Hungry would-be diners crowd the entry of the izakaya, waiting for a spot at the counter, where those lucky enough to have nabbed a seat nibble on wasabi-pickled nagaimo yam, sip sake or use their chopsticks to pop tempura river shrimp, heads and all, into their mouths. All around the small restaurant, on paper signs, Japanese characters announce various dishes: grilled beef tongue ($8), curry udon ($7.50), Nagoya-style chicken wing ($6.50).
Friday night in Tokyo? No, Tuesday night in Irving.
This izakaya - or casual Japanese-style tavern featuring tapas-styles small plates - is Mr. Max. Happily, those paper signs also have English translations, and there's an English-language paper menu as well. The popular restaurant closed last year, reopening under new ownership in February.
It’s not the only new Japanese restaurant in North Texas that feels so authentic you could imagine you were eating in Tokyo. There’s also Ten, Tei-An chef Teiichi Sakurai’s ramen bar in West Dallas: The long-awaited spot debuted in late March. And at Sushi Bayashi, which opened in February in Trinity Groves, chef Yuki Hirabayashi is re-creating the feeling of a neighborhood eatery in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, where he grew up.
There are more exciting Japanese flavors on the way this spring. The new owner of Mr. Max, Las Vegas-based Mon Restaurant Group, plans to open its own noodle house — Monta Ramen — in Richardson. And chef Tyson Cole is poised to open the highly anticipated Dallas location of Uchi, his critically acclaimed and award-winning Austin restaurant, featuring modern Japanese cuisine (he hopes to open June 1). “We’re going to take Japanese food and we’re going to raise the bar,” says Cole.
The Dallas dining scene is truly having a Japanese moment.
With space for only about 15 diners to stand and slurp noodles (and more to be added soon on the patio), Ten, which means heaven in Japanese, offers bowls of tonkotsu (pork bone broth) or shoyu (soy) ramen, pork mazemen (soupless ramen) and a couple of rice dishes. Place your order and pay on a touch screen (dishes are $7 to $12), customizing your bowl by adding extras such as spinach, bok choy or an onsen (low-temperature-cooked) egg. The touch screen explains what’s included in the basic version of each. Tonkotsu ramen, for instance, comes garnished with chashu pork, ginger, sansai (mountain vegetables), onsen egg, nori and more. Grab a place at the counter looking onto the tiny kitchen, and one of the chefs will serve it to you pronto.
The Dallas dining scene is truly having a Japanese moment.
At Mr. Max, tucked away in an off-the-radar Irving strip mall, you can call ahead to book seats either at the counter or at one of several low tables with wells for your legs. Order just as you would tapas, a few selections at a time. Small plates range from starters such as house- made Japanese-style pickles or cucumber with sesame to sashimi, grilled fish, tempura, ramen, udon, Japanese- style curries, nori (seaweed)-wrapped rice “sandwiches” (with sour plum, chashu pork, spicy cod roe or other fillings) and more. Wash it all down with sake, soju, chuhai (a Japanese canned cocktail), beer or a Japanese soda. Dishes are mostly $2 to $9.50; sashimi assortments go for $16.50 to $30.
Lovers of Japanese food in Big D are already accustomed to a vibrant scene. Sakurai’s Arts District restaurant, Tei-An, is one of the top soba houses in the country, one whose offerings transcend fabulous handmade noodles. (An omakase, or chef’s choice, dinner there last year was one of the most inspired and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had in Dallas.) We have a fine robata bar (where seafood and vegetables are grilled over charcoal), Tei-Tei, and a terrific yakitori bar (for grilled skewered chicken bites), Teppo, where you can also get excellent sushi.
Yes, there are sushi bars galore — a few of them actually very good. Sushi Bayashi’s Hirabayashi was formerly executive chef in charge of sushi at Kenichi, the splashy Victory Park sushi bar, where Noboru “Sho” Mochido has recently taken over the sushi bar and introduced a new sushi menu. Mochido, who spent several years as a sushi chef at Uchi in Austin, comes off a gig at Kumi Japanese Restaurant + Bar at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
And what can diners expect at Uchi, where chef de cuisine Nilton “Junior” Borges will be running the kitchen? Cold dishes such as hirame usuzukuri — flounder sashimi with candied quinoa and olive oil. Or machi cure — smoked baby yellowtail with yuca crisp, Marcona almonds, Asian pear and garlic brittle. There will be hot bites, such as “bacon steakie,” a pork belly, watermelon radish and Thai basil creation that may be familiar to those who have dined at the Austin original, and dishes new to Dallas, such as 72-hour braised Wagyu short rib with an Asian pear terrine, or kamo nabe — duck confit topped with an egg yolk on crispy rice and kale, with Korean chile sauce. Omakase tastings will be offered as well, along with sushi, sashimi and modern Japanese desserts. "I hope we can help Dallas to really have a new renaissance in Japanese cuisine," says chef-owner Cole."I hope we can help Dallas to really have a new renaissance in Japanese cuisine," says chef-owner Cole.
If all that’s not enough to make your mouth water, consider this: Tei-An’s Sakurai plans to open another restaurant next year. He’s not yet ready to reveal what he has in mind; he’s more focused now on teaching Dallasites about ramen culture (see Page 23). And not a moment too soon — “I’m sure there are four or five ramen shops that will open in the next two or three years,” he says.
Meanwhile, Cole intends to add a second restaurant in the space above his new Uchi on Maple Avenue next year. “It’s an opportunity to really utilize talent that we have and keep growing,” he says.
In other words, it looks like Dallas’ delicious Japanese moment will last a good, long while.
JAPANESE ADDRESS BOOK
KENICHI 2400 Victory Park Lane, Dallas. 214-871-8883. kenichidallas.com. Dinner nightly.
MR. MAX 3028 N. Belt Line Road, Irving. 972-255-8889. facebook.com/mrmax.mon. Dinner only; closed Sunday.
SUSHI BAYASHI Trinity Groves, 3011 Gulden Lane, Dallas. 972-684-5906. sushibayashi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
TEI-AN One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh St., Dallas. 214-220-2828. tei-an.com. Lunch Tuesday-Friday and Sunday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
TEI-TEI ROBATA BAR 2906 N. Henderson Ave., Dallas. 214-828-2400. teiteirobata.com. Dinner only; closed Monday.
TEN Sylvan Thirty, 1818 Sylvan Ave., Dallas. facebook.com/pages/Ten-Ramen/444307449050589?fref=ts. Lunch Tuesday-Friday and Sunday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday.