The Tex-Mexplainer series explores the ingredients, techniques, history, and culture of Mexican food in Texas.

Since the colonial era, Mexican cooks have adopted immigrant cuisines to create hybrid dishes. The taco al pastor, for example, uses pork from Spanish pigs cooked on a Lebanese vertical roasting spit. Mexican sushi was born of the same pragmatism and flair for innovation.

In the late nineteenth century, Japanese laborers emigrated to Mexico to work on coffee plantations, farms, and railroads. Eventually, Japanese restaurants opened in Mexico City to serve the growing community. ICHI Restaurante has been operating since 1959, and Sushi Dai has been open for more than thirty years. As more Mexicans patronized the restaurants, owners began adapting dishes to their tastes. 

In the decades since, Mexican sushi has spread across Mexican border states and into the U.S., particularly via chains such as La Laguna Mariscos and Sushi, based in Nuevo Laredo, and Culichi Town, a California brand with outposts in Houston and Mesquite. 

Today, Mexico City natives and siblings Brenda and Alex Sarmiento co-own ten-year-old Yellowfish Sushi, in San Antonio. Brenda describes the restaurant’s specialty as sushi a la mexicana. “It’s the sushi I grew up with,” she says. The dishes employ classic proteins, such as salmon, that flirt with Mexican ingredients.

The Cowboy Roll is an example of the Sarmientos’ bold creations. It’s composed of nori jammed with fried crawfish, cream cheese, and spicy mayo, then blanketed with melted Monterey Jack cheese and drizzled with chipotle mayo. A roll stuffed with carnitas was a recent special.

Cooked meat is a typical filling in Sinaloan-style sushi, which rose to popularity in the early aughts in the northwestern coastal state. According to common lore, this style was created by Mexicans who’d returned home after working in California sushi joints. Now it’s easy to find rolls (sometimes deep-fried) that are bulky with carne asada and milanesa de pollo.

At another San Antonio restaurant, El Remedio, Joshua Palacios channels his Sinaloa-born grandfather. The El Remedio Roll combines beef, chicken, bacon, avocado, cream cheese, and mozzarella and is drizzled with tangy eel sauce. “It was a surprise hit,” Palacios says. Feeding our hearty appetite for cross-cultural cuisines, Mexican sushi rolls its way—slowly, for now—across Texas.   

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How Sushi Became Mexican.” Subscribe today.

Food styling: Olivia Caminiti