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

Asian Pear – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Friend Bruce “Sr Plata” in front of Asian Pear in Downtown Albuquerque

Careful Father, this stuff will melt your beads.”
~Lt Colonel Henry Blake, MASH 4077

Just as Hogan’s Heroes helped establish the perception many Americans (at least of my generation) had about German food, the television show MASH was the first introduction many of us had to Korean food. Set in South Korea during the Korean War, the series centered around a group of resilient doctors, nurses and support staff in an isolated hospital compound which saw more than its share of wounded. Not only did each half hour episode depict–sometimes rather graphically–the horrors of war, it painted a rather poignant and entirely accurate picture of sacrifice and hardship.

Some of the sacrifice and hardship came at the hands of the kitchen staff which concocted some of the most unsavory fare conceivable (imagine a restaurant today serving creamed turnips, spam lamb and cream of weenie soup). Indigenous cuisine was apparently even worse because no matter how bad chow hall food was, the MASH team didn’t walk down to the nearby village for a meal of Korean food. And, as the quote above illustrates, when they did partake of Korean food, the impression given was that it was almost lethally piquant. 

Asian Pear Dining Room

Compared to the cuisines of other East Asian nations, the rise in the popularity of Korean food across the fruited plain was painfully slow. In fact, only in recent years have Korean restaurants become a thriving part of the American culinary mainstream. According to seriouseats.com, much of this is attributable to the insular nature of Korean restaurants which, by design, initially catered to other Koreans, not to the teeming masses. The unwillingness of Koreans to compromise on authenticity can be contrasted to the pandering to American tastes by other East Asian cultures who dumbed down their dishes to appeal to the masses. Can you say Pad Thai or General Tso’s chicken or even sushi?

Korean food may be the least Americanized of East Asian cuisines meaning that within Korean restaurants you won’t find any one dish unrecognizably dumbed down for American tastes (as Pad Thai has been at Thai restaurants across the fruited plain).  That means purists curious about traditional Korean cuisine can still find it easily and as relatively unspoiled as if served in Seoul.  Indisputably the most popular Korean dish among American diners is bulgogi, the marinated and grilled beef dish to which diners often refer as Korean barbecue.  Today it’s possible to find bulgogi served at non-Korean restaurants where it is discernibly more Americanized.

Asian Pear Menu

Albuquerque has been blessed with the presence of at least one Korean restaurant for nearly four decades.  Chris and Kye Lovato started it all with the long defunct Fu Shou House which they operated in the Kirtland Air Force Base area until 1993.  That year the Lovatos moved to the Scottsdale Village Shopping Center where they reopened as Fu Yuang.   Over the past four decades, there have been (and still are) other Korean restaurants operating in the Duke City, but in terms of sheer numbers, Korean restaurants in Albuquerque pale compared to restaurants from other East Asian nations.

The January 12th, 2015, addition of Asian Pear, did little to impact the disparity in the number of Korean restaurants compared to the surprisingly high number of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in the Duke City.  Unlike many of them, however, but the Asian Pear concept appears a promising candidate for expansion (wishful thinking here).  The restaurant’s marquee is underscored by “fresh and healthy Korean BBQ and Japanese food,” but it would not be inaccurate to add “inexpensive” and “delicious.”   Asian Pear is located in the bustling downtown area right next to the long-established Skip Maisel’s on Central Avenue.    It sits in the space previously occupied by the Teriyaki Kitchen.

Vegetable Pancake and Kimchee

You’ll walk past an expansive seating area to get to the counter where you’ll place your order from a large-print menu over a window to the kitchen.  The menu is segmented into plate entrees, bowl entrees, bento boxes and sides, but daily specials shouldn’t be overlooked.  Plate and bowl entrees are served with your choice of steamed rice, fried rice or chap-chae (Korean-style glass noodles) as well as vegetable sides.  Bento boxes also include steamed rice, tempura (shrimp, carrot and onion), bean sprouts and two pot stickers.  The low, low prices will have you doing a double-take with the most expensive entrees being south of ten dollars.

