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Ichiban – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

In an episode of Friends, Joey Tribbiani starred in a commercial released only in Japan for Ichiban men’s lipstic.   His friend Chandler’s response upon viewing the commercial: “he really is a chameleon.”  In Japanese, the word “ichiban” means “number one”  or “the best” and can be used either as a superlative (as in the highest of quality or the very best choice) or to denote precedence or numerical order.  The fictional Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan, for example, called his eldest son “number one son.”

Whether meaning to denote the highest quality or precedence (ranking) among other restaurants, any dining establishment calling itself “number one” is  making a pretty audacious claim. Even in a landlocked market like Albuquerque where fresh seafood isn’t walked off the dock and onto a restaurant’s kitchen, there are enough “passable” or better sushi restaurants that it is disputable as to which is really number one.

The Interior at Ichiban

The Interior at Ichiban

After several visits to Ichiban over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that the “number one” designation is a misnomer and in fact, it’s been our experience that Ichiban Japanese Restaurant has suffered a steady decline in quality over the years.  Ichiban has become a chameleon: a very pleasant and attractive milieu belying culinary inconsistency–sometimes very good; more often than not, mediocre–proving you can’t judge restaurant quality solely by appearance.

Perhaps Ichiban’s “number one” designation has to do with the steep bill of fare patrons receive at the end of the meal. It’s obvious the restaurant owners realize their proximity to Corrales and to Intel. The sushi is priced somewhat above average for Albuquerque which wouldn’t warrant a mention if the quality of the sushi justified the extra cost (it’s as pricy as some sushi I’ve had on the west coast).

Miso Soup and Salad

Situated in the Corrales Shopping Center (Coors and Alameda, N.W.), Ichiban’s founding owners also owned the A-1 Oriental Market on Wyoming. Ichiban opened in the fall of 2000 and quickly developed a loyal following on the city’s Northwest side, which has seen several other sushi restaurants open and close in the past few years.

Even though the shopping center experiences a perpetual cavalcade of motor vehicles, Ichiban is like a shelter from the din of the outside world. The huge dining room allows for privacy and intimacy through the strategic placement of light blond wooden screens. The sushi bar is one of the largest in the city. A seat near that bar provides unfettered views to the fresh fish offerings of the day and to highly skilled chefs deftly wielding their razor-sharp knives and making precision cuts that make your sushi meal esthetically pleasing and ostensibly, delicious. 

Green Chile Tempura with Dipping Sauce

A steaming bowl of miso soup is complementary.  As with other items on the issue, the miso soup suffers from consistency issues.  At times, it’s somewhat watery and could use both more miso paste and green onions.  At other times, it’s among the very best miso soup in the city.  Still, it will warm your tummy in anticipation of other specialties of the house.  Also served with dinner entrees is a simple salad of fresh lettuce with a modicum of julienne vegetables served with a vinegar-ginger dressing.

Ichiban’s appetizers range from very good to uninspired (despite intriguing menu descriptions).  Would it be gauche to say the Viagra salad “rises to the occasion” or that it “stands out?”  In any case, it’s a very nice way to start a meal.  This salad is fashioned from wonderfully fresh crab meat and thinly sliced tuna steak served with fresh greens and a spicy mayo sauce with a tangy bite that impresses itself on your tongue and lips, two erogenous zones to be sure.  It would be interesting to find out what Amy Reiley, author of Fork Me, Spoon Me, would think about Viagra salad considering her terrific tome is a sensual cookbook which celebrates the power to cook up passion with recipes for your favorite natural aphrodisiac ingredients.

The "Oh My God" appetizer

The “Oh My God” appetizer

One other appetizer might easily elicit a Freudian slip.  That would be the Oh Shin (tempura fried jalapenos, cream cheese, spicy tuna, shrimp with spicy mayo and a “special” sauce) which might just have you uttering a variation of the appetizer’s name–as in “Oh shin, that’s good stuff” even as your eyes are watering and your lips are tingling.  The Oh! My God, an appetizer of spicy tuna dip with fried wonton chips on the side isn’t nearly as mention worthy.  In fact, the tuna dip reminded us–on two distant occasions–in both texture and taste of canned bean dip.

