According to the usual internet sources, sansei are third-generation Japanese born outside of Japan. In Latin America, the largest concentration of sansei live in Brazil, though we suspect that Peru (think ousted president Fujimori) must have its fair share as well. Inevitably, detached from the mother culture, the sansei have developed variations on traditional cuisine, and sushi has not escaped this transformative process. We will try hard not to blame them for the addition of cream cheese, but surely the appearance of mango can be traced to big-city Brazil. We’ll blame it on Rio, then.
Chef Jeffrey Axell and the folks at Bar Rojo have seized upon sansei sushi as a way of distinguishing the bar from the pack and, we assume, also to tie it more directly to the Latin cuisine of Achiote River Café. On its surface, the idea is a clever one, and the team has developed some rolls that include jalapeño, avocado crema, and chipotle aioli, among other twists (the folks at Sushi Zushi and the late Yokonyu paved the way for this in San Antonio), and sakes and Japanese beers have been selected to support the maki, sashimi, and nigiri. Does it work? Well…
My lacquered bento box, consisting of a chef’s selection of the above, is quite beautiful. It’s also $25, though you can make up your own menu of individual pieces if you prefer. The sashimi selection, for example, consists of salmon, ahi tuna, kona kampachi (a farm-raised fish in the yellowtail family), and citrus-marinated red snapper. For me, the chef had selected ahi tuna and, I assume because of its texture and lack of any detectable citrus, the kona kampachi. I think I would be tempted to slice them both thinner, but the fish was fresh, the tastes just different enough.
There’s of course not much especially sansei about the sashimi, and nothing Latin informs the almost equally simple nigiri, consisting of raw fish atop rice lozenges. Bar Rojo’s two sushi dudes had selected lightly cooked shrimp for my box, electing not to add any wasabi or shizo leaf between the two parts. By itself, this is frankly boring, the chefs having also eschewed the addition of aiolis and cremas. (If you’re going to muck with tradition, why not go all the way?) You will want to dip the nigiri in Chef Axell’s aji rojo satsuma soy. Just don’t do as I did and reflexively add wasabi paste to the mix first. Sorry, I can’t tell you whether it works on its own or not.
The maki rolls are where the sansei theme begins to strut its stuff. The handsomest of the two that had been selected was the Bar Rojo Roll, consisting of jalapeño-cilantro tuna and matchsticks of cucumber wrapped in nori, coated in rice, and rolled in brilliantly red-orange flying-fish roe and dotted with avocado crema. It’s pretty, coherent and just complicated enough. Can’t say the same for the Achiote Roll. It was, unfortunately, a well-intentioned train wreck involving snapper ceviche, mango, daikon, sliced avocado, chipotle aioli … but my Ty Ku sake had begun to show signs of life by that time, so I was easily diverted.
Ty Ku ($9) is made in Oregon, no less, and it arrives quite chilled in a handsome flask. (A more rustic style from the same producer, Momokawa Pearl, was my first selection but was unavailable.) That it’s cold to start is a good thing, but the delicate floral aromas and pear and peach flavors don’t really develop until later; then the sake makes sense with the sushi — especially the Bar Rojo Roll.
Bar Rojo is not one of those intimate places you go for a tryst or a classic martini. Its best decorative feature is the joyous Anita Valencia installation hanging over the stairs to the Achiote Café below. But there are many exuberantly inventive cocktails that might bear further investigation at a time there’s no big convention in town. There’s even a sweet-potato martini, based on Patron añejo, that I find almost irresistible in its chutzpah. Maybe in the fall when sitting outside won’t seem punitive.
Ask to have your parking ticket stamped, by the way. The website claims three hours free after 5 p.m., though the parking attendant didn’t mention that when I told him where I was going. That $9 might have bought a chipotle-pineapple margarita. Almost. •
Sansei Sushi at Bar Rojo
600 E. Market