Mogu Mogu – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mogu Mogu, a Unique Japanese Create Your Own Concept

In the 1970s, comedian Norm Crosby based his schtick on the use of malapropisms (the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect). The “master of the malaprop” would mispronounce keywords in familiar idioms and clichés, in the process giving new meaning to what he was trying to convey. Here are some examples: As a famous stand-up comic, he appreciated standing “ovulations” when he performed. When his dad explained the facts of life to him, his dad drew a big “diaphragm.” When he went to a tailor, it’s because his pants needed an “altercation.” When people couldn’t read or write, Crosby attributed the problem to “illegitimacy.”

In real life, however, most people don’t realize their own fox paws. My Kim, for example, would give Norm Crosby a run for his money though her malapropisms are wholly innocent and not designed to elicit a laugh. On a sweltering summer day in Arlington Heights, Illinois, for example, she once ordered “soba” tea from the Mitsuwa Marketplace. Initially the young lady at the counter was confused, but once she figured out that Kim actually wanted “boba” tea, she couldn’t help but giggle. Recently at a Whole Foods Market, she asked an employee where she could find “Maricopa” almonds when what she really wanted was marcona almonds. Then there was the time she ordered a “Chimi-chingona” from a Mexican restaurant when she wanted a chimichanga. “Chingona,” if you’re not versed in Spanish slang is a term meaning “badass.”  Where she learned that word is beyond me.

The Prep Station From Where You Can Select All Your Favorite Ingredients

Lest you think my Kim is a bit scatter-brained, when I told her of my visit to Mogu Mogu, she immediately reminded me that Mogu Mogu must be a Japanese onomatopoeia (the formation of a word—such as cuckoo or boom–from a sound associated with what it is named). Mogu Mogu, it turns out is an onomatopoeia in English, too, translating from Japanese to “munch munch.” Moreover, it is one of the most exciting new dining concepts to launch in the Duke City in recent months. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, explains that “Mogu Mogu serves some of the freshest and tastiest food in ABQ with a Japanese flair.”

Alas, you won’t find Mogu Mogu in some bustling, centrally-located shopping center. Situated in the Journal Center area on Masthead just west of Jefferson, it’s pretty much off-the-well-beaten-and-eaten path for most of us who don’t work in the immediate area. Further, it’s operating hours—Monday through Friday from 11AM to 2:30PM—mean its hours also aren’t convenient for many of us. Perhaps cognizant of these limitations, Mogu Mogu is located in an 800-square-foot space on the ground level of the 10,000 square-foot office building that houses Kinesio, the therapeutic tape company whose product graces the sore limbs and torsos of many an Olympic, professional and amateur athlete.

Rice Bowl With Curry and Just About Everything Else

Owner Tomoko Kase actually served as a vice president at the Kinesio company before being called away by the lure of owning and operating her own restaurant. Her business acumen served her well in that she understood how underserved the burgeoning Journal Center is by fast-casual restaurants. Mogu Mogu is essentially a “create your own” concept designed to give guests simple, fresh and fast meals. It’s a concept similar to that of Poki Poki and Hello Poke, two restaurants specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls. It’s an experience coupling personalization and experimentation with Japanese ingredients and culinary techniques. As so eloquently stated on the Web site, Mogu Mogu offers “the convenience and value of fast food, all without the greasy regret and stained shirts at the office.”

Guests have the opportunity to create their own bowl, sushi burrito or sandwich from an assortment of proteins, veggies, toppings and sauces. Your first of several tough decisions is to choose a base for your meal from among several rice, noodle or lettuce options. The “middle” section of your meal comes next with your choice of one protein and two veggies. Then you can go wild on the toppings (including some premium toppings for an additional pittance) and sauces. Larry, the percipient professor (who can recite Pi to about 8,000 digits) quickly figured out you can make a minimum of 15,840 possible combinations using one choice from each of the four steps: base, middle (proteins and veggies), toppings and sauces. As he astutely pointed out “ if you create a boring bowl, you have only yourself to blame.”

