Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Restaurant on Wyoming

Opinions vary as to what the next “hot” cuisine in America will be.  As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I’m more interested in how long it will take for that heat to make its way to the Land of Enchantment…and whether its sizzle will wow Duke City diners or pass us by.  In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian the next hot cuisine.  Apparently Albuquerque didn’t think it was so hot because Perumex, the city’s first and only Peruvian restaurant at the time both opened and closed the year of Bon Appetit’s proclamation.  Thankfully in 2011 Rene and Monica Coronado opened Pollito Con Papas to give the Duke City a second chance at a taste of Peru.  In 2013, Sara Correa launched Sara’s Pastries which gives Duke City diners a sweeter perspective on Peruvian cuisine.

If history repeats itself, perhaps Lao cuisine, the cuisine of Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) will follow Thai and Vietnamese cuisines as the hot cuisine embraced by ethnic-food ravenous American diners.  That would be my wish and my prediction.  Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  The influence of neighboring nations can be seen in Lao cuisine.  A French influence is also in evidence.  From 1893 to 1954 when it gained full independence, Laos was part of the Protectorate of French Indonesia.

Sakura’s Sushi Bar (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The geography and history of a nation is a strong determinant in its culinary culture, and while the influence of other nations may be in evidence, each country in Southeast Asia has stamped its own distinct mark on America’s palate.  Americans in cities fortunate enough to have a restaurant serving the cuisine of Laos have lustily embraced that distinctiveness.  Alas, Duke City diners have had to trek to Amarillo’s LM Restaurant to partake of this relatively new trendy dining sensation.

So what’s the Cuisine of Lao like?  It might help to understand that its closest “relative” is the cuisine of the Issan region of northern Thailand. New Mexicans who love their food a bit on the incendiary side would love  Issan style Thai food which is more highly spiced than cuisine at other regions of Thailand. Spiciness aside, there are other differences between Thai and Lao cuisine. Where Thai food is colorful and exotic, Lao food is more basic and simple. Interestingly, the savory dishes of Laos are never sweet and the concept of “sweet and sour” is considered foreign and bizarre.

Cheese and Green Chile Egg Roll with Plum Sauce

A Lao saying about its cuisine can be translated as “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.  The cuisine of Laos incorporates a wide variety of bitter ingredients including mint and dill, two herbs generally ignored by their neighbors.  Other cooking herbs of vast importance in Lao cuisine are galangal, fish sauce, garlic, shallots and lemongrass. These ingredients help give the cuisine of Lao a more intense flavor profile than the cuisine of neighboring nations.  If a dish is intended to be sour, you can bet it’ll be intensely sour at a Lao restaurant.

Recent years have seen an increasing number of Asian restaurants in the Duke City serving more than one type of Asian cuisine.  Sakura Sushi has the pedigree to do it well. Still, you wouldn’t expect to find Lao cuisine in a restaurant named Sakura Sushi until you read the “subtitle” on the marquee: Thai and Laos cuisine. You might visit for the sushi, but you’ll keep coming back for the Lao.

Ceviche (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Located in in the former site of Asia Restaurant (which closed in 2007 after more than five years of inconsistent business), Sakura Sushi is owned and operated by Vong and Pialo Soumphonphakdy, both natives of Laos.  Vong, who previously plied his trade as sushi chef at Minato’s (closed) Eurasia (also defunct) and Neko Sushi (also closed) artfully wields his knives behind the sushi bar at Sakura.  His wife Pialo is the kitchen chef, preparing all the Thai and Lao cuisine.

The interior at Sakura reflects a Japanese theme more so than either Thai or Lao. The color palate includes wasabi green walls festooned with framed art depicting Geishas in their beautiful silk kimonos. During our inaugural visit, there were two things that told us this might be a special restaurant. The first was the loyalty of a gaunt septuagenarian seated at the table behind us. He dines at Sakura six days a week and has done so since the restaurant opened in the fall of 2007. We were determined to find out what engendered such loyalty.

The Ruby Red Roll

The Ruby Red Roll

That may have been answered with the second thing that struck us about Sakura Sushi. It was Vong’s sage-like conveyance of the rudimentary facets of sushi to a couple in their forties.  That couple’s sole experience with sushi had been limited to eating sushi from Trader Joe’s.  Under Vong’s tutelage, the couple went from sushi novices to sushi lovers in short order.  It was fun to watch them become more and more adventurous as their dinner went on.

13 January 2008: The menu currently features only seven Lao cuisine entrees with the better part of two pages dedicated to Thai cuisine. Not including sushi, there is also a page dedicated to Japanese cuisine as well as a page listing the sushi chef’s specialties. Appetizers include monkey balls (forget the double-entendre). Monkey balls are deep-fried wheat flour tempura balls stuffed with spicy tuna and mushrooms and served with a sauce comprised of fiery Sriracha, savory Japanese mayo, and sweet unagi sauce.

Lao Sausage (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The monkey balls are terrific, but the sauce elevates them to a higher plain.  It strikes a perfect balance between  sweet, savory and piquant flavors and presents them subtly so that you’re able to experience each of these taste sensations individually and in combination with one another.  This is the type of sauce you could literally put on anything and it would improve it.

22 December 2016: Another fabulous appetizer is the Japanese ceviche served in a tall goblet. While the refreshing, bright dish of citrus-marinated seafood has its roots in South American cuisine, variations are increasingly found in trendy menus everywhere. Conceptually Japanese ceviche is similar to its Latin American counterpart in that the seafood isn’t (ostensibly) catalyzed (cooked) by citrus juices.  Where it differs significantly is with its ginger-based sauce that mingles magnificently with the citrus to give this ceviche its flavor.  It’s not the intense ginger you get as if when shaving a ginger root, but a tempered version that works very well with a lesser citrus influence.  My friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling Deanell, both aficionados of Mexican sushi, were blown away by Sakura’s terrific ceviche.