One other pleasant aspect of dining at Asian Pear is the eagerness of the staff to have you sample more than what you order.  It’s an approach which will introduce you to items you’ll probably order the next time you visit.  Shortly after you’re seated, expect complimentary vegetable pancakes and kimchee to be delivered to your table. The accommodating and friendly staff is even receptive to substitutions, a “have it your way” attitude with which some restaurateurs just won’t be bothered.   You’ll be more than pleasantly surprised at how eager to please the Asian Pear staff is.

Wonton Soup

The vegetable pancake is imbued with three of my favorite food characteristics: freshness, flavor and free.  Though relatively small in portion (they are free, after all), they’re addictively good.  That’s the point.  We’re sure to order the full-sized version next time we visit.  The kimchee, a dish of fermented cabbage and other vegetables, doesn’t have the eye-watering piquancy of kimchee we’ve had elsewhere, but it’ll tantalize your taste buds with its spiciness and personality.

With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees on the day of our inaugural visit, only a steaming bowl of soup could take the chill out.  Fortunately Asian Pear had two options available–wonton soup and ramen.  Unlike some wonton soup found in the Duke City, the wontons in this version are stuffed with chicken and are half-moon shaped (like dumplings).  Replete with scallions, this wonton soup has a pleasant and not-too-salty flavor, but more importantly on a cold day, it’s got warming properties needed to brave the weather. 

Bibimbap

Over the years, my very favorite Korean entree has become bibimbap which is not only fun to say, but fun to eat.  Bibimbap, which translates from Korean to mixed rice,” is a savory Korean dish which usually incorporates rice, pickled vegetables, sauces, and in some cases, meats and eggs.  The rendition at Asian Pear includes a sizable portion of  smoky, sweet-savory meat (your choice of pork, beef or chicken) that contrasts nicely with the various pickled vegetables (namul) and the mildly piquant spicy chili paste.  Stir vigorously and you’ve got a wonderful melange of deliciousness.   

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” is as enamored of kalbi (sometimes spelled galbi) as I am of bibimbap.  Kalbi, which translates to “ribs” is a Korean barbecue dish centered around cooking marinated beef short ribs until the outside is crisp and caramelized and the inside is tender and juicy.  With ten ribs on the plate, Asian Pear’s portion size is generous though my carnivorous friend would have appreciated even more of this delicious meat candy. 

Kalbi

While we certainly enjoyed every morsel of every item we sampled at Asian Pear, what blew us away most is the exemplary customer service…and we’re not the only ones to praise the amazing aim to please attitude among the staff.  Every Yelp review for Asian Pear is effusive in its praise for the service.  Asian Pear hasn’t done much to advertise its presence on Central Avenue, but gushing word-of-mouth praise from its guests has made this little treasure on Route 66 a great food, great value, great service destination. 

NOTE:  This is the 900th review published on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. 

Asian Pear
508 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 766-9405
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Kalbi, Bibimbap, Kimchee, Vegetable Pancake, Fried Rice

Asian Pear Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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

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

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

Interior of Loving Vegan

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

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

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

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

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

Miso soup

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

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

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

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

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

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

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

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

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

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

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

The interior of Nagomi

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

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

Miso Soup

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

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

Assorted Tempura

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

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

Chicken Kara-age

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

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

Tonkotsu Ramen

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

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

Trio Donburi

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

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

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

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ORamen01

My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

ORamen03

Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Facebook Page
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

O Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ichiban – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

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

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

The Interior at Ichiban

The Interior at Ichiban

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

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

Miso Soup and Salad

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

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

Green Chile Tempura with Dipping Sauce

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

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

The "Oh My God" appetizer

The “Oh My God” appetizer

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

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

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

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

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

Super Crunch Roll

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

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

Pork Bulgogi

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

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

Dolsot Bibim Bob (SIC)

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

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

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

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

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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