Ever since the birth of Benihana in the sixties, Japanese hibachi food has rivaled Chinese takeout in popularity. Fried rice and teriyaki chicken are now standard American fare—and for many, a comfort food.
My parents opened their own hibachi-style restaurant in Greensboro in 1998. Since then, I've admittedly enjoyed my fair share of westernized Japanese food. Backed by my parents' kitchen repertoire, I've gotten pretty picky about it, even when it comes in a Styrofoam box. This is why my ears perked up when I heard rave reviews about Koumi (meaning flavor in Japanese) in Durham. And so did my cravings for my favorite flavor combination: fried rice drowned in a swirl of teriyaki and shrimp sauce.
Driving down Roxboro Road, one could easily mistake the restaurant for a fast-food joint, complete with a drive-thru window and crowded menu signage reminiscent of Cookout's milkshake list. (Presumably, the building has gone through multiple fast-food reincarnations.)
Its unassuming exterior and minimal interior décor make Koumi casual, but the menu offers an elaborate and exhaustive array of fusion foods. Typical hibachi stir-fry is broken up into "fast entrées" and "combination specials," while kebabs, soba noodles, Thai curries, Vietnamese pho, and sushi get their own sections on the menu.
After picking up our food at the window, my boyfriend and I decided to park and haul our lunch into the restaurant for immediate gratification. We slid into a red booth close to the entrance and unpacked our bounty. The "fast" shrimp entrée and curry fried rice lacked seasoning; my palate begged for more flavor. The soba noodles looked like plain spaghetti but were actually delicious, covered in a sweet and smoky teriyaki sauce with hearty lumps of tofu and veggies. The complexity of flavor ramped up when we added a bit of the shrimp sauce, also known as yum yum sauce or white sauce, which wasn't too watery or sweet.
To my surprise, the fish sauce wings stole the show. Different from unflavored Chinese chicken wings, but unlike spicy Buffalo varieties, these tender wings were coated in this quintessential Thai and Vietnamese condiment made from fermented fish. The dark sauce, sweet and tangy, covered the chicken wings just enough to keep them juicy, not drowning.
John Nguyen, Koumi's manager, says the family recipe is fairly simple and standard among authentic Vietnamese restaurants: battered first, deep-fried second, then tossed in fish sauce and dunked into the fryer once more.
I'm no stranger to Vietnamese restaurants, but I had never seen fish sauce wings anywhere else, except for Google, where a quick search reveals that the recipe is a common element to street food culture in Saigon. While Koumi's dish didn't unseat my favorite wings of all time (that honor belongs to my mother's recipe), it definitely brings a pleasant and unexpected sliver of Saigon to Durham. I'll be back for more, unless I become distracted by the pad Thai, shrimp kebabs, or the two-for-one sushi deal. What's offered in the combination again?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flying Fish"