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From Narco to Sinaloa Sushi Chef: How a Kid from East L.A. is Building a Mexican Sushi Empire

3:57 PM PST on November 27, 2018

    [dropcap size=big]N[/dropcap]estled on Holt street in Pomona, El Sushi Loco is already poised to serve quite the experience to San Gabriel Valley patrons and beyond. It's an experience underscored by the story of it's East Los-born owner — one rife with narcos, years of incarceration, a Tijuana street cart, and even a kidnapping.

    El Sushi Loco serves a unique Sinaloa-style sushi, or Sushinaloa style, a hybrid of mariscos and baked rolls filled with proteins and cheeses. The result is a delicious Mexican and Japanese fusion.

    The Emperador – the emperor roll – is made with cream cheese, carne asada, and cooked shrimp. Then it’s bundled up in seaweed, tossed in some batter, and deep fried. It only gets better when the sushi is topped with spicy kanikama, house made eel sauce and served with a little pool of a creamy cilantro sauce. There is that initial soft crunch that quickly makes way for the other flavors to mingle and create a delightful experience.

    L.A. Taco recently got an exclusive soft opening preview of El Sushi Loco's fourth location, which is officially opening Dec. 3 with a party and ribbon-cutting by members of the Mexican norteño supergroup, Banda MS.

    Dynamite Roll. Courtesy of Sushi Loco.
    Courtesy of Sushi Loco.

    El Sushi Loco is a mishmash of the streets of East Los Angeles and something unmistakably Sinaloense. The savory endproduct is wrought together by hardship, grit, and a passion for food. Parked in front of the new restaurant was a beatdown food cart, with a faded “Sushi Island” logo on top, an homage to El Sushi Loco’s humble past.

    'I became a narcotraficante.'

    Frank Mendoza, sushero and owner of four El Sushi Loco restaurants, looked at the old cart fondly. The smiling chef has come a long way. Born in East Los Angeles, Mendoza was kidnapped and whisked away to Culiacán, Sinaloa by a rogue father as a young child. “He literally kidnapped me, what happened to the Amber Alert back in the day?” Mendoza laughed.

    After a while, Mendoza’s father realized that his son needed a mother, so he returned the child to East L.A., where Mendoza would spend the rest of his childhood. Mendoza graduated from Roosevelt High School. While he showed promise in baseball, nothing came of it.

    “My uncles were narcos. My mentors were drug dealers. What did I become? A drug dealer. I became a narcotraficante,” Mendoza explained.

    Sushi Loco chef and founder Frank Mendoza. Photo by Erick Galindo.

    [dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]fter getting caught, 23-year-old Mendoza was hit with an 11-year prison sentence in 2000. Despite initially feeling like prison was the end, Mendoza realized that it was the beginning of his process. He wanted his life to be significant and have an impact.

    Immediately after prison, he set out with a new purpose, and a sushi cart that he bought from Tijuana. There were setbacks. The cart would violently shake when it was hooked to the back of Mendoza’s truck, and the small business was shutdown by police. Still, the customers kept coming back for more.

    Eventually, Mendoza was successful enough to retire the “Sushi Island” and get his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. He just needed a new name. One day Mendoza passed an El Pollo Loco and it hit him, El Sushi Loco would be the new name for his friendly and over-the-top culinary experience.

    Mendoza and his daughter. Photo by Erick Galindo.
    Mendoza and his daughter. Photo by Erick Galindo.

    Mendoza now has two locations in Downey, one in La Puente, and the new Pomona one. He sees it as the start of a Mexican sushi empire.

    I can’t say El Sushi Loco has a home kind of vibe, because that would imply mundane, and El Sushi Loco is anything but. However, this establishment has the energy of a good friend that just really wants you to try something special they created.

    Besides celebrating the grand opening of Sushi Loco No. 4, this holiday season Mendoza and El Sushi Loco will also be giving back, joining forces with East LA Alcance, Victoria Church, and Angel Tree for a Christmas toy drive, which will begin soon after the new restaurant is open. Mendoza said the donations will help "bring smiles to children whose parents are currently incarcerated."

    “My biggest joy is to give back to the community," he explained. "As opposed to being the problem back in the day, El Sushi Loco wants to be a part of the solution."

    RELATED: A Family-Owned Gastropub in Monterey Park Is Putting an Asian L.A. Twist on Classic Burgers and Brew

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