New Mexicans who can’t get enough green chile might order the green chile tempura in which a long green chile is sheathed in a light tempura batter. The chile has a nice roasted taste, but isn’t especially piquant. This appetizer is served with a light and sweet dipping sauce that complements the chile nicely.  In recent months it’s become somewhat vogue to use similarly battered chiles on green chile cheeseburgers instead of the more conventional roasted and chopped green chile.  Ichiban’s green chile tempura would be a nice addition to any green chile cheeseburger.

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

No sushi restaurant in Albuquerque serves a wasabi quite as tear-inducing as Ichiban where just a dab will do you. If you like your eyes and nose running during a meal, apply Ichiban’s wasabi liberally. Sure, its nasal-passage clearing effects are short-lived, but it’s strong enough to mask the flavors of the seafood which after all is what sushi is really all about…and in fact, real wasabi is more herbal and earthy than what American sushi restaurants serve.  Typically that’s a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring.

For years, the main reason we wanted our sensation of taste unscathed was so we could enjoy Ichiban’s Super Crunchy Roll to its fullest.  This stand-out roll included (past tense) tempura fried shrimp, crab stick, shrimp, avocado and three types of sauces.  During our visit in September, 2014, there was nothing crunchy in the Super Crunch roll.   With three types of sauces, perhaps it should be renamed “Super Sauce Roll” would be more appropriate.

Super Crunch Roll

The New Mexico roll with its fried green chile roll provides palate pleasing emanations of roasted green chile with a tongue titillating effect. It always amazes me that the green chile used in sushi throughout the Duke City area features better green chile than you’ll find in many New Mexican restaurants. That’s an indictment of the state of green chile in the city.  It may also be indicative of the sushi chef’s skills in drawing out the finest qualities of the green chile.

Among Ichiban’s best nigiri (vinegared rice topped with seafood) style sushi, is the grilled unagi (eel) which is said to have stamina-giving properties.  Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive (not that it takes much).  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they wanted an intimate night.  After waddling out Ichiban’s door, intimacy might be the last thing on your mind.

Pork Bulgogi

Our biggest source of dissatisfaction with Ichiban has been the Korean entrees.  Korean entrees in a Japanese restaurant, you ask.  For some reason, the Duke City has very few purely sushi restaurants.  Most restaurants offering sushi also seem to feature some other Asian fare, Korean being among the most common.  Ichiban offers some of the more popular entrees among American diners: bulgogi, garbi (SIC) and bibim bob (SIC).

The Korean entrees, including bulgogi and garbi, would be much improved if Ichiban used better meat. There’s just something about gristly, sinewy beef and pork that most diners find unappetizing no matter how well marinated and grilled that beef may be.  At Ichiban, the bulgogi marinade is available as both “hot” (with pork) and regular (with beef).  Additionally, the “spicy” marinade is rather insipid, lacking personality and the quality of deliciousness.

Dolsot Bibim Bob (SIC)

Though the Air Force never sent me to Korea, many of my friends were married to Korean women who introduced me to the culinary fare of the “Land of the Morning Calm.”  It was only natural that one of my very favorite entrees would become the dolsot bibimbap (spelled Dolsot Bibim Bob on the Ichiban menu), a sort of “everything but the kitchen sink” assemblage of ingredients (often left-overs): rice, beef, vegetables, egg and a delicious Korean chili paste called Gochujang.  Served in a hot stone pot (called a Dolsot) that makes the rice crunchy and keeps the meal hot (steam wafts upward throughout your meal), it’s a magnificent meal–when prepared well. 

