It’s been ages since I sat with friends around a hissing hibachi table while an animated teppanyaki chef entertained us with his impressive culinary skills. Covid might have slammed the brakes on those wild and carefree feasts for many, but the food is still well within reach. In fact, the closest I’ve come to reliving that gratifying experience was when I ordered food from Soba Asian Kitchen on Coventry. Drowning succulent morsels of sautéed shrimp in too much yum-yum sauce and then chasing it with aggressively salted fried rice – all while in the comfort of one’s own home – really is the hack we’ve been waiting for.
That was precisely the idea behind Soba, which owner Jingbo Xiao hatched long before a tiny virus interrupted the shrimp-flinging fun. Xiao had worked for years at a traditional Japanese steakhouse, where customers routinely coughed up princely sums for carry-out. Xiao could understand paying a premium for the lively in-person experiences, but why pass those tariffs off to take-out guests, he thought.
“The idea popped into my head that if the opportunity presented itself I would open my own fast-casual hibachi restaurant,” Xiao explains.
That opportunity did ultimately present itself, three years ago in Sandusky, where he opened his first Soba Asian Kitchen. The goal always was to follow that up with a location in Cleveland, which Xiao calls home. He did that about six weeks ago in the former Jimmy John’s space on Coventry. The 1,800-square-foot restaurant features an open kitchen and the now-familiar fast-casual counter-service set up. The restaurant also offers a seamless online ordering and payment experience.
Xiao has simultaneously pared down and expanded upon the hibachi food experience for his quick-serve concept. The menu sidesteps countless appetizers to focus squarely on the main event, which is framed around a small handful of proteins like shrimp, chicken, steak, pork belly and tofu. Those items are griddled with an assortment of veggies and paired with rice and sauces, just like at the full-service restaurant.
But Soba offers diners more options and control all along the way.
“When you go to a restaurant, you get everything cooked in the teriyaki sauce,” Xiao says. “Here, you have your choice of five different sauces.”
What’s more, diners select from a list of starches, vegetables and sauces to formulate the perfect meal. Bored with broccoli? Choose from any combination of onion, baby corn, broccoli, cabbage and carrot. Not feeling fried rice? Pair those proteins and veggies with steamed rice, ramen, udon or the namesake soba noodles. Tired of teriyaki? Try the garlic butter, Thai chili, Korean BBQ or Sriracha. Don’t worry, the yum-yum sauce is on the house.
“Obviously you get the yum-yum sauce,” Xiao says. “You can’t have hibachi without yum-yum.”
I can say without a hint of hyperbole that the only thing missing from my meal of sautéed shrimp ($8.99) and vegetables with fried rice and gobs of creamy-tangy yum-yum sauce was the flaming onion volcano and sake squirt. For the grilled steak ($8.99), we went with springy egg noodles and teriyaki sauce. And for the pork belly, we chose chewy udon noodles and mildly spiced Sriracha sauce. All the portions – meat, vedge and noodle – were robust. The pork belly was nicely seared, surprisingly lean, but still moist and sweet. The steak was good quality, well-trimmed and not overcooked. Some might find the food overly salty, but I say that simply maintains the authenticity of the sit-down restaurant experience.
After trying more iterations of the fast-casual build-your-own bowl than I care to recall, I’ve noticed that most fail to come together in any cohesive way; they are merely a bunch of random things tossed into a bowl. Perhaps it’s because Soba actually cooks these elements together that the end result feels more like a fully formed and unified dish.
Soba doesn’t offer the ubiquitous Japanese steakhouse salad with ginger dressing, but it does sell great, thin vegetable spring rolls ($3.95), flavorful ground beef and chicken stuffed pot-stickers ($3.95), crispy crab rangoon ($4.95) and seasoned in-shell edamame ($3.95).
Compared to the Sandusky location, the Cleveland Soba admittedly is off to a slower start, according to Xiao. That’s because the western store had three years to build up a following before the pandemic knocked on its door, while the Coventry spot literally “celebrated” its grand opening in the midst of a terrifying spike. But down the road, after the virus recedes, Xiao envisions expanding his fast-casual hibachi concept throughout the region.
Soba Asian Kitchen
1827 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Heights