Japanese food is deliciously ubiquitous—you can find it everywhere from strip-mall restaurants offering bento lunchtime fixes to trendy ramen joints vying for the title of slurp kings in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Austin. (Incidentally, we crowned a slurp king ourselves when we named the best ramen restaurants in America.) But what makes a place stand apart? What makes it one of the best Japanese restaurants in America? The restaurants that form our list serve incredibly fresh sushi and sashimi (and yes, some overlap with our list of the best sushi restaurants in America), often with innovative twists. They offer expertly crafted traditional dishes, as well as modern takes that fuse American techniques and flavors with ancient practices. And we love them a little extra if they serve great sake and Japanese and craft beer. Join us in raising a glass (kanpai!) to the best Japanese restaurants in America. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter
Best Japanese restaurants in America
A favorite of Vegas and visiting chefs, Raku is housed unceremoniously in a Chinatown strip mall, but it's one of the most compelling reasons to get off the strip. No sushi is served in the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant's diminutive digs, just Japanese favorites like silky housemade tofu, exotic offerings like Kobe beef liver sashimi, and plenty of comfort food—from udon noodle soups to donburi (egg-and-rice bowls). You'll also find a long lineup of items destined for the robata grill, which uses charcoal imported from Japan for just the right degree of crispness: everything from Iberico pork to apple-marinated lamb chop to to enoki mushroom with bacon. If you crave something sweet after all that fine imported soy sauce, head to Raku Sweets, a desserts-only restaurant, just across the parking lot.
In 2011, Naomichi Yasuda shocked devotees of his lauded midtown stalwart—open since 1999—when he announced that he would be returning to Japan. Fans breathed a sigh of relief when he turned the simple maple counter over to longtime kitchen lieutenants Tatsuya Sekiguchi and Mitsuru Tamura, the latter of whom is still there. Reserve a seat at the bar of this bamboo-clad space to watch Mitsu—as he is affectionately called by regulars—dispatch purist renditions of nigiri onto wooden trays in elegant, efficient movements. Like the old master, Tamura eschews over-the-top combos, letting the primo seafood and their superior knife skills shine. He tops rounds of lightly vinegar-moistened rice with beautiful seafood, like a meltingly soft slab of fatty tuna; a milky disk of sweet sea scallop; or baby purple squid brightened with shiso and wasabi. That top-shelf sourcing doesn’t come cheap, and reservations are booked out far in advance, but even without its namesake toque, this storied sushi den is still worth the price of admission: Yasuda would be proud.
In the pretty seaside village of Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Sushi Ran has been turning out what many consider to be the Bay Area's best sushi for nearly 30 years. The sushi menu is executed by 2013 World Sushi Cup–winning chef Taka Toshi and Michelin-starred chef Seiji Wakabayashi, who together deliver impeccably fresh, maki, nigiri and sashimi dishes that are miniature works of art. The equally delightful non-sushi side of the menu is worth a look, with specialties such as kaffir lime–roasted sea bass, scallop-chive dumplings and wagyu beef carpaccio with arugula and micro red cabbage.
The restaurant, a collaboration with Osaka’s Tsuji Cooking Academy, brings kaiseki cuisine—the intricate, formal multicourse meals at the pinnacle of haute Japanese cooking—into a surprisingly relaxed and accessible setting. The dishes, gorgeously plated on handmade Japanese stoneware, flow like parts of a symphony, from muted petals of raw kombu-wrapped sea bass one night to a rich and restorative black truffle custard, with crab underneath and sweet mirin on top. A feast here builds toward a subtle climax, asparagus tips with pristine lobes of uni leading to silky black cod with watercress sauce and crumbled pistachios. Beautiful pink slivered duck breast with smoky charred eggplant yields to earthy stewed pork cheeks (an inspired swap for ubiquitous belly) with cider reduction and green apple puree.