Fried Rice, Roasted Salmon and Almost Everything Else

23 March 2017: While my bowl was hardly boring, I have only myself to blame for not having built a bowl as exciting as the one my friend Bill Resnik constructed. Picking a base of rice bowl with curry really limited my options. Essentially, half of the bowl was dedicated to Japanese curry (which I dearly love) and the other half to brown rice. It didn’t make sense to top the curry though the mad scientist in me would otherwise have piled on as many ingredients as the bowl would hold. I did top the rice with overnight ginger pork (a nice complement to the curry) and every topping on the menu (green onion, cilantro, cabbage, edamame mix, pickle with bonito, kimchi, jalapeno, crispy noodles and pickled veggies), but my sauce was essentially the curry. As far as Japanese curry goes, Mogu Mogu’s version is terrific, as good as you’ll find anywhere in the Duke City. The curry and the rice should have been my focus, not the hodgepodge I created (and no, it wasn’t bad at all). It just wasn’t as good as Bill’s (seething jealousy here).

23 March 2017: Bill’s bowl started with an fried rice for which he selected roasted salmon as his protein and both veggie tempura and curry roasted veggies as his veggie choices. His topping selections were virtually everything but Mogu Mogu’s kitchen sink and his sauce choices were Wasabi mayo and Asian dressing. Throughout our meal I eyed Bill’s bowl with both envy and lust and probably a few other cardinal sins. Bill has become a master of the “create it yourself” poke bowl and now the Mogu Mogu bowl. I hate him!

Another Creative Concoction

17 April 2017:  Dining at Mogu Mogu is akin to having a delicious new adventure every time you visit.  It’s the type of adventure that offers many forks in the road, each potentially more delicious than the other.  The forks of which I speak, of course, are the 15,840 possible combinations using one choice from each of the four steps: base, middle (proteins and veggies), toppings and sauces.  It’s not inconceivable to fill out the paper menu then change your mind several times as you pass the prep station where gleaming silver trays with sundry ingredients are on display.  During my second visit, fried rice was the base I originally selected but one gander at the Asian salad and a change of mind was inevitable.  The Asian salad is a beauteous bounty of mixed greens and such surprises as blackberries.  It was too good to pass up.  Neither was the roasted salmon or the standard and premium toppings (yes, every single one of them) with soy wasabi and mango Habanero.  The veggie tempura (green chile and eggplant) are exceptional.  So was the entire creative concoction.

23 March 2017: In addition to the bowl, sushi burrito or sandwich of your own making, Mogu Mogu offers two sides—potstickers (five per order) and spring rolls (two per order). The spring rolls may be the one item on the menu that belies Mogu Mogu’s “without the greasy regret” or at least that was our experience.  Don’t get me wrong.  They weren’t sopping with oil, but there was enough of it to warrant a napkin or two.  The spring rolls, about six-inches long and rather thick, are engorged mostly with cabbage and served with a rather cloying sauce.  They would have been much tastier with say a wasabi mayo.

Spring Rolls

There are some ten-thousand workers in the Journal Center area.  On the day of our inaugural visit it seemed about a third of those workers were queued up to have Mogu Mogu build a delicious meal for them based on their preferences.  It’s an option which should be available to more Duke City diners.

Mogu Mogu
4001 Masthead Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-9141
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2017
1st VISIT: 23 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Create Your Own Bowl, Spring Rolls

Mogu Mogu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nanami Noodle House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nanami Noodle House and Sister Restaurant, Plum Cafe

If Chinese superstitions have any credence, some of us may not be long for this world.  Chinese superstitions posit that long noodles symbolize a long life.  Ostensibly, if you cut your noodles, you’re cutting your life short.  Instead of cutting your noodles, the Chinese advocate slurping up long noodles without breaking them.  When it comes to noodles, the Chinese should know.  After all, they’ve been preparing noodles longer than any culture in the world.  In 2005, archaeologists uncovered a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles in Northeast China, the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.  Buried under ten feet of sediment, an overturned sealed bowl contained beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles made from two kinds of millet. Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern indicated that “even today, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found” at the Chinese site, adding that  “this shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication.” 

