A sneak preview of the latest Japanese restaurant in Houston
Date of Visit: 10/12/2013
Name of Location: Izakawa-wa
Address: 12665 Memorial Dr, Houston TX 77024

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the soft opening of Houston’s latest Japanese restaurant – Izakaya-wa.  Located at the intersection of Memorial Dr. and Boheme St. (near the Town and Country Shopping District/I-10 and Beltway 8), this new Japanese spot isn’t the typical experience.

Akira Asano, former general manager of Kubo’s Sushi Bar and Grill broke away from managing a restaurant to owning one.   After years of planning, he now works alongside his partner of the past - Master Chef Hajime Kubokawa.

For those who aren’t familiar with an Izakaya, it’s a Japanese drinking establishment which also serves food to accompany the drinks; casual places for after-work drinking.  Izakaya-wa refers to a version of ‘Japanese Tapas’ with a side of sushi.  Offering a wine and beer bar (including sake), this straightforward setting will offer a laidback approach to dining.  Happy hours are not offered.

The entire restaurant is easy to understand - nothing complicated here.  Here’s how it works:  customers enter Izakaya-wa and order drinks of their choice.  Then, carefully constructed tapas-oriented dinners are served.  You’ll certainly have your choices, and the restaurant is even equipped with a 5-seat sushi bar…but the emphasis is eating small portions, having your share of corresponding drinks and good conversation.  You can order directly from the menu or select the recommended selection of structure tapas courses.

When I first heard about this restaurant, I was under an entirely different perception.  I imagined a small restaurant with a Japanese-themed décor serving traditional meals while a hint of koto music played in the background.  I visualized a handful of Japanese waitresses, wearing light kimonos shuffling around the dining area.  Not quite.  That’s Kyoto.  Izakaya-wa isn’t Kyoto.  Izakaya-wa is Osaka.  The waitresses at Izakaya-wa wear a garment named Samue at Izakaya-wa which is very common in most Izakayas in Japan.  And Izaakaya-wa is all about food, chatting with friends and great drinks. And that makes sense…while Akira Asano was born and raised in Kyoto, he grew up near Osaka, so this style is as natural to him as breathing.

When I arrived, Akira welcomed me at the front door and gave me an unprecedented tour of the entire restaurant.  Every nook and cranny.  The ambiance of Izakaya-wa is humble, simple.  From the subdued-yellow stucco walls (lined with a deep brown trim) to the Japanese Batman (yes, Japanese Batman) posters tacked to the wall, you can forget about wearing a necktie.  If you’re hungry for Japanese cuisine, wish to sample a wide variety of tiny portions and want to wet your whistle for a few hours, you’ve found your spot.

I was honored to be one of the first invited to view and evaluate the menu at Izakaya-wa.  While I enjoyed a myriad of delicious menu offerings, I was happy to see the upper echelon of Houston’s Japanese community enjoying a meal with their friends and co-workers, laughing and toasting beers for a few hours.   I knew that they could go anywhere to enjoy a great meal and everyone seemed like they were blending into the atmosphere, as if they were back home.  Izakaya-wa’s location is a good one.  It’s less than 3 miles away from a handful of Japanese corporations and a Japanese business association.  Something tells me that this restaurant could become a steady hangout for those who miss their homeland.

Throughout the dinner, Asano worked with his wait staff, scurrying around the dining area and chatting with everyone who walked in the door.  He seemed busy, almost swamped...but very happy. 

Take my recommendation.  When you have a few hours to sit back and fill your stomach, visit Izakaya-wa for dinner and allow them to call the shots.  Give them the chance to satisfy your cravings with a handful of dinner items that offer a glimpse of Japan right off of the Beltway.

The parking lot itself provides more than enough room for every customer while the outdoor patio is ideal for a private party on the weekend.

Izakaya-wa will be officially open to the public for dinner only on Wednesday, October 16th.   At this time, they are continuing to develop new ideas and concepts.   

For more information about Izakaya-wa, please contact the owner, Akira Asano by visting their restaurant for more details on their menu or hours of operation.