Imanas Tei, Honolulu, HI
This traditionally decorated local favorite near the University of Hawaii serves some of the freshest seafood you'll find anywhere, so recently plucked from the ocean that it quivers and glistens on the plate. But sushi isn't the only reason to head to Imanas Tei—there's also excellent shabu-shabu, that classic dish of boil-your-own vegetables and thinly sliced, marbled beef served with ponzu sauce, and nabe, or Japanese hot pot. There's a nice sake lineup to accompany all this as well. Reservations are an excellent idea here, or you may have to camp out quite a while on the benches out front awaiting your table.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/bionicgrrrl
Remove your shoes and slide into a pair of slippers to enter Sakedokoro Makoto, a pint-size wood-paneled restaurant that's a favorite of Japanese embassy staffers. The emphasis here is on exquisite seafood, whether served as sushi (midday only), sashimi, or creative composed dishes. Lunch is a terrific bargain at $17-$18 for a bento box or sushi platter, while the omakase dinner runs $100-plus per person before drinks. And since "Sakedokoro" means "place of sake," you'll definitely want to order some to accompany your meal. Reservations required.
Shunji almost looks like it could belong in the Shire—with its circular frame and low ceiling, Bilbo Baggins would feel right at home. Not so Shire-like is the fantastic sushi inside this Pico Boulevard restaurant, including the well-curated omakase available at lunch and dinner. But first, ask about the fried oysters, which come four to an order and will convert even the oyster averse among us with its soft, pillowy exterior shielding a juicy helping of mollusk inside. The lunch omakase special—seven pieces for $23—might have you trying scallop and salmon, blue fin tuna and mackerel, flying fish and more. When ordering a la carte, though, the Santa Barbara uni is a strong contender, as is the yellowtail. Chef Shunji Nakao knows exactly how much wasabi to hide in each scoop of rice, and when your plate has been picked clean, a steaming cup of green tea helps ease your way into the outside world—LA, not the Shire, in case you needed a reminder.
Who would've suspected that one of the most recognized contemporary sushi restaurants in the country would be in Texas, with a white-guy chef-owner, no less? It's true: The toque in question, Tyson Cole, has won numerous awards since the original Uchi opened in Austin in 2003, including Food & Wine's best new chefs of 2005 list, and a James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Southwest award in 2011—and he's since gone on to open locations in Dallas and Houston, plus Uchiko, a sibling restaurant, in Austin. Fans flock to the original Uchi, located in a house on South Lamar Blvd, for top-notch fish, including some harder to find cuts, served as-is for purists or in creative renditions like the "hakujin" roll, with salmon, white asparagus, pear, and fried apple puree. (There's excellent Wagyu beef, too, for the cowboy-boots crowd.) The daily "sake social" happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. offers drinks starting from $3 and rolls and snacks in the $4-$8 range.
With a name like this, Uni should have some memorable sea urchin dishes, and it certainly does—the Uni Spoon is the stuff cravings are made of, with yuzu, a generous lobe of the namesake delicacy, quail-egg yolk, and caviar (that's three kinds of egg, for those who are paying attention). Try eating just one. The rest of the menu is equally inventive, from a starter of lamb laab (a Northern Thai chopped-meat salad) to duck carnitas served with scallion pancakes. Beloved local restaurateur Ken Oringer (Coppa, Toro) recently closed his celebrated Clio restaurant after two decades and expanded Uni, formerly relegated to the lounge, into the full restaurant space.
While Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous restaurant is nothing new—his Japanese-Peruvian food is now global—this Nobu outpost is a sight to behold, with a minimalist, zen-meets-the-Pacific space and an oceanside setting that leaves diners speechless. Just as stunning is what's on your plate: mini tacos are filled with creamy uni, rib-eye is topped with truffle butter, and tangy Lobster Shiitake Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing all showcase elegant raw preparations that bypass the usual sushi and sashimi.
