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Arirang Oriental Market – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Arirang Oriental Market on Eubank

Cuisine is the tactile connection we have to breathing history.
History and culture offer us a vibrant living society that we taste through cuisine.
All cuisine is a reflection of the society from which it emanates …
in the end cuisine is the result of culture
Clifford Wright

If cuisine is the result of culture, then it can certainly be stated that music is the expressive language of that culture.  Well before the advent of the written word, music was used to tell stories, impart wisdom, express ideas, share emotions and convey the history and culture of the civilization.  Until the 20th century and the rapid cultural changes wrought by the postmodern period, music also bridged the generations.  Family members of every generation typically listened to the same music.

In Korea, there may be no song as beloved–even in North Korea–as Arirang, an iconic folk song often considered an unofficial national anthem.  Its plaintiff lyrics convey a traveler’s agony and anguish while crossing a mountain pass named Arirang with a heartfelt longing to return home.  After its service in Korea during the Korean War, the South Korean government designated Arirang as the official march of the United States Army’s 7th Infantry Division in which my father-in-law served.

The Arirang Menu (An English version is also available)

Because of the deep emotional ties to the song, it’s only fitting that Albuquerque’s premier (but surprisingly not the only one) Korean market be named Arirang.  Serving the Duke City for more than a decade, the Arirang Oriental Market proffers specialty groceries, pots and pans, rice cookers, cooking utensils, perfumes, lotions and unique collectibles.  It’s an adventure and a joy to walk the market’s aisles, peruse the labels and contemplate the purchase of ingredients for a soiree of adventurous dining.  The geriatrically advanced among us may even reflect on the days in which the edifice was a Burger Chef restaurant.

At the back of the market is an area almost too small to call a restaurant, but which serves some of the very best and most authentic Korean food in the Duke City.  Two tables and a counter constitute the eatery’s entire seating.  It could be argued the eatery is devoid of ambiance, but if you look beyond the stark walls and utilitarian surroundings, there is much to see.  Leaning against a wall on the counter is the Arirang menu, written entirely in Hangul, the Korean alphabet.  A laminated menu includes translations for the linguistically challenged among us.  English is a second language to the wait staff, but it’s not too difficult to get your point across and get your questions answered.  The wait staff is unfailingly polite.

Mandu (Korean potstickers) with a dipping sauce

Befitting the eatery’s Lilliputian capacity, the menu is relatively small but also surprisingly ambitious considering its diversity.  A small glass of water (a surprising contrast to the 64-ounce behemoths served at fast food joints)  is delivered to your table shortly after you’re seated.  A refrigerated case in an aisle hugging the wall includes soft drinks, both the American standards and a few carbonated Korean offerings.  We’ve established that decor is not a strong point, but aroma and food are.

There are only a few appetizers on the menu, the most popular being traditional Mandu, Korean dumplings.  In that Mandu are a Lunar New Year family tradition throughout Korea, it’s fitting that the Mandu at Arirang are shaped like a crescent moon.  These fried dumplings are luscious pockets stuffed with a pork mince and served with a soy sauce dip which includes sesame seeds, shallots and a hint of ginger.

Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea

Arirang’s most popular entree among non-Asian diners is probably bulgogi, Korea’s signature dish which many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue. Bulgogi  is a marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners (especially the non-adventurous) to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried with yellow and white onions and julienne carrots sprinkled with sesame seeds.   The “barbecue” sauce is wholly unlike American barbecue sauces in that  it’s not “lacquered” on, but penetrates the meat deeply with sweet, but not cloying notes. 

Korean meals traditionally include small plates of sundry appetizers and side dishes all served at the same time. Known as banchan, these side dishes are typically comprised of pickled, spiced and hot and spicy vegetables.  The specialty of any Korean family is kimchee, a fiery cabbage-based staple of Korea which is heavily seasoned with garlic and chile.  Arirang’s rendition is pleasantly piquant and pungent, but not as powerful as some fermented kimchee.  The best description I’ve read for banchan equates them to “Korean tapas.”

