Roll with It
His knife is a blur as Yo, the sushi chef, chops a pile of assorted scraps into a fine mess of fish burger. I am trying to figure out why Sushi Kanok, an upscale Japanese-Thai restaurant in Briargrove Plaza on Westheimer, calls fish paste, cream cheese and jalapeño fried in tempura batter and wrapped in rice and seaweed an "Alamo roll."
"Is it because the Mexicans made mincemeat out of us at the Alamo?" I ask the white-jacketed sushi pro. Yo smiles blankly. He has no idea what I am talking about. A native of Japan, he has been in the United States four years. He runs to the kitchen to dip the fish in tempura while we look around.
The restaurant is neat as a pin and handsomely decorated in a modern minimalist style with pale olive-green walls and upholstery. The brightly lit sushi bar, where my daughter Katie and I are sitting, is the restaurant's center stage. There are only two other patrons in the place at 7:30 on a Thursday night.
Yo comes back from the kitchen to finish. Using a nori sheet as a wrapper, he rolls up the tempura fish, peppers and cream cheese in rice, then slices the roll into five pieces, which he arranges on a plate -- three on the bottom, two on the top. As he tilts the plate toward us, I see the shape is roughly that of the old Spanish mission in San Antonio. I pop part of the tower in my mouth and discover the Alamo roll is a terrific combination of hot and crunchy tempura fish burger, cool rice, spicy chiles and smooth cream cheese. A combination that's designed to appeal to sushi-loving Texans.
It goes over pretty well with my daughter and me; we wolf down the rest of the roll in record time. My jokes may sail right over Yo's head, but he does understand enough English to discuss the differences between the sushi of Japan and the style that has become popular in North America. "There are no caterpillar rolls, dynamite rolls or spider rolls in Japan," he says. "Japanese people never put mayonnaise, cream cheese or jalapeños on their sushi."
"Sounds boring," my 15-year-old yawns. And in that instant I understand that globalization is not a conspiracy perpetrated by American corporations. It's a conspiracy perpetrated by the world's teenagers. While the Japanese mourn the dilution of their culture and the French struggle to keep their language pure, everybody's kids are down at Mickey D's eating the same fries and grooving to the same tunes.
In the early 1980s the sushi you found in the United States was very close to the original Japanese version. In Japanese strongholds like San Francisco's Japan Center, sashimi and simple pieces of fish with rice and wasabi are still the mainstay. But in L.A., Mexico City, Houston and points in between, a new generation of Asian-American chefs has spun off some wildly imaginative interpretations of sushi, which appeal to a younger audience. The kids don't care if it's authentic Japanese cuisine as long as it suits their tastes. And their tastes are becoming ever more universal.
The California roll was already on the menu in the early 1980s when I was first introduced to sushi. Though it varied from place to place, it always featured avocado. You couldn't argue with it; crab and avocado were already flavors that Americans loved. Soon enough, avocado seemed like a regular sushi ingredient, although nobody in Japan ever ate it.
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, a style emerged called sushi à la mexicana, featuring chipotles, serranos and other chiles, along with avocado, jicama and mayonnaise. It was a Mexican-Japanese fusion that worked surprisingly well. Today there are sushi bars all over the world, each borrowing from the others' inventions and teaching the venerable old raw fish some kinky new positions. You can get a California roll at the Take Sushi restaurant in London. Or a flying kamikaze roll (spicy tuna and asparagus wrapped with albacore tuna, then topped with ponzu and scallions) at Ace Wasabi's Rock n' Roll Sushi Bar in San Francisco.
Sushi Kanok's fusion offerings include rock 'n' roll rolls (shrimp tempura, cucumber, scallions, roe and mayo), dynamite rolls (clam, shrimp, mushroom, onion and mayo), crazy rolls (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, cucumber and daikon sprout), volcano rolls (chicken, avocado, roe and cream cheese) and power rolls (sea urchin and squid). Regional variations include a Boston roll (tuna, crab, avocado and Boston lettuce), a Philadelphia roll (smoked salmon, avocado and cream cheese) and our native Alamo roll.
I asked Yo which rolls were unique to Houston. He wasn't sure, but he thought that even if the spider roll (soft-shell crab) and caterpillar roll (broiled eel, avocado and cucumber) weren't invented here, they were certainly Houston's favorites. So we ordered one of each.
If you like soft-shell crab, you can hardly miss with a spider roll. (So named because the crab legs sticking out of the bottom piece make it look like a giant spider wrapped in rice.) The broiled soft-shell is rolled with scallions and cucumber and seasoned with mayonnaise. Then the rolls are dotted with masago, or smelt eggs, and sliced into rounds.
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.
"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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