Discover Japanese treats that don't break the bank at Yama in Plano (3 stars)
PLANO – If lovers of Japanese food in North Texas could get beyond the idea of sushi (so much mediocre sushi round these parts!), they'd have some exciting bites to discover.
Case in point: Yama Izakaya and Sushi, a 15-month-old spot on Plano's northern edge. Sure, sushi is in the restaurant's name, but that's not what you go there for. It's an izakaya, which traditionally was a place to drink sake and enjoy snacks that go with it.
Yama fills that bill deliciously and informally, with treats like fried sawagani – tiny river crabs you eat whole (they're the size of a thimble). Or Kurobuta sausage, tasty pork links that come with french fries. Or slices of octopus dressed with yuzu and finely julienned shiso, the Japanese herb that's like perfumy mint. There's crunchy, colorful oshinko – assorted Japanese pickles – to wake up the palate, and crisply fried, lightly battered tempura.
All eminently snackable, especially as Yama stays open – with a full menu, no less – Monday through Saturday till 2 a.m. Where else can you eat that late in Plano?
And sip sake, of course. There's a fine selection, including many of my favorites: Dassai 23, a junmai daiginjo, $30 for a 300 ml bottle; Suishin (Drunken Heart), a junmai, $65 for a 750 ml bottle; and Onigoroshi (Demon Slayer), a junmai daiginjo, $90 for a 750 ml bottle. (Terms like junmai, ginjo and daiginjo refer to how highly polished the rice is that's used to make them). There are Japanese beer, shochu and Japanese whiskeys, too.
A Slideshow of
Yama goes beyond the traditional definition of izakaya, though; the warm and welcoming restaurant hidden in a vast strip mall is a fun place to stop in for a casual, honest-to-goodness lunch or dinner. It's a spacious room with a two-sided sushi bar in the center and booths along one side; modern prints of geishas decorate the walls. The place is often filled with mostly Asian diners, including families with young kids. A Japanese-born reader put me onto it as a great place for weekday lunch, mentioning a woman who made pasta dishes with a Japanese twist, like spaghetti with mentaiko (pollock roe) and shiso, during lunchtime only.
Alas, she no longer does. But Yama is a great place to hunker down with a bento box, one of those lacquered lunchboxes with compartments filled with various treats.
I enjoyed one that starred Kurobuta tonkatsu: a flavorful slab of heritage pork loin that stayed moist and tender in its crisply fried panko crust, sliced and served with its traditional garnish of shredded cabbage and a tangy katsu dipping sauce. With miso soup or an iceberg salad that comes with all the bento boxes, that would have been plenty for lunch, but it also included sautéed lotus root, oshinko, four slices of California roll, a generous portion of tempura (jumbo shrimp and vegetables) and agedashi tofu, delicate slabs of fried tofu topped with shaved bonito in a vibrant dressing. It's a lot of nicely prepared food for $18.
I haven't sampled the other bento boxes, such as teriyaki chicken; next time I'd try the saba shio (grilled salted mackerel) or hibachi shrimp ($12 each) instead of tonkatsu.
Rice bowls are another good lunchtime choice. I loved a $9 bowl called oyakodon: a generous bowl of steamed rice topped with diced chicken cooked together with lightly scrambled egg plus carrots, onions and scallions. Saucy from its lightly sweet dashi broth, the dish was homey and delicious.
There's very good ramen, too. Normally I go for tonkotsu ramen when I see it, but instead I tried the Yama ramen, fresh squiggly noodles from Ippudo in New York that had wonderful texture, in a good, rich chicken broth garnished with thinly sliced chashu pork, bamboo shoots, sliced scallions, nori and a half a perfect onsen egg, its yolk just setting. A "small" (not so small!) bowl will set you back just $6; the regular size is $9.50.
Come dinnertime, I wouldn't steer you toward the undistinguished yakitori (skewered grilled chicken and other meats) or average-quality sushi.
Instead there are much more interesting things to dive into, like a wonderful salad of julienned daikon (Japanese radish) and diced cucumber dressed in vinaigrette and topped with a heap of jako – tiny, chewy-crunchy dried baby sardines no thicker than yarn – and shaved dried bonito. (The menu incorrectly translates jako as "dried anchovy"; mistranslations were common on the blackboard specials, as well.)
From the robata grill, you might try smoked sanma – saury, or mackerel pike. It's not much to look at, a whole, skinny, full-flavored fish you pick apart with chopsticks, but it's delicious. And be sure to check that specials board: It's where I found fresh sardines, butterflied and panko-fried so they looked like tonkatsu, served with nothing more than lemon, really nice.
Somehow over the course of three visits I never got around to tasting any desserts – probably because the savories were so satisfying. And there's a lot more I'll try next time. However, I hope owner Shigekazu Tateno (Tsubasa Takarada is chef-partner) manages to solve the off-putting odor problem that greets you when you walk in. He says he and the other business owners have complained to the building's management about it and are working to solve it.
Meanwhile, owner Tateno, who also owns Yama Sushi in Dallas, plans to open a larger third restaurant near Legacy Drive and Central Expressway, where he'll feature some "Chinese-influenced" dishes along with Japanese specialties.
With Toyota's relocation to Plano already in progress, the area's Japanese dining landscape is already getting more interesting, a trend that –with any luck! – will continue.
Yama Izakaya and Sushi
Price: $$-$$$ (appetizers and salads $2.50 to $14.50; robata items $4.50 to $16; yakitori skewers $2 to $3; sashimi and sushi plates $10 to $40; bento boxes $12 to $18; noodles, rice and other dishes $2 to $24; desserts $3 to $8)
Service: Friendly, attentive and helpful
Ambience: A spacious, pleasant-looking, family-friendly dining room with a sushi bar in the center and comfortable booths along the side
Noise level: Music isn't loud; conversation is easy.