Assorted unfermented salads known as namul and kimchee, a fiery fermented cabbage dish

Imagine an American dish in which you threw together left-over remnants of favorite foods such as burgers, pizza, tacos and egg rolls, heated the menage, tossed it in a bowl with a fried egg and served it with salsa.  It doesn’t sound especially appealing.  Unlike Americans, Koreans have mastered the art of  “leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish” in a popular dish known as Bibimbap. It’s one of the most popular dishes in Korea and its popularity has been exported to Korean restaurants in America.

Bibimbap starts with rice served in the hot stone bowl in which it is prepared, the rice at the bottom of the bowl crackling as it continues to cook.  Layered atop the rice are slender strips of perfectly seared sirloin and namul, the aforementioned pickled and spiced vegetables in all their flavorful and colorful glory.  The dish is then crowned with a single fried egg.  You will then stir in gochujang, a Korean chili pepper, to taste.   This is a delicious dish with complementary and contrasting flavors coalescing wonderfully.

Dolsot Bibimbap

The Arirang Oriental Market offers wonderful Korean comfort food at reasonable prices served by friendly attendants.  A meal here may inspire you to stock up from the treasures in the grocery aisles so that you can try replicating your experience.

Arirang Oriental Market
1826 Eubank, N.E. Map.1850b43
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-9634
LATEST VISIT: 9 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Dolsot Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Namul, Mandu

Arirang Oriental Market on Urbanspoon

Fu Yuang – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fu Yuang, Albuquerque's best Korean restaurant

Fu Yuang, Albuquerque's best Korean restaurant

“I’ve eaten a river of liver and an ocean of fish!
I’ve eaten so much fish, I’m ready to grow gills!
I’ve eaten so much liver, I can only make love
if I’m smothered in bacon and onions”
~ Hawkeye Pierce
MASH 4077, Korea

For eleven years, televisions across the fruited plain were tuned in to CBS where the antics of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) enthralled audiences with a unique blend of crude hilarity and heartfelt humanity.  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.  We grew to love the ensemble cast of Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, Hot Lips Hooligan, Henry Blake, Frank Burns and Max Klinger.

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.  Man’s inhumanity toward man was not only portrayed on the battlefields, but in the kitchen presided over by a cook as much outside his element as a vegan at a chophouse.  In its infinite wisdom, the Army assigned Private Igor, a trained mechanic, not to the motor pool where he belonged, but to the kitchen where he concocted such unappetizing dishes as creamed turnips, spam lamb and cream of weenie soup.

The interior of Fu Yuang

Fed up with the never-ending parade of powdered food and the post-prandial gastronomic distress (not to mention taste bud torture) it caused, Hawkeye instigated a near revolt when Igor offered him a choice of liver or fish. “Are we gonna stand for this? Are we gonna let them do this to us? No! I say, No! We’re not going to eat this dreck any more! (chanting) We want something else!”  Indigenous cuisine was apparently even worse because no matter how bad Igor’s chow was, Hawkeye and crew didn’t walk down to the nearby village for a meal of delicious Korean food. 

My father-in-law, who served in the Korean War (where he says he passed out blankets) once told me most Koreans in war-ravaged Korea barely eked out a subsistence and basically lived day-to-day.  On the rare occasions in which he partook of Korean food, it didn’t agree with him (an understatement).  Because of those experiences, it would be another sixty years before he next ate Korean food.  In 2003, we took him to Fu Yuang, Albuquerque’s premier Korean restaurant.  At Fu Yuang he fell in love with a cuisine he thought he’d never eat again and had no idea would be so good.

Some of the very best potstickers in Albuquerque with a terrific dipping sauce

Like my father-in-law, Chris Lovato served in Korea where he met his wife Kye (and ostensibly, enjoyed much better Korean food).  After his military career, the Lovatos settled in Albuquerque where they began a three decade plus Korean restaurant venture that continues today.  Chris passed away in 2008 and Kye has since retired, but their restaurant remains in good hands with their effervescent daughter Mia Lasco succeeding her mother in the kitchen.  Mia obviously paid very close attention; she’s every bit as good a cook as her mother was.  The front of the house is also in good hands with Mia’s husband Chris, the hyper-energetic host and waiter, making sure everyone feels welcome.

