“I don’t eat anything that a dog won’t eat. Like sushi. Ever see a dog eat sushi? He just sniffs it and says, “I don’t think so.” And this is an animal that licks between its legs and sniffs fire hydrants.”.“
- Billiam Coronel
Sushi has come a long way in America. There was a time–and not very long ago–that many Americans would have agreed with comedian Billiam Coronel’s assessment of sushi. Fellow funny-man George Carlin certainly did: “I never eat sushi. I have trouble eating things that are merely unconscious.”
The attitudinal shift that has made sushi an explosive American phenomenon was at its peak in the ten-year period beginning in 1998. Ten years later, there were five times as many sushi bars in the fruited plain and there appears to be no surcease to the popularity of what so many people poo-pooed as just “raw fish” just a few years ago. Sushi has become so popular, so trendy that Food and Wine wrote in 1995 that “America is becoming a nation of sushi connoisseurs.”
There are over 330 sushi restaurants in greater Los Angeles, about 335 in New York City and nearly 300 in Dallas. There are at least thirty restaurants in Albuquerque which serve sushi. It’s served in Thai, Vietnamese and fusion restaurants and it’s served in just about every part of the city. The burgeoning popularity of sushi in the Duke City almost seems correlative to the explosive growth the city has experienced in the last decade or so.
In Albuquerque as in other cities throughout America, avant-garde chefs are bending tradition daily, taking liberties with time-honored techniques and especially in the use of creative ingredients. Traditionalists might call it heretical, but Americans call it pretty darned good. You probably won’t find a sushi restaurant in New Mexico that doesn’t offer its own succulent variation on a green chile sushi roll.
As in every city, the distinction of being the best sushi restaurant in the Duke City is in dispute with ardent supporters for several local purveyors weighing in. Ryan Scott, a faithful reader of this blog who has pointed me in the direction of several great restaurants, has eaten sushi “everywhere in town” and contends that Sushiya is not only “the best” sushi restaurant, but the “best new restaurant in Albuquerque in 2009.” That’s the kind of endorsement and passion that motivates me to bump other restaurants on my list.
Sushiya is located in a Far Northeast Heights strip mall with Albertson’s as its anchor tenant. It’s ensconced in the strip mall’s southeast corner and has prominent red signage on two walls so you won’t miss it. Previous tenants at this location include Porky’s Pride BBQ.
The restaurant’s signage is subtitled “Asian Fusion Cuisine” which denotes the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre. True fusion cuisine transcends both historical and geographical boundaries to create unique hybrids. Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular.
Sushiya’s menu is replete with items that don’t appear to fit the traditional definition of fusion cuisine. The menu features Japanese items and Chinese items, but not in combination with one another (or at least no hybrids I could discern). In this sense, you could consider The Range Cafe a fusion restaurant because it serves American food and New Mexican food—not necessarily in hybrid combinations, but both occupying space on the menu.
Semantics not withstanding, Sushiya does have an intriguing menu, one that will draw aficionados of both Japanese and Chinese cuisine. The proprietors are from Taiwan, an island nation occupied by Japanese during World War II. A notable Japanese influence exists in Taiwan’s cuisine because Taiwan was under Japanese rule for several years, so good sushi is definitely not out of the question.
The lunch menu features several bento box meals, a traditional Japanese packed meal served in sometimes elaborate boxes with internal dividers in which different foods are esthetically presented. Japanese and Chinese appetizers include edamame (steamed and lightly salted soybeans) which are commonplace in sushi restaurants and other items which are not. In addition to the seemingly de rigueur miso soup also commonplace in sushi restaurants, Sushiya also offers hot and sour soup and egg drop soup.
The rice and noodles section of the menu features fried rice as well as yaki soba and yaki udon, both stir-fried Japanese soba noodle dishes that provide a nice alternative to rice (especially if you prefer all your rice on sushi rolls). Main entrees are categorized as “from the land” and “from the sea.” A nice selection of veggies and sides features three different tofu items as well as other interesting options, some of which you probably won’t see in other Japanese or Chinese restaurants.
