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
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
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.

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

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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