Mexican Sushi Is on a Roll in Metro Phoenix

On a recent Friday night in west Phoenix, the neon-lit dining room of Sushi Loco was only about half full by the time the reverse happy hour started at 10 p.m. But even with the modest crowd gathered inside the restaurant and bar, if you closed your eyes, you might have thought you were in a raucous, crowded nightclub in Sinaloa, the northwestern Mexican state that has become better known in recent decades for its narcotraficantes than for its famed seafood dishes and beach resorts.

As he does on most weekend nights, Sushi Loco’s resident emcee, a gravel-voiced man who goes by the name of DJ Mazizo, played the latest Sinaloa-style banda and sierreño party anthems — thumping, brassy odes to hard living and hard drinking — at ear-splitting volumes, their flashy music videos often depicting fast cars, beautiful women, and wild parties on yachts, projected onto a large white scrim floating in front of a small stage. Later, north of 10 p.m., the scrim was rolled up, the disco lights were turned up to full, kaleidoscopic throttle, and a local grupo took the stage, the four-piece blasting through a set of popular cumbia and banda standards as the dance floor gradually filled to near capacity.

This late-night scene at Sushi Loco — the flashy music videos and disco lights and live music and dancing — is relatively new to the neighborhood. Only a few months ago, the restaurant was home to a fading, all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet.

Alexis Barraza, a server at Sushi Loco, says that people still occasionally wander into the restaurant in search of steam trays filled with lo mein and fried rice.

“But now people are coming for the entertainment,” says Barraza, nearly shouting over the music. “And, of course, they come for the food.”

The food at Sushi Loco, as you may have inferred from its name, is Mexican sushi, a Mexican-Japanese fusion concept whose hallmark is the deep-fried sushi roll, stuffed with unconventional ingredients like steak and bacon and generously garnished with boldly flavored sauces. The cuisine, once seen as faddish, has stayed trendy around the nightclubs and restaurants of the northwestern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora for the better part of a decade now.

In total, at least six Mexican sushi restaurants have opened on the west side since 2012.

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For the past four years, the Mex-sushi concept has been quietly taking root on Phoenix’s west side, popping up in sleek, Japanese izakaya-inspired lounges like Señor Sushi on 43rd Avenue and Indian School Road; at roadside food trucks like the Sushinola Truck on 38th Avenue and Indian School Road, and Sushi Mocorito, which has become a fixture near the intersection of Van Buren Street and 35th Avenue; and, not least of all, at Sinaloan-style nightclub venues like Sushi Loco in Maryvale.

In total, at least six Mexican sushi restaurants have opened on the west side since 2012. Most appear to be doing brisk business.

But if you were to survey the most adventurous and undiscriminating eaters in your circle — perhaps those friends, co-workers, or family members who practically live at their neighborhood sushi spot — there’s a good chance at least one of them will tell you they’ve never heard of the stuff.

That’s because Mexican sushi is still somewhat new in the United States, and so far it’s remained a small but growing niche cuisine, feeding a mostly Latino population of immigrants and Mexican Americans, who are partaking in what may be the craziest Mexican food trend since the Sonoran dog first made its way up north to Tucson and Phoenix.

You aren’t likely to run across Mexican sushi just anywhere in the Valley. Most Mex-sushi spots in metro Phoenix are clustered around 35th and 43rd avenues, many tucked away in nondescript, half-deserted strip malls, scattered across a generous swath of west Phoenix where the dining scene seems to go virtually uncharted by anyone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Call it Phoenix’s Mex-sushi row, a thriving food subculture that has been incubating quietly in a cultural and culinary zone that caters almost exclusively to Latinos.

For the uninitiated, Mexican sushi can seem ludicrously over the top at first sight, a sort of anything-goes, high-caloric mashup of the Philly roll and its deep-fried analog, the Las Vegas roll. Some Mexican sushi rolls, though, can make the Philly and Las Vegas look like health food by comparison.

