Food & Drink

Are Japanese Tacos the Next Big Thing in Texas?

Two new Dallas concepts expertly combine Asian and Mexican flavors and methods, and a new concept from the chefs at Mixtli, in San Antonio, will soon do the same.

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Japanese restaurant Edoko Omakase opened in Irving’s upscale Las Colinas suburb just days before the statewide shutdown of dining rooms in March and remained closed until pandemic restrictions loosened in May. As soon as I safely could, I reserved a patio table at the eatery, which offers a seven-course omakase tasting (meaning the chef chooses the menu) as well as à la carte selections. But I wasn’t there for the sushi and sashimi combos. I was there for the tacos.

I ordered four, each starring a different main filling on a lightly grilled corn tortilla: pink-and-white-striped Scottish salmon belly sashimi, Hawaiian bigeye tuna, unagi (freshwater eel), and a medley of vegetables such as microgreens and radishes. Garnishes included squiggles of chile-infused crema and thinly sliced serranos; the salmon belly was served on a fan of avocado slices. My favorite was the eel, with plump halved cherry tomatoes and a peppy, silky wasabi salsa verde, seeds from the peppers included. Overall, the modern presentation, thoughtful layering of flavors, and balance of textures left me stunned.

Was my experience with Japanese tacos a one-off, or was it indicative of a larger trend in Texas? I’m optimistic it’s the latter. Edoko Omakase’s owner, Sara Nam, says the unexpected popularity of the tacos, which were originally available only by request, persuaded her to move them to the full dine-in menu this summer. “People kept coming back in to order tacos separately,” she says.

Across the state, I’ve found Japanese tacos on the menu at Asian-focused restaurants such as Yellowfish Sushi, in San Antonio. But the cultural exchange should go both ways, so I was thrilled to learn that San Antonio chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia, of Mixtli, are opening a new Mexican Omakase concept called Kumo in early November. Kumo will specialize in tacos, tostadas, and other Mexican bites with a strong Japanese influence. They won’t be the first Mexican restaurant to go down this path this year, though: just a few weeks after my dinner at Edoko, I encountered a different version of Japanese tacos just a few miles away at one of my favorite taquerias, Revolver Taco Lounge, in Dallas.

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Revolver Taco Lounge and La Resistencia owner Regino Rojas at his restaurant on September 13, 2020.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

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Dried red chiles hang in the kitchen at La Resistencia.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Left:

Revolver Taco Lounge and La Resistencia owner Regino Rojas at his restaurant on September 13, 2020.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Right:

Dried red chiles hang in the kitchen at La Resistencia.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

At the beginning of the pandemic, Revolver owner Regino Rojas closed his small front dining room as well as the upscale Purépecha Room, in the back, which centered on multicourse menus integrating modern gastronomy and traditional Mexican cooking. Rojas turned to Revolver’s sliding storefront window for to-go service to save his business. Then he went on the offensive and realized his dream project, turning Revolver’s former dining space into a reservation-only taco tasting room and calling it, appropriately, La Resistencia. The six-course gourmet menu, priced at $65, features heirloom corn tortillas and proteins that are either prepared on a Japanese yakitori grill using binchotan charcoal and wood or pulled from the sashimi cooler, both new acquisitions. He replaced Revolver’s long communal table with smaller, socially distanced ones and reformatted the HVAC system for safer ventilation.

Rojas’s menu of “Mexican tacos with a Japanese influence” changes frequently; one of the standouts has been a Baja California red snapper grilled over guava wood and mixed with sushi rice, a muted-green mole pipian, blueberries, and baby sunflower greens. In another standout, the Tijuana Fever, a red corn tortilla was given a schmear of garlic-parsley salsa, which was topped with a single leaf of crisp emerald-hued lettuce bigger than the tortilla, a majestic whole prawn, a fileted piece of tempura-battered Japanese whiting, and the deep-fried head and spine of the fish—salty and crunchy, if at first a bit off-putting. Nixtamalized heirloom Mexican corn is the basis of La Resistencia’s menu, which expresses Rojas’s vision of Mexican cuisine and its flavors more acutely than anything he’s done before. It just happens to involve a traditional Japanese grill.

For those who might assume that these tacos are outside the realm of Mexican foodways: they’re not. The tradition evoked by La Resistencia and Edoko Omakase runs centuries deep. From 1565 to 1815, Spanish trading ships sailed between Acapulco and the Philippine capital of Manila. This era of commerce between Asia and Mexico led to an exchange of novel spices and foodstuffs that set off waves of innovation. Today, this history is reflected in the seafood dishes of Mexico’s western coastal states—an area where Japanese immigrants settled during the first half of the twentieth century—as well as California and southern Arizona.

Perhaps the most explicit contemporary example is Mexican sushi, a specialty that has become big in California and is making inroads in Texas. This version of sushi, which almost never includes raw fish, integrates ingredients such as carne asada, fried shrimp, cream cheese, and chipotle mayo. La Resistencia offers its own variation of Mexican sushi at its reservation-only seafood brunch on Sundays. A sliced roll called El Quiroga Tako (“tako” is Japanese for octopus, while Quiroga is a city in Rojas’s home state of Michoacán) is filled with carnitas-style octopus, albacore tuna, and sushi rice and topped with a vibrantly flavored chile de árbol–infused eel sauce.

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The uni (sea urchin) taco, topped with salmon roe, at Edoko Omakase.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

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Edoko Omakase's restaurant interior in Las Colinas.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Left:

The uni (sea urchin) taco, topped with salmon roe, at Edoko Omakase.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

Right:

Edoko Omakase's restaurant interior in Las Colinas.

Photograph by Brittany Conerly

At Edoko Omakase, tacos receive the same respect as sushi. The restaurant’s custom orders of seafood, shipped from Japan three times a week, are used in the tacos. Executive chef Keunsik Lee finds inspiration in foundational components such as pico de gallo, which he transforms into kimchi de gallo as a condiment, along with wasabi aioli, for the cool, tender layers of the tuna sashimi taco, noting that pico’s raw white onion resembles the cabbage used for the staple dish of his native Korea. Lee’s love of tacos comes from his time working under celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto at the now-closed Japonais, in Chicago, where he was encouraged to explore. He worked alongside a diverse kitchen staff, many of whom hailed from across Latin America. When he returned to Texas, where he got his start as a chef, Lee took his experience, especially his exposure to different taco styles, and dug in. “The focus is on the flavor itself, the fish itself, and then I can add some of the really original taco stuff, like salsa with a little bit of Asian flavor,” he explains.

The chefs’ clear visions at Edoko Omakase and La Resistencia mark Lee and Rojas as the standard-bearers of Japanese tacos in Texas—and I’m excited to see what Torres and Galicia do at Kumo. And with La Resistencia, adding a new concept in the space has paid off for Rojas, who is seeing more customers, has rehired furloughed staff, and is making rent. “It gives me the power to keep going,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Are Japanese Tacos The Next Big Thing?” Subscribe today.

Tags: Food, Tacos, Edoko Omakase, Irving, La Resistencia, omakase, revolver taco lounge, Tacos

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