Osaka-born chef Tomohiro Naito started his career as a seafood buyer for a Japanese company, where he honed his eye for the world's best fish. As a sushi chef, he eventually rose to the rank of omakase chef at Nobu in Las Vegas, where he wowed diners with his creative tasting menus. He eventually moved to Atlanta and opened Tomo in an elegant space, with a commitment to serving the best ingredients possible. You'll find a few obscure offerings, including kohada, a.k.a. Japanese gizzard shad (a kind of fish) on the nigiri and sashimi menu. The rest of the lineup is full of delicacies such as yellowtail collar, a particularly prized cut, and monkfish liver, sometimes called the foie gras of the sea.
The Boka group's (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others) foray into Japanese fare is a reminder that the cuisine goes far beyond sushi. The sushi is excellent, though cooked dishes from Mark Hellyar consistently amaze—the namesake momotaro tartare melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread, while roasted crab legs come to the table dripping in butter. A simple cedar-roasted sea bream, spritzed with lemon and drizzled with shiso dressing, is a testament to how clean and fresh Hellyar's flavors are.
The West Town Japanese restaurant impresses with food from chefs Ajay Popli and Nelson Vinansaca. The pair and their team turn out pristine sushi and sashimi, along with noodle bowls like the accomplished, pork belly-laden Arami ramen and other well-composed dishes. While we usually go for beer with sushi, a smart cocktail list includes seaweed-infused Japanese whiskey with yuzu-pineapple bitters, a thoughtful way to start the evening.
More bar than proper restaurant, dim, divey Tanuki nonetheless turns out a super affordable omakase menu of unexpected creations with nary a piece of sushi in sight—in fact, the motto, posted at the entrance, is "No Sushi. No Children." What you'll get instead is a choice of omakase (chef's choice dinner) ranging from $15 on up, followed by a parade of dishes that might include trout melting into a seaweed butter sauce, kimchi mac-and-cheese, different seafoods including perhaps something pickled, possibly even duck hearts. It goes on and on, which is basically how a meal unfolds here, always with more food than seems possible for the price. Some people complain about the waits (long), the movies (Japanese porn), or the inflexibility of the set menu (sorry, no dietary restrictions), but if you can get beyond all of that, you're in for a terrific meal.
In Minneapolis Masu Sushi & Robata gets a lot of buzz for its sushi, but there's much more than that on the menu. The izakaya lineup offers small bites like a quail-egg shooter or mushroom tempura with cucumber, mayo and scallion. Meanwhile, an entire robata (Japanese grill) section lets you select everything from cauliflower to chicken meatballs to bacon-wrapped dates for the fire. Sushi-wise, Masu serves only the sustainable stuff, with plenty of fun rolls. It's hard to say whether the food or the decor is more impressive however; the original Minneapolis location is decked out impressively with lime-green accents and pop-art touches wherever you look; additional locations can be found in the suburb of Apple Valley and the Mall of America.
Don't expect to find sushi, ramen, or any other familiar Japanese foods a this "Western-style Japanese pub." Fort St. George is dedicated to yoshoku, a Western-influenced style of Japanese food that originated in the late 19th century and gained particular popularity after World War II. There's spaghetti 10 ways, including with tomato sauce with garlic mayonnaise or cod roe and kimchee; hamburger with soy sauce; and curry with a choice of 14 toppings. More distinctively Japanese is Doria, a rice casserole with tomato or white sauce and any number of fillings, including bacon-and-egg or eggplant-and-chicken. Since you'll definitely need a beverage or two for these salt bombs, wash them down with a speciality cocktail like the Bloody Samurai, a Bloody Mary perked up with wasabi.
O-Ku, Charleston, SC
In a classic Charleston space with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, O-Ku turns out exquisite sushi and other creative Asian fare. Two dozen kinds of raw fish grace the nigiri and sashimi menu, while rolls and other dishes offer playful flavor combinations. The potato roll is stuffed with tempura shrimp, avocado and shoestring potatoes to delightfully crunchy effect, while the Green Eggs and Hamachi Hako features spicy tuna, asparagus and wasabi tobiko (the green eggs in question). We're not the only ones who love this place: Esquire included it in the magazine's Best New Restaurants list in 2010, while others have called it one of the best sushi restaurants in the U.S. Don't miss the excellent menu of sake, cocktails, and wine, either.