A sashimi platter at Tei-An

A sashimi platter at Tei-An

2015 Staff File/

Dallas has long been a Japanese food-lovers’ wonderland. For ages, we’ve had restaurants offering phenomenal yakitori, robatayaki, soba, tempura — even spectacular sashimi and sushi. Recent years have brought dedicated ramen shops, vibrant izakayas and exciting destinations for modern Japanese cooking. The near future promises even more deliciousness. 

That doesn’t mean you can wander into just any sushi bar or ramen spot and expect a great — or even a good — experience. There’s also a whole lot of mediocre Japanese food, especially sushi, ’round these parts.

So, how do you unearth the great places? Don’t worry: We’ve got you covered with this guide to the best Japanese food North Texas has to offer. And if you bump into unfamiliar words, you should find them in our glossary.

A little history

First, it’s useful to understand why our Japanese dining scene is so rich and a bit about how it became so. Knowing the history may even help you guess what to watch as the scene continues to evolve.

Much of its breadth can be traced to one chef, Teiichi Sakurai. Over the last three decades, the 51-year old Tokyo-born chef has founded four important Japanese restaurants in the city, each focusing on a different type of food. The crown jewel of Japanese dining in Dallas is his Arts District restaurant, Tei-An, which specializes in handmade soba but also is a destination for full-on, mind-blowing omakase feasts and more. Because Sakurai has been a mentor to so many Dallas chefs, he’s widely known as “Teach.”

Teiichi Sakurai at his Arts District restaurant, Tei-An

Teiichi Sakurai at his Arts District restaurant, Tei-An

/2014 Staff File

Though Sakurai long ago sold two of these landmark establishments — Teppo Yakitori and Sushi Bar and Tei Tei Robata Bar — to their respective head chefs, all four continue to hold places among the best restaurants in Dallas.

Sakurai’s history in Dallas goes back to Royal Tokyo, an ambitious restaurant that opened in 1973 on North Greenville; Sakurai worked there from 1988 to 1994. During that tenure, says Sakurai, he worked in all three areas of the restaurant: sushi bar, teppan-yaki bar and regular kitchen. According to Sakurai, Royal Tokyo’s head chef was Yukio Nakamura, who had previously been chef at a high-end restaurant in Kyoto. Yutaka Yamato, who went on to open one of Dallas’ top sushi bars — Yutaka Sushi Bistro — worked there as well.

Another chef who would become important in Dallas’ Japanese dining scene — Masayuki Otaka, the longtime chef-owner of Teppo  —  was in Amarillo when he received a call from Sakurai in 1992. The two, who both grew up in Tokyo, had gone to boarding school together near Mount Fuji. “He called and said, ‘Hey, man — I got you a job!,” says Otaka — who came to Dallas that year. Otaka thought he was coming to work with Sakurai at Royal Tokyo, but was asked to work at a Plano restaurant — Nakamoto — instead.

Nakamoto had opened in 1986 with a different name: Ishi-Sushi. Six months later, owner Eika Nakamoto changed its name. The Chinese-born restaurateur — whose original family name was Lee — brought serious food-cred to North Texas. The Lees had fled China for Japan during the Cultural Revolution, changing the family name to Nakamoto. Eika’s father went on to co-found Tokyo’s Ebisu Culinary School, which trained the first “Iron Chefs.” Eika later became owner of the school.

Otaka’s boss at Nakamoto was head sushi chef Takashi Soda — who later went on to open Sushi Sake in Richardson in 1997. (That restaurant is still thriving.)

In 1993, when Otaka was head sushi chef at Anzu — a Pacific Rim restaurant opened by Nakamoto’s daughter, Phina Nakamoto — Sakurai called on his high-school pal again. Sakurai was planning to open his own restaurant, his first. “He asked me if I want to join,” recalls Otaka, “and I said ‘of course!’” Sakurai left Royal Tokyo in 1994 and debuted Teppo Yakitori and Sushi Bar — with Otaka as head chef — the following year. Now Dallas had a place to enjoy yakitori: skewers of chicken and other meats grilled over blazing-hot binchotan, Japanese charcoal.

