Land of Azúcar
There are ten stools at the sushi bar, and they all seem to be occupied by sushi eaters of Asian descent. A few feet away, the other bar is dominated by what look like Latino faces. Japaneiro's Sushi Bistro & Latin Grill in Sugar Land is certainly living up to its name, I muse, as we're shown to our table.
Anticipating the arrival of our appetizer, we stir wasabi into little bowls of soy sauce. A female dining companion, my daughter and I have ordered one of the restaurant's signature dishes, the giant Cabo San Lucas, a Latin-style sushi roll stuffed with hamachi, which is the highest-quality yellowtail, and seasoned with jalapeño pepper slivers and a sprinkling of chili powder. The roll comes to the table cut into a dozen slices, and the three of us quickly inhale all 12. If you love hot and spicy sushi, this is a standout.
For our entrées, we've created a sort of surf-and-turf sampler by ordering a grilled seafood platter and a churrasco plate. When they arrive, we place them in the middle of the table. At the center of the seafood assortment is a piece of grilled salmon that's a little well-done for my tastes, but since it's slathered in a tart green sauce, the dryness isn't too much of a problem.
The fish is surrounded by juicy scallops, slightly overcooked grilled shrimp, sweet fried plantains and grilled carrots and squash. There's a small bowl of guacamole on one end of the long rectangular plate and a smaller dish with three kinds of dipping sauces on the other. The sauces are a red chile, a green tomatillo and a creamy black bean.
The churrasco is an extremely tender piece of beef that's been marinated, butterflied and grilled medium rare. It's served with a grilled pineapple slice on top. The vegetables and plantains are the same as on the fish platter, except the meat also comes with the deep-fried green plantain slices called tostones. Instead of guacamole, the small bowl on the plate is filled with pico de gallo, and the three dipping sauces include the South American parsley pesto called chimichurri, which is the traditional accompaniment with churrasco. Looking around the restaurant, I realize that the small plate with three dipping sauces comes with every entrée.
Sampling the sauces, we decide the black bean one goes best with the plantains. My daughter also tries dipping some steak into the wasabi-soy dip, which is leftover from the sushi. Not bad, we agree, as we follow suit. Then I cut up the grilled pineapple and encourage my tablemates to try the steak with a chunk of grilled pineapple and soy sauce. All agree that it's a wonderful combination.
"So which tastes best?" I ask in food critic mode, "steak and pineapple, steak and chimichurri, steak and red chile, or steak and wasabi-soy sauce?"
"The pineapple is good, but I would get tired of it," says the dining companion. "What I like is 'ADD dining.' I want to keep switching from one taste to the other. And this dinner is perfect for that."
ADD (attention deficit disorder) is a serious disability, and I don't mean to make light of it, but I have to admit, "ADD dining" is a pretty good way to describe what restaurants like Japaneiro's provide. Rather than a big slab of meat or fish and a couple of sides, they fill the table with an array of colorful sauces and condiments and allow you to amuse yourself by dabbing and dunking and coming up with new combinations. It's a fun way to eat.
Around ten, we're just finishing our meal when a band called Angeluchos starts to play. The first number, "The Girl from Impanema," seems to signal a repertoire of familiar Latino classics. The second song is "Chan Chan," from the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. But the band breaks into a frenzied dance beat in the middle of the familiar song, and suddenly the salsa dancers hit the floor.
When the music ends, the crowd goes wild and the lead singer bids us a rapid-fire bilingual welcome, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, señores y señoritas! Welcome to Sugar Land, Land of Azúcar!"
"Only in Houston," somebody said when I told them about Japaneiro's Sushi Bistro & Latin Grill. But in fact, the seemingly weird fusion of Latin American and Japanese cooking has a long history. Japaneiro means "Japanese" in Portuguese, and Brazil is home to one of South America's largest Japanese populations. Peru, which once elected the Japanese-South American Alberto Fujimori as president, is another. Mexico City, where the jalapeño and mayonnaise-laden "sushi a la mexicana" was invented, also boasts a large Japanese community.
The pioneer of the Latin American sushi trend in the United States is SushiSamba in Manhattan, which was founded by entrepreneur Shimon Bokovza. Intrigued by the Japanese/South American cuisine he encountered while traveling, he hired a top New York sushi man and a chef from Patria, New York's most famous Nuevo Latino restaurant. Bokovza took both chefs to Peru and Brazil to soak up the concept, and the pair came up with such inventions as ginger- and soy-spiked "yellowtail sashimi ceviche." SushiSamba is now a successful chain with restaurants in New York, Chicago and Miami.
Japaneiro's Sushi Bistro & Latin Grill is a one-of-a-kind eatery owned by Robert White, who also operates the Sasu Sushi restaurant in Sugar Land. White comes by his fusion cuisine honestly. His mother is from Venezuela, and he grew up in South America and New York. His Latin American-Japanese combos are his own originals. At lunch one day, I sampled Japaneiro's Japanese calamari ceviche. The multicolored calamari is finely diced with a sushi knife until it resembles chopped clams. Then it's combined with lime juice, ginger and soy in a pleasant spin on the South American marinated fish dish.
I also sampled a deep-fried creation called a Latino roll, which reminded me of Mexico City sushi. It contained hamachi, fake crab, cream cheese and jalapeños, and it was deep-fried in tempura batter, sliced and then topped with some kind of mayonnaise. It was okay, but I coveted my lunchmate's soft-shell crab sandwich and Japanese-style salad. Judging by the crowd, the restaurant appears to be just as popular at lunch as it is at dinner.
Like the SushiSamba locations, Japaneiro's was designed to be a high-energy scene. The interior is sleekly done with modern furniture, café au lait-colored concrete floors scored with swooping patterns, and hammered-copper sheaths above the sushi bar and the kitchen. On the weekends, the lights go down low after dinner, and Japaneiro's turns into Sugar Land's hippest nightspot. (Not that there's much competition.)
I danced with my daughter and my dining companion for a while, but we weren't in step with the crowd. The best dancer on the floor was a short Latino woman dressed in black, who suddenly grabbed my teenage daughter's hand and started teaching her some merengue steps. Within a few minutes, my daughter had joined a circle of dancers and was gyrating her hips with her arms held high in the air.
"Daddy," my daughter enthused as I dragged her to the car after the song had finished. "Can we come back here again?"
"The Land of Azúcar might be a little too wild for your daddy," my dining companion chuckled.
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