When you think of Texas cuisine, a perfectly-grilled mesquite-smoked ribeye might easily come to mind, perhaps some barbacoa tacos, or maybe famous barbecue. Sushi would likely not make that list. However, the Lone Star State is surprisingly full of fresh and delicious sushi, from time-honored classics to modern innovations.
Despite much of the state being landlocked, that does not stop Texas chefs from getting fresh fish from all around the world flown in, often on a daily basis. “When I started fifteen years ago, sushi was popular, but not that much. It’s amazing to see how sushi continues to grow in popularity in Texas,” said Uchi’s Executive Chef and Owner Tyson Cole. “Our timing could not be better now because people want something that’s fresh and creative.”
Indeed, these Texas sushi restaurants hit all the marks: fresh, creative, delicious, beautiful presentation, ambiance, and impeccable service. Interestingly, the staff at these sushi restaurants are usually industry veterans, which is not the norm in the restaurant industry. At Uchi, the staff has a combined 100 years of experience; some have been there for over a decade. They have built a unique rapport amongst themselves as well as their guests; after all, loyalty is a trait highly valued in Japanese culture.
According to Executive Chef Mario Ramos, of Sushihana in San Antonio, the Japanese have a word, kaizen, which is more of a philosophy than anything else. Kaizen, which translates to “good change,” is the belief that continuous, incremental improvement equates to substantial change over time. The Japanese strive to perfect even the simplest things, such as a flower arrangement, one’s name in calligraphy, or sushi rice. When it comes to Japanese cuisine, perfecting just the rice can take years. And there are a few establishments in Texas that attempt to perfect that art.
Whether you love traditional sushi or more of a contemporary flair, you can be sure to satiate your appetite at any one of these extraordinary restaurants.
Uchi | Austin, Dallas, Houston
When searching for sushi perfection, Uchi is a great place to start. Chef Cole said, “One of our mantras for Uchi is about the perfect bite. We put a lot of time and effort into preparing the product, so it is just the perfect bite.”
Part of the enjoyable experience at Uchi involves the constant delivery of one small perfect morsel after another, from snow crab nigiri with brown butter and lemon to seared foie gras nigiri. The menu includes some Texan ingredients, such as jalapeños, but Uchi goes a step further with their contemporary cuisine by utilizing novel ingredients like crispy quinoa and yucca chips.
Chef Tyson Cole first started working for a Japanese restaurant in college. “I fell in love with the culture and the people, and later, the food (obviously). They let me make sushi in the kitchen, and eventually, at lunch for the customers up front. That’s when I realized it was my calling,” shared Chef Cole, a James Beard Award-winning Chef as well as an Iron Chef America competitor.
He then went to work for Musashino, another Austin favorite. “I ate there, and it blew my mind. It was a game changer. Everything I know, I learned there,” he said. Under the tutelage and with the encouragement of Musashino Owner and Chef Takehiko Fuse, Chef Cole traveled to Japan to experience the culture, language, and of course the cuisine. He then gained experience in New York City before returning to Texas.
Chef Cole opened the first Uchi in Austin in 2003. He now has several restaurants all over Texas, and a new Uchi, which just opened up in Denver.
Godai | San Antonio
When it comes to creating a family-friendly atmosphere, it is difficult to top Chef and Owner William “Goro” Pitchford at Godai. Chef Goro is more than just a brilliant sushi artist, but an entertainer. “My mom, when I was growing up, cooked a lot of Japanese food, so I learned to cook Japanese food from her,” he shared.
When visiting Alamo City, make sure to get reservations for the sushi bar at Godai, where you can get a front row seat. Watching Chef Goro work is only half the fun; the other half comes from his stories, jokes, and antics.
A sushi master with 30 years of experience under his belt, Chef Goro has developed a very loyal following of guests, who want nothing more than to give him free rein to create his innovative sushi, which is typically traditional sushi with a western flair. “About 30 percent of my guests ask me to make what I want for them,” he said. However, it is quite clear this brings him a significant amount of joy; it is the guests that keep him inspired.
