Attacking Macs with chopsticks

The thing I like most about Americans--about being an American--is that we alone among the world's cultures really know how and what to eat. We consume food with speed, gusto, and purposeful inattention. For us, eating is nothing more than scheduled maintenance to be performed while immersed in other things. That explains why we chew greasy fries while doing 80 on Central Expressway, or chomp and smack lips into the phone, oblivious to the frightening, twisted sounds that come out at the other end after the feeding process has been filtered through miles of Bell system wiring.

By and large, we Americans don't dine; we inhale fuel constructed from three crucial food groups: fat, cholesterol, and sugar. And these groups provide two very important sensations pivotal to busy American lifestyles: fullness and energy. They also have given rise to one of the most important industries in the U.S. economy: fast food.

Now, you won't find much indigenous fast food among nations credited with creating the world's greatest cuisines. The French like to luxuriate over food for hours, and besides, sauteed rabbit with prunes doesn't go very well with cheese fries and a chocolate shake. And just try getting a woodcock souffle with chestnuts into a cardboard hamburger box. That's why it took someone like Ronald McDonald to convince the French that modern dining can take place in as little as four minutes and still be rich and full-flavored through the use of exotic spices such as canola oil.

But the fast-food segment has had some market shocks rattle its chicken nuggets as of late. Price wars are driving down profits. New menu creations are greeted with yawns. Parents are fighting over happy meal toys, or are threatening lawsuits because some of these cheesy playthings are "gender specific." And steaming burgers have become popular vacation destinations for E. coli bacteria.

Into this market turmoil comes Yoshi's, a Phoenix-based Japanese fast-food enterprise that has ambitious plans of opening up to 500 outlets across the United States over the next several years. Launched in 1989 by Yoshihiro Natori, Yoshi's has six outlets in Phoenix, and Natori is pushing a major franchising effort with the goal of making it the first national Japanese fast-food chain.

Observers doubt he can accomplish this. Nevertheless, Natori has forged ahead, granting the franchising rights for both Dallas and Houston to a group headed by a Phoenix attorney who plans to open 14 restaurants in each city within seven years. Dallas became the first test of the concept outside its Phoenix cradle when a Yoshi's opened in Addison this June.

The first thing that struck me about the place was the logo: a solid circle with the underscored name scrawled over it at an upward angle, the "Y" formed by chopsticks. But how can any food consumed with chopsticks be fast? Sure, in Asian countries chopsticks are used to move food from bowl to mouth at a furious pace. But this is America, and in America fast food is fist food: utensil choreography is antithetical to the whole mission of the cuisine. The second thing I noticed was the atmosphere. Not so much the clean counter, the bright red tabletops, the black chairs, or the screaming yellow and red tiles covering the ordering counter area. It was the people. There were no overweight couples with toddlers ordering Kobe beef and brown rice happy meals that include death-ray Godzilla action figures in the Styrofoam bowl of miso soup. No, these were snappy looking young adults with cell phones, laptops, and highly developed chopstick skills laying out elaborate marketing strategies for the next high-tech doodad. I have seen the future of fast food, and in it there are no curly-red-haired clowns, square burger patties, or plastic pouches of taco sauce that seem to replicate like personal injury lawyers. Instead, this future is filled with rice bowls, sushi rolls, and foil pouches of soy sauce.

Yoshi's has a fairly simple menu, except for the part where they list the fat grams for each dish, which means you'll want to bring a calculator so you can gauge your level of guilt. The core of the menu is those rice bowls that include a variety of chicken dishes plus a vegetable and a beef offering. The teriyaki chicken was a generous portion of juicy, tender chicken slathered with a light, lively, slightly sweet teriyaki sauce and dusted with sesame seeds on a bed of well-cooked, sticky rice. The vegetable bowl--broccoli, zucchini, carrots, and cabbage--worked almost as well except it was a little short on veggies, and the broccoli florets (there were just two) seemed a bit undercooked.

Among the sides, the pork and vegetable egg roll--an item often greasier than a Capitol Hill lobbyist--was a standout with a crispy crust void of the tiniest hint of oil. The house salad--fresh, crisp lettuce and carrots topped with a thick, tangy ginger sauce--was refreshing and flavorful, especially for 39 cents. Not as impressive was the Udon soup: a thick tangle of gummy square noodles with zucchini, carrots, and broccoli in a flavorless broth.

The thing that seems the most difficult to pull off in a fast-food setting is sushi. But Yoshi's does it well, mostly by avoiding those items that would suffer miserably outside the hands of a skilled sushi chef. Instead, Yoshi's serves imaginative house creations like the Alaskan roll, which contains pieces of unsushi-like cooked salmon. The Hollywood roll, a spicy version of a simple California roll, was fresh and supple with imitation crab, avocado, cucumber, and a coating of toasted sesame seeds, which added a nutty crunch to an otherwise soft texture. Substituting fowl for sea flesh, the Yoshi's roll creates a whole new flavor range for these tightly bound rice wads with fresh, moist chicken breast spiked with a good spice kick, avocado, lettuce, and carrots.

Yoshi's calls its fast food "the healthy alternative." It might more appropriately be called the edible alternative. The food is clean, simple, and light, with genuine flavors that are never forced or larded up with some taste mask to compensate for inadequate preparation. And who knows? Within a few years, if this new variation on rapid ingestion takes hold, Americans might get so good at chopstick manipulation they'll be able to put away a teriyaki chicken dish with the same blazing speed and blinding inattention normally given to Big Macs. If not, Yoshi's has plastic utensils, too.

