The Inner Loop Sushi Scene
My family has a Friday-night ritual -- Japanese food. Although we eat some nigiri sushi, we usually order some combination of sashimi, sushi rolls, and cooked Japanese dishes.
Our current restaurant rotation is something like this:
1. Once a month: Kubo, Blue Fin, (and Sushi Jin is so good it may join this list)
2. Twice a year: Rickshaw, Blue Fish House, Zake, Uptown Sushi, Nippon.
3. Once a year: Azuma, Tomo, The Fish, Sake Lounge.
Our list keeps expanding because new Japanese restaurants keep opening, particular on the west side of the Inner Loop.
The newest is Aka Sushi House, the sister restaurant of Aka Japanese Cuisine. It is located on West Alabama between Kirby and Shepard. That spot is sushi central -- right in middle of the triangle formed by Rickshaw, Blue Fish House, and Zake (plus Ra Sushi, not on my list).
But apparently, this area needs more sushi. Two Fridays ago, just after Aka opened, it only had four tables occupied. This Friday, every table was full with a line was out the door. Aka is an instant hit.
For me, Aka is an interesting addition to the scene and worth trying. But it is not going to place high on our rotation list.
Aka's two best features are its long sake list and its enormous menu. Aka has more sake -- and more high quality sake -- than I have found anywhere except Spec's. It also has some interesting cocktails. Unfortunately, its wine list is not the same quality.
Aka's food menu is even more encyclopedic. Fortunately for Aka, there is no copyright on recipes. Aka's menu designers seem to have scouted the entire sushi scene in Houston and copied most of the hits. Imagine any popular American/Japanese fusion dish that has been served in Houston in the last 10 years, and you are likely to find it on Aka's menu. You will find bi-weekly specials (many that are similar to Kubo's specials), miso-marinated cod (originally from Nobu), hot rock beef (like Azuma), tuna nachos (like Blue Fin and Uptown). You also will find grilled teriyaki dishes, sashimi platters, many speciality sushi rolls, noodle bowls, cooked dishes, cook-your-own-food dishes, and more. The menu takes at least 15 minutes to read.
Despite some obvious appropriation, I was very excited about Aka's menu. It seemed to be on top of some of the better Japanese fusion trends.
Of the 9 or so dishes I tried at Aka, none was bad. But none was special. It is hard to pin down what is missing.
Take for instance, Aka's version of tuna nachos, which was on special last week. Like the same dish at Blue Fin (and Uptown Sushi), this dish came with crispy wonton chips, a bowl of diced tuna, and avocado. Although the chips were fine, they lacked the airy and crispy quality that makes Blue Fin's version so appealing. The tuna was ok, but it seemed a bit watery, and not as firm as the tuna at Blue Fin. Plus, Blue Fin's version comes with an addictive side of spicy wasabi cream. Aka's version has no sauce. And the dish, while fine, did not have much flavor.
A sashimi platter came with six different kinds of fish -- allegedly the freshest fish of the night. The fish was served in large blocks. Unlike the best sashimi, there was little artistry to the presentation. This fish was firm and relatively fresh, but not quite of the same quality as the sashimi at Blue Fin or Sushi Jin.
I expected much more of Aka's bi-weekly specials. But almost all of these specials were identical to dishes that I had tried at other restaurants, and usually was not quite as good.
I did notice a few dishes that may be original to Aka. One sushi roll contains Doritos. Its barbecued ribs come with a strawberry sauce. Unfortunately, innovations like Doritos and strawberry sauce don't interest me much.
As good as its competition
I expect Aka will do quite well in its new location. Compared to its closest competition, its quality seems slightly below the sushi bar at Rickshaw, on the same level as Zake, and slightly better than Blue Fish House. Overall, that is not bad; all three of those competitors are much better than the average sushi bar.
In short, Aka is good enough to compete and make a lot of money from the weekend night sushi and cocktail crowds. As for my family, Aka might make our twice-a-year rotation, but it is just not special enough to visit more often than that.