If you’ve never seen the art-and-science process of hand-making noodles, it should be on your bucket list–and because the process is quickly becoming a lost art, you should place it near the top of that list.  Fortunately you don’t have to go far to witness veritable feats of noodular prestidigitation.  The art of hand-pulled noodles is on daily display at Beijing Noodle No. 9 within Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where the open kitchen doubles as an exhibition hall for chefs who’ve been intensely trained on how to hand stretch noodles.  Through a process of stretching and twisting flour, noodle-masters can hand pull hundreds of beautiful long thin noodles for a variety of dishes.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but even more spectacular is sampling the results.

Nanami Dining Room

When we heard a new Duke City restaurant named Nanami Noodle House would be launching in January, 2017, we dared hope hand-pulled noodles would be featured fare.  Alas, such was not meant to be.  Nanami showcases noodles made elsewhere and flown in for use on a variety of broth-based, vegetarian and non-broth noodle dishes (if it’s any consolation, very few cities across the fruited plain can boast of restaurants in which noodles are made in the traditional hand-pulled manner).  Captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen gave us very little opportunity to bemoan our ill-fortune.  The source of those fragrant bouquets were in dire need of exploration as was a menu as diverse and delightful as we’ve seen in quite some time.

Befitting the restaurant’s name, which translates to “seven seas,” that menu includes dishes originating in Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea with a nod to New Mexico here and there.   The Land of Enchantment meets Asia in the very first appetizer listed on the menu.  That would be the green chile Rangoon.  It’s one of nine appetizers, most of which are pretty standard fare.  You can eschew appetizers altogether and enjoy one of the four available salads.  Some diners will gravitate immediately to the noodle soups section of the menu, a listing of fifteen slurp-worthy soups.  If you prefer noodles sans broth, the menu lists four inviting options including grilled vermicelli.  Vegetarian options are also available.

Green Chile Rangoon

Lest I forget, the menu lists a nice array of hot and cold beverages including sixteen-ounce shakes, some in flavors you might not expect (green tea, Vietnamese coffee and Thai tea, for example).  Caffeine fiends should try the Vietnamese Coffee Frappe, an eye-opening meld of strong coffee and sweetened condensed milk.  Hot tea by the pot flavors include oolong, jasmine, green tea and a decaffeinated green tea.  Ice tea flavors include unsweetened green tea, mango, lychee and peach.  Coke products are also available, but other options just seem so much more appropriate.  Oh, and you’ll definitely want to peruse the dessert menu, too.

Nanami Noodle House is located at the former site of Cafe Jean-Pierre off the Pan American Highway.  It faces and is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater.  Nanami is the brainchild of first-time restaurant owners Brian and Nga Trieu, both of whom have extensive restaurant experience.  Brian cut his teeth working in restaurants owned and operated by his siblings in Roswell, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.  Among family owned restaurants with which you might be familiar are Banana Leaf (which a sibling sold years ago) and the Plum Cafe next door.  There are some similarities between the three.

Chicken Dumplings

Sure to become the restaurant’s signature appetizer is the Green Chile Rangoon (crispy Rangoon filled with green chile, jalapeño, onion, cream cheese and Cheddar).  If you’ve ever lamented the cloying flavor of most Crab Rangoon, you’ll appreciate that this six-piece starter bites back–not too much, but enough to be discernible.  The Green chile Rangoon is served with a plum sauce, a term which usually engenders yawning and ennui.  This plum sauce actually has personality courtesy of a nice infusion of ginger and chili.  It only looks sweet and innocuous.

Nanami pays attention to the sauces which accompany its appetizers.  That’s a difference-maker discerning diners will notice.  The chicken dumplings (crispy pot stickers filled with chicken, Napa cabbage, shallot and green onion), for example, are accompanied by a chili oil sweet soy sauce that emphasizes both its piquant and sweet elements.  The chicken dumplings are flash-fried to a golden hue and are generously filled.  It’s telling that the dumplings are delicious with or without sauce though the sauce does bring out more flavors.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Whether you noodle over the choices carefully or you espy a noodle dish that quickly wins you over, you’re in for a real treat.  My Kim beat me to the spicy beef noodle soup (rice noodle, medium flank steak, beef broth, tomato, cucumber and bean sprouts in a sate pork-shrimp broth topped with crushed peanuts, green onions, fried shallots and basil), my ad-libitum choice when trying a new Vietnamese restaurant.  While the flavor profile of most spicy beef noodle soups in the Duke City gravitates toward anise-kissed pho made piquant with the addition of chili, this one is wholly different.  It derives its heat from sate, a piquant Vietnamese sauce typically made with garlic, lemongrass, chili, fish sauce and other ingredients.  You may have noticed from the ingredients listed above that the broth is a sate pork-shrimp broth, not a beef broth.  There are many surprises in this soup, the least of which is the addition of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices.  This deeply satisfying, rich elixir may have you rethink what you believe spicy beef noodle soup should be.

