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Ichiban – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

Ichi Ban Japanese Restaurant

In an episode of Friends, Joey Tribbiani starred in a commercial released only in Japan for Ichiban men’s lipstic.   His friend Chandler’s response upon viewing the commercial: “he really is a chameleon.”  In Japanese, the word “ichiban” means “number one”  or “the best” 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.

The Interior at Ichiban

The Interior at Ichiban

After several visits to Ichiban over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that the “number one” designation is a misnomer and in fact, it’s been our experience that Ichiban Japanese Restaurant has suffered a steady decline in quality over the years.  Ichiban has become a chameleon: a very pleasant and attractive milieu belying culinary inconsistency–sometimes very good; more often than not, mediocre–proving you can’t judge restaurant quality solely by appearance.

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 to 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).

Miso Soup and Salad

Situated in the Corrales Shopping Center (Coors and Alameda, N.W.), Ichiban’s founding owners also owned the A-1 Oriental Market on Wyoming. Ichiban opened in the fall of 2000 and quickly developed a loyal following on the city’s Northwest side, which has seen several other sushi restaurants open and close in the past few years.

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 of 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 ostensibly, delicious. 

Green Chile Tempura with Dipping Sauce

A steaming bowl of miso soup is complementary.  As with other items on the issue, the miso soup suffers from consistency issues.  At times, it’s somewhat watery and could use both more miso paste and green onions.  At other times, it’s among the very best miso soup in the city.  Still, it will warm your tummy in anticipation of other specialties of the house.  Also served with dinner entrees is a simple salad of fresh lettuce with a modicum of julienne vegetables served with a vinegar-ginger dressing.

Ichiban’s appetizers range from very good to uninspired (despite intriguing menu descriptions).  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.

The "Oh My God" appetizer

The “Oh My God” appetizer

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 are 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.

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.  In recent months it’s become somewhat vogue to use similarly battered chiles on green chile cheeseburgers instead of the more conventional roasted and chopped green chile.  Ichiban’s green chile tempura would be a nice addition to any green chile cheeseburger.

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

A boatload of sushi from Ichiban

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…and in fact, real wasabi is more herbal and earthy than what American sushi restaurants serve.  Typically that’s a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring.

For years, the main reason we wanted our sensation of taste unscathed was so we could enjoy Ichiban’s Super Crunchy Roll to its fullest.  This stand-out roll included (past tense) tempura fried shrimp, crab stick, shrimp, avocado and three types of sauces.  During our visit in September, 2014, there was nothing crunchy in the Super Crunch roll.   With three types of sauces, perhaps it should be renamed “Super Sauce Roll” would be more appropriate.

Super Crunch Roll

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.

Pork Bulgogi

Our biggest source of dissatisfaction with Ichiban has been the Korean entrees.  Korean entrees in a Japanese restaurant, you ask.  For some reason, the Duke City has very few purely sushi restaurants.  Most restaurants offering sushi also seem to feature some other Asian fare, Korean being among the most common.  Ichiban offers some of the more popular entrees among American diners: bulgogi, garbi (SIC) and bibim bob (SIC).

The Korean entrees, including bulgogi and garbi, would be much improved if Ichiban used better meat. There’s just something about gristly, sinewy beef and pork 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” (with pork) and regular (with beef).  Additionally, the “spicy” marinade is rather insipid, lacking personality and the quality of deliciousness.

Dolsot Bibim Bob (SIC)

Though the Air Force never sent me to Korea, many of my friends were married to Korean women who introduced me to the culinary fare of the “Land of the Morning Calm.”  It was only natural that one of my very favorite entrees would become the dolsot bibimbap (spelled Dolsot Bibim Bob on the Ichiban menu), a sort of “everything but the kitchen sink” assemblage of ingredients (often left-overs): rice, beef, vegetables, egg and a delicious Korean chili paste called Gochujang.  Served in a hot stone pot (called a Dolsot) that makes the rice crunchy and keeps the meal hot (steam wafts upward throughout your meal), it’s a magnificent meal–when prepared well. 

