Old and new tricks

Tokyo Steak House

3521 N. Freeway Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95834
Ste. 100

(916) 285-0000

Tokyo Steakhouse on N. Freeway Boulevard, in the soulless, tilt-up hell of Natomas, tries to do three things in a spacious bifurcated space. It does so with varying degrees of success.

To the left of the hostess station is a dining room and sushi bar with warm teak beams, dark-wood tables and black upholstery. Also available in this half is the usual panoply of Japanese dishes—grilled mackerel, udon, seafood tempura, katsu fried chicken, sukiyaki and the prodigious teriyaki chicken or beef “boat” with tempura on the side, spring roll, chicken wings and, somewhat oddly, potato salad. More like a cruise ship than a boat. And at $8.95 at lunch, a hearty steal.

The offerings in this space are what Tokyo does less well. There is something terribly wrong when there are no jalapeños behind a sushi counter to jazz up a roll. As a consequence, the recommended Rainbow roll, despite its colorful, alternating fish-slab exterior, is a bit bland. To remedy this, Kalia, the waitress, brings three small square bowls. One contains the beloved sriracha. Another, the house spicy dipping sauce. The third, shichimi togarashi, the red-pepper mix with black sesame seeds. Conditions improve significantly.

Beware: The beef sashimi appetizer is a bodacious, meant-to-be-shared fan of chewy beef on a massive leaf of lettuce. The peppery, way-past-ponzu dipping sauce has both heat and heft.

To the right of the hostess is what Tokyo does best: teppanyaki. There’s eight or so stainless-steel-vented, three-sided stations where the chef plies his craft. Thanks to Benihana and their ilk, there is an expectation in the United States that teppan must be accompanied by snappy bons mots and culinary pageantry. Salt and pepper shakers juggled and clattered. Knives twirled. Spatula-flicked food bits arching into the mouths of patrons. A smoking onion ring volcano. Not at Tokyo. In fact, they do teppan as it is practiced in the city of the restaurant’s namesake: seriously, intently and without burlesque accouterment. There is a lingering question, however, as to whether this is due to an unwavering commitment to the art of teppan or a lack of parlor-trick aptitude.

All the usual teppan suspects are represented: beef; chicken—plain, garlic, spicy, teriyaki; salmon, shrimp, scallops or combo thereof; veggie or the “house special.” What to choose? Dac biet, as they say in Vietnam. Toujours dac biet.

At Tokyo, the teppan “house special” is thinly sliced beef with a handful of pencil-long green onion spears. My companion, Kathleen, a longtime pal whose daughter was daughter Katie’s classmate at St. Francis High School, takes her review responsibilities seriously, opting for teriyaki salmon to ensure variety. Unwisely, she orders the steamed rice instead of the fried, which is made on the grill prior to the entrees. The steamed rice arrives well in advance of the chef appearing tableside. There’s also a hefty pause between the taking of orders and the arrival of a teeth-chattering salad with oniony rice vinegar/sesame oil dressing. The mushroom broth, while simple, is savory and soothing.

While there might not be swashbuckling spectacle by the chef, he does start things off with an eyebrow-singeing conflagration of several-foot-high flames. The butter adverse may wish to avoid the fried rice. Grand-sized globs are applied—despite a Sierra Madre-size range of sizzling, grease-rendering chopped bacon. The veggies in the rice seem prefab. Can any human cut a carrot into cubes or green beans into perfect inch long bits? Whatever the origin, the butter and bacon overwhelm. Rice, sautéed sprouts, slabs of beef, stir-fry vegetables—the large white plate is crammed. Kathleen’s salmon is crisp but juicy inside. The various dipping sauces enhance. As for the beef, there’s a reason it’s the house special.

Despite the stutter-steps in food delivery, servers are unflaggingly welcoming and accommodating. For someone who is a teppan trollop, Tokyo is certainly not the best trick turned but, at least at lunch, it’s frugal, friendly and filling.