From our home in northeast Rio Rancho, it’s about thirteen miles to the Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar on Southern Boulevard. It would have been safer to run with the bulls at Pampalona than it was driving the half hour it took me to get to Nori. In those thirty minutes, an impatient tailgater blasted her horn at me for having the audacity to come to a complete stop at a stop sign in our subdivision. As she roared passed me on a 25 miles-per-hour street, she contemptuously extended her middle finger out the window (in the same way drivers espying the Dallas Cowboys plate on my car acknowledge the Cowboys are number one). Once on Highway 528, I witnessed drivers running red lights, exceeding the speed limit by at least warp five, turning from the wrong lane and not using turn signals (even though the season of lights is approaching). “Phew,” I thought “at least we don’t live in any of the other 48 states whose drivers are more impolite.”
Yep, you read that correctly. A June, 2017 survey conducted by Kars4Kids ranked New Mexico as the second-most polite state in which to drive. At this point you’re probably laughing uproariously or wondering how New Mexico’s notorious election officials managed to stuff the ballots for the Land of Enchantment and abscond with ballots from other states. “More likely,” you’re thinking “the survey’s respondents included such paragons of impartiality as Governor Martinez, the New Mexico Tourism Department and former Albuquerque Mayor Berry’s effusive spinmeister.” For those of us with lengthy daily commutes into the heart of the Duke City, there’s more credibility in little green men landing their extraterrestrial craft in Roswell than there is in a survey indicating New Mexico’s drivers are the apotheosis of politeness.
Chanting Frank Costanza’s “serenity now” mantra as you navigate the metropolitan area’s mean streets is hardly a match for crazed, oblivious and wholly impolite drivers…and not even Calgon can take you away when driving in New Mexico leaves you frazzled and harried. Fortunately there are three havens of civility in Rio Rancho where you can find solace and regain your composure. One is Joe’s Pasta House where possibly the very best wait staff in the Land of Enchantment is as welcoming as your most comfortable slippers. Another is Namaste where respect and graciousness are practiced daily. The third and most recent addition is the Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar which opened its doors in October, 2017.
Until 2010 when it shuttered its doors, Noda’s Japanese Cuisine may have been the Land of Enchantment’s very best purveyor of sushi as well as a nonpareil paragon of politeness. Other sushi restaurants such as Ahh! Sushi and Sushi King have tried to fill the void, but all have fallen short in comparison to the sublime greatness of Noda’s, a once in a generation restaurant which many of us miss direly. Nori won’t make anyone forget Noda’s, but Rio Rancho diners who appreciate good Japanese food and professional service will like it very much…especially if your commute was as harrowing as mine.
It seems the template for Japanese restaurants emphasizes professionalism. In the Land of the Rising Sun, good service is associated with professionalism, not friendliness. Wait staff are trained to maintain a professional, polite distance. Instead of the chatty, often insincere wait shtick practiced by servers at many American restaurants (particularly the cookie cutter chains), servers in Japan don’t engage in small talk (especially of a personal nature) or try to establish personal rapport with their guests. It’s the way some of us like to be treated. By the way, if you appreciate the impeccable timing of servers who don’t hover over you and ask how your meal is just as you’ve taken a hefty bite, you’ll like Nori.
Nori, the Japanese name for edible seaweed, is appropriately named as nori is indeed an ingredient in several sushi rolls and dishes. Neither the Japanese menu nor the sushi menu feature any real surprises, but offer familiar standards prepared well. Appetizers include such recognizable favorites as edamame, gyoza, egg rolls and tempura. Ramen and donburi dishes make up the entrees portion of the menu. The sushi menu includes all familiar favorites: nigiri (a slice of raw fish over pressed vinegared rice), sashimi (slices of very fresh fish served raw) and maki (roll-style sushi in which ingredients are often wrapped in roasted seaweed sheets (nori) and seasoned rice).
Over the decades, ramen has evolved from a staple of the Japanese working class to a mainstay of impoverished American college students to most recently, a trendy Japanese restaurant favorite. The latter is ramen all grown up, the antithesis of the budget dorm food favorite. There are many different types of Japanese noodle soups, but tonkotsu ramen may be the most revered. Two main components define tonkotsu: tangles or nests of thin, starchy noodles in a rich salty pork broth. Traditionally made by boiling pork bones for twelve hours or more, the broth is incomparable. Nori’s version also includes two marinated hard-boiled eggs, scallions, niblets of corn and fatty pork cutlets. It’s a satisfying soup, filling and tasty, but much better versions can be found in Albuquerque at O Ramen and Naruto (both of which would require matador-like maneuvering among polite Duke City drivers).
Rather than one of the appetizers on the menu, my starter choice was unagi, grilled freshwater eel served nigiri style. Unagi is much sweeter and more tender than its saltwater cousins and is said to have stamina-giving properties. Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, it’s believed to heighten men’s sexual drive. Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they wanted an intimate night. While some may find the thought of eel repellent, “eel sauce” is a popular topping for various sushi rolls. A thick sweetened sauce made from soy sauce, mirin or sweet rice wine and sugar, it’s akin to fish candy.
Several of Nori’s maki rolls are topped with a crunchy tempura flakes instead of wrapped in nori sheets. Among them is the buddy crunch (shrimp tempura, salmon tempura, avocado, spicy mayo inside tempura flakes and the aforementioned eel sauce). During my novitiate days of enjoying sushi, my Kim questioned whether it was really the incendiary wasabi I really enjoyed. Back then I drowned maki rolls in combustible mix of soy sauce and wasabi. With more refined and developed tastes, it’s the ingredients within the vinegared rice that now enthrall me most. My buddy roll barely touched the soy-wasabi mix, allowing me to enjoy balanced flavors from fresh ingredients.
Nori Ramen’s wait staff can show the fruited plain’s second most polite drivers a thing or two about politeness. Moreover, they can show you a menu of familiar Japanese favorites prepared well.
Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar
2003 Southern Blvd., S.E., Suite 116
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Ramen, Buddy Crunch, Unagi