Beef Laab (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The ceviche combines the very best of East meets West, fusing the flavors of Japan with a popular South American dish that really brings out the character of any raw fish.  Sakura’s version of ceviche includes shredded crab, butterflied shrimp and other sushi favorites such as tuna and salmon in a goblet showcasing micro greens, sesame seeds and spring mix lettuce.  This ceviche provides a delectable balance between the tang of citrus and the zesty kick of ginger.  It’s an absolute winner!

24 June 2012:  One appetizer sure to pique your curiosity is a cheese and green chile egg roll.  There are several things that make this an intriguing starter, not the least of which is the fact that cheese is not often used in Asian cuisine (save for that of India).  At first glance, it looks like a traditional egg roll and indeed, it is served with Sakura’s plum sauce.  Bite into it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, but be forewarned.  The cheese is gooey and hot.  So is the chile.  The plum sauce isn’t really necessary, but it’s several orders of magnitude better than most sweet and sour sauce.

Lao Beef Jerky (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

13 June 2008: A chef’s specialty needing no improvement is the Ruby Red Roll.  Inside, this maki style roll is engorged with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and Gobo, a Japanese root.  On top, you’ll find fresh tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe) and sweet unagi sauce. The Ruby Red Roll earns its name.  At first glance you might even mistake the tobiko with a fruit jam, but one taste and you’ll know for sure you’re partaking of briny, delicious roe.  There are several inventive maki rolls on the menu, but you can also have sashimi or nigiri style sushi (vinegared rice topped with a bite-size, raw or cooked piece of either egg, fish, or other seafood.

22 December 2016: Aficionados of pork sausage will quickly become besotted with Sakura’s Laos Sausage Special, a plateful of pork sausage sliced diagonally. This sausage has the type of unmistakable reddish coloring that comes from a smoking process. The sausage is somewhere between a slightly coarse-ground and a fine-ground texture. Insofar as taste, you’ll be able to discern scallions, garlic, lemongrass and a bit of chile. Overall the taste leans toward mild with just a hint of piquancy. This is very good sausage, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese sausage.  Larry, whose predilection for piquancy leans toward masochistic, enjoys this sausage with Sakura’s fiery chili sauce, a weapon of mass deliciousness…and heat.

Moo Todd

Moo Todd

22 December 2016: Sakura’s rendition of the national dish of Laos is also quite good.  Every household in Laos has its own recipe for Laab, a minced salad crafted from your choice of ground pork or beef seasoned with lime juice, lemongrass, yellow and green onions, toasted puffed rice, rice powder, cilantro and mint. There is a synergy and freshness among the various ingredients.  There is also a profusion of deliciousness in how those ingredients meld with and swim in the citrusy tanginess of more lime than you’ll ever find in a Thai version of this quintessential Southeast Asia salad.  Dazzling Deanell was surprised at the flavor intensity of Sakura’s version.

22 December 2016: Several years ago during one of our many visits to Lotus of Siam (the best Thai restaurant in America) in Las Vegas, Nevada, we fell in love with an Issan style beef jerky appetizer.  Yes, beef jerky!  It’s not something you see in many restaurant menus, but you will find a Lao version at Sakura.  This is definitely not the desiccated hardtack quality jerky you might find at a gas station.  It’s surprisingly moist, unbelievably delicious and roughly the dimensions of a small finger.  Eight of these wondrously seasoned gems sit on a bed of thin noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and bean sprouts in a sweet-savory sauce you’d gladly lap up.  Larry called this dish “unforkable” in that you literally have to pick up each shard of jerky with your fingers because a fork just won’t pierce it without devolving its integrity.

Green Curry with Mussels and Rice

13 January 2012: The Thai side of the menu includes Moo Todd, stir-fried pork fillets with Thai hot black pepper, garlic and sweet soy sauce. These may be the best pork fillets we’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant. On their own they’re special, but the accompanying sauce, an inventive mango and crushed peanut sauce, imparts even more flavor. The mango-based sauce is rich, piquant and sweet. 

24 June 2012: The Thai menu includes several curry dishes including a rather unique green curry which is available with beef, chicken, mussels and shrimp.  Instead of the conventional greenish color, this curry is a brackish brown color.  Perhaps the green is reserved for the New Zealand green-lipped mussels.  There are eight of them on the dish along with green pepper, bamboo shoots, coconut milk and curry, of course.  The curry has a rather mild flavor profile in that both coconut milk and chili are used in moderation.

Green Chile Tempura (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

19 February 2009: While sticky rice is the preferred way to eat rice in Laos, you can also opt for pork-fried rice.  Doing so will reward you with the second best fried rice dish in Albuquerque (behind the Chinese sausage fried rice at Ming Dynasty).  This rice includes scallions, carrots, green beans and even niblets of corn.  It has a pronounced smokiness resultant from having been fried in the chef’s fried rice sauce. 

22 December 2016: Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City have long incorporated New Mexico’s official state vegetable into their menus.  Virtually every purveyor of great sushi offers a New Mexico roll (or a similarly named maki roll) impregnated with green chile.  Some, including Sakura even offer green chile tempura, whole green chiles sheathed in a light, almost translucent batter.  Alas, we found Sakura’s version so greasy none of us enjoyed it much.  We also didn’t like the relatively anemic sauce which accompanied it.

