Roll with It

Houston chefs are creating some uniquely Texan sushi rolls

The caterpillar roll was Katie's favorite. The long and skinny roll is covered with grilled freshwater eel in a crisscross pattern, while the rice, avocado and cucumber are stuffed inside. The sushi chef slices the roll and stands the rounds on end so that they look like a caterpillar. The last slice is garnished with a shrimp tail; the first features a tiny section of octopus cut so that two suction cups face up. In these cups, two salmon eggs are balanced to look like orange insect eyes. The flavor is simple, but the presentation is hilarious.

I ask for an extra sake cup and offer Yo a shot. He is happy to drink with me. We order a few pieces of tuna and yellowtail. An older Japanese man in a blue jacket comes out of the back and stands at Yo's side.

"Is this your assistant?" I ask Yo facetiously. He turns bright red.

Cold, hard facts: The Texas sushi roll innovations do not include warm-water Texas fish.
Troy Fields
Cold, hard facts: The Texas sushi roll innovations do not include warm-water Texas fish.


11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Spider roll: $5.95
Caterpillar roll: $7.50
Thai lettuce wrap: $7.50
Mussamun curry: $10.50

6100 Westheimer, 713-334-6688

"No, this is the master chef," he stammers.

"What's his name?" I ask.

"Ten-san," Yo says.

"Are the red snapper and flounder from the Gulf of Mexico?" I ask the master chef.

"No, Gulf fish is no good for sushi," he says. "You don't make sushi from warm-water fish, only cold, deep-water fish."

The flounder, it turns out, is from Boston, and the "red snapper" is some fish from New Zealand. If you have ever thought about making sushi from freshly captured Gulf fish, forget it. (See "Side Order of Worms?" by George Alexander, March 29.) Not only is sushi fish taken from cold waters, but it's also frozen, to kill any microbes or parasites. Houston chefs are creating some uniquely Texan sushi rolls -- but not with Texas fish.

I make my second visit to Sushi Kanok on a Sunday night, and it is, once again, deserted. The menu claims the place is a Japanese-Thai restaurant, so I feel obliged to order a few Thai items.

I dig into a Thai lettuce wrap, a pile of chopped chicken breast tossed with red onion, ginger, mushrooms and peanuts; it's seasoned with chiles, cilantro and Thai dressing and served with green-leaf lettuce. I order the dish medium hot, even though the waitress warns me it's going to be pretty spicy. It turns out to be rather tame. I polish off four lettuce tacos. It's a pleasant enough salad, kind of a chicken larb, but there's something lackluster about it compared to the larb at most Thai restaurants. Where are the basil, the cilantro and the spices?

For an entrée, I sample mussamun curry, strips of beef simmered in coconut milk with potatoes, onions and roasted peanuts. It has a clean and distinct taste -- too clean, in fact. The strong flavors of cloves and cardamom, which are supposed to dominate a mussamun curry, aren't much in evidence.

I ask the waitress if she is Thai. No, she says, she's Japanese. So are the sushi chefs and all the rest of the employees on the floor. I mull over the possibility that the Thai food here has been prepared for Japanese-American tastes. The prices are certainly more in line with Tokyo than Houston. My rather skimpy bowl of curry costs $10.50.

In Houston, we are inured to Asian fusion restaurants, and the truth is many of these combos, including Vietnamese-Chinese and Thai- Vietnamese, seem to work well. But there may be some discord in the Japanese-Thai union. Thai food is wildly seasoned and exuberantly flavored. Japanese food is vaunted for its simplicity, and the Japanese have long considered garlic and chiles with contempt. Perhaps Japanese-Thai food is simply too much of a stretch.

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