Alas, Ichiban’s rendition is the most substandard dolsot bibimbap I’ve ever had–by far.  The cavalcade of mediocrity included an egg cooked to the level of hard-boiled which changes the texture and flavor of the dish.  Ideally, the egg should be sunny-side-up so you could stir in liquid yolk into the other ingredients.  Those other ingredients included julienne carrots, bean sprouts and beef.  There was no evidence of Gochujang on the bibimbap though we were given a hot sauce in a plastic bottle.  There are more belittling things I could say about this dish, but you get the picture.

Some Albuquerque diners may indeed consider Ichiban their number one dining destination when they crave sushi, but our most recent experiences have been such that won’t return any time soon.

Ichiban
10701 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 899-0095
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 16
RATING: 13
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Miso Soup

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant on Louisiana and Central

In Japan, ramen is so revered that diners line up, sometimes for hours, at ramen houses for homemade noodles tangled with such ingredients as dried fish, pork and chicken.  Connoisseurs make  pilgrimages to a popular ramen museum in Yokohama, not the only museum dedicated to ramen, by the way.  If you’re wondering how the ramen noodle product you purchased as a collegiate at the rate of ten bricks for ten dollars warrants such reverence and respect, you’re in the right ballpark, but not in the right seat. 

Although extremely popular throughout Japan where you can find  it even in vending machines, it’s not the ubiquitous low-brow instant ramen found in Styrofoam packages which warrants such adulation and enthusiasm. That adulation is reserved for ramen which is fresh and handmade with rich, creamy, opaque broths lovingly tended for hours, if not days. It is the consummate comfort food in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Interior of Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant

In fact, comparing instant ramen to the ramen found in restaurants is akin to comparing the burger on a McDonald’s Happy Meal to a wagyu steak at a posh steakhouse. While the packaged ramen is ready in an instant, it’s teeming with sodium and suspect-sounding ingredients. Ramen house ramen, on the other hand, is the sublime result of cooking from the heart and soul.

In an ever-shrinking world, it was only a matter of time before the ramen house concept made its way across the pond.  The Food Channel, in fact, believes the ramen culture has made its way beyond heavily populated urban areas and has made its way to mainstream America.  That might be an understatement.  Cities both large and small have embraced the ramen culture with some ramen chefs achieving near rock star status.  A ramen shop debuting in New York City yielded a media frenzy and near religious fervor among patrons.

Tonkotsu Ramen

Albuquerque, which often tends to be late to the party, has seen its own explosion of ramen restaurants in 2014…if you can call three restaurants an explosion.  The first to launch was the Mekong Ramen House which offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience showcasing cuisine from several Asian nations…but not Japanese style ramen.  April saw the launch of O Ramen, a traditional Japanese style ramen house serving a sublime Tonkotsu.   Weeks later, the triumvirate was complete with the launch of Gen Kai Japanese restaurant in the International District.

Located in front of Ta Lin Market World Food Fare on Louisiana and Central, Gen Kai is owned and operated by a familiar face in Lily Genka whose previous restaurant venture was the popular UNM area eatery Mirai Japanese Restaurant. Mirai, which specialized in light and healthy cuisine, closed in January, 2014 only to reopen five months later in a new location and under a new name.  Sure to please those of us lamenting Mirai’s closure are the many similarities between the menus at Mirai and Gen Kai.

Spicy Tuna Donburi

As with Mirai, Gen Kai isn’t exclusively a ramen restaurant though it does offer four classes of ramen: shoyu (soy-flavored), miso (fermented soy bean paste), shio (salt) and Tonkotsu (pork).  All ramen dishes include pork char shu (slow grilled pork), dry seaweed, green onion, bamboo shoot, red ginger and egg.  Gen Kai’s menu also offers Udon (a thick wheat flour noodle soup), Donburi, Bento, Curry, Sushi and more. It’s a fairly comprehensive menu

14 May 2014: My benchmark for outstanding ramen starts and ends with the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso from O Ramen.  Quite simply it’s the very best I’ve had.  Gen Kai doesn’t offer a spicy ramen, but you can add a chili bomb, garlic bomb or special hot oil extract to any soup. Its Tonkotsu Ramen, while quite good  isn’t nearly as life-altering as its counterpart at O Ramen.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a good soup with all the soul-warming properties of a good ramen.  The broth for Gen Kai’s Tonkotsu ramen is made from pork bones simmered for hours.  There’s a generous amount of pork swimming in that broth.  Interestingly, Gen Kai adds red ginger (the bright pink pickled ginger which accompanies sushi) to the broth instead of the more conventional shaved ginger root.