Sakura’s unique rendition of mangoes and sticky rice

Dessert options include sweet rice with mangoes as well as green tea, red bean and plum wine ice cream.  The plum wine ice cream is refreshing and delicious, flecked with bits of rich, sweet plum.  In season, a popular choice is mangoes with sticky rice, a version quite different than you’ll find in the Duke City’s Thai restaurants.   The coconut milk is unsweetened and thick, blanketing the mangoes and the black (it’s actually purplish) sticky rice which is naturally sweet.  The mangoes and sticky rice offset the unsweetened coconut milk, providing a delicious and surprising contrast.

I don’t know if the cuisine of Laos will become the next “hot” thing, but I do know that if Sakura Sushi continues to do the things it did to impress us during our first, second, third and fourth visits, it has a chance to be a very successful restaurant in the Duke City.

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine
4200 Wyoming, N.E. C-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 294-9696
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2016
1st VISIT: 12 January 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Laab, Laos Sausage Special (Pork), Ruby Red Roll, Plum Wine Ice Cream, Pork Fried Rice, Miso Soup, Green Curry, Lao Jerky, Mangoes and Sticky Rice, Green Chile and Cheese Roll

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ohana Hut – Albuquerque, New Mexico

808 Nachos

In horse racing, the Triple Crown signifies winning all three of the sport’s most challenging thoroughbred horse races—The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.  This is considered the greatest achieved in thoroughbred racing, a feat accomplished only twelve times. The thespian community considers as its Triple Crown, winning a competitive Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award in acting categories. Only twenty-two actors or actresses have earned this rare distinction. What makes winning a Triple Crown in any competitive event so exciting for fans is its rarity. It happens so infrequently that fans clamor for it to happen.

At the 2015 Taste of Rio Rancho event, Street Food Blvd pulled off a Triple Crown of sorts, earning three first-place awards: best appetizer, best entrée and People’s Choice. It’s a feat no other Rio Rancho restaurant has managed in the event’s auspicious six year existence. Considering the City of Vision is home to some of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area (including Joe’s Pasta House, Namaste, Café Bella), that’s quite an achievement. What made this coup doubly impressive to many of the throngs in attendance is that Street Food Blvd is not a brick-and-mortar operation. It’s a food truck which in sweeping three key awards, made the audacious proclamation that food trucks can compete with any restaurant.

Saimin Noodle Bowl

Michael Gonzales, the affable owner of Café Bella and a pretty formidable chef in his own right, first told me about Street Food Blvd’s chef-owner-operator-designer Raul Maestas a couple years ago, but it wasn’t until experiencing the chef’s brilliant fusion of New Mexican and Asian flavors at Taste of Rio Rancho that I really took notice. So did more than a thousand guests who lined up to experience the culinary talents that would sweep the annual showcase of Rio Rancho’s burgeoning restaurant scene. My friend and fellow judge at the event Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, predicted greatness for Chef Maestas.

Chef Maestas launched Street Food Blvd on March 1, 2013. His approach, as revealed on the Street Food Blvd Web site: “Well, using only the best ingredients is a big part, but having an unrelenting love and passion for creativity and providing great food at an affordable price is the other part.” An ambitious “mission statement” further speaks volumes about what he’s trying to do: “We started humbly but with a grand plan: To create the finest street food New Mexico has ever tasted, end of story.” With such ambition and commitment, it was only a matter of time before a broader stage would be needed to showcase the chef’s immense talent.

Sushiritto

In the spring of 2016, that broader stage became a reality when Marble Brewery asked Chef Maestas to launch a restaurant presence at its Westside location. You won’t see any exterior signage indicating the restaurant exists (hence no photo of the restaurant) and in fact, until they’re seated many guests aren’t cognizant it’s there. Then they espy the menu placards at their tables. Some will order entire meals off those menus. Others will order an item or two to supplement what they ordered from one of the food trucks regularly parked (Monday through Friday from 4PM to 9PM and from 12PM to 4PM and 4PM to 11PM on Saturday and Sunday) in front of the Brewery.

Chef Maestas calls his restaurant-within-a-brewery Ohana Hut. The term “Ohana” translates from Hawaiian to “family” and the inexorable ties which bind all families together. Fittingly, Ohana Hut serves Hawaiian food and sushi. If your mind’s eye is picturing Spam-based entrees and luau type food, you’re in for a treat. There’s so much more to the cuisine of Hawaiian than those stereotypes. Hawaiian cuisine is heavily influenced by the Asian immigrant workers who settled the island paradise, but it’s also got elements of Polynesian ingredients and techniques as well as foods brought over by European and American visitors and Christian missionaries. The result, similar to what you’ll experience at Street Food Blvd, is a delightful mélange of flavors.

Dakind Sliders Trio

26 November 2016: Our own introduction to Ohana Hut came on a Saturday afternoon when we visited the Brewery to partake of “a little South in your mouth” courtesy of the Supper Truck. As we waited for our order, we perused the menu at our table and absolutely knew we had to order the 808 Nachos (808 being the Hawaiian area code). Within a couple of bites we knew we’d be back. The 808 Nachos—a picturesque pile of teriyaki chicken, crab and rice served over tortilla chips and topped with spicy mayo, green onion, Furiyaki (a dried mixed seasoning), teriyaki sauce and jalapeños–are terrific, very much reminiscent of sushi meets teriyaki meets nachos.  With sweet, savory and piquant notes in perfect proportion to each other, these nachos take a back seat to no other nachos in a state where great nachos are plentiful.

3 December 2016: Our second visit transpired on a cold, windy day in which our bellies craved the warmth and comfort of soup.  Apparently we weren’t alone in our thinking as we witnessed several bowls being delivered of Saimin, a noodle and broth soup inspired by Japanese ramen.   Considered the national dish of Hawaii (take that Spam), it has become so ubiquitous on the Islands that it’s available even on the McDonald’s menu.  Hawaiians consider it the ultimate comfort food.  Ohana’s Saimin Noodle Bowl (Hawaiian noodle, egg, green onion, chicken and dashi Japanese broth) does indeed have the nurturing, comforting properties of all good soups, but we didn’t find it quite as flavorful as the ramen we’ve had at  Naruto or O Ramen.  Still on a cold day, it’s a godsend.

