At Sushinola, Anayancy Reyes, her sister, and her mother serve the food of their hometown, Guasave, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The logo in the Kent restaurant’s window — the business name with a little tomato character holding chopsticks — is an adaptation from the Sinaloan capital city’s baseball team, the Culiacán Tomateros. It’s a sign that you’re entering Sinaloa — or as close as can be found in the Northwest. It’s the kind of place where on a Monday afternoon — a day when the restaurant is normally closed — Reyes unexpectedly flings the door open as a steady stream of people flow in. By Wednesday, when the sushi rolls go on special, that stream becomes a mob. The cavernous room fills with Sinaloans, clay jars called jarritos filled with fresh juice and tequila on tables, and food coming out so fast and furious that a casual observer can barely see the contents of each massive sushi roll.
This Mexican food does not — to the dismay of some of the uninitiated — include carnitas or burritos. Sinaloa is a seafood province, and Sushinola specializes in the state’s unique cross-cultural concoction: Mexican sushi.
Forget any images of Edo-style nigiri. Here, the cook’s creations have nothing to do with the years-long quest of a chef to slice the perfect sashimi. Subtlety and finesse are replaced with a sensory explosion: the crunch of tempura-fried breading, the heat of chipotle sauce, the richness of cream cheese. Where sushi in Japan might whisper, Sinaloan sushi shouts. It’s the stuff of Jiro’s nightmares. But for Reyes and her fellow Sinaloans, it’s a reminder of home, a dish they’d eat in town for dinner.
Although Reyes repeats an often-retold story of the Mexican sushi’s origin as the product of a Japanese man running a food truck in Sinaloa, the dish traces back to Culiacán in the early 2000s, when popular Sinaloa flavors were added to sushi rolls to appeal to locals. The result, now common around the state and growing in Los Angeles and Tucson (though still relatively unheard of in many parts of the U.S.), is a style of sushi that leans heavily on breaded and fried rolls, cream cheese, imitation crab, thick sauces, and, yes, Mexican meats. Sinaloan sushi is all rolls — no riffs on nigiri or sashimi. But the sushi complements the Sinaloan seafood dishes that Reyes grew up eating in her house — ceviche, aguachile, and fish tacos.
“Nothing is raw,” is a common phrase Reyes uses to reassure Mexican customers from outside of Sinaloa, who are often concerned by the idea of Mexican sushi, but curious. While the restaurant has a fierce following among people familiar with the cuisine, Reyes has struggled with others. “Most of our customers are Mexican,” she says. “A few Asian.” And very few white people, who often walk in and right back out when they realize the only dish similar to what they consider Mexican is the carne asada that, here, comes inside a sushi roll. But, Reyes points out, anyone who sits long enough to get the freshly fried tostadas and house-made salsa that come to each table, or anyone who bothers to wait for a chipotle-sauced, deep-fried sushi roll, tends to return.
Reyes and her family came to Seattle in 2007, and her mom worked as a cleaner and a cashier as the girls finished high school. Four years ago, Reyes got restless and moved to Los Angeles. There, she started a food truck called Sushi Express with a friend, serving Sinaloa-style sushi and seafood. The demands of learning a new business on the job met the fact that they may have pre-dated the current explosion of Sinaloa-style sushi in LA. The venture failed after three months. It was Reyes’s first food truck business, and she couldn’t afford any help. But the idea stuck with her. When she came back to Seattle, she realized nobody was making Sinaloa-style seafood here and saw an opportunity.
Together with her sister and mother, Reyes started selling Sinaloa-style rolls through Facebook’s Marketplace feature — and the business blew up among Mexicans who craved the taste of these hulking rolls from home. Reyes and her mom made their style of sushi as fast as they could, and her sister Gabriela delivered: The market was clearly there. So they used the little money they had from the business to briefly open up a restaurant with partners in Tacoma in January of 2017. Eight months later, they opened an outpost they fully owned in the Kent strip mall. Unfortunately, their liquor license didn’t come through for six more months. “It was tough,” Reyes says. “In Sinaloa, there is no sushi without a michelada.” (A michelada is a Mexican beer cocktail.). Even the house-made coconut horchata wouldn’t do as a substitute.
Today there are plenty of drinks, and, yes, micheladas, including the restaurant’s “especial” version, made with Clamato, shrimp broth, Tajín spice mix, salt, lime, and salsa negra — the signature sauce of Mexican seafood. Reyes won’t fork over the secret ingredients in her salsa negra, other than to say she uses chile chiltepin — though in general, it’s an umami-packed sauce of Worcestershire, soy, and/or Maggi. The drink comes graced with a few shrimps and a stick of tamarind candy.
But the heart of Sushinola’s menu are, of course, its rolls. Thick, lightly breaded with panko, deep-fried, and sauced, each one costs about $15 (but just $9.99 on Wednesdays, the busiest night of the week). These aren’t delicate maki, but hefty logs sliced into more than a dozen half-inch pieces, topped with house-made chipotle mayonnaise and the aforementioned salsa. They all come with shredded carrots on the side and a roasted chile güerito (banana pepper) sprinkled with Tajín. The bombazo roll has imitation crab, cooked shrimp, cream cheese, and avocado inside, then a surimi (fake crab) salad on top. The Cielo Mar y Tierra roll (sky, sea, and earth) has chicken (sky), imitation crab and cooked shrimp (sea), and carne asada (earth), along with cream cheese. The encamaronado, the most popular, includes the fake crab, cooked shrimp, cream cheese, and avocado, and even has fried shrimp piled on top of the roll.
Reyes says the restaurant used to serve the typical Sinaloan accompaniment of soy sauce mixed with lime and orange juice at every table, but too much was wasted, so now servers only bring it when asked — as most Sinaloans who come in do. But don’t expect wasabi and ginger. Diners pick between Tapatio and Salsa Huichol — the kinds of bottled hot sauces generally present at taco shops — for additional flavor and heat.
The sushi, while the headliner of the menu, makes up only a small section. The kitchen also serves several Sinaloan seafood dishes: aguachile (a sort of quick ceviche, which “cooks” the seafood with citrus instead of heat, but adds spice in the form of a blended chile sauce); ceviche; shrimp empanadas; and fish (tilapia) tacos. In the seafood platters section of the menu, diners can find sample platters of these dishes.
But whatever customers come for, Reyes tries to make sure servers prepare them for the wait — this isn’t fast food or a taco truck. Limes are squeezed over the seafood for raw shrimp aguachile after orders come in, and the sushi is also rolled and fried to order. A small stage to the side provides live music — banda, ranchera, or corridos — on Sunday afternoons, and customers can pass the time reading the hand-painted signs with Sinaloan sayings: “Yo tomo poco, pero mucho muy seguido” (“I drink a little, but a lot and very often”), and “Soy del mero Sinaloa, donde se rompen las olas” (loosely: “I am from Sinaloa, where the waves break”) on the wall. But it is the last one that is the easiest for anyone diving into the oversized, flavorful sushi to relate to: “Qué chilo,” a Mexican Spanish turn of phrase that basically means “how awesome.”