And then there are food trends so totally weird they seem to defy logic, like one that hit national publications a bit over a year ago -- it could maybe be called ConFusion Cuisine. What to make of the Norwegian-Cantonese restaurants, Irish-Dominican eateries, Albanian pizza places, Korean/Southern American soul food spots, or a Thai Blimpie Base -- all of which mind-boggling combos have sprung up in New York over the past few years, though it's hard to explain why. Except maybe by: Why not?
At any rate, foodies who despair that Miami is always a decade behind the world's trendsetting centers will be pleased to hear that our town already has an outstanding-sounding rep of this new ConFusion genre: Sushi Tepec, a Japanese-Mexican restaurant. The self-proclaimed specialty here is "Mayan-influenced sushi."
Those immediately envisioning mummified maguro chunks extracted from the pyramids of Tikal can rest easy; in two Tepec visits, I didn't even encounter a thousand-year egg, and all the raw fish I tried tasted as fresh as at the average Miami Japanese restaurant. In fact Sushi Tepec's Japanese-Mexican food is not nearly as strange as it sounds, for better or worse. There's a promisingly odd origin tale on the back of the menu, about someone named Yanunak who left the Yucatán to study with Japan's Zenmasters in the 1980s, and, after returning to his tepec (hilltop) home to contemplate, for two years, how to combine sushi with Yucatán flavors, opened Sushi Tepec's parent restaurant chain, Shokuni, in Cancún and Cozumel. But really, the main "Mayan" influences appear to be a few, very few, commonplace Latin spices and herbs that numerous SoBe sushi joints have been incorporating for years, such as hot chilies. How one knows that certain items are Mayan-influenced is mainly because their names contain numerous X's, such as Ixchel clams.
However, if there is not actually much weirdo fusion in Sushi Tepec's cuisine, there certainly is a good deal of confusion in its menu. The aforementioned clams, for example, turned out to be five mussel shells, each containing about three extremely tiny bay scallops, plus some spinach, spices that were mainly too much salt, and a lemon/butter sauce containing enough of some sherryish liquor to allow the dish to arrive flambéed -- though, unfortunately, stiff ocean breezes blowing across my party's otherwise pleasant terrace table extinguished the flames before enough liqueur had burned away to mellow the raw alcohol taste. Although I do adore an old-fashioned dramatic presentation, $19 was dramatic overpricing for the dish. And frankly, what we'd wanted was clams.
Since the only other house special entrée, motoyaki lobster, was even higher-priced ($45) and most other entrées sounded uninterestingly straight Japanese -- meat/fish teriyakis and noodle/rice bowls -- we concentrated on sushi makis that appeared to have some Latin component from their names. Which turned out to be their most striking Latin component. Since some cheeses, for instance, in Tepec's rolls -- many, many makis here contain cheese -- were described as queso filidelfia, we expected the queso in the exotic-sounding Xcaret maki to be other than cream cheese, perhaps a Mexican fresh cheese. Nope. All cheeses in all makis were cream cheese, making all seem like some sort of variation on the usual AsiAmerican bagel roll.
Still the Xcaret (tuna, smelt roe, cucumber, and cream cheese, and a toque of "spicy and crunchy") was tasty, due to the toque being more than just a touch of tampico, a sauce that also figures in Tepec's tampico rollo (maki) and cono (hand roll). The sauce, normally in Mexico containing crab but described by our server as containing "crab eggs," tasted little different than the Japanese mayonnaise in standard sushi bar spicy rolls everywhere, including Tepec's spicy salmon and spicy tuna makis. The alleged crab eggs tasted just the same as standard sushi-garnish masago (smelt roe) -- but the creamy, mildly piquant pink mayo was nevertheless a skillfully spiced version of the usual, and the roe as pleasantly crunchy a contrast as usual.
Although fresh hot peppers are nothing new in nouvelle South Beach sushi bars like Shoji or Doraku, Tepec's habanero maki (salmon, Japanese mayo, sesame oil, and habanero chilies) was more enjoyable than usual; the chili slices were mild enough that they neither obliterated the delicate salmon nor blew off the top of diners' heads.
The name fajita maki suggests something different -- like a flour tortilla wrap, a Mexican take on the standard French maki's crêpe -- but turned out to be a filling of scallion, mushroom, and cream cheese wrapped in thin, and, as usual, pretty dry beef slices. The chispas maki turned out to be a slightly different (though not in a Latin way) variation on a shrimp tempura roll; instead of deep-fried shrimp in tempura batter, the maki contained pan-fried shrimp with crisp batter crumbles on the side, plus cream cheese.
But the macho maki was genuinely different -- and delightful. Though an English translation as "banana roll" had us fearing a sickly-sweet stuffing, the roll turned out to be a wrapping of thin macho-durable plantain slices around a savory filling of crab and ... surprise! cream cheese.
Most of Tepec's other stuff seemed to be standard sushi bar fare, some with Mayan-esque monikers that confuse the issue. On one visit there were also a few "Mayan ceviches," of which the hamachi version was good, though expensive and indistinguishable from any number of non-Mayan mild ceviches I've had. But a few other items have actual Jap-Mex fusion touches. Along with normal Japanese-style shrimp tempura, for instance, there is Kukulcan seafood tempura. This was an appetizer (though, at $15, entrée-priced) of fish fillets and shellfish -- salmon, whitefish, two medium shrimps, and faux-crab surimi sticks -- fried in a coating that was light but not airy like usual tempura batter, and served atop a big heap of rice sitting in a puddle of oil. The dish was palatable, but too greasy.
Additionally there is a menu of Mexican specials that is small but useful -- the latter because what's special is that the four items (of which my table tried the two vegetarian items, fairly starchy chalupas and much more appealing cheese/poblano-stuffed quesadillas) are all served, accompanied by big bowls of refreshing red and green salsas and excellent thin taco chips, in elegant little two-bite sizes that go perfectly with saketinis. My idea of great East/West fusion food.