In 1995, Royal Tokyo chef Nakamura’s younger brother — Hare Nakamura — opened what was undoubtedly the area’s first izakaya, even if no one called it that: Mr. Max. The Irving hole-in-the-wall is still there, operating under new ownership since 2015.

Robatayaki — Hokkaido-style seafood grilled over binchotan — came to Dallas when Sakurai opened Tei Tei Robata Bar in 1998. In the intervening years, Sakurai sold Teppo to Otaka and Tei Tei to its executive chef, Katsutoshi Sakamoto. Decades after those two seminal restaurants debuted, their level of cooking remains impressively high — quite an achievement in a town where quality often goes south after the reviews have come in.

Most recently — in 2015 — Sakurai opened Ten, which is where you can find the best ramen in Dallas. (He recently followed with a second Ten in the Colony.) Since then, we’ve seen the debuts of at least two more izakayas and two restaurants specializing in yakiniku, Japanese-style Korean barbecue. More about those shortly.

Want to cook Japanese?

An abiding love for Japanese cooking inevitably makes a certain type of food-lover want to try his or her own hand at it.

Dallasites — both home cooks and restaurant chefs — have been shopping at Kazy’s Gourmet Shop for Japanese staples, fresh fish and frozen ingredients since it opened in its original Forest Lane location in 1979. But the selection is pretty basic.

Mitsuwa Marketplace — which opened in April 2017 in Plano — is a game-changer. The supermarket-plus-food-hall on Legacy Drive near I-75 is a boon for seasoned Japanese cooks, as well as those wanting to dive in and learn. There you’ll find gingko nuts for chawanmushi; gobo root, shiso leaves and umeboshi (pickled apricots) to tuck into sushi rolls; katsuobushi and kombu to make dashi; nuka (rice bran) for making nukazuke (rice-bran pickles). It also sells beautiful sashimi-quality fish, fresh noodles from famed New York ramen house Ippudo, Wagyu beef and lots more.

A shopping cart filled with goodies at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Plano

A shopping cart filled with goodies at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Plano

/Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer

Need some recipes to get you started? Kinokuniya — a new bookstore in Mitsuwa’s food court — offers a fine selection of Japanese cookbooks. It’s the second North Texas location: Kinokuniya opened in Carrollton earlier this year.

Or maybe you want someone else to do the cooking?

Tei-An’s longtime manager, Yosuke Fukuda, and Hiroshi Suzuki — until recently a chef at Tei Tei - have just launched Y's Kitchen Catering, specializing in Japanese cooking. Throwing a Japanese party or hosting a  dinner? Fukuda and Suzuki are your men.

A rosy future for Japanese dining in Dallas

Mitsuwa Marketplace isn’t only a boon to Japanese cooks and hungry visitors to its food court. Its distribution infrastructure may well make it attractive for more restaurateurs to open serious Japanese restaurants in North Texas.

Its appearance is responsible for at least one high-profile planned opening :  a new ramen house in Deep Ellum from a former manager of Ippudo. “The main reason why I decided to open was Mitsuwa,” says George Itoh, who hopes to open Ichigoh this fall. The supermarket’s North Texas warehouses, he figured, would solve his problem of how to assure a steady supply of hard-to-come-by ingredients from Japan.

