Restaurant Reviews

A Former Football Coach Serves Underrated, Ultra Traditional Japanese Fare at Wa Kubota in Plano

Kamonegi : Japanese-style roasted duck, served chilled with a side of green onions and Japanese Karashi musturd
Kamonegi : Japanese-style roasted duck, served chilled with a side of green onions and Japanese Karashi musturd Alison McLean
Dallasites are spoiled for great Japanese food. Thanks to the restaurant empire of Teiichi Sakurai and his protégés, a constellation of world-class restaurants serve sushi, ramen and robatayaki in our city. They all begin with the letter T: First came Teppo Yakitori and Sushi Bar, then Tei Tei Robata Bar, then Tei-An and most recently Ten Ramen.

Other oases of great sashimi and takoyaki dot our town, too, such as Irving’s beloved izakaya Mr. Max. But many of our region’s Asian Americans live 20 miles to the north of all those dining rooms. Where are employees working at Toyota’s North American headquarters, just off Legacy Drive in Plano, supposed to go for first-rate sushi at lunchtime?

The answer is an excellent restaurant that most people south of Interstate 635 have not even heard of: Wa Kubota.

click to enlarge Wa Kubota is a necessary go-to in Plano. - ALISON MCLEAN
Wa Kubota is a necessary go-to in Plano.
Alison McLean
Opened in April 2017 in the shadow of the Sam Rayburn Tollway, Wa Kubota is a strip mall hideaway with an unusual background. Owner Kaoru Kubota came to the food business from a career as a passionate advocate for American football. In Japan, Kubota has coached college and semipro teams and provided color commentary on local broadcasts of American games. He also acted as a sort of local distributor of football knowledge, teaching lessons he learned from visits to NFL summer camps and mentor coaches like Tom Landry and Bob Stoops.

The only sign of football fandom at his restaurant, which is just a few traffic lights away from The Star in Frisco, is the college game on TV on a Saturday night visit. But there are sleek private dining rooms with discreet sliding doors, display cases filled with tapestries and masks, a museum-like setting of tea service items and separate bars for sushi and drinking. Look up at the ceiling, too: It’s painted sky blue and finished with little clouds.

Wa Kubota’s menu attempts to encompass a little bit of everything, and mostly it succeeds. The best items are those which are most traditionally Japanese, whether they are pressed sushi pieces or bowls of miso soup.

click to enlarge While sushi is a highlight, Wa Kubota has plenty to offer. - ALISON MCLEAN
While sushi is a highlight, Wa Kubota has plenty to offer.
Alison McLean
Start with a salad made with mozuku, a dark brown, nearly black seaweed from Okinawa ($6). The soy dressing is light and gently tangy, and the bowl is topped with tiny puffs of crisped starch for texture. Miso soup at Wa Kubota can be ordered one of two unusual ways: with a savory mushroom stock or with a half-dozen clams nestled in their shells at the bottom of the bowl (each $6.50). The clams, in particular, impart a savory depth of flavor that’s perfect for cool winter nights.

It’s a pleasure to see kamonegi on the menu, since this dish of roasted and thinly sliced duck is available almost nowhere else in Dallas. Each piece of rare-pink duck has a kiss of smoke flavor and a thin strip of fat along the edge; the only garnishes offered, or needed, are slivers of green onion and a dollop of spicy Japanese karashi mustard ($10).

There’s another great appetizer here, too: takowasa ($8). A lot of Japanese restaurants serve this bowl of raw octopus chopped and mixed with fresh wasabi. There’s not a lot to takowasa; it barely counts as a recipe. The key is to cut the octopus finely enough that it’s easy to chew, then toss it with the best wasabi you can find. Not many places in North Texas have better wasabi than Wa Kubota.

Sushi and sashimi here is of consistently high quality. One night, we sampled a few pieces of salmon nigiri, the meat as soft as butter and the rice perfectly seasoned ($20), before moving on to a series of exquisitely made rolls.

click to enlarge Five pieces of chef's choice nigiri - ALISON MCLEAN
Five pieces of chef's choice nigiri
Alison McLean
The toro lover roll might be the most indulgent sushi roll in the Dallas area, or at least the most indulgent roll that’s worth the $30 price. Slices of richly marbled toro are rolled inside and along the top of each piece. With this much fat content, the tuna is as soft pink as spring flowers. On each piece, Wa Kubota’s sushi chefs add a teaspoon or so of scallions.

There’s a slightly more affordable way to sample toro: Order two long, fatty slices as sushi, draped over subtly flavored rice and a tiny, just-noticeable pinch of wasabi ($18, but the pieces are big).

Wa Kubota’s more traditional makizushi rolls are well-constructed, too. With nori rolled around the outside, they include fillings such as freshwater eel ($10) or fried soft-shell crab ($15) — plus small dollops of roe, both for added flavor and a pop of bright orange color. Futomaki, with its vegetarian filling of shiitake, cucumber and egg, is a tightly made and refreshing bite ($10).

On another visit, the sushi and sashimi specials included fresh giant clams, plus salty, briny mounds of salmon roe piled onto rice and wrapped with nori ($8 for two). But the winner of the night was a pressed battera roll, made by folding ginger, shiso leaves and kelp into the rice, adding a portion of mackerel on top and pressing the roll into a flat rectangular shape ($18).

Grilled yellowtail collar salted and served with side of ponzu - ALISON MCLEAN
Grilled yellowtail collar salted and served with side of ponzu
Alison McLean
Just two dishes we tried at Wa Kubota proved disappointing. One was, perhaps, our own fault: One doesn’t order a volcano roll expecting subtlety ($20). But the red-hot pepper paste on top of each piece was so overwhelming, we scraped it off in order to taste the two layers of tuna underneath.

The other letdown was an excursion into the grilling portion of the menu, with a yellowtail collar ($18) that dried out without crisping up, so the meat was overcooked without the smoky, charcoal-scented goodness that marks fish collars at Tei Tei Robata.

Wa Kubota has a whole series of lunch specials to appeal to office workers from Legacy Town Center and Plano’s northwestward sprawl of corporate headquarters. But at dinner, the restaurant grows quiet; even on a Saturday night, the dining room is less than half full and the private rooms go unused.

The rest of the Dallas area apparently just doesn’t know what they’re missing. The northern suburbs in particular can’t rival Wa Kubota for traditional Japanese fare — futomaki, takowasa, even potato salad with slivers of cucumber and bacon — served with graciousness in an elegant space. Dinner service here should be much busier than it is, especially during football season.

Wa Kubota, 8448 Parkwood Blvd. #700, Plano. 469-606-5222, Open 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart