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Ichiban – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

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

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

The Interior at Ichiban

The Interior at Ichiban

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

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

Miso Soup and Salad

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

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

Green Chile Tempura with Dipping Sauce

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

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

The "Oh My God" appetizer

The “Oh My God” appetizer

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

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

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

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

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

Super Crunch Roll

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

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

Pork Bulgogi

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

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

Dolsot Bibim Bob (SIC)

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

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

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

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

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Chicharroneria Orozco – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chicharroneria Orozco on Bridge Boulevard

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
~Hotel California – The Eagles

Among the many alluring olfactory temptations emanating from dilapidated and timeworn food stalls and colorful restaurant storefronts throughout Mexico is the warm smell of colitas.  They beckon passers-by to experience the aromas, sights, sounds and flavors of one of the Land of Montezuma’s most intriguing and unique dishes, one which will require timorous diners to renounce the heinous malefaction of consuming artery-clogging and fatty foods.  For many Americans, colitas have a major “ick” factor so they stick with the “safe” foods: tacos, tortas, tostadas and tamales (the “T” food group)…and wisely, they don’t drink the water.

To intrepid gastronomes intimate with Mexican food, “the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air” has a different meaning than the colitas about which The Eagles sang. Though often interpreted as sexual slang (colitas translates to “little tails”) or a reference to marijuana (cannabis buds), band member Don Felder once explained the  colitas referenced in the song are “a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell.”

Pork by the pound is the specialty here

The carnitas which delight diners throughout Mexico are indeed “little tails.”  More precisely, they’re turkey tails (colitas de pavo), they’re a delicacy and you’ll never convince aficionados of these crunchy, fatty, meaty treats that the immortal Eagles lyrics weren’t written about them.  Their first and most logical argument, of course, is the warm smell rising up through the air.  It’s a smell you can find in the Duke City only at Chicharroneria Orozco just north and west of the Barelas neighborhood. 

Though only a few blocks south of downtown, the area just over the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande on Bridge Boulevard may remind you of crossing into Juarez.  The flesh-rending razor wire fence atop the walls and roofs of nearby businesses will certainly tell you this isn’t the kinder, gentler side of Albuquerque.  Don’t let that scare you.  Most of the visitors to Chicharroneria Orozco are young immigrant families jonesing (or would that be martinezing) for a taste of home.

Celebrating the charro

There’s a lot to see, hear and smell when you step into the restaurant.  The cynosure is most definitely an island of deliciousness–a glass case displaying fried goodness in all shapes and sizes.  Save for the colitas de pavo and higado ensebollado (beef liver and onions), featured fare is of the porcine variety: tripitas (intestines), buche (stomach), carnitas, carne al pastor and costillas de puerco (pork ribs).  For an insanely low price, one pound of the meat of your choice includes a stack of fresh, steaming corn tortillas and a bowl brimming with chopped cilantro, onions and limes.

On one corner of the restaurant is a celebration of the charro, the Mexican horseman of legend and lore.  Atop stacked hay bales is a colorful Mexican blanket, a saddle and a lariat.  The walls immediately behind the hay bale “horse” include other accoutrements of the charro.  An adjacent dining room includes an automated teller machine (ATM) so you can settle your bill of fare.  Take a gander at the refrigerator in which a number of Mexican and American beverages brewed in Mexico (you haven’t lived until you’ve had a Cherry Pepsi bottled in Mexico and made with pure cane sugar) are available.

Salsa and Chips

As you await delivery of your meal, chips and salsa are delivered to your table.  The salsa is uniquely Mexican. It’s not made with either onions or tomatoes as most New Mexican salsas tend to be.  The salsa, a rich red chile punctuated with cilantro and salt will still win you over.  It’s not especially piquant and it’s almost watery in its consistency, but it’s got a great flavor.  Because it is so thin, the thick, crisp chips will function more efficiently if you dip them instead of trying to scoop Gil-sized portions of salsa. 

If you’re averse to fried pork, the Carne Al Pastor is an excellent choice.  Al pastor, which translates to “in the style of the shepherd” is a ubiquitous street food option in Mexico where al pastor means thin cuts of marinated pork whittled away from a cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit similar to an gyro.  At the Chicharonneria Orozco, the carne al pastor arrives at your table in cubed form, a bright red reminiscent of tandoori meats in its splendorous patina.

Al Pastor with Onions, Limes and Cilantro

The corn masa taco shells are about four-inches around and remain hot to the touch during your entire meal even though they’re not presented in a warmer of any sorts.  A few spoonfuls of carne al pastor, some freshly chopped onions and cilantro followed by a squeeze of lime and you’ve got a taco which may transport you to the streets of Mexico.  The marinated pork includes some sinewy and fatty bits, but that should be expected considering the price.  You’ll have enough carne al pastor to share and still have some left over for the following day. 

