For generations, traditional New Mexican food as it had been served for generations by Hispanic families in Northern New Mexico was surprisingly rare in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Many restaurants throughout the state served “Mexican” style food similar to what our neighbors in Arizona and Texas offered. That meant insipid chile lacking the flavor and piquancy which has become a hallmark of New Mexican cuisine. Once restaurants such as Rancho de Chimayo began serving traditional New Mexican food, the genre immediately made tremendous inroads, quickly usurping the popularity of the interlopers.
Though tradition has certainly not gone by the wayside, New Mexican food has both grown and evolved over the years largely through the influence of “Santa Fe style” whose genesis may be rooted in the confluence of Pueblo adobe style and Spanish territorial architecture, but whose influences have branched to other aspects of the city’s laid-back culture of joie de vivre and self-expression. Mark Miller, the high priest of Southwestern cuisine and other inventive chefs recognized the potential for chile, the centerpiece of New Mexican cooking, to be used in ways heretofore unexplored. They have revolutionized the use of New Mexico’s official state “vegetable” and in the process expanded the diversity and popularity of New Mexican food.
As far as I know, there has been no popular backlash against the adulteration and metamorphosis of New Mexican cuisine. Nor have a phalanx of abuelitas steeped in the traditional ways protested vehemently against perceived injustices done to New Mexican food. New Mexicans, renown for our “live and let live” attitude, have acceded to the new genre with the recognition that traditional New Mexican food continues to exist and thrive on its own. We recognize that there’s a place for the traditional and the unorthodox. Credit it to our characteristic tolerance and laissez faire, but don’t underestimate our pride in tradition.
When it comes to pride and haughtiness in culinary traditions, the Japanese may be unrivaled. They do not take lightly the effrontery being heaped upon their culinary culture and traditions. The Japanese consider their cuisine a time-honored and highly-developed art involving all the senses–from the aesthetic to the olfactory. Their passion for authenticity is reflected in the use of timeless ingredients prepared by chefs who undergo rigorous training regimens. To see Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai restaurants offer “Japanese” cuisine or to see supermarkets proffer inferior sushi is an insult to this prideful culture.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, there are more than 24,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan and they account for $22 billion in revenue a year. The number of Japanese restaurants in the United States alone doubled in the decade of the nineties to more than 9,000 with no surcease to their popularity. Unfortunately, the global demand for highly trained Japanese chefs can’t be met by the tiny nation. That accounts, in part, for cooks from other Asian nations being brought in to prepare “Japanese” food. Heck, in an episode of “No Reservations,” host Tony Bourdain profiled a Mexican sushi chef in Laredo, Texas.
The use of chefs who are not properly trained and steeped in the culture behind the cuisine has rankled the ire of Japanese chefs, prompting the creation of advocacy groups, even within the United States, aimed at protecting their highly traditional and exquisitely artistic form of cooking. They’ve got their work cut out for them. Most people outside of Japan wouldn’t recognize traditional Japanese food, particularly sushi. In fact, much of what Americans consider traditional sushi, was actually developed because Americans were so wary of “raw” fish.
When we peruse a sushi menu offering California rolls, spider rolls, salmon sushi and rolls engorged with Philadelphia cream cheese, most of us don’t stop to consider whether or not they’re traditional (they’re not). We only know how much we appreciate the melding of flavors and the pleasure they bring. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. While purists may lament the burgeoning onslaught of Pan-Asian and fusion restaurants serving sushi, they can’t ignore the popularity and imagination which goes into the creation of the faux sushi enjoyed by so many.
The Japanese Kitchen, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable sushi restaurants, actually offers the very best of both worlds. In addition to offering Omakase prepared by Japanese trained sushi chefs, the Kitchen also serves the whimsical sushi Americans love so much. Omakase means the chef decides the menu and prepares it according to strict and elaborate rules, presenting a series of plates beginning with lighter far and proceeding to heavier, richer dishes. At the Japanese Kitchen, you can trust the chefs.