At its core, barbecue is the art of taking bad cuts of meat and, through the use of slow cooking and smoking techniques, rendering it delicious. It's a form of culinary virtuosity that can take pigs' feet and make them taste like steaks. And transcendental barbecue is one of those things that every state or region in the south likes to lay claim to: there's Memphis, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kansas City forms of barbecue, to name just a few. And there'd probably be Wisconsin barbecue too if cheddar cheese curds could stand up to slow cooking in smoldering birch chips, or maybe even a California barbecue if daffy cultural philosophies could fuel low-temperature fires in 55-gallon drum cookers.

But this pair of states and most of the rest of them don't have their own indigenous species of this brawny form of cookery. So thank God Texas does, or a lot of cattle would be in danger of losing their free room and board. What separates a Texas barbecue from, say, the stuff lawyers and state house cronies in Little Rock eat to celebrate lucrative real estate deals with federally insured S&L deposits? It's all in the meat, the wood, and the sauce. Stripped down to its barest essence, Texas barbecue is beef brisket smoked with either mesquite or hickory chips and then slathered with a warm, tomato-based sauce. Barbecue from other areas incorporates different cuts of meat; cooks it in smoldering pecan, oak, apple, or cherry wood chips; and seasons it with sauces that are often cold and heavily infused with vinegar, mustard, or molasses.

Texas barbecue was invented by pioneer cookers like the legendary Red Bryan, who started in the barbecue business back in the early part of this century in Oak Cliff. To capitalize on this historical thread, Michael DeWitt, a noted authority on Texas barbecue who cut his teeth at Sonny Bryan's, and oilman Steve Hall recently launched Red's Barbecue in Hillside Village on Mockingbird Lane. The space formerly held at various times the Blues Cafe, Billy Blues, and the Blue Ribbon. "We've changed the color, so hopefully we'll have better luck," says DeWitt. But Red's will have to worry about a lot more than just color if it doesn't want to fall away like a piece of slow-cooked meat from a baby back rib bone.

Not that Red's doesn't do a lot of things right. Barbecue, at its heart, is a centerpiece of social interaction. And the folks at Red's are as warm, friendly, and accommodating as any you'd find at a restaurant that places a premium on hospitality. The 5,000-square-foot space is as clean and homey as it is quirky. An old saddle sits by the door. The bar is done up like an old general store counter. Faux bricks and tiles made of aluminum cover booths and walls. Cartoon caricatures of pigs, turkeys, chickens, and a steer are painted on the east wall near the ceiling, and a long shelf stretching across its length is jammed with an assortment of antiques, crates, and other junk--kind of an ongoing-garage-sale-in-the-diner motif. The place even has a video arcade.

The first thing you notice as you enter the space and make your way to the counter in the back to place your order is the scent of rich hickory smoke, an aroma that never lets up. And to go with that scent, Red's offers pork and pork ribs, chicken, ham, turkey, and sausage along with the Texas staple of brisket. Sides include coleslaw, baked beans, pinto beans, collard greens, and potatoes, and you can order dinners with one, two, three, four, or five meats and two sides. The rich, piquant sauce--cooked in a three-part process using lemon, onions, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce--is served up in seven-ounce long neck Corona beer bottles that can be picked up from a tub of warm water near the counter.

The overwhelming characteristic of Red's barbecue creations, however, is desiccation: They contain a disturbing lack of succulence almost across the board. The dry chicken had very little flavor; the dry beef was overcooked and mealy; and the pork, slightly more moist and flavorful than the other meats, was cold. The sausage was the only saving grace. A fine-grained beef and pork mixture from Rudolf's Market and Sausage Factory in Deep Ellum, the reddish tube was lean, tangy, moist, and loaded with flavor.

Some of the sides were standouts too: the pinto beans were creamy, saucy, and spicy with chewy shreds of meat mixed in; the corn bread--light and spongy like a twinkie with chunks of corn and bits of pepper scattered about--was sweet, moist, and packed with flavor; and the mashed squash, a vegetable of the day, was creamy, sweet, and satisfying. The fries, however, were dry and overcooked with an unappetizing texture. Another solid disappointment was an opulent slice of carrot cake that looked like it would do for root confections what the corn bread did for ground kernels. But the icing was like plaster, and the cake was dry (surprise!) and void of flavor. A lot of the stuff at Red's could use a little Oil of Olay.

If the art of barbecue is taking bad cuts of meat (or cake) and rendering them delicious, then Red's has a long way to go before their pigs' feet taste like steak.

Yoshi's. 5100 Belt Line, Suite 402; (972) 503-7080. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m.-7 p.m.

Red's Barbecue. 316 Hillside Village at Mockingbird Lane and Abrams; (214) 827-9559. Open for breakfast, Sunday-Saturday 6 a.m.-10 a.m. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Thursday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Teriyaki chicken $3.19
Vegetable bowl $2.79
Egg roll $1.19
Udon soup $3.19
Hollywood roll $1.89
Alaskan roll $2.39
Yoshi's roll $2.39
House salad $.39

Red's Barbecue:
2 Meats/2 veggies $7.25
3 Meats/2 veggies $8.25
Ribs add a buck


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