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Ichiban – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

In Japanese, the word “ichiban” means “number one” 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.

After several visits to Ichiban over the past few years, I’m not always inclined to agree that the “number one” designation is always earned–at least insofar as the Korean menu items are concerned!  The Korean entrees, including bulgogi and galbi would be much improved if Ichiban used better meat. There’s just something about gristly, sinewy beef and chicken 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” and regular and can be applied to either beef or chicken. Unfortunately, that wonderful marinade isn’t applied to better poultry or beef.

The Interior at Ichiban

The Interior at Ichiban

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 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).

Situated in the Corrales Shopping Center (Coors and Alameda, N.W.), Ichiban is owned by the good folks who own the A-1 Oriental Market. It opened in the fall of 2000 and has developed a loyal following on the city’s Northwest side, which has seen several other sushi restaurants open in the past few years.

Tempura battered green chile

Tempura battered green chile

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 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 delicious.

That deliciousness begins with Ichiban’s stand-out appetizers.  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.

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 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.

Miso soup at Ichiban

Miso soup at Ichiban

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.

A steaming bowl of miso soup is complementary.  It’s somewhat watery and could use both more miso paste and green onions.  Still, it will warm your tummy in anticipation of other specialties of the house.

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.

You definitely want your sensation of taste unscathed so you can enjoy Ichiban’s Super Crunchy Roll to its fullest.  This stand-out roll includes tempura fried shrimp, crab meat inside and shrimp avocado on top with a special spicy mayo sauce. It’s a Maki rolls for which wasabi is wholly unnecessary.

The "Oh My God" appetizer

The "Oh My God" appetizer

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.

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

Included in the boatload of sushi pictured above are Unagi, New Mexico Roll, Calamari Tempura Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Unagi Roll and a Super Crunchy Roll.  It’s good sushi served by a pleasant and accommodating wait staff in an elegant and expansive ambience featuring delicate paintings of Japanese scenes. There are many things to enjoy at Ichiban and many Albuquerque diners do indeed consider it their number one dining destination when they crave sushi.

Ichiban
10701 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
899-0095
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 16
RATING: 18
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Super Crunchy Roll, New Mexico Roll

Ichiban Japanese on Urbanspoon

Mardi Gras Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Over the centuries, Mardi Gras has evolved in America from a sedate French Catholic tradition to a hedonist’s holiday in which revelers indulge–and overindulge–the day before Ash Wednesday.  Every year Mardi Gras celebrations lure millions of rollickers and revelers to New Orleans where Mardi Gras is celebrated in grand scale.  Extravagant parades, masked balls, raucous convivality and copious consumption are hallmarks of the Crescent City event where shouts of “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the good times roll) resound from rooftops and alleyways.

Laissez les bon temps rouler is also now the resounding sentiment from Albuquerque’s South Valley where in February, 2009, a new Cajun restaurant opened for business.  Now Duke City diners can celebrate “Fat Tuesday” five days a week instead of once a year.  Appropriately, Albuquerque’s newest Cajun eating emporium is named the Mardi Gras Grill.

Situated on the southeast intersection of Avenida Caesar Chavez and Broadway, the Mardi Gras Grill is an example of a neighborhood revitalization and community development program that is working.  The South Broadway neighborhood was once among the city’s most undesirable with substance abuse and gang violence a thriving part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Proprietor Josh Salaz is proud of his neighborhood and invites all Duke City residents, but in particular Cajun country transplants, to visit his New Orleans inspired restaurant.  Josh’s father is originally from Algiers, Louisiana, a community within the city of New Orleans and home to a number of New Orleans Mardi Gras carnival krewes.  Mardi Gras and Cajun cooking are in Josh’s blood.  Better yet, his father’s family recipes are in his repertoire.

The Mardi Gras Grill is a relatively small–yet very cozy and inviting–restaurant with fewer than ten tables.  It is festooned in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power).  A soundtrack of festive New Orleans jazz plays continuously.

The restaurant reminded us instantly of some of the wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants we discovered during the eight years we lived outside of “The Big Easy.”  Sure New Orleans has some of the most highly regarded and popular restaurants in America, but save for special events, most “real people” eat in the small mom-and-pops.  The Mardi Gras Grill would fit right in with those.

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

The menu belies the restaurant’s cramped quarters.  In fact, it’s downright ambitious considering both the diminutiveness of the restaurant’s size and the greatness of distance to Bayou country.  Josh has crawfish flown in from New Orleans and after auditioning several distributors, has found one that keeps him well-stocked in more than passable shrimp and surprisingly good Andouille sausage.

