Fernando Chang never planned to open a kosher restaurant. He just wanted to make sushi.
The soft-spoken Chinese-Peruvian chef's family moved to South America from Guangzhou near Hong Kong. He grew up in Chiclayo, a city in northwest Peru, where he ran a successful shoe store and ice-cream shop. Then, in the early 1990s, Peru's economy went into a tailspin. Incomes sank to levels unseen in more than three decades, and soon new shoes and ice cream became luxuries few could afford. "I had to close down everything, sell everything, and move to Miami," the 53-year-old says.
That set Chang and his family on a path to opening Surfside's 26 Sushi & Tapas. The stark-white, 2-year-old restaurant's focal point is a pristine sushi bar backed by a drool-inducing cookbook collection courtesy of Chang's 24-year-old daughter, Valerie. She and brother Fernando, age 27, run the hot kitchen. The pair is responsible for an array of small plates, ranging from toothsome udon noodles doused in a spicy, rich huancaína sauce to lubina dumplings — tender purses filled with sweet, briny sea bass spiked with an herbaceous chimichurri and ponzu sauce shocked with rocoto peppers. Today the family has earned the trust and adulation of members of Miami's devout Jewish community for its uncanny ability to unleash wave after wave of intense flavors while following stringent kosher rules.
Rabbi Allen Saks is a fan. He is the rabbinic coordinator for Kosher Miami, which oversees about 140 kosher businesses, including 26 across South Florida, to ensure they follow the strict rules governing the diet. "They're the first ones to ever get me to eat sushi," Saks says of the Changs. "They go out of their way to help the Jewish community."
Chang began bussing tables at the Bird Road Japanese institution Matsuri. Soon the fast hands and glinting knives behind the sushi bar drew his attention. "We come from a side of Peru that's very close to the ocean," Chang says. "We have a very strong relationship with the sea, the fish, and the produce that comes from the coast."
At first, he had difficulty finding a sushi chef to teach him. "You have to stay near them, drink sake with them," he says, "and maybe, little by little, they'll show you something."
So in 1996, he joined the Abe family, which was opening Su-Shin Izakaya just off Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. He spent two long years washing, steaming, and seasoning rice before he was handed a knife. Then he was assigned to chop and prep vegetables before finally moving on to fish.
He later worked in Japanese restaurants up and down I-95, often holding two jobs and toiling up to 14 hours a day in hopes of one day returning to Peru. When he decided to stay, the pay from endless hours helped cover the tens of thousands in dollars in legal fees he spent to keep his young family here.
In 2002, while he was working at the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key, his path took another unexpected turn when a friend asked him to be the sushi chef at the now-shuttered North Miami restaurant Thai Treat. The menu was to be kosher. And though Chang isn't Jewish and had never heard of kosher, he quickly figured out that sticking to the rules was a cinch. There was no lobster, shrimp, or crab to worry about (shellfish is prohibited in a kosher diet). Nor would there be any red meat, which must be prepared in a special way to be considered kosher. It did take some getting used to, though. A Sabbath-observing Jew had to be on hand every day to light the restaurant's stoves. No fish without skin or scales could be served, and a supervisor would be onsite each day to ensure all kosher rules were followed.
In the ensuing years, Chang developed a repertoire that would make him a recognizable face at many of the city's best-known kosher restaurants. After Thai Treat, he moved to Miami Beach's Prime Sushi on Arthur Godfrey Road, where he began selling intricately composed sushi rolls featuring far more ingredients than one might find at a standard sushi spot. "With traditional Japanese sushi rolled in seaweed, you only see black," he says. "I like more colorful food, things that look vibrant." Though he took on his first kosher restaurant like any other job, he ended up working his way into a niche where few can challenge him today.
He eventually landed at Harbour Grill, in the heavily Jewish town of Surfside, where he spent five years before opening 26 Sushi & Tapas in 2014. The name signifies the numerical value of the Hebrew word for "God."
Here, he began serving oversize rolls that purists might consider too large and complex. Yet many of them, tucked into the restaurant's six-page menu, show off ingenious flavor combinations. Among them is the tower roll, which comes with sweet, savory shreds of shiitake mushrooms marinated in soy that helps round out spicy tuna flecked with avocado and shallots. The Peruvian-leaning coral reef roll is another; it pairs panko-crusted corvina and a punchy rocoto aioli with salmon, avocado, and scallions. The acevichado roll takes the Peruvian influences a step further, wrapping crisp sweet potato and leche de tigre-washed corvina in sushi rice.
The presence of Chang's children in 26's kitchen has helped elevate the place to a level no other kosher Surfside restaurant has yet to reach. His daughter Valerie had worked as a hostess at Bal Harbour's Makoto before attending culinary school and working in the kitchen of Thomas Keller's Bouchon and later at Albert Adrià's Pakta in Barcelona. Upon returning to Miami, she helped develop the Peruvian portion of the restaurant concept. With her brother, she oversees a staff of servers who deftly attend each table. The younger Fernando handles the business side of things (he once bailed out a server who had a DUI and bought a manager a car) and butchers up to a thousand pounds of whole fish weekly.
Together, the two children create dishes that not only have captured Surfside's heart but also are worthy of all of Miami's attention. They deploy sweet-and-sour pickled daikon and carrots to spin and deepen the flavor of a classic corvina ceviche. The biting, round notes meld beautifully with piquant leche de tigre, while the nutty crunch of crushed peanuts with a dash of sesame oil fills out each bite. Find similar nuance in a ceviche with a rocoto-based kimchee tossed with rubies of tuna, Fresno peppers, and watermelon radishes. A smattering of roasted nori provides idyllic whiffs of the ocean.
Even more impressive are hot fish preparations. Load up verdant lettuce cups with shatteringly crisp corvina crowned with a cashew-pistachio crumble. A lashing of ají amarillo curry tamps down all the richness with a spicy-sour jab. Then there's a whole fish surrounded by a bounty of Chinese-Peruvian sides. On a recent night, the centerpiece is a meaty strawberry grouper lathered with ají panca, roasted, and then dressed with a snappy cilantro-mint-mango salad. It's accompanied by a bowl of chaufa, Peruvian fried rice studded with sweet knobs of plantain and crimson sweety drop peppers. Nearby await spears of tender eggplant stir-fried in sweet soy, alongside a fan of bok choy.
"For every big rabbi who has come in, I've made sure they've had the coolest and weirdest culinary experience they've every had," Valerie says. "Now we have Hasidic Jews talking about Peruvian food. It's incredible."
The most important reason 26 can serve such a wide variety of dishes is that Chang has spent years caring for his meticulous clientele. Find him at the restaurant seven days a week for at least 14 hours a day, wearing a black baseball cap and sometimes a stern demeanor. Don't be afraid, though. Ask him for whatever you want, and as long as it follows the rules, it'll appear in no time.
26 Sushi & Tapas
9487 Harding Ave., Surfside; 305-570-2626; 26sushitapas.com. Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday 9:30 p.m. to midnight.
Lubina dumplings $10
Lettuce wraps $16
Coral reef roll $18
Acevichado roll $18
Tower roll $20
Tuna ceviche $25
Traditional ceviche $23
Ceviche jalea $32
Whole roasted fish MP
Stir-fried eggplant $12