Sushi has always been a go-to for my family, in part because we always tended to find ourselves in areas that were close to the water and had large Japanese populations (i.e., Seattle, New York, Honolulu, Orange County, etc.), but mostly because it’s delicious. So—while arranging my recent trip to Austin, Texas—when my friend, Gigi, suggested that we dine at Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen, I said “Sounds great,” though a voice in the back of my head wondered “Who goes to Texas for sushi?” Apparently, I do; and it was so good, I look forward to so doing, again!
Lucky Robot was opened by Jay Huang in 2011, on South Congress Avenue—the hip and happening SoCo area where Austin’s cool kids converge—where Huang’s dual devotions on the one hand, to sustainability and locally grown/produced foods, and on the other, to presenting his customers with clever takes on the classic Japanese culinary techniques he learned over 15 years studying under the likes of Benihana’s Master Shibazaki-san and later, Tyson Cole (the James Beard Award-winning chef and founder of Austin’s much-lauded Uchi), led in 2019, to Lucky Robot becoming the first sushi restaurant in Texas to be certified as sustainable by the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program. *
Lucky Robot is an intimate (read: small) restaurant, that is colorful and charming, and, since March, has featured their Lucky Blossoms Pop-Up—a 500lb canopy of cherry blossoms, hand-strung and installed by Fabian Salcedo of Monarch Florals—as a tribute to Japan’s annual Sakura Festival. There’s what I dubbed the “Re-fish-erator” (actually a Dryager Dry Aging fridge), that holds Lucky Robot’s dry-aged fish, as well as some very cool murals and artwork. Outside, where we sat, it was shady and a welcome respite from Austin’s summertime heat and humidity (especially once the sun had set). To give you an idea of just how popular Lucky Robot is, as we were checking in, someone asked the hostess how long it would be for a table or a seat at the counter and was informed that it would be three-and-a-half hours. Of course, it was a Saturday night, but still… You’ve gotta be doing something special for folks to willingly wait that long for anything!
Part of that specialness is the food, which while very much Japanese, features a distinct Peruvian influence (a fusion-style of cuisine known as nikkei). As Chef Huang once explained to Forbes, “Japanese cuisine is clean and balanced. Peruvian adds the pop, elevates it to the next level, and gives the food a different dimension. That is what’s exciting about what we are doing—Japanese precision with the flavors of Peru.” **
Everything we ate was pretty great, but some of the dishes were downright fantastic, and deserve highlighting. We started with the Panko Onion Rings (with tonkatsu and house-made spicy mayonnaise) which were crispy and dipped wonderfully in both sauces; and then moved onto the Chicken Karaage (Japanese fried chicken thigh, onion, shiso, and ponzu verde). I’m a big fan of Chicken Karaage—and fried chicken, in general—but none of us had ever heard of, let alone eaten, ponzu verde. It was wonderful! Turns out it’s an in-house creation combining the ponzu familiar to any sushi aficionado with the spicy green Peruvian sauce known as aji verde, and it elevated an already delicious dish into a truly memorable one. Also, the ponzu verde tasted great on the onion rings, too!
Next came the Summer Cebiche (with white fish, watermelon leche de tigre, sweet baby corn, and cilantro), and no, that’s not a typo, but rather the Peruvian spelling of ceviche. Gigi and Tariq said this was delicious—and Lucky Robot’s general manager, Samantha, told me that it’s her favorite dish on the menu—but I passed, due to my allergy to cilantro. It was particularly photogenic, though!
We had a couple of different maki rolls, that were basically variations on the same theme, one with wagyu beef and the other with yellowtail; the R2D2 (with wagyu beef, green onion, avocado, yuzu kosho, crispy shallots, sesame, and cashew huancaina; hold the avocado, please) and the Hira Hira (with yellowtail, avocado, green onion, crispy shallot, yuzu miso, lemongrass soy, cilantro, and sesame; hold the avocado and cilantro, please). Both were very tasty; though, if I had to pick one, the R2D2 was more to my liking. Also, it just makes sense for a restaurant named Lucky Robot, to name one of its rolls after everybody’s favorite astromech droid from the Star Wars saga. What’s more, the name made us all smile, which was obviously the point.
The dishes that really knocked us all out, though, were the exotic nigiri that Tariq ordered for all of us. First came a pairing of masu (ocean trout) and mekajiki (swordfish) where the masu was prepared with nickiri and sesame seeds, and the mekajiki was lightly torched and topped with chimichurri. I thought both were lovely, though I preferred the mekajiki.
The second nigiri dish was kamasu (barracuda), and—seared and served with orange zest—this was perhaps one of the greatest pieces of sushi I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. Enhanced by the searing, the fish was tender and flavorful, while that hint of orange zest elevated the whole thing to perfection. Seriously, this was one brilliant piece of nigiri (and I’m not just saying that because Heart’s “Barracuda” is a longtime fave; though I did hum a few bars while eating this).
After the kamasu, you’d think it’d be all downhill, but our final nigiri (again a pairing) was great, and featured kingu sake toro (fatty salmon belly) and maguro (bigeye tuna). I’d never had salmon toro, and actually had been under the impression that toro was, by definition, fatty tuna. Regardless of the etymology, that kingu sake toro is one tasty piece of fish. As for the maguro—bigeye tuna is one of the two species of fish known as ‘ahi, in Hawaiian (the other being yellowfin tuna)—it was a yummy substitute for the highly overfished bluefin tuna. ***
All told, between the colorful pop décor, accommodating staff, and delectable food, Lucky Robot is a must for any sushi-lovers who find themselves in Austin. Just make sure you book your reservation in advance!
Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen
South Congress Avenue (SoCo) | Austin, TX
Click HERE for info
Get into it!
[Editor’s Notes: * Lucky Robot is one of only two restaurants in Texas to be certified as sustainable by the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program; the other being Cured in San Antonio // ** Forbes (12 Sep 2019), “Why You Should Visit This Austin Restaurant Where Peru Meets Japan” by Claudia Alarcón // *** Bluefin tuna has been placed on the “Avoid” list by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” program, as well as on the “Red List” by the Blue Ocean Institute and Greenpeace.]