You don’t go out for deep-fried catfish in Honolulu. You don’t order Mexican food north of Waco. (Overheard somewhere in Pittsburgh tonight, as a native Steelers fan tries to deceive a visiting Texan: “The food is really good — real Mexicans own the place!”) And you don’t order sushi in Texas. That’s what I thought before visiting Niki’s Tokyo Inn, a San Antonio institution since its founding in 1970.
These days, Niki, now 80, only comes in to count the receipts. But the outfit is in capable hands, with her son Pat as head waiter and the female Japanese sushi chef on duty. The freshness of the fish and the quality of the service made it a restaurant I’d recommend to anyone who can get over its outward appearance.
The restaurant is divided into three parts: American seating (apparently stolen from an Iowa convention center in 1969), Japanese seating (wear socks, you’ll have to remove your shoes), and the sushi bar.
The sushi bar itself is traditional enough, apart from the dozens of business cards jammed into the false eaves. I chose “Sushi 101” fare: tuna (maguro), farmed yellowtail (hamachi), and barbequed freshwater eel (unagi).
Usually you can tell whether you’ve got a good sushi place with just these choices. I want to know how a restaurant handles these before ordering more delicate and rarely ordered items like salmon roe (ikura) or sea urchin (uni). Besides, the texture of uni can make even hardcore sushi lovers balk.
All three were a delight. When tuna is this fresh, it almost melts like butter, and chewing seems almost unnecessary, even rude. My only quibble was that the striping of wasabi paste between the fish and the rice was a bit thick in the middle, which made one bite simply a horseradish moment.
Sushi is traditionally served in bite-sized pieces: Some sushi chefs would recoil at the idea of making anything larger. But this is Texas, where everything’s bigger. The quality of the fish more than made up for the inconvenience of holding a piece of sushi for three mouthfuls. Don’t use chopsticks.
Unagi is served in almost every sushi joint in America. It’s toasted, then wrapped in a band of nori (toasted seaweed) so it won’t fall apart. Many places slather tiny, dry pieces of eel with so much sauce as if to keep you from knowing that what you’re eating used to swim in anything else. Not here. At Niki’s the sauce was applied judiciously and did not overpower the eel at all.
I couldn’t leave without trying the entry-level maki sushi rolls, the spicy tuna, and the California. But before I could order them, the chef brought me some aji sashimi (Spanish mackerel). The cut was expert, the fish was tender, and its unsolicited appearance was a pleasant surprise.
The California roll was creamy with just-right avocado I could actually taste, which I enjoyed as an alternative to the usual overkill of imitation crab meat. The spicy tuna lived up to its name without resorting to the standard mayonnaise and Thai Sriracha mix that many sushi joints use.
As I headed for my car along the faded, unprofessionally painted exterior walls, all I could think about was going back, because I have to try the rest of the menu. And I laughed to myself, realizing that some real Japanese cuisine aficionado will overhear me telling someone in San Antonio, “No, you’ll love this sushi place. It’s run by real Japanese!”
The irony was almost enough to make me want to try Mexican food in Pittsburgh.
Niki’s Tokyo Inn
819 W Hildebrand
The Skinny: A hidden gem of Japanese food emerges from an exterior that says “go away.”
Best Bets: Very fresh sushi, excellent service, and close attention to detail.
Hours: 5:30-10:30pm Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: From $3 pieces of nigiri sushi to $22 multi-course meals.