The menu features only two appetizers, but one is a Cajun country standard–fried okra served with a zesty Remoulade sauce.   Also available are five po-boys, the traditional Louisiana submarine sandwich served on a baguette-like Louisiana French bread.  The po-boys are available dressed (generally lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with onion and pickles optional) or undressed.   Six seafood dishes grace the menu, too, as do two rice dishes and two burgers (including Josh’s Bayou Burger which is topped with sauteed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms with Swiss cheese and mayo).

The proof, as it’s been said, is in the pudding–or in the case of Cajun food, in the gumbo.  Josh’s rendition is made with chicken, shrimp and Andouille sausage served on top of a bed of white rice.  This gumbo passes muster!  Its thick, hearty broth has a smoky bouquet and a nice spice kick (not the piquancy of New Mexico green chile, but a respectable kick).  The roux (an amalgam of butter and flour cooked over low heat) is lighter than we’ve seen at other Cajun restaurants in New Mexico, an indication that it isn’t just this side of being burned.  It’s also subtle–solid and rich while allowing other ingredients to shine.  The Andouille sausage is very good–coarse grained the way it should be with a pronounced smokiness.

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

The roux in the crawfish and shrimp etouffee is also lighter (and not as orange-red) than we we’ve seen in New Mexico, but in line with some of our favorite New Orleans Cajun and Creole kitchens.  The Mardi Gras Grill’s etouffee, which means “smothered,” is made with a beautiful brownish sauce replete with red bell pepper, onion and celery (the “Trinity” of Creole cuisine) along with a dose of cayenne pepper for added piquancy.  The crawfish and shrimp are cooked to perfection and are as tender and flavorful as if these buttery crustaceans were caught from local waters.

A basketful of French bread accompanies the seafood dishes.  Its flaky crust and soft, airy center is the perfect canvas for butter or for sopping up any surplus sauces.  Not too dense and not too airy, it is as ideal for po-boys as it is as a side.  True to New Orleans style French bread, this one leaves copious crumbs on the table.

On Saturdays, in-season, the restaurant features a Louisiana style crawfish boil served with whole crawfish, smoked sausage, Cajun boiled corn on the cob and boiled Cajun potatoes.  Memories of ninety percent humidity, ninety degree heat days in the sun flooded back as the crawfish approached our table, its unmistakably familiar steamy aromas wafting toward us.

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boils are about peeling tails and sucking heads and you get to do a lot of that with the generous portion served at the Mardi Gras Grill.  The crawfish are meaty and succulent.  Served on newspaper, you’ll quickly dispatch of this seafood bounty.

During an upcoming trip back to Bayou country, Josh plans on locating a vendor who can supply him with the inimitable Italian bread on which New Orleans restaurateurs craft muffulettas.  The large, round and somewhat flat loaf about ten-inches across isn’t easy to duplicate, but Albuquerque is ready for an outstanding muffulettas and Josh may just be the man to provide it.  In fact, he may just be the guy to bring New Orleans back to Albuquerque–or at least a semblance of its kitchens.

Mardi Gras Grill
1402 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-4299
LATEST VISIT:  21 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crawfish Boil, Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffe, Gumbo

The Chili Stop Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Chili Stop Cafe on Albuquerque's West Side

The Chili Stop Cafe on Albuquerque's West Side

Over the years it’s been my experience that almost invariably, New Mexican restaurants which violate traditional New Mexican grammar don’t prepare the object of their grammatical faux pas very well.  The grammatical transgression of which I speak is forgetting the “i” before “e” rule and committing the piquant peccadillo of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable with two “i’s” and no “e’s.” It’s entirely forgivable that chile is technically a fruit, albeit one which packs an incendiary capsaicin punch, but like many New Mexicans, I feel personally insulted when presented with a menu offering “chili.”

That grammatical malapropism wasn’t lost on Calvin Trillin, a legendary American journalist and novelist known for his humorous writings about food and eating.   In an October, 2002 article on Gourmet magazine entitled “Bowlful of Dreams,” he described a visit to the New York City “New Mexican” restaurant Los Dos Molinos: “One of the places I’d heard about, Los Dos Molinos, seemed to have been designed for citizens who have gotten about ten years past spring break at Daytona Beach but had not lost their taste for specialties like a “Kick-Ass Pitcher” of Margaritas. Although the red and green chile served as a dip with the chips would have been perfectly recognizable to a New Mexico purist, he would have been put off by his first glance at the menu. Sopaipillas were listed under desserts.