Spicy Tiger Roll and Ghost Pepper Roll

3 December 2016: As you enter the Brewery, look for the slate board on which chef’s specials are listed.  We happened upon a special that sounded too good to pass up.  Sporting the intriguing name “Sushirrito,” we reasoned it must be some sort of burrito-sushi fusion.  Instead of a flour or corn tortilla, a sheet of Nori (paper-like, edible, toasted seaweed) serves as a wrapper in which the other ingredients–rice, sesame seeds, tortilla chips, chow mein with spicy mayo and unagi with your choice of chicken breast or Korean-style barbecue chicken–are nestled.  It will never be mistaken for a New Mexico style burrito though dipping it into a wasabi-soy sauce dip will give you a similar endorphin rush from the heat. 

3 December 2016: One restaurant trend that never seems to go out of fashion, at least in Albuquerque, is sliders–scaled-down versions of burgers or sandwiches.  Sliders are a tease–never big enough to sate you, especially when they’re good.  The Dakind Sliders Trio (Teriyaki Ground Beef, Teriyaki Chicken and Spam topped with American cheese) are a terrific triumvirate.  Nestled within pillowy soft, sweet Hawaiian bread, each sandwich is barely more than four or five small bites.  When you’re splitting them two ways, they don’t go a long way.  Your memories will last longer than the experience of eating them.

Blue Velvet Swirl

3 December 2016: While enthusiastic about the entire Ohana Hut menu, our server was especially fond of the sushi which she assured us is as bold and imaginative as it is delicious.  You might think the most incendiary roll on the menu would be the Ghost Pepper Roll.  After all, the ghost pepper rates over one-million on the Scoville scale and is considered one of the world’s ten hottest peppers.  Ghost peppers aren’t actually found on the eponymous roll, but ghost pepper mayo is.  The foundation for this roll is actually a California roll topped with salmon, pistachios, avocado, unagi sauce and of course, the ghost pepper mayo.  If you’re looking for serious heat, this isn’t your best choice, but if you’re looking for a thoroughly delicious sushi roll, this one is hard to beat.

3 December 2016: The distinction of being Ohana Hut’s most fiery sushi roll belongs to the Spicy Tiger Roll.  While many purveyors of fine sushi offer their version of a tiger roll, you won’t find much heat on most of them.  The difference-maker on this one is (believe it or not) is Cheetos crunchy flaming hot cheese snacks which are crushed into red dust that tops the roll.  As with the ghost pepper roll, the foundation for the spicy tiger roll is a California roll which is supplemented by tiger shrimp and shredded crab.  The flaming hot Cheetos make this roll so piquant that only fire-eaters will want to dip them into a wasabi-soy mix.  My Kim scraped off the Cheetos and sent them my way.

3 December 2016: You read it here first–one of my choices for “Gil’s Best of the Best for 2016” is Ohana Hut’s Blue Velvet Swirl, a colorful cake with a lemon creme cheese filling topped with kiwi, white chocolate and hazel nuts.  It’s the best dessert my Kim and I have shared in quite a while.  As pleasing to the palate as it is to your eyes, it’s one of those rare desserts which shouldn’t be shared.  You wouldn’t want to miss a single nibble of this wonderful cake!

In the familial spirit of Ohana, you’ll want to take friends and family to the Ohana Hut where you’ll share some of the very best sushi and Hawaiian food we’ve had in New Mexico (just don’t share the Blue Velvet  Swirl).  Lest I forget, the Triple Crown award-winning Street Food Blvd still prowls the mean streets of metropolitan Albuquerque, pleasing teeming masses with uniquely creative and delicious fare.

Ohana Hut
5740 Night Whisper Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 934-5390
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 December 2016
1st VISIT: 26 November 2016
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: 808 Nachos, Spicy Tiger Roll, Blue Velvet Swirl, Ghost Pepper Swirl, Dakind Sliders Trio, Saimin Noodle Bowl

Ohana Hut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Magokoro Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Magokoro Japanese Cuisine on Menaul

Emeril Lagasse, the jovial master of the culinary catchphrase, has been known to exhort his studio audience to “feel the love” as he adds a dash or two of something special to a dish.  Indeed, love is that extra ingredient many chefs say they add to make everything they prepare taste better.  To these chefs, cooking with love is not a labor of love because the gratification they receive is as intrinsically nourishing and pleasing as their cuisine is pleasurable and fulfilling to the diners who partake of it.

Asian cultures have known for time immemorial that cooking is more than providing sustenance to sate hunger.  They believe cooking and eating can create spiritual awareness and foster community as well as inspire the heart.  The Chinese term dim sum, in fact, translates to “touching the heart.”  In Japan, there’s a similar term–“Magokoro,” which is translated as “heart of truth” and is considered the basic attitude toward life.  Magokoro is used to convey “sincerity, pure heart, uprightness.”  It is, generally, the sincere attitude of a person in doing his or her best.

Miso soup at Kokoro

Miso soup

Doing her best is precisely what Takako Bowen, the owner and chef of Albuquerque’s Magokoro Japanese Restaurant has done since launching her restaurant in May, 2007.  Her best is the best many of us have experienced.  Originally called Kokoro, the restaurant blossomed much like a cherry tree in the Land of the Rising Sun, quickly earning a faithful following.   Within weeks after its launch in May, 2007, reports started circulating in foodie circles that Kokoro was in rarified air as one of the most authentic and outstanding Japanese restaurants in the metropolitan area.  Some even compared Kokoro to Noda’s Japanese Cuisine, considered by many to be perhaps the best Japanese restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. 