Fu Yuang, which translates from Korean to “prosperous garden,” has been comfortably ensconced in the Scottsdale Village shopping center since 1993.  Prior to that, the Lovatos owned and operated the beloved Fu Shou House just outside Kirtland Air Force Base.  Aside from the outstanding food, one commonality all Lovato family restaurants have shared over the years is friendly, attentive service.  Fu Yuang is as convivial and inviting a restaurant as you’ll find in the Duke City. It is sparsely decorated, nearly austere when compared to the over-the-top flamboyance of some of the city’s Asian chains, but it offers a quiet coziness, reasonable prices and generous portions of the best Korean food in New Mexico.

The best egg drop soup in Albuquerque

The best of the restaurant’s appetizers, all of which are excellent, is the exquisite golden fried mandu (Korean style dumplings), luscious pockets of beef served with a soy sauce based dipping sauce with a flavor profile that is sweet, tangy, piquant and savory. Alas, sometimes the day’s ration of mandu goes fast and you might have to start your meal with something else.  A good choice are the crab and cream cheese stuffed wontons, an appetizer for which at other restaurants you might have to form search party to locate anything but the wonton wrappers.  Not so at Fu Yuang where the cream cheese practically oozes out as you bite into it.  This is a rich treat sure to please everyone at the table and it’s not cloying as at some restaurants.

As it is at many Korean restaurants, Fu Yuang’s most popular entree is bulgogi, Korea’s signature dish which many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue. Bulgogi  is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.  At Fu Yuang, the meat is tender with nary any sinewy or fatty pieces.  The “barbecue” sauce is wholly unlike any American barbecue sauce you’ve had.  It’s not “lacquered” on as some American barbecue sauces are, but its sweet-citrus (the hint of pineapple is notable) profile is addictive.

Bulgogi, a house specialty

Bulgogi, a house specialty

If your tastes lean toward the spicy or piquant but you don’t want to stray far from the sweet and savory tastes of bulgogi, the Taejigogi Kochu’jang (just call it spicy pork) might call out to you.  Extra lean pork slices are marinated in a chili pepper sauce then stir-fried with carrots and yellow and green onions. Like the bulgogi, it is served on a sizzling cast iron hibachi that arrives at your table steaming.  Similarly, rib aficionados will absolutely love bulkalbi, organic bone-in beef short ribs marinated in Fu Yuang’s sweet and savory soy and garlic sauce then stir fried. Similar in taste to bulgogi, these bite-sized ribs are lean and absolutely delicious.

While Korean meals traditionally feature small plates of sundry appetizers and side dishes all served at the same time, they are served only by request at Fu Yuang. Assorted salads (known as namul) comprised of pickled, spiced and hot and spicy vegetables accompany kimchee, the fiery cabbage-based staple of Korea which is heavily seasoned with garlic and chile (and at Fu Yuang is also seasoned with anchioves). The best description I’ve read of these appetizers equates them to “like Korean tapas, only better.”

My friend Sr. Plata with a steaming hibachi of bulkalbi

Fu Yuang’s menu includes several “Jieges & Gook” or dinner soups.  Similar to Vietnamese phos, they are served in swimming pool-sized bowls ideal for sharing (not that you might want to considering how good they are). If your tastes lean to soup of the nasal-clearing variety, it’s the Yukejang which will call loudest. Not quite as piquant as served at other Korean restaurants, it is still redolent with the olfactory arousing aroma of chili pepper paste. Served at nearly scalding temperature, this rich red-orange hued elixir includes spicy beef, fresh garlic, daikon radish slices, bean sprouts, yellow onions, green onions and chapch’ae noodles.