If you can’t get enough ramen in your life, you’ll appreciate Nanami offering one ramen option heretofore unavailable in the Duke City.  That would be the Kim Chi Ramen (wheat noodle, chasu, tofu, soft-boiled egg, mushrooms, bean sprouts and kimchi in a pork dashi broth topped with sesame seed, green onion and nori).  This is a ramen dish rich in umami, one of the five basic tastes (along with salt, sweet, sour and bitter) with a profile described as “meaty” and “brothy.”  The rich stock (dashi), soy sauce, earthy mushrooms and even the fermented kimchi are especially imbued with umami.   There is a lot going on in this dish, a melding of ingredients which go very well together, but if the term “kimchi” inspires visions of fiery, fermented cabbage, you might be disappointed.  The focus of this ramen is in developing a multitude of flavors, not one overwhelming flavor.  This is a memorable dish!

Kim Chi Ramen

The Nanami Noodle House may not hand-pull its noodles, but the chef certainly knows how to use noodles to craft deeply satisfying, soulful and delicious dishes you’ll want to enjoy again and again.

Nanami Noodle House
4959 Pan American, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-1125
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Rangoon, Chicken Pot Stickers, Kim Chi Ramen, Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Nanami Noodle House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aya’s New Asian on Menaul

There’s an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between restaurant guests and the restaurant personnel with whom we interact. As guests, we show our appreciation for a dining experience well executed by tipping generously and maybe complimenting the kitchen and wait staff during and after the meal. Representatives of the restaurant– whether they be chefs, maître ds, servers or owners—typically thank their guests and invite them to return. All too often these interactions seem trite, maybe even rehearsed or expected. It’s what we all do because it’s what we’ve always done and it’s what’s expected to be done. Only during and after exceptional (or exceptionally bad) dining experiences do interactions between guests and restaurant personnel become more effusive…or so we thought.

During our inaugural visit to Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine on Menaul, we experienced gratitude and friendliness so sincere and authentic that we couldn’t help but be touched.  Even if the Japanese cuisine hadn’t won us over, the humility and friendliness of Aya herself would have.  Let me step back at this point and explain that the restaurant is actually operated by two women named Aya (short for Ayako).  One Aya runs the front of the house and serves as sushi chef while the other runs the kitchen.  We only met the Aya who’s the public face of the restaurant and we were impressed.

Aya’s Dining Room

The two Ayas have been in Albuquerque for just over half a year, having made the move from Seattle which they found too rainy and dreary.  In contrast, they love the Duke City, especially its incomparable skies and weather.  The Ayas plan on making their lives in the United States, having liquidated their assets in Japan to move here.  Both classically trained in Japanese culinary techniques, they hope to introduce Duke City diners to the food of their homeland…and indeed, the menu offers a few “just a little different” items heretofore not found in the area’s Japanese restaurants.

Aya (the restaurant, not the owners) is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Menaul.  To its immediate west is a Flying Star and just east is Relish.  Wasabi and cranberry colored walls are festooned with serene paintings of lotus blossoms on one side and magnificent glass art showcasing Michael Miro‘s kabuki series on the other.  Aya was delighted in my knowledge and appreciation of the kabuki practices depicted so colorfully.  With an amazing command of English–considering she’s only been in America for about a year–she told us about her life in Okinawa.  Her self-effacing modesty in accepting compliments on her English was but one thing we immediately liked about her.

