be emerging from bankruptcy as a new entity. It might be trying to re-market itself and create new attention. But in the case of Yan Shushi/Tomo, my guess is that the change means something else.

When I finished school in 1993, Yan Sushi was one of my favorite places to eat. At that time, it moved into the former home of a Jack-in-the-Box at Holcombe and Kirby. It had about 3 tables and a take-out lane. Everyone called it "Sushi-in-the-Box." Because I had student loan debt, I appreciated Yan Sushi's cheap prices. I also thought the sushi was fresher and more authentic than most sushi restaurants. My girlfriend (now wife) and I ate there about once a week.

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of Japanese restaurants in Houston has more than quadrupled. Each new restaurant has splashier menus that seem to move even further away from traditional Japanese food and toward fusion dishes. Every new restaurant advertises new "sushi" rolls with items like fried shellfish, sweet sauces, mayonaise, cream cheese, jalapenos, Kobe beef, micro greens, and just about every other trendy ingredient you can imagine.

Over this period, Yan Sushi also began to change. It moved to hipper, more expensive digs on lower Westheimer. The prices crept upward. The menu expanded to add more Americanized sushi rolls. But Yan Sushi mostly followed behind the trends rather than keeping up with them. Most of the menu continued to focus on sushi and sashimi and standard, traditional Japanese dishes like tonkatsudon (panko crusted pork on a bowl of rice), japanese curry, and unadon (bowl of rice topped with broiled eel).

Now, with the name change to Tomo, the staff appears to be the same. The decor remains the same. But there is one significant change: the menu. It is now dominated by fusion items. For instance, my daughter and I started with tomo tar tar, which was billed as the chef's special appetizer. These creations rested on squares of crispy fried wontons. On top were cubes of raw salmon (not a fish traditionally served raw in Japan), avocado, tomato, sprouts, and a sweet wasabi mayo. Nothing about these vaguely Japanese nachos is traditional. It's all very American -- the frying, the sweetness, the California ingredients, and the mayo. But for our American tastes, they were pretty good.

For entrees, we sought out more traditional favorites. My daughter's sashimi looked good, but she finished it so quickly that I did not get to try it. Although I could not find the Japanese curry that I loved so much at Yan Sushi, I did find tonkatsu. It was served with both pork and chicken cutlets, rice, and some sauce on the side. In years past, Yan Sushi also served some traditional Japanese pickles with the dish. Tomo does not. Fortunately, the sauce was not a new fusion sweet-and-sour sauce, but the traditional Japanese-style sauce, much like a thickened worcester.

Even with the changes, Tomo is not innovative enough to compete with Houston's more famous Japanese fusion restaurants like Kubo's, Blue Fish House, and Uptown Sushi. But Tomo is a perfectly good neighborhood Japanese restaurant that has some perfectly good Japanese fusion food items at a decent price.

Plus, Tomo still serves some basic, traditional Japanese dishes. You just have to look a bit harder at the menu now to find them.


Anonymous said...

Where can we find Japanese Curry in Houston? I tried the Katsu Curry in Kubo's and I wasnt too hot about it. Ive had Japanese Curry in Curry House in LA and so far that was the best ive had.

anonymouseater said...

Good question. Surely Kubo's is not the only restaurant in town that serves Japanese curry.

Does anyone else know?

whanger.choi said...

I'm pretty sure Blue Fish on Richmond/Greenbriar~Kirby has it, but I haven't tried them.
I know Nippon on Montrose/Richmond~Banks has an off-the-menu item called Curry Udon, which is Japanese curry served over Udon noodles instead of rice.

Anonymous said...

Blue Fish definitely has japanese curry. haven't tried it...YET!