When you think about Austin’s dining options, my guess is traditional Japanese isn’t the first that comes to mind. I get it. This is the city of barbecue and tacos. But if you’re looking for an authentic, adventurous, casual-yet-traditional, and entirely memorable dining experience, I have the place for you: east Austin’s Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya.
The Man Behind the Sushi Bar
Owner and head chef Kazu Fukumoto started from humble beginnings in Japan and worked his way up. Today, people wait hours to snag a seat at his sushi bar and watch him work. “I love talking to the customers,” Fukumoto says. “Once you have confidence in your sushi, you can recommend, teach, and educate them. That’s the fun part.”
As the name implies, Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya isn’t just a sushi restaurant. People come for the yakitori (Japanese barbecue) and atmosphere (“izakaya” roughly translates to “gastropub”).
For an Austin restaurant that serves traditional Japanese food, the atmosphere here is anything but formal. Sure, Fukumoto doesn’t have spicy tuna or California rolls, but the team isn’t offended if a customer happens to ask for either. Soy sauce and wasabi are available if you want them, and so is silverware for the non-chopstick-inclined patrons. “Anyone can come in and have fun. We’re not strict,” Fukumoto tells me. “We are casual.”
Starters at Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya
During my last visit, I started with the goma ae, a mix of seasonal local vegetables. The okra, Brussels sprouts, greens, tomatoes, and asparagus were fresh and crunchy, and the toasted sesame dressing underneath was sweet and delicious.
Then I dug into the most popular dish, inspired by Fukumoto’s mother, the karaage. This is not your everyday fried chicken. It is so crispy and full of flavor, and that’s before you dip it in the homemade garlic ginger sauce.
Next up, I tried the Sawagani River crab. I’m told people try these little crabs for the adventure of it, but then order more. Fukumoto has them shipped from his home country, then they are fried and eaten whole.
The first piece of sushi I tried was the maguro zuke–seared tuna, marinated for days in a sweet soy sauce. Next was a piece of snapper sushi that had a distinct citrus flavor. Fukumoto tells me the fish are fed a diet that includes orange peel, which explains the delicious, unique flavor.
The piece of king salmon sushi was almost too beautiful to eat, but I’m glad I did. The salmon Fukumoto uses is grown in the cleanest water in New Zealand and it’s a joy to devour. The kampachi sushi, Hawaiian amberjack, was a flavor I’ve never had, but it was predictably delicious like the other pieces of sushi.
Then I tried the sea urchin. Fukumoto tells me the north part of Japan has the best sea urchin in the world and, of course, that’s where he gets it. It’s sweet and creamy, and literally melted in my mouth. Finally, I tried the Japanese Wagyu beef 85 grade. Just trust me and order this when you visit.
At Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya, they use a special charcoal called binchotan that gives the meat a smoky flavor. “You can tell the difference right away,” Fukumoto tells me. “I’m proud to say this is traditional.”
Among the yakitori selections, I started with the king salmon skewer, one of the most popular orders. It’s marinated in sake lees, the leftovers from the sake-making process, which adds to the salmon’s sweet and smoky flavor. The bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms exploded with flavor in my mouth.
The bonjiri (chicken tail) had textures that paired perfectly with the housemade sauce. I also enjoyed the Brussels sprouts and the negima, chicken thigh with green onions. But I have to say the buta bara, a miso-marinated pork belly, was my favorite of the whole Yakitori menu.
Drinks and Happy Hour
From someone who usually orders sake with one word, “hot” or “cold,” I knew I had a lot to learn while sitting at the bar. Luckily, I received the type of education the staff at Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya prides itself on providing.
I was served three types of chilled sake and would gladly order all of them again. The Demon Slayer, a crowd-pleaser, is well-balanced and contains sweetness along with strong hints of dryness. Next I tried the Kinushiro, which is on the sweeter side, yet just as delicious.
Finally, I sipped the Kikumasamune “Taru Sake,” my favorite. It’s aged in cedar casks. The flavor comes in waves, hitting the palate in different places. I tried it heated, as well. Interestingly enough, the flavor and aroma changed entirely. The heat brings out the rich umami flavor in a lot of sakes, I learned. When chilled, sakes tend to be sweeter and have more of a bite.
Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya offers happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and all day Tuesday. Happy hour consists of $2 off every drink and some discounted food options.
Come here with an open mind and you will leave happy. But there is one rule: no takeout orders. Fukumoto won’t allow the food, so fresh and vibrant when prepared, to be eaten anywhere but in the restaurant.
On a shelf above the bar sits a Daruma doll, a Japanese symbol of perseverance and good luck. When Fukumoto opened the restaurant, he colored in one of the two white eyes, denoting the selection of a life goal he hoped to achieve. “This is my first restaurant. We’re trying every day. I have amazing people who work hard and take care of me,” he says.
Over sips of hot and chilled sake, with a full stomach, I learned something else. Server and sake educator Robyn Linton tells me Fukumoto colored in the Daruma doll’s other white eye about a year ago, symbolizing that his goal had been achieved.
To learn more before you go, take 30 seconds to watch the video below.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you tried Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya yet?
Jonas White has lived all over the country, but loves his new home city of Austin. He spends his time editing for a Danish publishing house and exploring the food scene, working his way down the list of recommendations he’s received. On weekends, Jonas can often be found showing off the city to his out-of-town friends who seem to always be visiting.