Vege Tempura

We also liked the Web site’s URL. It’s not just aya.com. It’s ayako-san.com. In Japanese, appending a name with the suffix “san” is a title of respect which can be used with both female and male names and with either given names or surnames. It can also be attached to the name of occupations and titles. In Japan, restaurant owners are often called mama-san or papa-san by both customers and employees. This signifies a level of affection as well as respect. It’s easy to see that Aya deserves such a title of endearment. We also liked that menu items are spelled phonetically—how they sound. Some menu items aren’t necessarily spelled the way Americans or even other Japanese restaurants would spell them. For example, the American spelling for Japanese dumplings is “gyoza” but the Aya menu spells it “gyouza.”

There’s much to like about Aya’s menu. There are seven starters on the menu, including three recently added (such as the green chile Ohitashi and poke salad). Four ala carte tempura options and miso soup can also be ordered as starters. The next section of the menu is dedicated to curry—five types, each served with a small salad. Six noodle dishes, including miso ramen, will sate all of us who love to nosh on noodles. Nine rice dishes, several of the donburi variety, follow suit. Next on the menu are three platters which are served with steamed rice, small salad, soup and small dish of the day. Sushi, available only during dinner time, follows suit then it’s a vegetarian tofu teriyaki dish. Last, but certainly not least is a three item dessert menu.

Gyouza

Let tempura tease your taste buds. The vege tempura is an excellent starter option, rewarding you with a generous plating of deep-fried assorted seasonal vegetables sheathed in a crispy tempura batter. Having been born and raised in the Windy City area, my Kim generally eschews vegetables unless they’re covered in meat and potatoes, but she loves tempura vegetables. Unlike fried foods in Chicago, these are virtually grease-less. Aya served us lightly battered green beans, zucchini, squash and carrots. Underneath the tempura sheath, each vegetable retains a nice crispness that is indicative of fresh vegetables. Tempura dishes are served with a light soy-based sauce.

Another excellent starter is the aforementioned gyouza, five lightly stir-fried, house-made Japanese pork dumplings served with ponzu (thin, tart citrus-based) sauce. While Japan is steeped in ancient culinary traditions, gyouza isn’t one of them. Japanese didn’t start making gyouza until after World War II when Japanese soldiers were exposed to Chinese dumplings while serving in Manchuria. Gyouza are usually thinner, smaller (two to three bites), more delicate and fillings tend to have a finer texture than their Chinese counterparts. Made well, gyouza is as good as any Chinese dumplings you’ll ever have. Aya makes them well.

Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate

You can emphasize the word “special” when a special of the day is posted on the slate board or Facebook page. As someone who tends to order specials more often than from the regular menu, I’m ever attuned for something new and different such as the Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate (cubes of tuna, boiled shrimp, egg, zencom, cucumber and avocado over sushi rice). While we’ve certainly had chirashi before, it’s always been served donburi-style (in a bowl).  At Aya, the chirashi is served in a rectangular plate. The dish is pleasing to the eye and the palate with a nice balance of ingredients in good proportion to one another. Unlike chirashi we’ve had in other Japanese restaurants, we weren’t provided wasabi-sushi which really changes the flavor profile. Instead, we were left to enjoy sweet, delicate flavors that practically had us swooning.

The Chirashi Sushi Plate is served with a salad, miso soup and pickled vegetables somewhat reminiscent of Korean namul (assorted unfermented salads). A simple salad (iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots) is transformed into a paragon of deliciousness with a cool, refreshing ginger dressing so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate. The miso soup is much better than most we’ve had in Albuquerque where bouillon cube quality miso is maybe not the norm, but it’s shamefully all too common. It’s served hot as opposed to warm which gives it good miso creds with us and the tofu appears to have been made in-house.

Yakisoba

Another popular Japanese dish of Chinese origin is Yakisoba, a fried noodle dish similar to chow mein. Aya elevates this relatively simple dish of fried noodles and vegetables with the addition of bacon. Yes, bacon! In Japan, thinly sliced pork is most commonly used on Yakisoba. Japan needs to have a bacon epiphany! A generous amount of bite-sized pieces of smoky, delicious bacon coalesces with the thick, sweet sauce to make this potentially the best Yakisoba dish we’ve ever had (we can’t remember having one better).