A Mex-sushi primer might go something like this: Take your average Philly roll and load it up with even more lavish amounts of filadelfia (cream cheese), then replace the salmon with all manner of Mexican specialties and other nontraditional ingredients — carne asada, pollo asado, cooked shrimp, bacon, and pretty much anything else on your protein wish list. Batter it in tempura, deep fry, and enjoy.

That’s not all. Your sushi platter may also come floating on eel sauce, hot sauce, ponzu sauce, syrupy dribbles of teriyaki, or possibly loaded with so much chipotle mayo, you could easily accessorize a sandwich or two. On some menus, where there seems to be a particularly expansive culinary imagination at play, you may even see sushi rolls topped with slivers of fresh mango, or sweetened up by baked, caramelized slices of banana.

A Mexican sushi roll may be constructed in either the classic makizushi (rolled and wrapped in seaweed) or uramaki (“inside out,” with a ring of cooked rice on the outside) configuration. And it very well may be loaded with surimi (imitation crab) and avocado. Usually, a plate of Mexican sushi will be garnished with grated carrots and served with a grilled chile güero (yellow pepper) on the side.

The rolls often bear multisyllabic names like El Guamuchilito and El Culichi — shout-outs to beloved hometowns back in Sinaloa — as well as locally-inspired monikers like La Phoenikera, a roll you’ll find at the Sushi Mocorito food truck.

Over time, something of a Mex-sushi canon has emerged, a catalog of rolls filtered through the culinary traditions and red meat-loving sensibility of Sinaloan and Sonoran food culture. High-quality meats and cuts like rib eye, skirt steak, filet mignon, and shaved rib, cooked over a mesquite charcoal grill, are an obsession in northern Mexico. That obsession has been carried over to the realm of sushi, where you’ll find standard bearers like the carne asada roll, which is sometimes topped with pico de gallo. And fiery aguachile — Sinaloa’s signature West Coast take on ceviche — makes an appearance on some sushi menus, the soupy, spicy seafood cocktail ladled over rolls stuffed with crab and cream cheese. Most places carry a version of the Cielo, Mar y Tierra (Heaven, Sea & Earth), a surf-and-turf roll stuffed with shrimp, chicken, and beef. There are even rolls inspired by classic midcentury American dishes, like the Cordon Bleu, which is made with breaded chicken and Chihuahua cheese.

Along with rollos empanizados (breaded, deep-fried rolls), most Mex-sushi restaurants also make traditional Japanese sushi rolls (often described on menus as “naturales”) — just in case you’re not into the whole deep-fried sushi thing. And most places also carry a menu of horneados (“baked rolls”), exceptionally rich and gooey rolls, which on the plate resemble something like rectangular rice cakes, glued together with melted cheese and sauce.

At the slicker Mex-sushi spots around town, places like Señor Sushi and Sushi Loco, which offer fully stocked bars, the atmosphere might be punched up by a strolling trio playing weepy Mexican love songs on a weeknight. At these locations, you can enjoy your sushi in true izakaya fashion, which is to say, with a beer or a cup of sake on the side.

It’s a remarkably codified food scene, especially considering that Mexican sushi has only been around in the Valley for less than a decade. Which might lead you to ask: Where did Mexican sushi come from? And is it any good?

On the first question, at least, there seems to be some degree of consensus. Most local connoisseurs of Mex-sushi will tell you that the concept filtered north to Arizona from Sinaloa and Sonora. Simply scanning the menu at your local Mex-sushi spot seems to bear this theory out; listing off the names of the rolls can feel like you’re reading a list of northern Mexican place names.

Blanca Apodaca, a local Mex-sushi enthusiast who lives in Phoenix, says the Mexican sushi you’ll find around metro Phoenix is undoubtedly a product of Sinaloa. The Arizona native, whose extended family hails from Sinaloa, recently traveled to that state to visit family. She says that Mexican sushi restaurants have become as ubiquitous there as the state’s famed marisco joints.

“Sushi is everywhere in Sinaloa,” she says. “You see it in so many restaurants over there. When I went to visit 13 years ago, I never saw it. But now, it’s everywhere.”