In yet another memorable episode of MASH, Major Frank “Ferret-Face” Burns panicked when he saw local farmers burying what he believes to be a landmine.  Hawkeye revealed “It‘s a kimchee pot, Frank.  Kimchee.  Pickled cabbage.  They ferment it in the ground. There are millions of these buried all over Korea.”  This episode served to reinforce stereotypes many people have about kimchee which can certainly have odoriferous properties.  In comparison to kimchee I’ve had at the homes of Korean families in the Air Force, Fu Yuang’s rendition is rather mild.  It’s also not as piquant as other kimchee I’ve had, but it’s still a very good kimchee.

Assorted salads (known as namul)

Assorted salads (known as namul)

“Bibimbap” may sound like a word describing a hip hop beat, but other than bulgogi, it may be the most popular and well-known Korean dish in existence.  Some cynics actually decry it as leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish.  There may be some merit to that description.  Bibimbap starts with rice served in the hot stone bowl in which it is prepared, the rice at the bottom of the bowl crackling as it continues to cook.  Layered atop the rice are slender strips of perfectly seared sirloin and namul, the aforementioned pickled and spiced vegetables in all their flavorful and colorful glory.  The dish is then crowned with a single fried egg.  You will then stir in gochujang, a Korean chili pepper, to taste. 

Bibimbap can be literally translated to “mixed meal,” because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared.  If this is a leftover, you can have me over for a Bibimbap dinner any time, but it’s a good bet it won’t be nearly as good as Fu Yuang’s rendition.  It’s simply the best I’ve ever had.  There are many reasons it’s the essence of deliciousness, the least of which is the coalescence of flavors and textures, the mixing of great individual items combining to form rare greatness.

Bibimbap, a delightful dish

Fu Yuang certainly excels in Korean food, but the menu also includes two entire pages of Chinese specialties in the categories of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, vegetables and fried rice. The Chinese food is fairly Americanized (sweet and sour type entrees), but better prepared than Chinese food at most Chinese restaurants.  Variety (as if you could ever get tired of the wonderful Korean entrees) or temporary insanity might be the only reasons to order Chinese food over Korean food at Fu Yuang, but on the one time in which we’ve had Chinese food (a memorable lemon chicken), we found it quite good.

If you are in a sweet and sour mood, the Korean version of sweet and sour pork or chicken is excellent.  Unlike the thickly breaded meats lacquered with a crimson candied sauce served in many Chinese restaurants, the sweet and sour sauce at Fu Yuang is nearly transparent and the breading is very light.  Best of all, the sauce most definitely has a sour pronouncement; it does not taste like candied meat.  The pork has nary a hint of sinew or fat.  It’s tender and juicy and slathered with just enough sauce for flavor.

Yukejang

Yukejang

The lunch menu is relatively abbreviated though you can order off the diner menu during the noon hour as well. Lunch specials include the very best egg drop soup in Albuquerque as well as two crab and cream cheese wontons.  The egg drop soup is of a thick consistency with generous bits of chicken and miniscule pieces of carrots, onion and celery.  The soup has a very smooth, comforting flavor and is always served hot.

Fu Yuang is one of Albuquerque’s most vegetarian friendly restaurants, offering a variety of options–and not solely of the salad variety, but if salad is what will sate you, the Korean salad is not to be missed. A generous plateful of organic greens drizzled with a sweet sesame vinaigrette is good enough to make converts out of carnivores.

Korean style sweet and sour pork with brown rice

There are other restaurants in Albuquerque which serve Korean food, but none have been doing it as long or as well as Fu Yuang.  Had Private Igor served food as wonderful as Duke City diners enjoy at Fu Yuang, even the perpetual get-out-of-the-Army schemer Corporal Klinger would  have reenlisted.

Fu Yuang
3107 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
298-8989

LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Bulkalbi, Golden Fried Mandu, Taejigogi Kochu jang, Korean Sweet and Sour Pork, Lemon Chicken, Bibimbap

Fu Yuang Korean & Chinese on Urbanspoon

Sakura Sushi & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sakura

Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

In describing “food porn,” The New Yorker once wrote, “The point is to get very close to what you are filming, so close that you can see an ingredient’s “pores” which then triggers some kind of Neanderthal reflex.  If you’re flicking from channel to channel and come upon food that has been shot in this way, you will be hardwired as a human being to stop, look, and bring it back to your cave.”

