I had a bunch of errands to run the other day, and they all sort of fell in an order that led me north of Loop 820 into the hinterlands of North Richland Hills. That’s probably the best explanation of why I sat down to eat alone at a suburban hibachi grill at 5 in the afternoon or, as I like to remind my retirement-age father, the “Old People at Denny’s” hour.
Had I brought a date, I would’ve been able to enjoy one of Takara Japanese Steakhouse’s chief selling points: If you go between 5 and 6 p.m., you get two entrées for the price of one. Of course, if you’ve ever eaten at a hibachi grill, you know that bringing a date is kind of immaterial, since the dining concept makes you chow down with a bunch of other people around a flattop grill, regardless of whether you know them. In other words, if you’re lonely or looking to make friends, you should start eating at hibachis more often.
Takara’s décor is exactly what you’d expect from a Japanese grill tucked into a suburban strip mall. The heavy oak doors, red lanterns, and samurai swords remind you that you’re eating Japanese food, and the subtle wear and tear on the countertops remind you you’re in North Richland Hills –– not that it detracts from the meal. In fact, Takara’s suburban hominess is part of its charm.
As the only customer in the place, I received impeccable service, at least at first. My server was quick to refill my drink (Takara doesn’t serve booze, alas) and take my order. I went with the vegetable tempura appetizer and the filet mignon. And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more until I realized that hibachi joints prefer to fill their seats before firing up the grills, which still doesn’t explain why my hibachi-less app was M.I.A. After about a half-hour I was joined by two fortysomething married couples and an elderly lady taking her granddaughter to dinner. Soon after our server took everyone else’s orders, she returned with my tempura: a sampler for four of mushrooms, zucchini, and onions, the latter two arrayed to form the letter Q, though the significance was lost on me. Fried in tempura batter to an almost neon-yellow crisp, the vegetables were soft without being soggy. The zucchini, however, was hard to taste under the batter.
Like other hibachi grills, Takara is a little pricey, but the meal includes soup, salad, vegetables, and steamed rice. Takara’s miso soup is good but not memorable: tasty enough to whet my appetite and not so heavily seasoned that my tongue shriveled like a snail. The salad isn’t worth mentioning, and for some reason, I got short shrift on the grilled veggies — I guess I look like a guy who eats only onions.
When you eat at these kinds of places, the guy doing the slicing and dicing is often the linchpin of the meal, and not only because he’s doing the cooking. These guys have to do tricks, tell jokes, and answer menu questions all at once — ours got off to an awkward start when he asked the granddaughter how she wanted her chicken cooked. Grandma thought he was serious, and, well, that led to some other jokes that were so deadpan that a couple of folks around the grill put on looks of concern when he said, “OK, for you, I cook the chicken medium-rare.”
Still, despite the comedy sailing over a few heads, when it came time for our chef to carve up the protein, he was all flash and panache, tossing shrimp tails around, flicking samples into appropriate sauces (a thin ginger sauce and a thicker, horseradish-kissed “Japanese A-1”), telling more confusing jokes to the grandmother, who smiled politely after he chopped a pile of sesame seeds into parallel lines. I forget what the setup line was, but she was definitely puzzled when he said, “Nope. The answer is 11.”
My filet mignon was exactly as it should be: melt-in-your-mouth tender. I wondered how the older lady next to me fared with hers, given that she ordered it cooked medium after the chef’s failed chicken bit. I don’t know, because he was very careful to separate her portion from everyone else’s. But I also got a piece of shrimp and a scallop dropped into my ginger sauce. The former was crunchy and juicy; the latter a little chewier than I would’ve liked. Good thing I was happy with my steak.
Since we were all within elbow’s reach of one another and the hibachi setup makes you sit down for a good 30 minutes at least, the rest of my table got to talking, and it turned out the married couples had gone to high school with my dining neighbor’s daughter and that the grandmother had sold half the houses on the couples’ block some 30-odd years ago and so on. Takara is a great place to strike up a conversation, sort of like being on a flight where everyone is well-fed and happy to be sitting down for an event largely beyond their control.
Takara also offers about 15 different sushi rolls. The most popular, reportedly, is the Takara Roll: a tempura-fried log of cream cheese, jalapeños, and crab. Everything is dramatically cheaper during lunch –– shrimp hibachi for less than $7. What Takara lacks in finery and originality, it makes up for in friendly atmosphere and good deals. For a cheap, early date spot, you really can’t go wrong.
Takara Japanese Steakhouse
6253 Rufe Snow Dr, North Richland Hills. 682-224-2601. 11 am – 2pm and 5-10 pm, Mon-Sat. Closed Sun. MasterCard, Visa accepted. No alcohol.