What's Your Favorite Japanese Restaurant?
This month, we asked Inside México readers and staff which Japanese restaurants they love, and why. Here’s
what they said:
“The tuna tostadas are a fusion of Mexican and Japanese food and the sashimi cilantro is amazing, almost addictive.” Luis González, lawyer
Tokai: Av. Providencia 2802, Col. Providencia Tel: (33) 3641-2285. Moderate.
“One of the best spots in Guadalajara for fresh sushi and people watching -ranchero crooner Alejandro Fernandez is frequently spotted there. A new location recently opened on Avenida Guadalupe in colonia Chapalita.” David Agren, journalist
Tori Tori: Anatole France 71, Col. Polanco. Tel: (55) 5280-9069. Moderate to Expensive.
“The excellent service, a fresh and interesting menu and impeccable presentation invite you to extend the Friday afternoon sobremesa right on into dinner time. Sit upstairs and you’ll feel like you’re in a treehouse far from the hustle and bustle of the city.” Maya Harris, Inside Mexico Business Development
Sushi Taro: Av. Universidad 1861, Col. Coyoacán. Tel: (55) 5561-4083. Moderate.
“A bit hard to spot, up on the second floor of a non-descript building. Fabulous sushi, and also serve those giant, bubbling soups that you keep hot at the table, plus some stir fried dishes. Very pleasant, low-key atmosphere. If it’s good enough for the Japanese embassy crowd...” Ceci Connolly, Inside Mexico Columnist
Mikasa: San Luis Potosí 173, Col. Roma Norte. Tel: (55) 5584-3430. Inexpensive.
”For lunch-on-the-go, pop into this Asian food store for boxed sushi, noodle dishes, tempura and Teriyaki. A weekend cook -out in front of the store proffers grilled goodness- fresh and hot.” Catherine Dunn, Inside Mexico
By Margot Lee Shetterly
Masahiko Muto, Executive Chef of the Japanese restaurant Suntory
“Dozo omeshia gari kudasai.”
Masahiko Muto, Executive Chef of the Japanese restaurant Suntory, explains that before and after eating, Japanese diners say this quick blessing for the food at the table and for those who prepared it. It’s a little different from the Mexican buen provecho, but just as traditional.
Since the restaurant opened in Mexico City´s Del Valle neighborhood in 1970 -- the Japanese whisky maker’s first foray into the restaurant business -- Suntory has enjoyed a revered place in the Mexican culinary landscape, even before Japanese cuisine was commonplace in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Chef Muto, who spent his 22 years career in Suntory restaurants in Singapore, Vancouver, Sao Paolo and Atlanta before coming to Mexico ten years ago, says the owners of Suntory had personal acquaintances in Mexico, and wanted to bring Japanese cuisine and culture to the country. Suntory's clientele is 90% Mexican, and grill items like tepanyaki and shabu shabu are favorites.
“The base of what we do is classic Japanese cuisine, but we make some adjustments for Mexican tastes, like serving soy sauce with chili and lime,” says Chef Muto.
An exquisite platter of fried pieces of chicken resting on a bed of chiles provides another example. “The fried chicken is a very typical Japanese dish, but here we fry it in oil that has been soaked overnight in chile de árbol, to infuse the chicken with that flavor. Garlic in this platter is another Mexican touch.”
And what about cream cheese, a ubiquitous ingredient in sushi rolls in Mexico?
“Cream cheese in sushi originated in the United States. California rolls and other rolls that use non traditional ingredients like cream cheese and avocado started there, and since the United States and Mexico are closely linked, these rolls eventually found their way down here.”
This being said, the restaurant presents a large menu with all the sushi, sashimi and rolls that diners around the world have come to love, as well as a smaller menu of Japanese specialties like fugu (called pez globo in Spanish, or puffer fish in English), the renowned delicacy which can be fatal if not prepared properly.
The restaurant’s staff, including four trained sushi chefs, is mostly Mexican, which means paying extra attention to language and cultural barriers.
“[With a Japanese staff] I can use few words, everyone understands everything. Here, I have to explain more.” However, Muto’s team has learned many Japanese terms, and even though they don’t go so far as to prepare sushi at home (“Fish is very expensive here,” says Masa) they do cook simpler dishes for their families like Japanese-style fried rice.
North of the border, the synergies between Mexican cooks and Japanese cuisine are exploding. A recent article published in the magazine New York Resident investigates how a shortage of Japan-trained cooks has led to a growing number of Mexican and Latin American susheros helming Japanese restaurants in New York and Chicago. In the sushi chef competition of the 2006 Japanese food festival in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, a Salvadoran and a Mexican won first and third place, respectively.
Suntory has closed its doors in many other countries around the world due to sharply increased competition. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, there are 20,000 Japanese restaurants worldwide. In the US there are now 9,000, twice as many as there were a decade ago (the only Suntory still open in the US or Canada is in Hawaii). Here in Mexico, however, Suntory is still an institution, synonymous with authentic Japanese cuisine, and is expanding rather than shrinking. In addition to its two branches in Mexico City (Del Valle and Lomas) and one each in Guadalajara and Acapulco, Grupo Suntory owns the Polanco restaurant Sunka (Mexican with Japanese touches), Santa Fe’s Shu (Japanese fusion) and is opening another Shu in Acapulco this year.
With its dark wood paneling, white tablecloths and manicured garden, the flagship Del Valle restaurant feels like a throwback, as if the décor hasn´t changed a whit in almost four decades of business. Recent years have brought younger, hipper Japanese restaurants to the scene, but Suntory is still Mexico´s Japanese godfather.
“This was the first authentic Japanese restaurant in Mexico, says Chef Masa. “Every day, every week, every month, the clients keep coming. For decades it was the parents, and now we see their children here.”