Pork Katsu Don

14 May 2014: With the 2013 closure of Kokorao Japanese Restaurant on the heels of the 2010 closure of Noda’s Japanese Cuisine in Rio Rancho, foodies wondered when and where we would get our next fix of donburi, a large bowl of steamed white rice with a variety of toppings.  While Gen Kai offers nine different donburi dishes, unfortunately none are unagi (my favorite).  Donburi, which has been described as “sushi in a bowl,” is so good, aficionados eschew other menu offerings to partake of this simple dish with so many interpretations.  For the truest sushi experience, try the “spicy tuna” (or “spicy salmon),” a compilation of spicy tuna with a chili mayo dressing, avocado, zucchini, nori (seaweed), red ginger and wasabi.  Mix in a little soy sauce, close your eyes and you just might think you’re in sushi heaven.  The donburi is served with miso soup.

23 May 2014:  Nikko Harada, my friend and culinary kindred soul shares my passion for donburi.  Who wouldn’t?  It’s the perfect mishmash of great ingredients thrown together much like Korean bibimbap.  Its also ridiculously easy to prepare if you have a modicum of kitchen skills.  When those ingredients complement one another, this dish sings.  Gen Kai extracts a chorus of flavors from its Pork Katsu Don, a magnificent melange of few and simple ingredients: pork cutlet, scallions, pickled daikon, a soft-boiled egg and rice with a soy flavored sauce (not pure soy sauce, but a sauce “flavored” like soy sauce with more than a hint of what may be teriyaki sauce).  For those of us who consider donburi a comfort food, this one is very satisfying.

Unagi

23 May 2014: The Appetizer and Salad menus, a mishmash of familiar-common and authentic-rare (to Albuquerque), includes a few dishes  Nikko was surprised to see.  At first browse, the wakame salad appears almost too small for two to share.  That’s especially true if you’re accustomed to the mountainous plates of American salads.  A little wakame salad goes a long way.  Wakame, a very healthy type of edible seaweed is extremely green in gradations ranging from bell pepper green to neon green.  It has a very pleasant texture and is as refreshing and clean as any salad you’ll ever have.

23 May 2014:  The sushi menu includes a limited number of nigiri (hand-formed sushi rice topped with sliced seafood) and maki (toasted seaweed nori rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables) sushi as well as sashimi (sliced fish).  In honor of Nikko’s brother Kiichi who recently graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology (NMIT), we shared his favorite sushi–unagi (fresh water eel) nigiri-style.  Unagi, a delicacy in Japanese cuisine, is my favorite too.  Unlike much of the seafood used in sushi, unagi is almost never served rare.  Gen Kai’s rendition is prepared on a grill and is cooked all the way through. Unlike at far too many Japanese restaurants, Gen Kai’s sweet “eel sauce” isn’t “lacquered on” to give the unagi a candied flavor.  Instead, it’s used sparingly to allow diners to enjoy the natural flavors of the “barbecued” eel.

Gyoza

23 May 2014: Gen Kai offers two types of dumplings: a boiled pork wonton dumpling with a spicy peanut sauce  and gyoza, pan-fried chicken or pork pot stickers served without the usual soy-based dipping sauce.  Gyoza, a staple in Japanese cuisine, is always a reliable starter with solid flavor combinations sure to please even the most discriminating palate.  Served six per order, these gyoza won’t fill you up, but they’ll make you very happy.

