There are very few restaurants in Fort Worth where I’d wait 45 minutes for a table.
Tokyo Cafe is one of them.
If you’re being technical, fans of the west side mini-landmark have been waiting much longer — the restaurant had been closed for more than two years after a fire before reopening in October — for Mary and Jarry Ho’s sushi-and-more menu, executed ably by chef Kevin Martinez.
The food is now wisely proffered in a slick new space (the original building, once a Pizza Hut, had to be demolished) decorated with colorful Japanese lanterns and humongous broken-eggshell-looking pendant lights.
I’m now pretty intimate with those lights, having sat underneath them for nearly an hour on a Saturday night — the restaurant does not take reservations —waiting for a six-top where a family lingered like their pants definitely were not on fire.
When my group finally made it to the comfortable bench-table hybrid, we were so hungry a near-argument broke out. Did we want the seasonal vegetable tempura ($5)? Or were we jonesing for a couple of orders of the comparably pedestrian stir-fried edamame ($5)? A few minutes earlier while we were waiting, a tray of the soybeans passed by, leaving a cloud of sesame oil intoxicating those in its wake.
Speaking of intoxicating, I was quite happy with a glass of Zipang sparkling sake ($13), cold, crisp and a cross between champagne and a heavy-duty white wine. It was also an ideal foil for the more substantial fare to come.
But first — the appetizer! — an order of the evening’s special sushi roll, the 4 Alarm Roll ($12), 10 pieces of panko-breaded shrimp, playing very nicely with dabs of spicy crab and avocado. On top, they featured what looked to be julienned pieces of red bell pepper. A further look at the board, and I realized it was red jalapeño. That ingredient, in conjunction with the “4 alarm sauce,” rendered the roll possibly inappropriate for weaker palates. I dug them just fine.
There’s much to revel in with this menu, even if you or your friend or, let’s say, younger brother whose name rhymes with “Sal,” doesn’t enjoy raw fish.
The Westside ramen ($9) is an assured take on the winter-friendly soup. Packed with green onions, roasted seaweed, soy-marinated egg, a fish cake and black garlic oil, plus, your choice of either pork loin or pork belly, it is a pungent iteration lacking heat, but a squirt or two of Sriracha will solve any spice deficiency. And add some corn for 75 cents and more noodles ($2), and you’ll be just fine.
A touch lighter, but not much, is the Tokyo Fish & Chips ($13), four fritters of tempura-fried red snapper attractively served in a paper cone. Nestled beneath were the Tok fries, which the menu calls “award-winning.” (The version at sister restaurant Shinjuku Station certainly won my heart last summer in a french-fry showdown.)
A very minor disappointment: Here, they are served without the chili mayo dipping sauce and the furikake, the sweet and salty Japanese rice seasoning mix. Until a serving of both were delivered to the table, I made do with the yuzu tartar sauce and malt black vinegar.
Another standout? The half-roasted teriyaki chicken ($16), a monster portion of crispy-sweet skinned chicken, served alongside tempura-battered Brussels sprouts halves. It was some kind of good karma that my friend who ordered it was sitting right next to me. So many pieces of the fried side disappeared from her platter that she almost filed an MCV (Missing Cruciferous Vegetable) report.
There is no kids’ menu, but judging from how many tables were full of families with little ones on our visit, it would seem like a non-starter. Picky or milquetoast eaters will be sated with the sesame chicken ($9), planks of excellent crispy white-meat served with a sesame dipping sauce or the teriyaki chicken bowl ($8), a straightforward portion of cubes of dark-meat chicken mired in the sauce.
And for big sashimi spenders (ahem, my husband), they, too, will be rewarded. A dual order of tuna ($14) and red snapper ($14), was a marvelously attractive display of super-fresh fish.
These and many more are reasons to embrace the wait, and to admire the resilience that is Tokyo Cafe — a neighborhood gem, shining bright once again.