In Mexico, carnitas are the undisputed king of the taco cart as well as of cholesterol.  Every region has its own version of deep-fried pig.  Sometimes shredded like pulled pork and sometimes cubed into small pieces, carnitas should always be moist, juicy and redolent with porcine flavor.  The Chicharroneria Orozco’s version of carnitas is very typical.  One pound of these smoky golden-hued beauties may permanently imprint a smile on your face.

One pound of carnitas with corn tortillas

Where many couples might celebrate a wedding anniversary at an upscale eatery, my Kim and I couldn’t resist the warm smell of colitas and celebrated our momentous day at Chicharroneria Orozco.  She told me we could return any time.

Chicharroneria Orozco
709 Bridge S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 873-4806
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carnitas, Al Pastor

Chicharroneria Orozco on Urbanspoon

Taste of Himalayas – Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taste of Himalayas on Fourth Street in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

At 40,000 1/2 feet, the imposing Rum Doodle is the highest mountain in the world, surpassing even Mount Everest, its alpine neighbor on the Himalayas.  Surmounted only by a group of audacious British mountaineers and their Yogastani porters in an odyssey fraught with misadventure, its ascent is the stuff of which mountaineering legends are made.  As if scaling the perilous precipice wasn’t dangerous enough, the intrepid climbers had to endure the inedible culinary miscreations of Pong, the expedition’s sadistic cook.

While Rum Doodle the mountain exists only in the 1956 novel The Ascent of Rum Doodle, there’s an immensely popular bar in Kathmandu named for the fictitious mountain.  The Rum Doodle Bar is legendary as the gathering place and watering hole of outdoor adventurers who visit prior to mountaineering expeditions on the nearby Himalayas.  The very best of them return after successfully ascending Everest, only one-hundred miles away.  They return to cement their place among a very exclusive club of climbers.

The Interior of Taste of Himalayas

Beginning with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber to summit Everest, climbers have returned to the Rum Doodle Bar to sign a summit register of the select few who have successfully climbed the highest mountain in the world.  The register is kept in locked glass cases behind the bar.   Signatories with connections to the Land of Enchantment include Taos resident Dave Hahn who has successfully reached the 29,035-foot top of Everest four times.  On May 30, 2003, former governor Gary Johnson joined that exclusive club.  Perquisites for members of this exclusive coterie include free food for the rest of their lives.  Alas, the Rum Doodle Bar’s menu is rather limited, listing only a hamburger, cheeseburger, mushroom pizza and cheese pizza. 

Burgers and pizza are hardly the traditional fare of Kathmandu, but they do seem to appeal to the adventurous international clientele which frequents the Rum Doodle Bar.  In fact, because of tourism, a number of hybrid “westernized” foods have been introduced to an already accepting culinary culture.  To indulge in local cuisine would be to dine on food which, because Kathmandu is such an ethnically and culturally diverse city, has taken inspiration from neighbors Tibet, China and especially from India.

Papadum with Mint-Coriander and Tamarind Chutneys

Until recent years, the foods of Nepal have not been readily available in the Land of Enchantment.  In July, 2008, Namaste Restaurant in Rio Rancho opened and though primarily an Indian restaurant, offered a smattering of dishes from Nepal. In Santa Fe, the Himalayan Cuisine restaurant offered dishes from Nepal, India and Tibet for several years before closing in 2013.  July, 2014 saw the launch of Albuquerque’s first restaurant showcasing the culinary fare of Nepal. 

Taste of Himalayas occupies the space which previously housed Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining Restaurant in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  Rawal was a magnificent shooting star talent whose departure from the Duke City left an indelible afterglow, gaining such a stellar reputation that he probably could have run for mayor of Los Ranchos and won.  Taste of Himalayas will assuage the loss and over time may even make some of us forget Paddy Rawal’s genius.

Himalayas Prime Choice Momos with Lamb

Chef Raji, a native of Kathmandu, probably didn’t spend much time at the Rum Doodle.  He seems far too spiritual and humble for cavorting with the hard-living, hard-drinking mountaineers.  He starts his day at the restaurant by burning incense at various points throughout the restaurant.  A statue of Buddha’s head overlooks the restaurant.  Buddhist wall hangings resembling aprons adorn interior doors while framed angels cover the window to the kitchen.  Both the wall hangings and angels are signs of respect in the spirit of namaste, Raji assured us. 

Raji was kind enough to give me a quick tour of the assiduous kitchen, even demonstrating the art of preparing naan on a tandoori oven (pictured below).  Baking naan, the wonderful leavened tandoori oven-baked flat bread, is not wholly unlike making tortillas.  The most significant difference is that after the dough is rolled into a ball, it’s slapped against the tandoori oven wall.  Over direct heat easily achieving 600-degrees, the naan is ready in just about 30-seconds.  After it’s extricated from the oven with a pair of tongs, a light brushing of ghee (clarified butter) is applied, giving the naan a beautiful sheen.