Madison Avenue, which is virtually synonymous with advertising, recognizes the impact food porn has on the American consumer.  That’s why we’re bombarded with television commercials and magazine ads depicting spectacular displays of visually stimulating, sleek and sexy, glorious deliciousness–food not only as edible art, but as a medium that elicits a carnal response.

Perhaps no modern medium utilizes food porn more effectively than the Food Network whose programming seems tailored to arouse a salivatory response and a lascivious desire to eat.  Its veritable pantheon of celebrity chefs recognizes that the appeal to viewers (who obviously can’t smell or taste their creations) is in the way food looks on a plate–its colors, symmetry and design patterns.

Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

Perhaps the most visually appealing moment on any Food Network program occurred during a 2005 Iron Chef battle between challenger Michael Symon and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.  In one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, Morimoto created a complex sushi roll resembling an ornate stained glass window that incorporated asparagus, the secret ingredient for the evening.

The roll was so geometric, so visually stunning and beautiful that rather than wanting to attack it lustily, the judges remained agape at its beauty.  Judge Alex Guarnaschelli commented, “that stained glass window could have been a family crest from somewhere in the 14th Century in Japan.  Like, “this is my stamp, this is who I am.”  Morimoto managed to transcend food porn and elevate an item of beautiful food back to the realm of edible art.

Many Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, have a different attitude toward food than what Madison Avenue tries to convey.  It’s an attitude of appreciation for meals prepared with care, presented beautifully and consumed in moderate portions.  Contrast that with what has become an American obsession for food meant to appear almost sexy on the plate served in profligate portions.

Miso soup and salad

Miso soup and salad

In Asian restaurants, plating–the presentation of beautifully arranged food–tends to be an art form with plates of various shapes, finishes and colors the canvas on which the edible art is presented.  Food also tends to be more “three-dimensional” in that the shape and cut of ingredients and the way they are arranged on a plate is synergistic and symmetrical, not necessarily and completely uniform, but esthetic.

Reviewing the menu at Sakura Sushi & Grill in Albuquerque’s Riverside Plaza on the West side, you’ll certainly get the sense that the restaurant has an appreciation for the art form of plating food on the plate.  The menu includes color pictures of every menu item in its appetizer, fresh roll, tempura roll and baked roll sections and select items on the entree, fried rice, noodle, Korean dinner, lunch special and dessert sections.

The pictures depict food that is beautiful with colors that jump out at you with their vibrancy and which seem to hint strongly at freshness of ingredients.  The pictures show artful arrangements which suggest great care in the precise and deliberate placement of ingredients on the plate. Whether food porn or edible art, I suppose, is contingent on how hungry you are when ogling that menu.

Unaki

Unaki

Sakura Sushi & Grill opened in the summer of 2009, but despite the name, it is not related to Sakura Sushi on Wyoming.  The latter has a menu featuring sushi as well as Thai and Laotian entrees while the former focuses primarily on Japanese (mostly sushi) and Korean food.  Sakura is a Japanese word meaning “cherry blossoms” which are very important to Japanese culture.  The name Sakura is also apparently a very popular name for girls in anime, an abbreviation of Japanese animation.

Situated off Coors Boulevard on Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side, Sakura Sushi & Grill joins Ichiban and Sushi King as reasons West-siders no longer have to cross the Rio Grande to find good sushi.  It was recommended to me by Barbara Trembath, one of my personal E.F. Huttons (when she speaks, I listen) when it comes to great food in Albuquerque, Boston and San Francisco.  Barbara raves about the freshness of Sakura’s sushi and sashimi and the chef’s prowess in selecting great fish.