Great desserts and Japanese restaurant are two terms not commonly associated with one another. If a Japanese restaurant in New Mexico even deigns to serve dessert, it’s usually plum sorbet or green tea ice cream. Aya offers several desserts heretofore unknown to us. The most intriguing may be the green tea parfait which is served on a goblet similar to what Dairy Queen might use to serve a sundae. Layers of flavor, color and texture define this dessert. Imagine corn flakes (yes, the Kellogs type), green tea ice cream, whipped cream, green tea jelly, chocolate and seasonal fruits. Where do you start? We discovered early on that this dessert is best experienced if you can combine flavors and textures in each spoonful. The combination of corn flakes, chocolate sauce and green tea ice cream is especially satisfying.

Green Tea Parfait

We first experienced green tea tempura cheesecake at Naruto, one of the Duke City’s premier ramen houses.  It’s since been an obsession.  Comparisons with Naruto’s version were inevitable.  At Naruto, the cheesecake is drizzled with cocoa powder served atop a swirl of chocolate.  Not so at Aya where a thin tempura batter sheathes a beautiful wedge of green tea cheesecake.  A dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top is served on the side.  It’s a very good cheesecake.

My introduction of this review posited the existence of an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between guests at a restaurant and the restaurant personnel who serve them.  I explained that our experience with Aya was unlike the usual polite interaction between the two parties.  As we settled our bill of fare and prepared to leave, Aya didn’t extend the perfunctory “come back soon.”  She embraced us as one might an old friend or family member and told us how much she appreciated our visit and interest in her food.  She meant it!

Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine offers many of the comfort food favorites Americans have come to love as well as some new and different options which just might become new favorites.  There’s also a strong chance Aya herself will quickly become one of your favorite restaurateurs.

Aya’s New Asian
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-5441
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate, Yakisoba, Vege Tempura, Gyoza, Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake, Green Tea Ice Cream Parfait

Ayas New Asian Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

 

Naruto – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Naruto on Central Avenue in the University of New Mexico area

During a 2015 episode of the Travel Channel’s Delicious Destinations, glaborous host Andrew Zimmern articulated what may be the very best–or at least most comprehensive–definition of comfort food ever. “Comfort food,” he explained, “makes us feel good. Every culture has its favorites–satisfying classics carried throughout the generations. Simple recipes loaded with carbs and full of love. It’s the taste of a feeling: warm, cozy, hearty and homey. Comfort foods satisfy more than physical hunger. They’re the feel good favorites that connect us to our past, family and cultural classics that fill us with sustenance and warm feelings at the same time.”

At first browse, it appears that Zimmern’s definition applies solely to the act of consuming comfort foods, however, read closely and nowhere within that definition is it explicitly stated that comfort foods have to be eaten in order to be warm, cozy, hearty and homey. Nor do we have to masticate, graze, sup or savor comfort foods in order to feel good or to satisfy more than our physical hunger. Whether deliberate or unintentional, Zimmern’s definition can also apply to acts other than eating one’s food. Indeed, for some of us, the sense of warmth, coziness and comfort from food can be derived from acts other than eating it.

Naruto’s long, narrow dining room

That may be especially true for ramen, arguably the most popular comfort food in the world. In Japan, ramen is so revered that several major cities boast of museums designed to pay homage to this national dish. Considering the veneration with which they revere this sacrosanct food, you might think the Japanese consider ramen as strictly for degustation, for lovingly luxuriating in its nuanced flavors, studiously imbibing its fragrant aromas and ruminating about the sheer delight of enjoying such sheer deliciousness. You might even believe Japanese would consider it heretical, perhaps even blasphemous for ramen to be used as a “play thing” or worse, as bath water. You would be wrong on both counts.

Since 2007, a Japanese spa has been offering patrons the opportunity to luxuriate in a tub filled with ramen. While health regulations mandate that only non-edible (synthetic) noodles be used in the hot bath water, real pork broth is added. The broth not only renders the water brownish, it imparts collagen which ostensibly has the salubrious benefits of helping improve the bather’s metabolism while cleansing the skin. Frankly, a tonkatsu (pork bone) broth sounds just a bit greasy and there’s no telling what bodily nook and crannies those noodles will sneak up into.