The sushi menu lists several salads, most incorporating seafood elements. Sushi and sashimi are definitely showcased, both in signature items (all priced higher than ten dollars) and in even more expensive chef’s entrees. Sushi is available in conventional maki and tempura rolls as well as nigiri (a piece of raw fish (or other topping) on top of a small oblong brick of sticky white rice).
Having an option other than miso soup is a surprisingly welcome departure from the more traditional sushi experience that seems inextricable tied to the smooth, but unexciting miso soup. Sushiya’s hot and sour soup is as exciting as miso soup leans toward being humdrum. It’s spicy (pepper hot, but not piquant) and sour (like a diluted vinegar), but not excessively so and it’s absolutely delicious, among the very best of its ilk in the Duke City. The “hot” could also apply to the soup’s temperature which, thankfully, is not served lukewarm as too many Chinese restaurants tend to serve it. The egg drop soup, as with most of its kind, needs a generous spraying of pepper to prevent it from being too bland.
An appetizer special called monkey balls (which has nothing to do with simian’s reproductive organs) is always intriguing and though we’ve never been besotted by this appetizer, we continue to order it (perhaps in hope that it will be as delicious as its name is interesting). Sushiya’s rendition is about as good as we’ve had it at other restaurants which is to say good, but not great. Interestingly, the monkey balls have been different at every restaurant in which we’ve ordered them.
At Sushiya, Monkey balls are mushroom caps stuffed with spicy tuna and drizzled with a spicy Japanese mayonnaise. Bite into them and you’ll luxuriate in the moist, woodsy flavor of mushrooms complemented by a rich, spicy tuna. Six monkey balls per order means you can share these treats with someone you love. What could have made these better, despite the spicy tuna, is more piquancy. These had the bite of a toothless dog.
The sushi menu is replete with cleverly named, inviting delicacies with a nice selection of both raw and cooked sushi. On the signature items section of the menu, you’ll find such intriguing sushi sobriquets as Buddha Belly, Yankee, Fantasy and Crunchy. The Crunchy lives up to its name. It’s shrimp, crab and avocado coated in a tempura batter and deep-fried. The exterior is crispy thanks to a tempura that is lacy and delicate. The interior is moist and delicious. It’s a balanced maki roll any aficionado of tempura and sushi should enjoy.
Because we didn’t see a spicy tuna hand roll on the menu, the next best thing we found was an energy roll, a tempura based roll featuring spicy tuna. Unfortunately the spicy tuna was hardly incendiary and would barely have registed on the Scoville Scale. That served to showcase the native flavors of tuna, my favorite fish after having lived off it for two years in Massachusetts. The wasabi was fairly anemic, too, so it did little to spice up the spicy tuna.
Our inaugural visit was a true tempura triumvirate experience. The green chili tempura roll showcases the roasted flavor of New Mexico green chile, but lacks the piquancy this native enjoys. As with green chile rolls at many sushi restaurants, I did marvel at how the roasted flavor shines. Perhaps those secrets can be shared with some New Mexican restaurants who haven’t mastered that skill.
For me, it wouldn’t be a visit to a sushi restaurant without sampling unagi, a nigiri roll. 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. It’s all about the flavor for me. Unagi is delicate and slightly sweet, not like barbecue but with the same properties.
If there’s anything that can pry me away from sushi, it’s something I’ve never had and the menu purported to offer that. Described as “an authentic thousand-year old recipe sauteed in a sweet-savory sauce plated with tempura vegetables” is an entree called Goo Loo on the “From the Land” section of the menu. Goo loo can be prepared with chicken, pork and beef. Alas, it’s very much like the candied, sweet meats about which I rail often on this blog. Put a few sesame seeds on it and you could have called it sesame chicken or sesame beef, depending on how you ordered it. It was so cloying we had to temper it with a little soy sauce, not what a “thousand year old recipe should need.”
Sushiya is a welcome addition to the Duke City’s Japanese restaurant scene and one of the best indications in the city that sushi is here to stay.
Sushiya Asian Fusion Cuisine
2906 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Unami, Crunchy Roll, Green Chili Roll