Godai is quaint and casual but quickly feels like home. Everything is thoughtfully crafted, from the scallops in miso butter (special) to the Samurai Maki Roll, which was a dish he created decades ago to woo a pretty girl. It is still a favorite among his fans.
Nobu | Houston, Dallas
Another hot sushi restaurant that cannot be overlooked is Nobu. Sushi lovers probably know of the original Nobu, which opened in Tribeca, New York City in 1994. Although they have several locations across the globe, Texas is lucky to have two: one located in Dallas and a new one in Houston, which is run by Executive Chef Carl Murray.
Although each location stays true to the core menu with scrumptious dishes such as the Black Cod with Miso and Yellowtail Sashimi Jalapeño, they also like to incorporate local ingredients. “We use different types of ingredients that are indigenous to the area like beautiful Texas red snapper from the gulf, peaches, and pecans,” Chef Murray said.
“You learn every day,” he explained. “When Chef Matsuhisa [founder] comes down here to visit, every time he comes he’ll show us something new . . . from day one when he opened in New York, he always made it a point to make everyone, guests and employees, feel welcome.”
Nobu has used their expertise in ambiance, service, and elevated cuisine to educate Texans about the beauty and subtlety of good sushi. “We try to maintain the integrity of the fish itself so a person can taste what good fish is supposed to taste like. We’re not dressing it up too much. We want to complement it with flavors that accentuate and not overpower it,” Murray said.
This is where the word umami comes into play, and where restaurants like Nobu deliver with a “savory taste” that is its own category alongside sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Chef Murray explained how in the Japanese culture they even consider aspects such as the environment, humidity and body temperature for example, when preparing a meal. Precision is everything.
Kata Robata | Houston
Kata Robata is a popular sushi fusion restaurant in Houston, with three-time James Beard Award nominee, Chef Manabu Horiuchi (Chef Hori) at the helm. Another chef who was inspired by his mother at an early age to make cooking his profession, Chef Hori graduated from the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Japan with top honors and completed the certification to prepare fugu (blowfish), a rare delicacy.
Kata Robata opened in 2009 and serves everything from whole grilled squid and yellowtail collar to 72-hour slow-cooked Texas Kobe Beef Skewers. They offer traditional sushi and sashimi as well as crowd-pleasing signature rolls such as the Longhorn, made with fried shrimp, freshwater eel, avocado, spicy mayonnaise, unagi sauce, and three kinds of tobiko (flying fish roe).
The freshest fish you can imagine is flown in from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan four to five times a week. It takes sixteen hours to arrive from the market. So what is this chef ’s culinary vision? “To be the best sushi chef in the country,” Chef Hori said boldly.
If you want to try something absolutely unique, Chef Hori recommended Kohada, which is a gizzard shad from Japan. “A chef needs skill, technique, and experience. Kohada has to be cured and marinated. Otherwise it’s so fishy,” he explained. “We serve the best sushi in Houston. Our quality is the same as the best sushi restaurant on the west and east coast, even Japan.
Sushihana | San Antonio
In San Antonio, Sushihana, founded in 2002, is a local favorite when it comes to sushi. “We offer great flavors, freshness, and a variety of seafood that’s not usually found in the heart of Texas,” said Sushi Chef Nelson Amaya.
Also contemporary, Sushihana prides itself on playing with flavors and textures, but “at the end, all that matters is the freshness and flavor of the food,” said Chef Amaya. One of their most popular sushi rolls, the Duncan Roll, named after the San Antonio Spurs’s Tim Duncan, features tempura shrimp, avocado, and spicy bluefin tuna. “Fried items are very popular in Texas,” he explained.
At Sushihana, they do not just stop at sushi. The team works hard to create all sorts of exciting foods and flavors. “We just bought an ice cream machine and have been working on ice cream for about four weeks now,” Chef Ramos said. “The more I delve in, the less I know about it. It challenges me. It seems simple, but as we know, the simplest things are the hardest to execute.”
Chef Ramos, who has been with the company since 2009, attributed their success and popularity to owners Howard and Susan Hu. “They’ve created a culture of inclusion, and through that process, we’ve been able to develop, as a whole, what makes us, us. We’re given the free will to do it,” he said.