Four months after it opened, Kokoro earned three and a half stars from Andrea Lin, the Albuquerque Journal’s tough-grading restaurant critic (eight years later when she returned to Kokoro, her high opinion had not changed).  Scant weeks later, Jennifer Wohletz, the erstwhile restaurant critic for the Alibi also waxed eloquent about Kokoro.  As much as I value the opinion of my erudite colleagues, it took persistent emails from several faithful readers of my blog to prompt my inaugural visit.

Gyoza at Kokoro

Gyoza

My mistake!  For nearly two years, I deprived myself of some of the very best Japanese food in New Mexico–food that is healthful (Takako is a nutritionist), fresh, affordable and obviously prepared with love.  It’s also fast, but not fast in the heat lamp enhanced ways that American fast food is fast.  More than anything, it is absolutely delicious!  It’s easy to see why comparisons to Noda’s aren’t considered blasphemous.

During our inaugural visit we ran into Douglas, a very contented diner absolutely captivated by Kokoro.  He told us he ate at Kokoro six days a week, sometimes twice a day.  “Why,” he reasons, “should I eat anywhere else when no other restaurant is as good?”.  Though I’m not nearly as monogamous when it comes to restaurants, this is one restaurant that warrants frequent return visits.  This is one restaurant that nourishes the soul and touches the heart as it sates the appetite.

"Just Curry" served on white rice with pickles

“Just Curry” served on white rice with pickles

On July 15, 2013, an event transpired which, to many of its adoring fans, warranted a flag flying at half mast.  Kokoro shuttered its doors, indicating on signage posted to its doors and in its Facebook page that the closure was temporary.  Months passed.  Concern and speculation were rampant.  Diners experienced withdrawal symptoms.  On August 21st, 2014, the sun broke through the overcast skies–Kokoro reopened.  Much rejoicing ensued.  In 2015, Kokoro changed its name to Magokoro, but rechristening, a small facelift and a few additions and subtractions to the menu were the most significant changes to the restaurant which had so besotted Duke City diners.

Magokoro is located in a small strip shopping center just west of the Coronado Mall, somewhere between San Mateo and San Pedro.  Takako previously ran a small sushi shop at the University of New Mexico Student Union Building, but opted to start her own business where she could feed a larger demographic.  Magokoro remains a diminutive dining establishment with just a handful of tables amd limited seating also available on a bar-like table facing the window.  It’s not uncommon for every seat to be taken and eager diners lined up against the wall waiting for a seat to come open.

Pork Cutlet Curry

Pork Cutlet Curry

A surprisingly ambitious menu belies the restaurant’s size.  It’s a menu that invites diners to give pause to read about proper Japanese etiquette.  Did you know, for example, that it is a cultural taboo to pass food between people from chopsticks to chopsticks as this is a practice reserved for funerals where cremated bones are passed from person to person?  That pause will be momentary because you’ll want to peruse the menu for something wonderful to eat.  

The menu showcasing “honest food from the heart” offers ten appetizers which are available for both lunch and dinner.  Sushi is no longer available and there is now a very clear demarcation between the lunch and dinner menus.  The dinner menu focuses on ramen and Tsukemen (a term literally means dipping noodles. Noodles are served with dipping soup and toppings on the side).  The specials of the day for Tuesday and Friday include Sake Chazuke (Grilled salted salmon with Japanese pickled plum, green onion and dry seaweed and rice served with broth) while the Thursday and Saturday specials include Unagi Donburi, my favorite item on the menu.  

Chicken Kara-Age

Magokoro dedicates an entire section on the menu to “Teishoki,” a Japanese term which means “meal sets.”  A typical meal set at Magokoro includes miso soup, rice and three sides of the day.  The sides are served in ramekins and may include two- or three-bit sized portions of pickled vegetables and a tofu cube topped with a miso-soy glaze which resembles flan with a caramel sauce. Meal sets are generously portioned and will leave diners sated.

Beverage options included green tea and Ramune, a unique Japanese soda widely known for the distinctive engineering of its bottle.  Made of glass and sealed with a marble, the bottle is opened by a puncturing device which pushes the marble inside the neck of the bottle where it rattles around while you drink it.  If you’ve never had Ramune before, you’ll find it takes practice to stop the marble from blocking the flow of liquid.

Chirashi Donburi, like sushi in a bowl

Chirashi Donburi, like sushi in a bowl

Let’s face it.  Miso soup has become a rather bland and boring filler to pass the time before something else is served.  We expect it to be unexciting and aren’t disappointed when it arrives as such.  When a restaurant serves miso soup that’s more than merely good, it should get your attention.  Kokoro’s miso soup is top tier, as good as you’ll find in Albuquerque.  It’s served steamy hot and will warm the cockles of your heart as it goes down. 

10 May 2009: If, on the day you visit your tastes aren’t leaning toward the exotic, you can never go wrong with gyoza, pot stickers filled with pork and chicken.  Available deep-fried or steamed, these six to an order gems are superb.  The gyoza wrappers, being slightly thicker than wonton wrappers, mean these pot stickers are formidable enough to withstand a dip or dousing in the sauce.  The basis for this sauce is soy sauce, but its pronounced tangy acidity suggests a higher proportion of vinegar with just a hint of hot pepper oil.  In any case, it’s a welcome departure from the standard sweet and savory sauce usually served with pot stickers.