Sauteed clams at Nobu Dallas

Sauteed clams at Nobu Dallas

/2015 Staff File 

Dishing the specialties

So, where to find the best sushi, or elusive shabu-shabu, or a tasty array of izakaya snacks, or crisp and juicy tonkatsu? Where can you enjoy a broad menu of well prepared dishes? Here are my top spots for various types of Japanese dining:

IZAKAYA (Taverns with assorted bar snacks) 

Sawagani crabs at Yama Izakaya & Sushi in Plano

Sawagani crabs at Yama Izakaya & Sushi in Plano

/2016 Staff File

Mr. Max

North Texas’ first izakaya has retained the feel and look and many of the dishes it has served since it opened in 1996. Because it’s tucked practically invisibly in an obscure Irving strip mall, the crowd you inevitably find inside never fails to surprise. Reserve a table, even on a weeknight, or wait for a spot at the counter. The menu — most of which is posted on individual hand-written signs on the wall — is wide-ranging. Dishes to try: raw octopus in wasabi; cucumber dressed in mentaiko (salted pollack roe flavored with chile pepper); fried river shrimp; oshinko (assorted pickles); grilled beef tongue; grilled squid; grilled saury or mackerel.

Mr. Max, 3028 N. Belt Line Road, Irving; 972-255-8889

Yama Izakaya and Sushi

Skip the undistinguished sushi at this spacious, comfortable northwest Plano sibling of a popular North Dallas sushi bar; instead slide into a booth and order izakaya snacks and home-style dishes. Bonus: It’s open till 2 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Don’t miss the daikon-cucumber salad with jako (tiny dried sardines); Kurobuta tonkatsu; oyakodon; smoked saury; tonkotsu ramen.

Yama Izakaya and Sushi, 8600 Preston Road, Plano; 214-618-8379

Top Knot  

Uchi Dallas’ upstairs sibling doesn’t call itself an izakaya, but that’s more or less what it is: A fun, laid-back place to get drinks and delicious snacks — creative crudos, or  yuca chips with edamame hummus and black lime, or a crispy pork belly rice bowl with kimchi and egg yolk. The chefs know their way around a cutlet, too; don’t miss their tonkatsu.

Top Knot, 2817 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-855-1354

OMAKASE (Multi-course "chef's choice" tasting menus)  

Omakase at Nobu Dallas may include dishes such as baby abalone, slow-steamed for hours.  

Omakase at Nobu Dallas may include dishes such as baby abalone, slow-steamed for hours.  

/2015 Staff File 

Tei-An

Omakase at Teiichi Sakurai’s wonderful restaurant is as close as you can get in Dallas to kaiseki — a traditional Japanese-style tasting menu of many courses, with a hyper-seasonal focus. Depending on what’s in season and most fabulous, Tei-An’s omakase might start with an Alaskan king crab salad or marinated baby squid, then move to a dazzling array of sashimi from Japan, then cooked fish and shellfish dishes, tempura, something starring magnificently marbled Wagyu beef from Japan’s Miyazaki prefecture, maybe something with duck. Soba is the final savory flourish, followed by dessert. It’s one of the most impressive dining experiences to be had in Dallas.

Tei-An, 1722 Routh St. (in One Arts Plaza), Dallas; 214-220-2828

Nobu Dallas

For a sushi-focused omakase, Nobu Dallas is the place. Try to nab a seat at the sushi bar in the vicinity of head sushi chef Mitsuhiro Eguchi. Dishes from the kitchen round out the pleasure. Omakase is priced at $100 to $150 per person. Recent highlights of the $120 per-person “Original Nobu tasting” included a texturally brilliant tamago hand roll; scallop crudo with scallop liver (a rare delicacy); golden-eye snapper sashimi with dry miso; a butter-lettuce Caesar with fragrant shaved black truffles; madai sushi with shiso; unagi (eel) sushi with lush flavor that bloomed in the mouth.

Nobu Dallas, Rosewood Crescent Hotel, 400 Crescent Court, Dallas; 214-252-7000 

RAMEN

Ten

Order on an iPad at Teiichi Sakurai’s dedicated ramen shop in Sylvan Thirty, stand at the bar, wait for your noodles, then slurp your way to happiness. Don’t know what to try? Go for the signature tonkotsu ramen.

