By Stephen Vargha Though sushi is synonymous with Japan, it can be found 9,000 miles away in Cuenca. Sushi is bite-sized and rice-based, often involves raw fish, and is accompanied by sliced ginger and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). It originated as casual food served at food stalls in the Tokugawa era (between 1603 and 1867). Since then, it has become a very popular food worldwide. In the United States, sushi restaurants sold $22.25 billion in 2019, according to a Statista study. That same study found that over two-fifths of Japanese people consume sushi from a shop at least once a month. Ecuadorians Monica Jara and Edwin Sánchez figured out that sushi was the way to go when they opened Mocagi-San in December 2018. “Everybody thought we would not be successful,” said Sánchez. “We had no family or friends in Cuenca when we opened our restaurant.”
Most of their family and friends were in Milagro, the second largest city in Guayas Province. The couple did not know each other growing up in Milagro. It took a mutual friend to introduce them. Eight years later, they got married in New Jersey, where Sánchez was managing restaurants in the New York City area. Sánchez was working for a franchisee which had restaurants in the upscale Whole Foods food stores. “My first job was at Mitsuwa Marketplace, a real Japanese supermarket in northern New Jersey,” said Sánchez. “I got more training with sushi with the Whole Foods restaurants. They tried to have their sushi close to what you find in Japan.”
His Whole Foods job took Sánchez to Boston, Baltimore, Northern Virginia, Florida, and Seattle, where he opened restaurants for the company he was working for. In August 2018, the couple moved to Cuenca. “We chose Cuenca because my father lived here,” said Jara. “It was more than that though, as we fell in love with the weather and culture. Of course, having expats here, helped too.”
They soon started looking for a place to open their sushi restaurant. The couple was getting into a crowded market. “There were about eight restaurants making some sort of sushi,” said Sánchez. “Most were cut-cut sushi or frying them. We wanted to make quality sushi for people to enjoy.” Sánchez explained that his restaurant serves American-style sushi. “We use raw fish and roll it up in rice, just like the Americans do,” said Sánchez. “Japan is plain. It is fish and rice. Sometimes there are vegetables like cucumber and avocado.” He added that it is a lot like sashimi, a Japanese delicacy consisting of fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces and often eaten with soy sauce.
The couple looked for a place that would fit their pocketbook. “When we opened, we only had a little bit of money,” said Sánchez. “We looked for a place that already had a restaurant in it.” That place was a former restaurant on Ave. Primero de Mayo, about 400 feet west of Tres Puentes. They gave their south side restaurant a Japanese sounding name: Mocagi-San Sushi Bar. “We named it after our three daughters,” said Jara. “M-O for Monica; C-A for Camila; G-I for Gianny, and S-A-N for my husband, Sánchez.” She added that “San” is a double entendre for the restaurant’s name. In Japanese business life, a man’s surname is always followed by the suffix “San” which means “Honorable Mister.” Looking back, the couple laughs at what they were told about their restaurant. “People told us that traditional Japanese sushi would not make it,” said Sánchez. “They were wrong as Cuencanos and expats are always asking for it. Our customers told us they were tired of dry rolls.”
At first, only 20 percent of their customers were Cuencanos. The rest were expats. Today, Sánchez and Jara say it is fifty-fifty mix as word has gotten out. The favorite three sushi offerings are Rainbow Roll, Tokyo Roll, and Spicy Tuna Roll. The Rainbow Roll is tuna, salmon, shrimp, white fish, avocado, cucumber, and chives. The Tokyo roll is made with red tuna, salmon, cucumber, avocado, scallions, and masago (Capelin fish eggs). Their Spicy Tuna Roll has red tuna, avocado, scallions, and sriracha. “One of my favorite sushi is Alaska Roll. It is smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado, cucumbers, and scallions,” said Sánchez. “I also like Dueling Duet: red tuna, salmon, and avocado. This one is simple and is the best.”
Ramen soup was added to their menu. With its easy preparation and delicious flavor, ramen soup became known as Japan’s favorite comfort food. For patrons of Mocagi-San, it is getting more popular, with pork being the clear favorite. Along with ramen soup, there is miso soup. Some say it has a Zen sort of vibe as it is a delicious, warming, and comforting. Miso soup is a traditional Japanese dish made with dashi (Japanese soup stock), miso (soybean paste), and a range of ingredients that vary from region to region, including seaweed and tofu. The latest addition to the menu is Poke Bowls. Poke consists of white rice topped with diced raw fish that’s been marinated in a blend of sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions, and other spices. It is one of the main dishes of native Hawaiian cuisine and is considered healthy due to the unsaturated fats from the fish.
Mocagi-San has a unique and popular way of serving its sushi. For larger orders of sushi, it is served on a beautiful wooden replica of a sailing ship. “When we moved to Ecuador, Hubby started working at a restaurant. He saw a boat as artwork. That is when he decided to serve our sushi on it,” said Jara. “Now, all of the restaurants in Cuenca are trying to copy our boats and sushi.” Expansion plans are in the works for Sánchez and Jara. The storefront next to Mocagi-San became vacant, and they are working on the final details for an Asian foods store. “We will be selling Japanese, Korean, and Chinese ingredients,” said Sánchez. “Mochi (a bun-shaped Japanese dessert made from sweet glutinous rice flour) will be made at our restaurant and sold at our store.” Because Asahi, a popular Japanese beer, is served at the restaurant, there is a good possibility of buying it at their store that will have a simple and logical name: Mocagi-San Grocery. The grand opening is planned for December. In less than four years, business has been good for Mocagi-San. Because of their popularity, they are open seven days a week: Monday-Friday: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturday: 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday: 12 Noon to 9:00 p.m. “Our customers are so happy. They tell us it is fabulous,” said Jara. “Cuencanos are thrilled we are serving ethnic food.” ___________________ Mocagi-San Sushi Bar, Av. Primero de Mayo 1-97, Cuenca 010107, 099-923-2022, Facebook Photos by Stephen Vargha Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.