Katsu Donburi (Pork cutlet cooked in soy sauce with egg and onion)

Katsu Donburi

Respondents to one survey in Japan indicated they ate curry an average of 62 times a year, making it one of the island nation’s most popular foods–even though it’s categorized in Japan as a “western dish.”   For some reason, Japanese curry hasn’t caught on as well in America as Thai curry or Indian curry.  Perhaps that’s because there are few restaurants that prepare it as well as Magokoro does where it is served with potato croquettes, chicken Kara-age, Chicken Cutlet, Pork Cutlets or by itself,

6 March 2010: A popular way to order curry at Magokoro is with the restaurant’s “Just Curry” dish, a small bowl of curry served on white rice with pickles.  One reason this dish is so popular is because it’s small and inexpensive ($5.50 as of January, 2016) enough that you can order another dish.  The curry is dark brown, almost like a homestyle beef gravy with a glistening sheen around a mound of brilliantly white rice.  It’s the type of curry for which you’d want bread to sop up every delicious remnant.  The curry is redolent with ginger which, coupled with pork cutlets, reminds me somewhat of sauerbraten prepared in the traditional Rhineland style (with crushed gingerbread spice cookies).  The pork cutlet curry is apportioned generously with six white meat pork cutlets absolutely devoid of excess fat or sinew.   The cutlets are golden brown with a crunchy panko breadcrumb coating.

Unagi Donburi

Donburi is a general Japanese term for “bowl,” however, the term also refers to a bowl of cooked rice with some other food served on top.  Some donburi dishes, unagi or tuna for example, might remind you of eating sushi in a bowl which is essentially what you’re doing.  In Japan, donburi is considered a traditional fast food offering though Americans aren’t adept enough at chopsticks to consume it quickly.

10 May 2009: For a multitude of magnificent tastes in one bowl, try the chirashi donburi, a large ceramic bowl with tuna, shrimp, eel, egg omelet, salmon, imitation crabmeat, kampyo (dried gourd), seaweed salad and smelt eggs on top of sushi rice.  Because this entree is akin to sushi in a bowl, it also includes a dollop of wasabi if you like your seafood and rice incendiary.  The seafood is surprisingly fresh and Kokoro doesn’t scrimp on portions.  Two can easily share this donburi.

Tempura Vegetables with Miso Soup, Rice and Three Sides

10 May 2009: Another excellent donburi dish is the Katsu Donburi, a Japanese rice bowl brimming with steamed rice cooked in a sweet, but subtle soy sauce with egg and onion topped with five panko breaded pork cutlets.  This is a very filling dish with a multitude of simmering flavor surprises, not the least of which is the sauce imbued rice prepared to perfection.  The egg is cooked, not fried, and may have a texture you’ll have to get used to, but it melds well with the other ingredients. 

2 January 2016: Among my favorite Japanese dishes is Unagi Donburi, a marvel of utter deliciousness.  Unagi. which translates from Japanese to fresh water eel, is a delicacy in Japan, prized not only for its flavor but also for its legendary stamina-giving properties.  Unagi isn’t so much an acquired taste for queasy Americans as it is an acceptance that what they’re eating is icky, slimy, serpentine eel.  Prepared well, it’s richly flavored with a texture that is crisp on the outside but succulent and tender on the inside.  The sweet-tasting, soy-based “unagi sauce” may remind you of teriyaki, but it’s thicker and more smoky.  Magokoro grills its unagi to perfection and serves it in a bowl with rice and avocado.

5 January 2016:  Among the most popular dishes on the Teishouki section of the menu are shrimp, seafood and vegetable tempura.  If your experience with tempura, especially tempura vegetables, is that everything is overly coated in a thick, crunchy batter and individual components all taste the same, Magokoro’s tempura will give you the redemption you need.  The tempura vegetables (onions, red peppers, yams, edamame) are a delight to eat with a light tempura batter that allows each vegetable to shine (you haven’t had red peppers until you’ve had Magokoro’s version).  They’re served with a very thin and light sauce that complements each vegetable.

Magokoro is the optimum combination of terrific and authentic Japanese dishes served by a friendly, hard-working and accommodating staff.  This bright, bustling little restaurant is one of the best choices in the city for great Japanese food.  It will capture you heart and soul!

Magokoro Japanese Restaurant
5614 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2061
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 January 2016
1st VISIT: 9 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gyoza, Ramune Soda, Pork Cutlet Curry, Yaki Soba Noodles with Chicken Kara-age, Chirashi Donburi, Tempura Vegetables, Unagi Donburi

Magokoro Japanese Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Loving Vegan Closed Its Doors on Friday, November 13th, Two Days After My Inaugural and Only Visit

My adovada adoring amigo Ruben likened the irony to an episode of Seinfeld.  Two weeks into his experiment with an ostensibly healthier vegan diet, he was craving sushi and needed his sushi-specific pangs of hunger sated.  No sooner had we finished a very satisfying sushi soiree at Albuquerque’s only vegan sushi restaurant than our waitress apprised us the restaurant would be closing for good two days later.  “Serenity now,” we cried, mimicking Frank Costanza when faced with a stressful situation.  It just didn’t seem fair that we would make such a delicious discovery only to have plans for future meals dashed. 

Loving Vegan gave it the “old college try,” initially launching in June, 2012 on Coors Blvd before relocating in November, 2013 to a much more heavily trafficked Nob Hill location.  In its relatively short life, Loving Vegan garnered a loyal following and a very prestigious honor.  Within a year of opening, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) named Loving Vegan the “top restaurant for vegan sushi” in the United States and Canada.  The citation from PETA read: “Loving Vegan earned our top prize because it truly proves that any food can be made deliciously and healthfully without animal products. Cheers and congratulations to Loving Vegan — this number-one award is well deserved!”