Manuel Herrera, Jr., who owns El Tataki Sushi Restaurant, a Mex-sushi fusion spot in Glendale, also pinpoints Sinaloa as the birthplace of today’s modern Mex-sushi.

“I would say it’s from Sinaloa,” he says in a mix of English and Spanish, “because you see it everywhere there, more than any other place.”

In fact, he says, the number of Mexican sushi street vendors across Sinaloa might even rival the number of taco carts.

But not everybody thinks of Mexican sushi as Sinaloan at heart.

Cristina Marquez, the general manager and part-owner of Extreme Sushi, a small, counter-service Mexican sushi restaurant near 44th Avenue and Thomas Road, offers a different theory.

Her restaurant, which has been serving Mexican sushi for almost three years, is tucked into the corner of an aging strip mall, where the empty parking spaces seem to outnumber the clientele. The restaurant’s tagline, emblazoned on the menu, is “La nueva revolución en sushi,” or: “The new revolution in sushi.”

On any given weekday, amid a row of sleepy-looking storefronts, the dining room at Extreme Sushi is buzzing with life. A flat-screen TV, tuned to a Pandora station, plays Mexican pop songs and banda hits, and the dining room is full of employees on their lunch break, chatting over sushi-roll platters.

Marquez, who says she’s been interviewed about Mexican sushi more than once, speaks with the easy erudition and authority of a food scholar.

She believes that the roots of today’s popular Mexican sushi rolls go all the way to la capital — that is, Mexico City, circa the 1980s.

“It started in Mexico City, with a chef who had a street food counter selling only a handful of sushi rolls,” Marquez says in Spanish. “One day, it occurred to him to add some avocado to a traditional sushi roll. It worked so well, he eventually started his own Mexican sushi restaurant.”

Voilà — a Mexican sushi origin story, so simple and vivid that one hopes it’s true. But was that chef the first person to toss a sushi roll into a deep fryer?

Marquez believes that the chef in the story, Alberto Romano Hadid, helped popularize Mexican-style sushi, and particularly its emphasis on breaded, deep-fried rolls.

Hadid, as it turns out, was the chef and founder of Sushi Itto, which opened in Mexico City in 1988 (Hadid passed away in 2011). Today, the Sushi Itto restaurant chain is widely credited with bringing sushi to the masses in both Mexico and Latin America, and it was one of the first to offer a Mex-sushi fusion menu.

“Back then, the Mexican public wasn’t quite ready for raw fish,” Marquez says. She believes breading and deep-frying rolls was a way to make sushi more palatable to the mainstream Mexican dining public.

Today, Sushi Itto is a Mexican mega-sushi chain, with more than 20 locations in Mexico and, at last count, seven locations across Europe, Central America, and the U.S. It still offers a small menu of breaded rolls, although the menu has expanded to include teppanyaki and other popular Japanese-inspired fare.

Even more interesting — and more controversial — than the provenance of Mexican sushi, though, is the question about whether it’s actually any good.

Some rolls can make the Mex-sushi fusion concept feel altogether plausible. An aguachile roll, for example, which pairs the fresh shrimp cocktail with a crab sushi roll, feels like a natural complement to traditional sushi.

But as with any cuisine, you’re likely to run into some culinary bombs — sushi rolls too thickly breaded, overly glutinous and bland, and quick to fall apart, whose sole flavor seems to be derived from lashings of hot sauce or mayonnaise.

Apodaca, the local Mex-sushi lover, says that the food grows on you, and there’s likely a roll out there for everyone.

“My husband didn’t like it at first,” she says. “But now, he tells me, ‘Hey, we should go out for Mexican sushi.’”

Apodaca’s favorite Mex-sushi spot around town is Sushinola, where she frequently takes friends to initiate them in the ways of sushi frito (fried sushi).

“Everybody I bring here loves it,” she says, referring to Sushinola.