The Japanese Kitchen is actually comprised of two separate and distinct restaurants separated by the Park Square courtyard in Albuquerque’s uptown area. The main Japanese Kitchen restaurant is the elder sibling, a pioneer of Teppan grilling in Albuquerque, while the Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar, a free-standing restaurant opened in 2001. Owners Jeff and Keiko Bunts expanded the restaurant in 2006, adding a Robata Bar. Robata, which translates from Japanese as “fireside” honors yet another centuries-old form of Japanese cooking. Robata is served as small appetizers, allowing diners to pick and choose as many combinations as they wish.
For my gorgeous cousin Andrea, it’s all about sushi and the Japanese Kitchen is her choice. She’s such a sushi buff that at a recent family gathering, she referred to tortilla pinwheels as “New Mexican sushi.” She also chided me for the length of time elapsed since my last visit to her favorite sushi restaurant. Considering she’s the only other person in my family who will eat sushi (unless it’s called something else and looks and tastes like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks), her opinions carry a lot of weight with me…and she’s of the opinion that tradition is nice, but what matters most is how great the sushi tastes.
With a similar open-mindedness, our sushi order was almost entirely nontraditional–a succession of inventive rolls seemingly crafted as much for their pleasing aesthetic qualities, but for flavor profiles which cleverly meld ingredients for optimal deliciousness. The “Green Earth” maki roll, for example, is crafted with green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spinach and shrimp all wrapped in soy paper instead of nori (seaweed) or rice. The most unique aspect of this roll, however, was the green chile sauce pooled at the center of the plate. This is a roll designed not to be consumed with soy sauce and wasabi.
Also unique is a surprisingly delightful and wholly whimsical maki roll. It’s only fitting that it’s named “Baja California” because it was the original California roll that began the Americanization of sushi in the 1970s and which was instrumental in the growth of sushi’s popularity across the country. While the California rolls take on uniqueness was only slightly more than substituting avocado for toro (fatty tuna), the Baja California expands that permissiveness tenfold. The inside is fairly traditional–real crab leg, cucumber and avocado, but outside, the roll is topped with sliced mango, tuna, a shaved strawberry and mango sauce. In the middle of the plate is a sweet and sour sauce. Consider this a dessert sushi if you will, but don’t write it off until you try it. It’s surprisingly good.
There are two pieces of sushi which define most of my visits to sushi restaurants. One is the grilled unagi (eel), a nigiri style sushi, 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. Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night. After waddling out most sushi restaurants, intimacy is the last thing on our minds. The other is any roll in which green chile plays a part. It baffles me that sushi restaurants often use a green chile with a better roasted flavor than you’ll find at some New Mexican restaurants. That’s the case with “Jewel,” a maki roll with fried soft-shell crag, green chile tempura, avocado and cucumber on the inside and a creamy gren chile sauce on top.
Even better is the albacore green chile roll atop of which is delicately placed a small strip of roasted green chile. There’s something magical about the dual-heat combination of green chile and wasabi. The Japanese Kitchen’s rendition of the crunch roll is also quite good with its fried tempura batter sheath enveloping other ingredients. Perhaps no roll is more ideally suited for the wasabi and soy sauce mix than a crunch roll.
Perhaps figuring we had already thumbed our noses at tradition, we opted to end our meal with a wholly Americanized Japanese dessert–tempura ice cream, icy cold vanilla ice cream on the inside and a crispy tempura coating on the outside. Though a nice end to a great sushi meal, perhaps more fitting would have been green tea ice cream or even better, a plum sorbet (alas, not on the menu).
The Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar adheres to some timeless Japanese traditions while giving Americans the experience they crave. It’s one of Albuquerque’s most revered and esteemed purveyors of sushi and so much more.
Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar
6511 America’s Parkway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2011
# of VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Jewel, Green Earth, Baja California, Alcabore Tuna Green Chile, Crunch Roll, Unagi, Tempura Ice Cream