In the most serious deviation from the gospel, the red and the green were identified on the menu as “chili”—a spelling that would make any New Mexican connoisseur shudder. Chili is what people in Texas and California eat at chili contests and, to the astonishment of people from Northern New Mexico, even in between chili contests—chopped meat and chili powder and maybe beans. It has no relation to a bowl of New Mexican red or green, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of a sauce or a soup or a stew, perhaps with a few pieces of meat in it, and is spelled “chile.”

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

When he launched the Chili Stop restaurant in June, 2008, Ron Chavez had absolutely no compunction about the spelling of his restaurant’s name. His brother, a retired teacher who made several trips to South America told him “chili is a vegetable and Chile is a country,” a contention backed up by several sources.  Perhaps Chavez and his brother had never read Trillin.

Though Chavez might not be able to win a spelling bee anywhere in northern New Mexico, his green chile was the very best in the Duke City area.  When simmering on the stove, its aroma was like an irresistible siren’s call or a life-altering religious experience, the effect of which was rendering native New Mexicans like me weak in the knees and light in the head.  Effusive salivating akin to Pavlov’s dogs and absolute olfactory arousal ensued the moment our nostrils caught a whiff of that chile.  No, my friends, this wasn’t “chili” as Trillin aptly described it.

Readers suffering from “advanced geriatric progression” like me might remember the Winston cigarettes slogan “what do you want good grammar or good taste.”   Chavez’s green chile was so good, it was easy to forgive and forget that atrocious spelling of “chili.”  It was so good, it was easy to forgive the occasional too well-done beef on a bowl of green chile or the charred edges on the burger patties.  What we wanted was good taste, not good grammar.

Green chile cheeseburger

Green chile cheeseburger

Alas, Chavez sold the Chili Stop five months after opening it.  Now called “The Chili Stop Cafe,” there are many indications this is not the same restaurant.  Most telling might be the “sub-title” on the signage which reads “Best Chile in the Westside.”  Better still, every entree on the menu on which it is used, spells it “chile.”  Still, as described above, spelling alone is not indicative of how good (or bad) the chile might be.

Also indicative that this is not the Chili Stop of old is a larger menu than that of its predecessor, a menu which includes daily specials.  The breakfast menu features burritos (including a veggie burrito) and egg breakfasts (including omelets).  The lunch menu includes burritos, enchiladas, burgers, tacos, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas and other items.  The restaurant now has a more artsy ambience and much more comfortable seating.  Cleanliness seems more prevalent and best of all, Chavez’s often confused and youthfully air-headed kitchen and wait staff has been replaced by more seasoned and attentive employees who actually care about their guests’ dining experiences.

Conspicuous during my inaugural visit in March, 2009 was the seductive siren smell of green chile, but that’s a rarity in many New Mexican restaurants anyway.  The specialty of the house, I was told, is the green chile cheeseburger.  It was great to hear some things haven’t changed.

The green chile cheeseburger at The Chili Stop Cafe

The green chile cheeseburger at The Chili Stop Cafe

The salsa is of mild piquancy–garlic, jalapeno, onion–and is fairly thick so it doesn’t run off the chips, which are served warm in a basket.  The chips are also low in salt and have the fortitude to scoop up Gil-sized amounts of salsa.

Burger options no longer start and end with the ubiquitous New Mexico favorite, the green chile cheeseburger.  You can now have a barbecue bacon burger, mushroom Swiss burger, tortilla burger (with chile and cheese), chicken tortilla burger or you can have your burger open-faced.

The green chile cheeseburger is made with hand-formed, well-seasoned beef patties.  Served on a sesame seed bun about five-inches in circumference, the beef is draped by well-melted cheese (which also covers the green chile).  White onion, tomato, lettuce and pickle are available on the plate while mustard and ketchup can be found on each table.  The green chile has neither the bite nor the flavor of the old Chili Stop burger, but this burger isn’t solely about chile.  This burger is most definitely about the beef which is  prepared to slightly more than medium doneness.  As a supporting character, the green chile imparts a nice flavor that doesn’t overwhelm everything else on the burger.  That’s a good thing.

The Chili Stop Cafe has established a loyal following among west-siders and has even won over some of the die-hard green chile addicts who, like me, thought they had found green chile Nirvana at the old Chili Stop.  After one visit, I’m not ready to proclaim the Chili Stop Cafe equal to or in the same league as its predecessor, but it definitely warrants repeat visits.

The Chili Stop Cafe
3600 Highway 528
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 12 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
BEST BET: Green chile cheeseburger, chips and salsa

The Chili Stop Cafe on Urbanspoon