But still, for others, Mexican sushi is an abomination, a crude revision of one of the world’s most admired and refined food catalogs. If classical Japanese sushi is an elegant and restrained Vermeer, Mexican sushi might be a freshly painted Jackson Pollock: drippy, messy, overtly modern, and not at all suited to everyone’s taste. One can only imagine the horror that the three-Michelin-starred chef Jiro Ono, the elder master of sushi craftsmanship profiled in the popular documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, might feel upon being presented with a platter of goopy, crumbly, deep-fried Mexican sushi.

It’s worth noting that sushi, like most popular foods, has long been subject to cultural cross-pollination. Take the California roll, for instance, whose uramaki construction and avocado filling was mocked and ridiculed by sushi purists when it first started popping up on American menus in the 1970s. Today, the California roll is perhaps the most popular style of sushi in the U.S., a kind of pioneering roll that seemed to grant chefs the world over the tacit permission to experiment with the classic sushi form.

And consider again the bacon-wrapped, mayonnaise-and-beans laden Sonoran dog, a goofy piece of culinary engineering and imagination that is part German, part Mexican, and somehow, all American. The Sonoran dog has been largely adopted as the indigenous street snack of Arizona, an emblem of the mestizaje (mixing) that often happens when food, like people, wanders from one region to the next.

“[Mexican sushi] speaks to the creativity of Mexican chefs, and Mexican cooking in general.”

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For adventurous palates and open minds, then, Mexican sushi is not merely a wacky food trend, but an example of Mexican culinary ingenuity.

That’s how Arturo Forte sees it, anyway. Forte is the general manager of Sushi Sonora, which opened near 35th Avenue and McDowell Road back in 2012 (Sushi Sonora claims to be the first Mex-sushi restaurant in metro Phoenix).

“[Mexican sushi] speaks to the creativity of Mexican chefs, and Mexican cooking in general,” Forte says in Spanish. “And I think that if the Japanese got a look at it, they would be infuriated at us for filling it up with so many calories,” he adds with a laugh.

No matter how you feel about Mexican sushi, it doesn’t seem to be on its way out. On April 10, Sushi Sonora opened a second location, this one near 32nd Street and McDowell Road. This is one of the first Mex-sushi restaurants on the east side. (There was previously at least one other East Valley Mex-sushi restaurant, Los Musicos Sushi in Mesa, which closed about three years ago).

Altogether, it’s still a modest scene, but one that rivals much bigger regions like Los Angeles, where Sonoran and Sinaloan food culture don’t loom as large as they do in Arizona.

Herrera, the owner of El Tataki Sushi in Glendale, has big hopes for the future of Mexican sushi in metro Phoenix.

Herrera, who was previously co-owner of Señor Sushi before striking out on his own, took special care to open his sushi fusion spot away from the largely Latino neighborhoods of west Phoenix.

“People told me I was crazy,” says Herrera. “They told me, ‘Come to 43rd. Come to 51st Avenue.’ But I didn’t want to do that. I’m a risk-taker, and I like a challenge.”

Instead, Herrera opened El Tataki in a sleek, sit-down spot near the entrance to the Tanger Outlets in Glendale, within easy reach of the Westgate Entertainment District and University of Phoenix Stadium.

So far, Herrera says, the risk is paying off. His clientele has included tourists from as far away as Canada, Chicago, and Detroit, who often stumble into the restaurant by accident. He has become something of an ambassador for the cuisine.

“Tourists come in here confused and say ‘Are you kidding me? Bacon and pollo in sushi? How can this possibly be good?’”

But they leave happy and satisfied, says Herrera. One diner, a resident of San Diego, he says, comes back once a year for a birthday meal at El Tataki.

On an average weekday, with no major events in the area to draw in the lunch crowd, the restaurant’s large dining room can look sparse.

But Herrera doesn’t waver. He sees a bright future ahead for Mexican sushi, citing the enormous success of Culichi Town, an L.A.-area Mex-sushi restaurant that now has six locations across southern California.

“There’s something happening with Mexican sushi right now,” Herrera said recently, speaking in a mix of English and Spanish. “Está pegando.”

Está pegando. In other words, he says confidently, it’s getting to be a hit. 
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.