Interior of Loving Vegan

Despite being a relative newcomer competing against vegan restaurants in such population centers as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Ontario (Canada) and Baltimore, to veteran observers of the Duke City dining scene, it  came as no surprise that Loving Vegan would be accorded such an honor. After all, it was founded by Kathy Punya, one of Albuquerque’s most active restaurant impresarios.  Among Kathy’s other eateries are a number of Sushi King restaurants throughout the Duke City as well as one in Rio Rancho.  Kathy Punya knows sushi! 

Kathy also knows restaurants.  After all vestiges of Loving Vegan have been cleared out, one of her other restaurants, Soul and Vine, a downtown fine-dining gem will be moving in.  Parking in Nob Hill is probably only slightly better than in the downtown district, but Nob Hill may be more heavily trafficked in the evening hours than is the downtown area, especially by the dining demographic.

In 2013 PETA named Loving Vegan the best Vegan Sushi Restaurant in America

Ruben and I were pleasantly surprised at the diversity and depth of the Loving Vegan menu.  Not only did the menu list a tremendous variety of sushi (nigiri, sashimi, rolls, hand rolls and chef’s specials) options, a separate  menu showcased Bento boxes, rice dishes, pan-fried noodles, noodle soups, Chinese stir-fried dishes and chef specials.  The chef specials included Pad Thai and three curry dishes including a vegan duck curry dish that beckoned me to try it.  Loving Vegan’s menu was as ambitious and inviting as any menu in any of Albuquerque’s many Asian restaurants. 

As we discovered, diners didn’t need to be of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion to enjoy a meal at Loving Vegan.  If we hadn’t known better, in fact, we would have sworn there was little discernible difference between some of the vegan sushi we enjoyed and sushi at traditional “fishy” sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City and that’s not just the horseradish-heavy wasabi talking.  Before finding out about the restaurant’s impending closure, it pleased Ruben to no end that despite his new healthful dietetic lifestyle, he’d be able to continue enjoying sushi.

Miso soup

By no stretch of the imagination is miso soup veganThe basis for this traditional Japanese favorite is dashi, a fish-based (fermented bonito or skipjack tuna fish shavings) broth and a salty fermented soybean paste.  A vegan-friendly version can be made fairly easily by substituting vegetable stock for the dashi.  Loving Vegan’s rendition has the pungent, salty qualities of traditional miso soup and had it been served hot instead of lukewarm, it would have been even more enjoyable. 

We initially wondered if the sheer number of ingredients on each sushi roll was a deliberate attempt at “masking” the flavor of the vegan ingredients, but it dawned on us that most American sushi rolls also tend to constructed from a preponderance of ingredients.  The vegan spicy tuna crunch roll was an exception in that the sole listed ingredients were vegan spicy tuna and cucumber inside with tempura flakes and sweet sauce on top.  Frankly, we didn’t spend much time trying to discern the nuanced differences between vegan tuna and its “regular” sushi counterpart.  That’s more indicative of our genuine appreciation for its deliciousness than any perceived lack of scientific curiosity.  This was a very good roll.

Left: Loving Vegan Roll; Right: Vegan Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll

We also disposed of the Loving Vegan Roll (green chili tempura, avocado, cucumber, vegan lobster inside; deep fried with spicy mayo, sriracha, and sweet sauce on top) rather quickly.  It wasn’t until we had wiped it out that we asked ourselves about the flavor of the vegan lobster.  Neither of us discerned, either texturally or flavor-wise, any lobster-like flavor.  We did, however, note that the “green chili” wasn’t especially reminiscent of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile.  Any heat we gleaned from this roll had its genesis in the wasabi and sriracha.  Still in all, we enjoyed the Loving Vegan Roll very much. 

Framed and captioned photographs on the walls proved very enticing–true food porn, none more alluring than the grilled portobello (SIC) roll (a unagi roll with cucumber, salmon and sweet sauce on top).  “Mock” unagi was nearly as good as its eel-based counterpart thanks largely to a generous application of the sweet “eel sauce.”   If the rapidity with which we dispensed of this roll is any indication, we enjoyed it thoroughly…and as with our previous vegan sushi conquests, we didn’t spend much time trying to determine its composition though I now surmise roasted eggplant may have been the basis for mock unagi.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

Albuquerque apparently didn’t love Loving Vegan enough to keep it operating, but Ruben and I certainly wish it would have survived the test of time.  With sushi this good, a vegan lifestyle might be even be more than palatable. It just might be delicious.

Loving Vegan
3409 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

Everyman philosopher Homer Simpson once posed the profound existential question “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” One thing at which donuts seem especially adept is ensnaring the hearts and affections of youth—and not just American youth. The Huffington Post reported recently that in Japan, “the younger generation is increasingly eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and McDonald’s, not rice.” Fast food chains such as the aforementioned Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza and others have become ubiquitous in Japan—much to the detriment of traditional Japanese culinary traditions, many of which are closely linked to family relations.

The popularity of fast food is the likely culprit for the steep decline in annual rice consumption across the Land of the Rising Sun. In recent decades, rice consumption has fallen 17 percent, from 9.44 million tons to 7.81 million tons per year. According to the Post, the fast food diet and its “spicy oily food” has also largely decimated the ability of young people to discern “umami,” a fundamental taste in the Japanese palate along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The exodus from Japanese culinary traditions has also had an esthetic impact. While Japanese food and its plating have always been beautiful and pleasing to the eye, fast food has a more “thrown together” visual quality.

The interior of Nagomi

In my own callow and shallow youth, the addictive properties of fast foods laden with carbohydrates and fats were an enticing mistress and similar to so many of my peers, I succumbed to the lure of caloric overachievement. My epiphany as to alternative (and much better) culinary options occurred when the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts where a world opened up of gustatory delights theretofore rare in New Mexico. The rich, diverse and exotic culinary offerings of Asian cultures became my passion, each new experience teasing and tantalizing my taste buds in so many new and beguiling ways.