23 May 2014: During my inaugural visit to Gen Kai, I had the great honor of sitting next to a table of Kirtland Air Force base’s finest noncommissioned officers, one of whom had been stationed in Japan. He gave Gen Kai two resounding thumbs-up, praising its authenticity.  He especially loved the pork katsu curry rice, deep-fried, panko-breaded pork with a generous ladling of Japanese curry.  Japanese curry is the curry even unabashed curry haters will love.  It has none of the piquancy or pungency of Indian curries or the coconut cloyingness of Thai curies, but has its own unique flavor profile.  It’s thick and smooth textured with a resemblance to gravy.  It’s sweeter than Indian curries, but not as sweet as Thai curries and it won’t singe your tongue with piquancy.  Gen Kai’s curry is better than the curry at O Ramen.  The only complaint I have about it is that Nikko and I talked so much, we let our food get cold.  Curry is a dish best served hot…or at least warm.

Pork Katsu Curry Rice

While Mirai once offered a fried tempura green tea ice cream Nikko raves about, Gen Kai offers only the ice cream sans the light and delicate tempura which made it a popular dessert favorite.  Green tea (matcha) ice cream has a distinctive bright color, and a flavor similar to sweetened green tea. Whether or not green tea ice cream inherits the antioxidant properties of green tea, it certainly inherits green tea’s deliciousness.

When you walk into Gen Kai, you’re greeted with a hearty “Irasshaimase!”, an honorific expression welcoming someone (similar to namaste in India).  This greeting shows respect toward the guest by honoring their presence.  Duke City diners will be hearing that greeting quite frequently because this is one Japanese restaurant sure to draw in discerning diners.

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant
110B Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505 255-0112
LATEST VISIT: 23 May 2014
1st VISIT: 14 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Ramen, Miso Soup, Spicy Tuna Donburi, Asian Iced Coffe, Pork Katsu Curry Rice, Green Tea Ice Cream, Gyoza, Unagi (Nigiri), Pork Katsu Don

Gen Kai on Urbanspoon

Ahh! Sushi – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

The year was 1997. Recently thawed from a thirty year cryogenic state, Dr. Evil addressed the United Nations about his diabolical scheme to hold the world ransom: “ In a little while you’ll notice that the Kreplachistani warhead has gone missing. If you want it back, you’re going to have to pay me…one million dollars.” After the United Nations officials erupted in laughter, Dr. Evil quickly corrected himself “sorry…one hundred billion dollars.”

The interior of Ahh Sushi

The interior of Ahh Sushi

When our mere pittance of a bill arrived after my friends Paul, Bill, Fred and I had polished off a boatload of all-you-can-eat sushi at Ahh! Sushi, the 1997 movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, quickly came to mind. Considering all we had eaten, we half expected an evil sushi chef to come out from behind the curtain and say “sorry…one thousand dollars.” We didn’t add up what the sushi would have cost had we not availed ourselves of the all-you-can-eat offering, but suffice to say, we ate our money’s worth and then some.

AhhSushi04

Miso Soup

The only sticker shock visitors to Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho receive is shock (and maybe a little bit of awe, too) at how inexpensive all you can eat can be. I won’t list the cost for fear the owner will read this review and figure out he’s not charging enough. Now, the natural inclination of skeptics reading this is to assume the quality of Ahh Sushi’s sushi is comparable to the inedible sushi you find in grocery stores or all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. At Ahh Sushi, there is no correlation between cost and quality—for just a little more than you’d pay for a couple Happy Meals, you’ll partake of surprisingly high quality and absolutely delicious sushi.

