A lot of cities have their own version of Shogun, but this one isn’t a chain – even though it did open its doors within a building quickly vacated by another chain which has its own place in Arkansas restaurant history. That would be Sambo’s.
|This postcard shows an identical building that housed|
Sambo's in Goleta, California.
There were several in Arkansas, including one in Fort Smith’s Central Mall and spots in both Little Rock and North Little Rock. All locations save one (the original) closed in 1982.
|Shogun Japanese Steakhouse in Little Rock on a busy|
Saturday evening in January.
Shogun’s a place that’s lived long in my memory – a magical restaurant where chefs conjure images with fire and oil, and beverages are consumed from ceramic vessels of warriors and Buddhas. But my last visit more than a dozen years ago had been met with tired wallpaper, yellowed ceiling tiles and decades of slightly burned rice embedded in the scent that embraced me when I entered the doors.
|Kimono-clad waitresses will show you to your seat.|
We were taken by a kimono-clad waitress back past the renovated sushi bar area and the teppanyaki tables at the front and through the hall to the back room, where three sets of two connecting tables held larger parties. We were seated with two other families at a table where, on the other side, the chef had just arrived to begin serving a birthday party. Across the room, a very large party had also come in to sit, consisting of what appeared to be 20 young men and women.
|Note the availability to be "cherished" for $6 in the black box.|
Our waiter came to take our drink orders, and I suggested the Neko to Grav, which he happily accepted. Hunter started claiming to dislike fire at this point, and I reminded her that her first solid food – a wad of wasabi, no less – was consumed in just such a restaurant.
|Neko is one of seven beverages that|
can be ordered in a commemorative
porcelain container. The menu
provides illustrations for your
I must admit, I was first disappointed at the arrival of beverages to see that Grav’s Neko had come in a plain daiquiri glass. I voiced this to the waiter, and he mentioned that the porcelain containers were an additional charge. Heck, we were celebrating a birthday here! We sent it back for proper cladding.
And when it was returned, here was our Neko, a gorgeous little cat full of Midori, peach schnapps and pineapple juice – a sweet treat of a mixed beverage.
|Grav and his Neko.|
And then the drums went off again, but this time for someone in the front room of the restaurant. Boy, were there a LOT of celebrations going on!
We kept hearing the drums go off. We talked with the other families at our table, and watched as other groups came and went. There were just three chefs on duty, and with each performance taking anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, a wait was bound to be in order.
|Salad with ginger dressing.|
He began by swabbing down the griddle and then drawing a heart with oil, complete with an arrow through it. This he set afire, proclaiming “heartburn!” to the table, which awed some of the kids and made a few of the adults groan.
The roll of flame consumed the oil and the chef got to starting up with vegetables, expertly slicing and dicing through zucchini and mushrooms and onions.
There was the creation of the flaming volcano, of course – rings of onion carefully separated and stacked, then filled with a little oil before ignition. The clang of the dual spatulas of our chef rang out in his interpretation of a train. This isn’t somewhere you go if you’re not expecting to smell your food, or if you don’t care for a lot of noise.
There was the cracking of eggs, then the heaping of rice upon them along with a mound of butter and then a dousing of soy sauce. Our chef cupped the fried rice into bowls before depositing them upon our plate. I was a bit surprised to see that my daughter’s child-sized beef order came with the same amount of rice as my Geisha Special (beef and chicken) and Grav’s King Sized Steak.
|The Geisha Special.|
In fact, Hunter had turned to me, declared her exhaustion and passed out against my side. We’d been there nearly two hours. Our take-home boxes arrived and were loaded – and the drums sounded again.
|Pineapple boat at Shogun Japanese Steakhouse.|
|Our souvenir photo.|
It wasn’t but a few minutes later that we heard drums AGAIN, as the drum progression marched over to the far table in the room – where one of the diners was celebrating a 31st birthday. Cheers went up all around, and a few minutes later the crowd posed for a photo.
And we were on our way out the door. Mind you, this wasn’t a cheap feast – our total with tip came out over $100, far outside our normal dining budget. But we’d had entertainment and a good meal, and we were taking home a Neko cat for Grav to include amongst his many cat-themed possessions. And my daughter now had a new set of neat memories, even despite falling asleep.
Shogun has been around about 32 years now, and while it might not be shiny and new and may lack in new tricks, it’s consistent and it’s apparently become a traditional place to celebrate birthdays. The packed parking lot showed me that the popularity hasn’t waned much. I suspect it’ll be around for generations to come.
the only restaurant review posted in the restaurant (and on its website) is that from Max Brantley, a young writer who covered restaurants for the Arkansas Gazette -- back in 1983. Makes you wonder what became of him...
This article brought to you by First Security Bank. For more great Arkansas stories on food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.