Chef Raji prepares naan on a tandoori oven

There are seven different naans on the menu:plain; garlic, cilantro and chive; ginger mint; onion; stuffed potato and cheese; rosemary olive oil and stuffed dried fruit.  The other available Tandoori bread is Tandoori roti whole wheat bread.  Unlike naan, roti is unleavened and is made from stone-ground wholemeal flour, but is no less delicious than its bread counterpart.  During our inaugural visit, we opted for the garlic cilantro/chive naan, a terrific choice.  The naan is soft and moist with the pinto pony char characteristic of its brief interlude with burning coals in the oven.  The triumvirate of garlic, cilantro and chive lends herbaceous properties that are accentuated with the steaminess of naan freshly extricated from the tandoori. 

Still another popular Indian bread is papadum, a cracker-bread made from flour then deep-fried to give it a crispy consistency.  You won’t be seated for long before a complimentary plate of papadum with two chutneys are brought to your table.  The papadum resembles hard taco shells, but is much more brittle and breaks apart rather easily.  The chutneys are magnificent in their contrasting and complementary properties.  The mint-coriander chutney offers a vibrant nasal-clearing piquancy with herbaceous noted while the tamarind chutney lends sweet notes tempered by sour-tangy properties.

Garlic Cilantro/Chive Naan

The appetizer menu includes a number of vegetarian and non-vegetarian items with which diners who frequent Indian restaurants will be familiar.  Those include chicken pakora and chana chaat.  Others are uniquely Nepalese and should be sampled by all diners wishing to expand their culinary footprint.  Soups and salads are also available.  Peruse the menu further and you’ll see items suffixed with the term “Manchurian,” a tribute to the culinary inspiration gleaned from China. 

Perhaps the one appetizer which best exemplifies the cuisine of Nepal is momos, a Nepali (and Tibetan) name for dumplings.  Momos are almost inarguably the most popular snack and fast food in Nepal.  In fact, there are more “momo corners” in Kathmandu than there are McDonald’s and Subways combined in New York City.  Enjoy momos one time and you’ll wish for a preponderance of this versatile dumpling which can be filled with a limitless variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian items.

Non-Vegetarian Lunch Special: Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Curry, Butter Chicken, Saag Paneer, Basmati Rice, Sweet Rice

Taste of Himalayas offers four different momos, three of which are vegetarian.  Available either fried or steamed, they are served eight to an order.  If you’ve got a carnivorous bent, the Himalayas Prime Choice Momos are your best best.  Stuffed with your choice of ground lamb (our choice) or chicken mixed with ginger, garlic and other premium spices in a dumpling wrap, they’re magnificent.  The accompanying dipping sauces are wholly unnecessary though the sweet-sour-tangy tamarind sauce plays very well with the richness of the lamb. 

While Taste of Himalayas doesn’t offer a buffet, it does serve a vegetarian and non-vegetarian lunch special of the day sure to please and sate budget-conscious diners.  On a tray large enough to feed a small family, the non-vegetarian plate of the day (pictured above) included two pieces of tandoori chicken, a sweet rice dessert, butter chicken, chicken curry, saag paneer and Basmati rice, all of which are at least very good.  The butter chicken is superb, boneless, skinless, marinated chicken pieces served in a richly flavored tomato and yogurt sauce with melted butter poured over the dish before serving.  It’s sinfully rich and delicious.

Lobster Malabar with Basmati Rice

For the seafood lover in you, Taste of Himalayas offers a number of dishes showcasing the fruits of the sea.  The Lobster Malabar, named for a prolific pepper producing region in India, this dish showcases lobster cooked in a tomato-coconut sauce.  Available in your choice of piquancy, the briny sweetness of seafood generally warrants no more than mild heat lest its flavors be obfuscated by piquant, pungent peppers.  At just south of twenty dollars, it’s a steal though you should accept that at this price, you’re not getting the most tender portions of the lobster.  Still, it’s a very good dish with the lobster very much at home in the tomato-coconut sauce.

The dessert menu lists six items.  For my friend, the dazzling Deanell Collins and for me, there’s no need to read any further than Gajar Halwa, the delightfully rich carrot-based treat we both love.  Composed of grated cooked carrots, sauteed nuts, clarified butter and milk, it’s a unique use of carrots sure to please lovers of carrot cake.  Taste of Himalayas’ version is on par with the Gajar Halwa at Namaste which means it’s the best in the metropolitan area.

Gajar Halwa

Aside from the vibrant and delicious cuisine, our experience at Taste of Himalayas was greatly heightened by the attentive, personal service.  In slightly more than an hour, we spent time in conversation with an energetic and personable chef, a delightful manager named Jamie Lee Curtis and a very cute server we called “wolf” after she described how the naan made her ravenous like a wolf.  Frankly, everything we tried had the same effect on us.

Taste of Himalayas
7520 Fourth Street
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque
(505) 899-4423
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Gajar Halwa, Lobster Malabar, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Curry, Butter Chicken, Saag Paneer, Basmati Rice, Sweet Rice, Garlic Cilantro/Chive Naan, Himalayas Prime Choice Momos with Lamb, Papadum

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