So, you’ll forgive me if my first impulse at reading about Japanese youth eschewing their traditional cuisine is to want to shake some sense into them. How could anyone possibly prefer the empty calories and negative nutritional values of American fast foods to the much more delicious, not to mention dietetically healthier Japanese style of eating? My friend Andrea Lin describes the former as “akin to planting a flower in your garden that blooms beautifully for a day and then your soil is destroyed.” The latter is a healthy balance of delicious, filling lower-calorie foods presented beautifully with reasonable portion control.

Miso Soup

Author Naomi Moriyama who wrote Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat believes the Japanese way of dining “encourages you to “eat with your eyes” by enjoying the beauty of your food. The result? You’ll want to slow down to savor every bite, which means eating less, because it gives your brain time to realize your body is full.” Eating with your eyes, savoring every bite…if you didn’t know better, you might wonder if these phrases were written to describe a meal at Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo.

The name Nagomi represents “the comfort you feel after a good meal. Imagine, you take time off from your busy schedule and the stress of everyday life to treat yourself to a really, really good meal. The minute you take your first taste, you feel a warm, comforting, serene feeling that envelops your entire body. You feel a satisfaction deep in your body and your soul. This is the sensation we hope you will feel when you eat our food.” That’s what you’ll read on the cover of the menu and that’s what Nagomi strives to deliver.

Assorted Tempura

Nagomi’s culinary techniques and hospitality practices are steeped in traditional Japanese traditions. For owners Masahito and Kelly Sano, it’s the only way they know how. Masahito’s family has owned a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo for 100 years. Wanting to own and operate his own restaurant, he migrated to America and most recently worked as executive chef for Albuquerque’s venerable Japanese Kitchen. Until its closure several years ago, Kelly worked at Noda’s Japanese Cuisine. While influences from both the Japanese Kitchen and Noda’s Japanese Cuisine are evident, Nagomi has a personality all its own.  It’s a personality Nancy D. couldn’t wait to recommend to readers of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. Thank you, Nancy.

Nagomi’s menu is both very traditional and very varied. American tastes which gravitate toward sushi will find a wide array of nigiri and maki rolls as well as sashimi. The menu also features a ramen sure to sate the current ramen craze. You’ll also find curry dishes, tofu in several forms, salads, seafood dishes and so much more. One of the restaurant’s specialties is shabu-shabu, a sort of Japanese fondue which gives diners the opportunity to prepare at their tables, meat and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth.

Chicken Kara-age

Scant minutes after you place your order, a steaming bowl of miso soup is delivered to your table. Your first spoonful is a revelation that miso soup doesn’t have to require desalinization. The second spoonful might introduce the element of cabbage, an ingredient not often used on miso soup in other Albuquerque restaurants. You’ll also find Wakame seaweed and finely chopped onions among a very satisfying, very warming miso soup sure to start your meal off on a good note.

Although there are only eleven appetizers on the menu, most are familiar even to casual visitors of Japanese restaurants: edamame, gyoza, egg rolls, tempura, chicken katsu and others. The assorted tempura (shrimp, imitation crab sticks, calamari and three types of vegetables) is always a good bet. The assorted seafood and vegetables are sheathed in a light, golden batter and served with a savory-sweet teriyaki sauce. Each piece is delectable with nary a drop of excess oil dripping off. The textures and flavors range widely so it’s easy to discern exactly what you’re enjoying without having to study its shape.

Tonkotsu Ramen

When in Japan, why have KFC when you can have JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken), more commonly known as chicken kara-age?   Chicken kara-age is the antithesis of the uniformly shaped, golden sheened chicken nuggets you find in American fast food restaurants.  It’s not as though they’re misshapen and dreary; they’re just not “manufactured” as their American counterparts.  Chicken kara-age are bite-sized chunks of soy-sake-ginger marinated chicken coated in cornstarch and deep-fried.  They’ll go quickly so it will behoove you to order at least one other appetizer.

The ramen craze in America pales in comparison to the religious fervor with which ramen is regarded in Japan where some spa houses go so far as to offer “ramen baths” for their clientele.  Consisting of ramen, pork broth and synthetic noodles, the bath apparently helps improve patrons skin.   Frankly, it sounds like a tremendous waste of good ramen.  If all ramen is as delicious as Nagomi’s tonk0tsu ramen, anything other than eating it is sinful.  For all intents and purposes, tonkotsu is literally the essence of pork distilled down through the process of pork bones being boiled for hours to spoonfuls of murky broth bathed over chewy noodles.  My Kim considers Nagomi’s tonkotsu ramen the very best in town.

Trio Donburi

Years ago, the sublime Noda’s introduced me to donburi, a dish which became preferable to me even over sushi.  It’s been said that donburi isn’t so much a dish as it is a concept.  Meats, vegetables or seafood and any combinations thereof placed over rice in a deep bowl becomes a donburi though it’s not quite that simple.  The ingredients from which donburi is constructed must be unfailingly fresh and must be able to harmonize together on your taste buds.  Nagomi offers a number of donburi dishes, arguably the most beautiful being the donburi trio featuring tuna, yellowtail and salmon.  Each piece of fish is masterfully sliced and presented.  Each is as delicious as it is beautiful. 

After finishing a meal in Japan, diners express their gratitude for the meal by saying “gochiso sama deshita,” which translates to “it was quite a feast. It might behoove you to learn those words before visiting Nagomi. You’ll be uttering them after every visit.

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant
2400 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E. # G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-3081
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Trio Donburi, Tonkotsu Ramen, Chicken Kara-Age, Assorted Tempura, Miso Soup

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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

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