Sunday, February 10, 2008

Aka Sushi House

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 highlights

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.

Something missing

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.


Scott said...

Have you found a place with good ramen? I've had trouble finding quality, non-sushi Japanese food.

anonymouseater said...

You raise a really good question. No, I don't know where to get good ramen in Houston.

When I lived in Boston, I often went to a mall food court that had only Japanese food. One stand had sushi. Another had noodles. Another had rice bowls. Another had omlette dishes. And the last had Japanese deserts.

There is much more to Japanese food than sushi or sushi fusion, but you would hardly know that in Houston.

Nippon has some decent traditional dishes. Kubo's has good udon, chawanmushi (egg custard with vegies), wasabi shunmai (dumplings), and my favorite Japanese pork curry in Houston. Aka has some traditional, non-sushi dishes, but I have not tried them yet.

My question: Where can I get good katsudon in Houston?

Anonymous said...

I had the best experience at the Aka bar a few weeks ago! The bartender (I believe his name was Joe) that bartends on only Friday and Saturday nights is phenomenal. He treats everyone like they are the only person in the bar and allows you to try out new drinks for free. He's personable and truly made my experience one to remember. The food was great, but it's always better when the service is stellar.

jamiecorine said...

I am a very frequent visitor to AKA on Eldridge and I am sorry to say that you made a HUGE mistake by passing on the Dorito inspired roll! It's called Godzilla and is spicy and crunchy and comes with an amazing creamy chili sauce. Next time you venture that far west, put it on your list. You won't be disappointed.

neverfull said...

have you tried sage 400 near the galleria yet? i believe they get their fish from bill nagasaki who owns sushi jin and has it flown in daily on air japan.

the hamachi carpaccio and red river roll are amazing (i rarely order rolls).

anonymouseater said...

I keep hearing good things about Sage 400. I have not been there, but I will try it soon.


Anonymous said...

A friend took me to have sushi today and we got there in time for Happy Hour. I ordered more than I could eat and when asked to pack it to take it home, we were told that Happy Hour orders could not be taken home. We were shocked, as there is no notation of this on the menu and we've never heard this before. I was told I could pay full price for it if I wanted to take it. Well, if the sushi had been better I might have, but it wasn't. I won't be going there again and neither will any of my many friends and acquaintances.