Ten, Sylvan Thirty, 1888 Sylvan Ave., Dallas; 972-803-4400

Monta 

This friendly, under-the-radar shop in Richardson has some of the better bowls around.

Monta, 800 N. Coit Road, Richardson; 469-330-7777

Oni Ramen

Chef-owner Jesús García, who made a splash in Fort Worth when he was sushi chef at Little Lilly Sushi, made a serious study of ramen working at Santouka in Seattle and traveling to Japan. It shows.

Oni Ramen, 2801 W. 7th St., Fort Worth; 817-882-6554

ROBATAYAKI (Hokkaido-style seafood grilled over binchotan coals) 

Tei Tei chef-owner Katsutoshi Sakamoto grills a sea bass at his robata bar.

Tei Tei chef-owner Katsutoshi Sakamoto grills a sea bass at his robata bar.

/2011 File

Tei Tei Robata Bar

Grab a seat at the robota bar for the essential experience at Katsutoshi Sakamoto’s Henderson Avenue landmark: That’s where Sakamoto and his chefs grill Hokkaido-style seafood and vegetables over blazing-hot binchotan. I like to start with sashimi and small bites from the kitchen, focusing on daily specials (sautéed Hokkaido scallops in uni sauce are wonderful), then move on to robatayaki, the main event — things like shishamo smelts, lobster, mackerel, yellowtail collar, okra. If you must have sushi, order it last. From the lounge menu, I love the heads-on fried river shrimp, so tiny and tender you can pop ‘em whole in your mouth. If you arrive early, grab a seat at the bar and treat yourself to a Japanese whiskey poured onto a hand-carved ice “diamond.”

Tei Tei Robata Bar, 2906 N. Henderson Ave., Dallas; 214-828-2400

SHABU SHABU (Sliced beef cooked in simmering broth) 

Yoshi Shabu Shabu

At this cheerful Richardson cafe, each seating place is outfitted with a simmering pot and set with an array of raw veggies and noodles. A server seasons your broth to your taste with garlic, chile oil and togarashi pepper, then the meats and seafood you order will come to you raw. Swish them around the hot broth to cook, dip in one of the three sauces offered, and enjoy. After that ask your server to make up a noodle soup with the rest of your broth. It may not be superlative shabu shabu (you may need to spice up bland broth), but the place is sweet and friendly — and as far as I could find, the only shabu shabu around.

Yoshi Shabu Shabu, 1801 N. Greenville, Richardson; 972-807-9057

SOBA (Buckwheat noodles) 

Cold country soba with duck broth at Tei-An

Cold country soba with duck broth at Tei-An

/2014 Staff File 

Tei-An

How do I love the soba at Tei-An? Any way I can get it. It might be cold, on a hot summer day. My favorite is one of the most classic: oroshi soba, served simply on a zaru (woven bamboo plate) with grated daikon. (The variation with umeboshi — pickled apricot — mixed into the daikon is wonderful, too.) Add the daikon to the dipping sauce, and dip the noodles therein before eating. When you’ve finished the noodles, a server will bring soba cooking liquid to add to the dipping sauce: a delicious drink. Or the soba might be hot. Tei-An’s soulful duck soba with (are you sitting down?!) duck meatballs is a longtime favorite.

An assortment of nigiri at Yutaka Sushi Bistro

An assortment of nigiri at Yutaka Sushi Bistro

/File

SUSHI

Note: The first three sushi bars listed below — all quite expensive — are in a class above the rest. The next three are good neighborhood spots, but other than possibly Masami, they’re probably not worth a long drive. Sushi and sashimi specials at Teppo and Tei Tei can be impressive, though those are not places I go specifically for sushi, as they have other focuses. Rather, I might include an order or three in the mix with other dishes. Still, you could do a lot worse than grabbing a seat at the sushi bar at either and going sushi-centric.

