It didn’t take long, maybe my second or third bite into my second or third roll, when I turned to Samurai Sombrero chef and owner Gabriella Delgadillo and uttered these words to her: “Oh, you’ll have a restaurant within a year. I can guarantee that.”
It was one of her namesake rolls, the Samurai Roll, a beast of sushi loaded with tempura shrimp, cream cheese, and avocado then deep-fried and finished with spicy crab, eel, and mango hot sauce. On a brisk afternoon on the corner of 22nd Street and Pantano Road, the Samurai Roll made complete sense and helped the roar of the traffic fade into blissful white noise.
Why is this roll so darn good? Pretty sure I’ve had something to its similarity before, but this one bit and kissed just a little harder and deeper.
Then Delgadillo produced another signature roll, the Sombrero Roll. Again with the shrimp tempura and cream cheese. However, with this tightly spooled buddy, I was treated to bright jalapeño, cilantro, avocado, and a chef’s secret sauce dangling in there somewhere. What a balance.
It was here that I began to gain some semblance of what Samurai Sombrero is all about. Taking the idea of sushi, one that most are quite familiar with, and pairing it up with some tastes of our desert home.
It’s a concept that has been done before. In fact, there are a few options out there with Mexican spiced components wrapped in sushi rice and integrated with Japanese ingredients, but what Samurai Sombrero is doing is something to take note of.
Delgadillo, a Tucson native, began working in restaurants at a very young age.
Growing up with parents that weren’t big cooks, she found a place for herself among the fire and fury that comes with the territory of working in fully functional kitchens. As many fledging chefs begin, Delgadillo began her journey as a dishwasher and slowly made her way up the culinary ladder. Thing is that her route took a different shift as she began serving rather than cooking. It was more than likely due to her outgoing personality and charm that seemed a better fit for the floor rather than behind the scenes.
The restaurants she served at actually didn’t have a hotline as they were mostly sushi restaurants — the line is much cooler and calmer, for the most part. During her time in said sushi restaurants, Delgadillo noticed one thing about the food she was serving to customers.
“There really wasn’t any flavor to them,” she said.
Growing up in Tucson and hailing from a Mexican upbringing, she was used to fiery flavors and complex ingredients so eating California Rolls or even Spicy Tuna Rolls wasn’t enough to intrigue or even impress her. So, Delgadillo began to hatch an idea that seemed a bit weird but definitely worth a shot: combining flavors of her heritage and the sushi roll.
It was around this time she met her future husband, Jesus Oleta, who was a sushi chef and also liked the idea of merging the two styles together. Her recipes matched with his sushi skills began to take hold and after a few bumps and rattles, they secured close to a dozen inventive flavor fusions. That was when they knew they wanted to go into business for themselves.
The first attempt was to open up a restaurant, a tried and true brick-and-mortar concept, but there was only one (and this is a big one) major obstacle.
“Money,” said Delgadillo.
Being young upstarts without major funding or sponsorship means you have to start smaller than you had originally intended. This is when the truck came into play.
Delgadillo and Oleta pulled together all of the funds they could, even with a baby on the way, and secured a truck. The two immediately began working on getting out there and getting their delicious Southwest sushi into the hands and mouths of the good people of Tucson.
Eventually, the restaurant will come but the present truck suits what they do just fine and dandy.
First off, let me just say that Samurai Sombrero offers a lot of vegetarian and vegan options. Some friends that have been longtime members of the meat-free club swear by the veggie rolls created by Delgadillo and Oleta. Having tried the cucumber and avocado rolls, yes, they are indeed very tasty and a good size so you will not leave hungry — at all.
For fans of a seafood spectacle, something you need for your face is the Lobster Popcorn Roll, which is more of a thick turret of eye-popping magnitude than a “roll.” They took the ubiquitous California Roll, laid it out flat, topped it with heaping spires of lobster, and completed it with a spicy mayo eel sauce. The stratum of flavor going on with this one just has to be experienced to be understood.
The Mexican Roll includes salmon with avocado and pickled jalapeño whereas the Pancho Roll features shrimp tempura, a sauce hinting towards spices of Sonoran descent and, yes, avocado.
You see, it’s just subtle hints of both Mexican and Japanese influence that Samurai Sombrero is getting at but one thing that is clearly clear, and something Delgadillo has been going for since its inception, is flavor.
All of the rolls, and the Spicy Shrimp entrée that I also adored, have a stroke of seasoning that goes beyond just sushi-grade fish, rice, and locally sourced vegetables.
Yes, you can get a straight-up California Roll or Spicy Tuna Roll, something that we are all familiar with, but give the Heart Attack, Wild Magda, and Abigail Rolls a trip around the food block.
Samurai Sombrero is just getting started and they are putting out feelers of what we all want and what actually works. It’s going to be very exciting to see how far they go because there are rumors of adobo chicken and mole rolls happening in the near future. Although, they might just need an actual restaurant to pull that off.
No, I take that back. The heaving size and palate-hugging behemoth that is their Vegas Roll is pulled off regularly from that snug wagon usually parked at The Pit. The food here is just so good and I predict will only get better.
Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...