Sakura’s storefront is unremarkable, just one of many nondescript shops ensconced in the sprawling Riverside Plaza, a vast assemblage of professional offices, boutique shops and restaurants.  Step into the restaurant, however, and the restaurant is anything but plain.  Its cynosure is the sushi bar backdropped by a vibrant red wall festooned by framed art.  A small pergola sans climbing plants provides yet another visually appealing point of focus while you dine.

Bulgogi

Bulgogi

The menu is segmented into several sections with glossy photographs of entrees and appetizers accompanied by vivid descriptions detailing the ingredients of each.  Some entrees, such as the Korean dinners, are served with steamed rice, miso soup and salad while others,such as the Noodle dishes are served sans rice (most restaurants will not serve two starches together).  The “Entrees” section of the menu features several Teriyaki dishes (salmon, chicken, shrimp, beef, seafood and vegetable) as well as traditional Japanese dishes such as pork katsu and grilled unagi.

Four fried rice dishes–beef, shrimp, chicken and vegetable–are available as main entrees.  One entire page on the menu is dedicated to sushi and sashimi dinners as well as donburi dishes which might best be described as sushi in a bowl.  Three sizes of “love boats” are available in which sushi and sashimi are decorative shipmates on a unique boat-like serving vessel.  Lower priced lunch specials take up an entire page on the menu.

Sushi occupies the largest part of the menu and Sakura offers it in various forms: baked rolls, vegetable rolls, house rolls, tempura rolls and fresh rolls.  An entire page lists Sakura’s salads, only one of which is of the boring garden variety.  These salads showcase fresh fish: tuna tataki, spicy tuna, salmon, sashimi, albacore and seafood.  The appetizers are inventive sights to behold.

The Heart Attack: Deep-fried spicy tuna, cream cheese in a jalapeno with masago and house sauce

The Heart Attack: Deep-fried spicy tuna, cream cheese in a jalapeno with masago and house sauce

Sakura’s miso soup is fairly standard, at least in the the way in which it is prepared in Japanese restaurants throughout America.  Tragically that means miso soup has become the bouillon cube of Asian soups, made by dissolving miso paste into a stock (usually vegetable).  Very few restaurants actually use the traditional Japanese dashi stock.  Served steaming hot, it is nonetheless a comforting soup that diners have come to expect with sushi.

The salad is fairly nondescript–a brimming bowlful of iceberg lettuce with a parsimonious sprinkling of a peanut and ginger based salad dressing.  It’s served cold and is good, but hardly memorable.  If you want salad, go for one of the seafood salads; those you’ll remember.

While such de rigueur appetizers as edamame (fresh green baby soybeans in a pod) are available on the menu, it’s intriguingly named starters such as the “Heart Attack” which savvy diners will order, particularly if you appreciate a little piquancy with your meals.  The Heart Attack starts off with a large jalapeno, the cavity of which is stuffed with cream cheese and spicy tuna, all of which are deep-fried then topped with masago (small orange fish eggs) and a spicy house roll.  This is a terrific way to start a meal at Sakura.  It’s not so piquant that you’ll need a fire-extinguisher for your mouth, but it will get your attention.

The Spicy Tempura Tuna Roll (Spicy tuna sheathed in tempura with eel sauce, spicy mayo and smelt egg)

The Spicy Tempura Tuna Roll (Spicy tuna sheathed in tempura with eel sauce, spicy mayo and smelt egg)

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 many Americans aren’t adept enough at chopsticks to consume it quickly.

Sakura’s donburi entrees exemplify Japanese plating in its most artistic form.  Steamed rice at the bottom of the bowl form a bed upon which other ingredients are decoratively laid.  Unagi (Japanese freshwater eels) is a delicious option.  unagi 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.  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.

In addition to being very good for you, it is very good to eat, perhaps in large part due to the “unagi sauce” generously applied.  Real unagi sauce is made from a reduction of eel bone broth, soy sauce, rice wine and sugar, imparting sweet qualities which complement the eel very well.  The texture of unagi is much like that of any soft fish and like fresh fish, it does not have a “fishy” taste, especially when unagi sauce is slathered on.