Beyond the crazy roll: How to be a sushi sophisticate

Nobu Dallas

At the moment, the most spectacular sushi to be had in town is at Nobu Dallas. Snag a seat in front of head sushi chef Mitsuhiro Eguchi, and solicit his advice about what fish is most exciting that day.

Yutaka Sushi Bistro

Focus on the “Sushi Tour of Japan” printed list of specials at Yutaka Yamato’s outstanding Uptown spot. Yamato’s rice is properly seasoned, his nori crisp and his fish — much of it flown in from Japan — top-notch. Best of all, he seasons it thoughtfully. In other words, pay attention if a server tells you not to dip it in soy sauce. I like to start with a gorgeously presented sashimi assortment, then move on to specials (Okinawa mozuku seaweed and fava beans tempura were wonderful lately), and then move on to sushi. This is definitely a place to be adventurous.

Yutaka Sushi Bistro, 2633 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-969-5533

Uchi

While the sushi at the Dallas outpost of Tyson Cole’s Austin original hasn’t been as impressive lately as it was during its first year of operation (2015), it is still one of the most serious places in town, with excellent attention to detail, including saucing. Unlike at most sushi bars, an order of sushi here is one piece, not two. It can quickly get very pricey.

Uchi Dallas, 2817 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-855-5454

Masami Japanese Sushi and Cuisine

Hideyuki “Ryo” Iwase’s Richardson sushi bar has a passionate following, and it’s easy to understand why: Ryo-san’s sushi, sashimi and dishes from the kitchen are some of the best around, and they’re reasonably priced. The place is warm, welcoming, laid-back and a lot of fun. Whiteboards and handwritten paper signs announce specials, both cooked and raw. Focus on these — you’ll have a grand time and eat well.

Masami Japanese Sushi and Cuisine, 501 W. Belt Line Road at North Central Expressway (southwest corner), Richardson; 972-783-6800

The sushi bar at Uchi Dallas

The sushi bar at Uchi Dallas

/2016 File

Wa Kubota

Opened in April 2017, this spacious Plano restaurant has one of the better neighborhood sushi bars in North Texas. You won’t find a wide selection of unusual fish here, but the sushi chefs are skilled, the rice is reasonably well seasoned and the fish good quality.

Wa Kubota, 8448 Parkwood, Plano; 469-606-5222 

Sushi Rock

Mark and Lod Tungcmittrong’s friendly, long-running Richardson place — which relocated not long ago — also has a devoted fan base. Kampachi sushi, sweet shrimp and Hokkaido scallop sashimi impressed when I dined there last year.

Sushi Rock, 7601 Campbell Road, Richardson; 214-774-9701

TONKATSU (Panko-coated fried pork cutlets) 

Pork fillets at Tonkatsu Kaneda at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Plano

Pork fillets at Tonkatsu Kaneda at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Plano

/Leslie Brenner/Staff

Tonkatsu Kaneda

The pork fillet cutlets at this walk-up stall in Mitsuwa Marketplace’s food hall are hot and crisp on the outside, juicy, succulent and flavorful on the inside. For under $11, you get three of them — served with crushed toasted sesame seeds, tonkatsu sauce, shredded cabbage salad, potato salad, miso soup, Japanese pickles, a bowl of rice and cold pasta salad. Not bad!

Tonkatsu Kaneda, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 100 Legacy Drive, Plano; 972-517-0495 

Top Knot (see above)

Yama Izakaya and Sushi (see above)

WAGASHI (Sweets)

Naturally, you can find wonderful desserts at restaurants; the sweets at Teppo, Tei-An, Masami and Yutaka are tops. Below are two highly recommended specialty shops:

Mochi ice cream on display at J. Sweets in Mitsuwa Marketplace

Mochi ice cream on display at J. Sweets in Mitsuwa Marketplace

/Leslie Brenner/Staff

J. Sweets

The displays at this stall in Mitsuwa’s food hall are gorgeous, and the mochi-centric sweets — like kuri difuku (chestnut wrapped in red bean paste and mochi); hakuto shigure (white peach sweet white bean cake with salted cherry blossom); kashiwa mochi (sweet red bean paste-filled, oak-leaf-wrapped mochi) and saisaika (loquat jelly) — are as delicious as they are beautiful. Recently the stall started selling mochi ice cream in flavors like mango, sakura and green tea as well.