Jim and Janet Millington, founding Friends of Gil (FOG) members

We joked about the ramen baths with our friends and founding Friends of Gil members Jim and Janet Millington who joined us for our inaugural visit to Naruto, an Albuquerque ramen house open since December, 2015. The Millingtons were already planning a visit to a ramen museum in Tokyo during an upcoming sojourn to the Land of the Rising Sun. I tried in vain to talk them into indulging in a ramen bath, but Jim has too much respect and love for ramen. Like me, he would rather eat a tubful than bathe in it. Googled images of ramen bathers did little to make the ramen bath concept more enticing. In fact, our Japanese server found the notion rather silly.

It’s becoming a tradition that Jim and I break in new ramen restaurants together. On 24 April 2014, we made our initial excursion to the delightful O Ramen on Central Avenue across the street from the University of New Mexico (UNM). Surprisingly, only one (currently vacant) storefront separates O Ramen from Naruto which occupies the space which previously housed the Mint Tulip Vegan Café. Out of concern and curiosity, we walked the twenty steps or so from Naruto to O Ramen and were very happy to see nearly every seat at both ramen houses occupied. It makes sense that collegiate types would appreciate having two ramen houses in close proximity (after all, ramen is a dietary staple for students).

Gyoza

Naruto may be new to Albuquerque, but it’s got a New Mexican pedigree. Founding owners Hiro and Shohko Fukuda opened the Land of Enchantment’s very first sushi bar some four decades ago. Since its opening in 1975, the Shohko Café has been considered one of the very best sushi restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, earning first place in the Santa Fe Reporter’s annual “Best of Santa Fe” edition from 2009 through 2014. Not strictly a sushi restaurant, Shohko serves a number of ramen dishes as well as soba or udon noodles and many other Japanese favorites.

The transformation from the Mint Tulip Vegan Café to Naruto is startling, an aesthetic and functional make-over. Bar stools overlooking the exhibition kitchen give diners a window to the real transformation which goes on everyday at Naruto. That’s the transformation of fresh ingredients into some of the very best ramen in New Mexico. There are similarities to the ramen at O Ramen, but it’s distinctive enough that comparisons will be in order. The menu showcases eight different ramen dishes, including some heretofore unavailable in the Duke City. We’re talking miso ramen, seafood ramen and vegetable ramen here. Also available are a number of entrees including kimchi fried rice, a chashu bowl (sliced pork with ramen noodles) and gyoza.

Miso Ramen with Tempura Shrimp

6 February 2016: If your experience with gyoza is similar to ours, you’ve found there’s very little to distinguish gyoza at one Japanese restaurant from another. Worse, there’s little to distinguish gyoza from dumplings you’ll find at any Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese restaurant in town. At first bite, we could tell the gyoza at Naruto is different. It’s better…legions better These pulchritudinous pan-fried dumplings are stuffed with the usual minced pork, but that’s where similarities end. The greenish tint of the pork is courtesy of Chinese leeks and scallions. They infiltrate the pork with an herbaceous quality no other dumpling in memory possesses.

6 February 2016: The gyoza isn’t accompanied by the usual soy-based dipping sauce served with most dumplings in the Duke City. Instead, you’ll find a condiment caddy at your table replete with everything you need to impart as much additional personality to your gyoza (or ramen) as you’d like. The caddy includes a pickled ginger that’ll water your eyes, pickled garlic that’ll ward off a family of werewolves, chile oil that’ll have you coughing and sputtering and another oil whose undoubtedly delicious qualities escape me.  Darn, that means I have to visit Naruto again…and soon.

Tonkatsu Super Rich Ramen: Murky, Cloudy Deliciousness

6 February 2016: Tonkotsu ramen is porcine perfection, an intensely porky elixir concocted by culinary wizards who, over many hours of simmering time, transform pork bones into an opaque broth with a rich, butyraceous flavor and the aroma of heaven. Naruto offers two versions of its Tonkotsu ramen, the standard “as good as winning the lottery” version and a super-rich version that’s even better than winning the lottery. The super-rich version includes Japanese pickled mustard greens, black mushrooms and chashu pork as well as any additional toppings (there are eleven of them) you may choose to add. The ramen noodles are imported from California where they’re fashioned to Naruto’s exacting specifications. They’re transformative, as good as you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque! This is comfort food ramen at its very best, a melt-in-your-mouth dish that will make adults swoon.