Sashimi Dinner: White Tuna, Red Snapper, Tuna and Salmon

Sashimi Dinner: White Tuna, Red Snapper, Tuna and Salmon

Korean food aficionados will be thrilled to find many of the familiar Korean standards: bulgogi, bulkalbi and bimimbap, for example.  Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea sometimes referred to as Korean barbecue, is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.

My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik, a far better cook than many working in the trade, usually orders bulgogi if for no other reason to compare it to the bulgogi he makes at home.  Invariably, restaurant served bulgogi falls short of his rendition.  That was the case at Sakura because the meat was not as tender as the choice meat he uses.  Indeed, the meat did have more sinew than great bulgogi should have.

The 911 Roll: Spicy tuna roll with avocado on top, chili oil, red pepper and sweet dressing

Sushi is the name on the marquee and what Barbara had assured me was of incomparable freshness.  Not only is it as fresh as you can get it in landlocked Albuquerque, it is plated magnificently–far better than my pedestrian camera skills can depict.  As is the case with many diners (and a common way to order in Chinese restaurants of old) we opted for one from column A, one from column B and one from column C.  In this case, one tempura roll, one baked roll and one fresh roll.

The tempura roll was a spicy tuna tempura roll with spicy tuna inside then deep-fried in a tempura batter and topped with eel (unagi) sauce, spicy mayo and smelt eggs.  The plating is somewhat like a kaleidoscope, a cacophony of vibrant colors in a beautiful design on a triangle shaped plate.  Fortunately it’s not too good to eat, because this is a very good maki (rolled) roll.  As we were to discover with other rolls, the vinegared rice is perfectly formed and prepared (not necessarily an easy thing to do). The spicy tuna lives up to its name with enough piquancy to get your attention even without help from the wasabi and spicy mayo.

By virtue of its name, you might also expect the 911 roll to require a mouth lined with asbestos just to eat.  Then there’s the ingredients with which it’s constructed–spicy tuna with avocado on top, chili oil, red pepper and sweet dressing.  That’s akin to pouring gasoline on a fire.  It’s been my experience that with few exceptions, sushi rolls usually don’t achieve the descriptive level of heat touted on the menu without generous wasabi baths and that’s the case with the 911 roll.  Instead, focus on the complementary melding of flavors, just how well they all go together.  This is a delicious roll.

The Volcano Roll: Krab and cucumber inside baked salmon; spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce

The Volcano Roll: Krab and cucumber inside baked salmon; spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce

The Volcano roll also hints at fiery qualities:krab, cucumber and baked salmon inside, spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce.  The Volcano roll comes from the “baked sushi” section of the menu.  It arrives on your table inside a foil wrapping and warm to the tongue.  One of the dictates of sushi protocol is to get it all in with one bite, slowly savoring the concordance of ingredients.  The sheer size of the Volcano roll makes this a tough proposition.  It is an enormous roll, cut thick and brimming with ingredients.  Fortunately it’s also brimming with flavor.

Freshness isn’t exclusive to the sushi rolls.  Sashimi dinners, which come in three price points, showcase fresh fish.  The least expensive sashimi dinner features white tuna, red tuna, red snapper and salmon, all of which have the hue and aroma of healthy freshness.  There’s a lot of purity in sashimi where there’s nothing else between you and the fish, but wasabi and soy sauce should you choose to use it.

Sakura subscribes to a time-honored post-meal tradition by providing all guests a non-alcoholic digestif in the form of a Korean tea.  The tea serves two purposes–to aid in digestion and as a palate cleanser.  It’s served at room temperature and includes ginger, cinnamon and sugar with the surprising addition of pinons floating atop the the liquid.  Aside from its healthful qualities, it’s a delicious way to end a meal.

Sakura Sushi & Grill
6241 Riverside Plaza Lane, NW Suite C-1

Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-2838
1st VISIT: 2 February 2010
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Unaki, Dessert Tea, Sashimi, Sushi

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