J. Sweets, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 100 Legacy Drive, Plano; 972-517-0377

Matcha Love

Also in Mitsuwa’s food hall, Matcha Love offers dreamy soft-serve ice cream in flavors like black sesame, matcha and hoji-cha.

Matcha Love, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 100 Legacy Drive, Plano; 972-517-0441

YAKITORI (Skewers grilled over binchotan) 

Teppo chef-owner Masayuki Otaka grills yakitori at Teppo. 

Teppo chef-owner Masayuki Otaka grills yakitori at Teppo. 

/2015 Staff File 

Teppo Yakitori Bar and Sushi

One of the happiest places for a Japanese food-lover in Dallas is a seat at Masayuki Otaka’s corner of the yakitori bar at Teppo. Check off items on a list, sit back and enjoy the yakitori parade — a progression of skewers that Otaka grills attentively over blazing binchotan. A few musts: chicken meatballs to dip in raw quail egg; beef tongue; chicken thighs; bacon-wrapped okra. For a deluxe experience, start with sashimi and appetizers from the kitchen, focusing on specials. (A few favorites that pop up with some regularity are octopus slices topped with lardo ibérico; miso-marinated foie gras; San Diego jumbo clam sushi.) If sushi figures in, it’s best if it comes at the end. Definitely consider Teppo’s “big roll” futomaki, filled with a gorgeous mosaic of snow crab, tamago, shiitake mushroom, gobo root and more. Desserts here impress, too.

Teppo Yakitori and Sushi Bar, 2014 Greenville Ave., Dallas; 214-826-8989

YAKINIKU (Korean-style Japanese barbecue)  

Niwa Japanese BBQ

The menu at this Deep Ellum restaurant isn’t nearly as ambitious or varied as what you find in the better yakiniku — Korean-style Japanese barbecue — restaurants in Tokyo, but the marinades are nicely done, and the experience of grilling your own meats on a tabletop grill can be fun. Go light on the apps, which are less successful, and focus on the grill. Pork belly, tongue and Wagyu beef were very good.

Niwa Japanese BBQ, 2939 Main St., Dallas; 214-741-6492

OTHER RECOMMENDED JAPANESE RESTAURANTS

Hisago bento lunch box from Ino Japanese Bistro in Richardson, on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Ben Torres/Special Contributor

Hisago bento lunch box from Ino Japanese Bistro in Richardson, on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Ben Torres/Special Contributor

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

Ino Japanese Bistro

Home-style Japanese cooking is the order of the day at Ino, which hasn’t changed much since Tamako and Toyoji Ino opened the Richardson neighborhood spot in 1999. At lunchtime, the “hisago” double-decker lunch box is terrific; so is champon — Nagasaki-style seafood and pork soup with Chinese noodles.  In the evening, dinner "sets" are a great way to order. The extensive list of appetizers includes many dishes — such as grilled mackerel or yanagawa (a saucy dish of eel and burdock root baked with egg) — that would make fine main courses. If you’re a fan of shiny, pickly fish, don’t miss the marinated herring, dotted with herring roe.

Ino Japanese Bistro, 1920 N. Coit Road, Richardson; 972-889-3200

Ken Japanese Bistro

Dinnertime is best at this low-key, affordable Richardson spot. Go for izakaya-type snacks like oshinko (Japanese pickles), broiled mackerel or moro Q. Ken also serves one of the better versions of takoyaki. There’s also heart-warming nabeyaki udon, respectable ramen and good tempura.

Ken Japanese Bistro, 1899 N. Plano Road, Richardson; 972-807-9460

What's Happening on GuideLive