Salad with ginger-teriyaki dressing

Salad with ginger-teriyaki dressing

With your meal, you’ll also receive your choice of miso soup or salad, and as Ronco’s famous pitchman Ron Popeil would say, “and that’s not all.” With your ginsu knives….er, sushi, you’ll also get your choice of an appetizer.  If you’re with a group and if not overwhelmed with dine-in traffic, the accommodating kitchen might even prepare a Sampler Platter: egg rolls, tempura shrimp and vegetables, dumplings and onion rings.  The tempura shrimp and vegetables are excellent, comparable in quality and flavor to the tempura at Mr. Tokyo, a Duke City standard-bearer for tempura.  Served with a sweet-savory dipping sauce, the crispy, fresh vegetables are lightly sheathed in a crispy tempura batter that allows the vegetables and shrimp to shine.

    Sampler Platter: Egg Rolls, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Dumplings, Onion Rings

Sampler Platter: Egg Rolls, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Dumplings, Onion Rings

The all-you-can-eat sushi is served daily for lunch only from 11:30AM to 3:00PM.  You can eschew the all-you-can eat offering and select from among some fifty specialty rolls, not all of which are available on the sushi buffet.  Contrary to some sushi buffets in which offerings are limited to modified California rolls, Ahh Sushi’s buffet includes some terrific and addictive offerings: Crunchy Roll, Fried Philadelphia Roll, Green Chile Roll, Green Salmon Roll, Santa Fe Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Spider Roll and more.  Nigiri sushi (sliced raw fish with a molded ball of rice underneath) is not part of the all-you-can-eat menu.

Tuna roll, Santa Fe roll with wasabi and ginger

Tuna roll, Santa Fe roll with wasabi and ginger

There are some definite winners in the line-up.  The Santa Fe Roll (crab, cucumber, cream cheese, shrimp tempura and green chili (sic) tempura topped with all tuna and sauced with spicy mayo, Sriracha chili and teriyaki) is terrific, a synthesis of flavors that go very well together.  A commonality among the spicy rolls is spiciness (go figure).  The spicy tuna roll brings the heat with it at no sacrifice to taste.  The green chile on its eponymous roll is incendiary enough to make New Mexicans proud.  Ahh Sushi doesn’t scrimp on seafood and overindulge on rice.  The green salmon roll (salmon, seaweed salad mix an crab stick all wrapped with cucumber wrap) includes a generous amount of salmon.

AhSushi06

Boatloads of sushi at our table

Rio Rancho’s Ahh Sushi opened in September, 2013, two years after its elder sibling opened at the Riverside Plaza just north of Montaño on Coors.  As with its scion, the Rio Rancho instantiation is sports friendly with flat screen televisions positioned for ESPN viewing.  Framed shirts signed by Dallas Cowboys’ hall-of-fame players Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith hang on separate walls, but the restaurant will serve everyone–even New York Giants fans.  Overall, Ahh! Sushi isn’t  much on ambiance, but the focus of the highly regarded restaurants at the small, age-worn strip mall (which includes the legendary Namaste and Rub-N-Wood Barbecue) in which it resides is on great food, not ambiance.

AhhSushi09

Spicy Tuna Roll, Green Chile Roll, New Mexico Roll

My friends, especially Bill who visits Ahh Sushi so often his mail is being delivered there, find all the ambiance they need in the feminine pulchritude serving their meals, especially when the vivacious Monique Candelaria is on call (Mondays).  If the WWE’s Bella Twins need a triplet for their act, they should call on the alluring brunette…not that the stunning Monique hasn’t had several casting calls.  She’s been in a number of movies as well as on Breaking Bad.  Monique has got an Academy Award-winning smile and is as gregarious as can be. There’s no one in Albuquerque who delivers sushi better than she does.

The vivacious Monique Candelaria.  Someday we'll say we knew her back when...

The vivacious Monique Candelaria. Someday we’ll say we knew her back when…

The interjection “Ahh” is used to convey understanding or realization as in “ahh, this is great sushi.”  It’s an interjection heard often at All! All Out Sushi.

Ahh! Sushi
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 994-8550
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 January 2014
1st VISIT: 14 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: All-You-Can Eat Sushi, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Miso Soup


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Ahh's Sushi Rio! on Urbanspoon