6 February 2016: Even better if you can imagine that is a Miso Ramen (green onions, two slices of chashu, bamboo shoots and kikurago) a relative newcomer in that Miso Ramen has been made in Japan only since the 60s. The broth combines “copious amounts of miso blended with an chicken pork broth to create a thick, nutty, slightly sweet and very hearty soup.” Dismiss any notions you might have about miso soup; this one is many orders of magnitude better than any miso soup you’ve ever had at any Japanese restaurant.  The dashi stock, the base for any miso soup, is made in-house.  As with the Tonkotsu Ramen, there are twelve optional toppings. Try this special elixir with shrimp tempura; you’ll thank me later.

Shoyu Ramen

23 April 2016: During our second visit to Naruto, we sat in personal space proximity to a very uninhibited millennial couple.  By uninhibited, I don’t mean they groped each other or flashed other diners.  What they did may be an even bigger taboo in the oft prudish American culture.  They slurped their ramen so loudly we joked they risked ingesting the ceramic off the bowl.  Slurping ramen is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even expected in Japanese ramen and noodle restaurants (as detailed in my review of the Asian Noodle Bar), but not necessarily in Albuquerque.  My Kim and I are still too westernized to have initiated our own slurpfest, but we didn’t judge or condemn the enthusiasm other diners had for very slurp-worthy ramen.

23 April 2016: Unlike tonkatsu ramen which tends to be heavy and cloudy, Shoyu ramen (which can trace its origin back to the very first ramen) is light and clear. Known for its tangy, savory and salty flavor, the basis for Shoyu ramen is, of course, Japanese soy sauce. Naruto’s version is made with a chicken broth and a special shoyu base with such toppings as green onions, two slices of chashu (salty, sweet, fatty, pork belly braised until it practically melts-in-your-mouth), bamboo shoots, scallions, white onions and two halved soft-boiled eggs which have been marinated in multi-flavored seasonings. These hard-boiled eggs are indispensable on ramen, a wonderful flavor profile contrast to the chashu. As with the miso ramen, tempura shrimp make a wonderful additive. 

Kimchi Fried Rice

23 April 2016: Though more prevalent in Korea than it is in Japan, kimchi fried rice is no stranger in Japanese cuisine. Naruto’s version incorporates Japanese kimchi which doesn’t have nearly the personality and kick of Korean kimchi which is imbued with pungent properties from fermentation and a discernible level of umami (a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate). It’s a very good fried rice with many of the standard fried rice ingredients, but would be improved with the kick of Korean kimchi. Kimchi fried rice is one of only six appetizer-type items listed on the “Entrée” section of the menu, along with gyoza, fried rice, Takana (pickled mustard leaf) fried rice, chashu bowl and white rice. 

23 April 2016: Dessert options are limited, too, but who needs a compendium of postprandial sweets when you’ve got tempura green tea cheesecake, a wedge of creamy, moist cheesecake drizzled with cocoa powder served atop a swirl of chocolate. The cheesecake is coated in a light tempura batter that lends a slight crispiness to each bite. The tempura also adds a savory quality that wonderfully complements the sweet-tanginess of the green tea cheesecake. Sliced strawberries on the side add their own tang. This is a unique cheesecake, wholly unlike the deliciously decadent creations made by Eli’s Cheesecake Company of Chicago offered about half a mile away at Saggio’s.

Tempura Green Tea Cheesecake

Naruto’s ramen is made for luxuriating–not the type you do in a tubful of hot water, but for slurping merrily with a soup spoon.  Naruto is blazing new paths in culinary deliciousness.

Naruto
2110 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 369-1039
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 May 2016
1st VISIT: 6 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Ramen, Tonkatsu Ramen Super Rich, Gyoza, Kimchi Fried Rice, Tempura Green Tea Cheesecake, Shoyu Ramen, Tempura Cheesecake

Naruto 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

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