Alas, Ichiban’s rendition is the most substandard dolsot bibimbap I’ve ever had–by far.  The cavalcade of mediocrity included an egg cooked to the level of hard-boiled which changes the texture and flavor of the dish.  Ideally, the egg should be sunny-side-up so you could stir in liquid yolk into the other ingredients.  Those other ingredients included julienne carrots, bean sprouts and beef.  There was no evidence of Gochujang on the bibimbap though we were given a hot sauce in a plastic bottle.  There are more belittling things I could say about this dish, but you get the picture.

Some Albuquerque diners may indeed consider Ichiban their number one dining destination when they crave sushi, but our most recent experiences have been such that won’t return any time soon.

Ichiban
10701 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 899-0095
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 16
RATING: 13
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Miso Soup

Ichiban Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Mine Shaft Tavern – Madrid, New Mexico

The Mine Shaft Tavern is a very popular eatery and watering hole on the Turquoise Trail

The Mine Shaft Tavern, home to one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico

“You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t you call me cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store
.”

Those immortal lyrics, hauntingly performed by crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford describe with a poignant reality, the plight of the American miner even onto the 20th century.  By payday, which came at month’s end, miners did indeed owe their souls to the company–for the company house in which they were living, for groceries to feed their families, for doctor bills and even for the tools they used to mine.

They were paid in scrip which could only be spent at the company store, leaving them no choice but to buy from the companies. Despicably, this allowed the company to gouge the miners with vastly over-inflated prices, leaving miners with families inextricably in debt to the company.  When they got paid at month’s end, any money left after settling their debts to the company was insufficient to last through the following month. This vicious cycle was perpetuated the following month when miners again had to pay the company first and were lucky to have anything left for their families.

The capacious Mine Shaft Tavern Dining Room

Although many miners of the age toiled under hazardous working conditions and in virtual indentured servitude  while despotic mine owners and managers benefited from their labors, Madrid’s superintendent of mines Oscar Huber was a unique sort.  Under his direction, the citizenry of Madrid enjoyed unlimited electricity in their homes courtesy of the company-owned power plant, paved streets, schools, a company store and even a hospital.  Commerce was still controlled by the company, however, so miners wages ultimately returned back to the owners’ pockets. 

When given the opportunity, the miners played as hard as they worked. In 1922, Huber built the first illuminated baseball park (still in use today) west of the Mississippi.  The stadium served as home to the Madrid Miners, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers who played a game in the park in 1934.  Madrid was also home to one of the most elaborate and famous Christmas light displays in America.  From the 1920s through the advent of World War II, Madrid miners lit up the sky with 150,000 Christmas lights powered by 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity provided by the company’s coal-fed generators.   Commercial planes used to divert from their normal routes in order to fly over Madrid so passengers could enjoy the pageantry.

The famous bar at the Mine Shaft Tavern

The last “company town” building erected in Madrid was the Mine Shaft Tavern whose doors opened in 1946. Within the tavern only those familiar with the difficult mining conditions pause to reflect on that heart-wrenching aspect of Madrid’s colorful history. Other patrons are there to have a good time thanks to tavern quality food and libations which flow freely.

The Mine Shaft Tavern is especially popular with old hippies and Harley Davidson enthusiasts whose “hogs” take up many of the parking spaces. The bikers congregate on the porch where they have an excellent vantage point from which to admire their bikes and those of their fellow easy riders. The tavern’s dimly lit interior appears relatively unchanged since the 1940s with canned lights that are indeed made from tin cans. Above the longest stand-up bar in New Mexico, a series of paintings by renown artist Ross J. Ward depicts Madrid’s colorful history.

A better view of some of the paintings just above the bar

From a culinary perspective only, our inaugural visit to the Mine Shift Tavern back in 2005 was a disappointment.  The menu was rather lackluster and the quality of fare was pedestrian.  It might best be described as “company store quality.”   Marked improvement was evident during my second visit in 2011 when I dined at the Mine Shaft Tavern for a “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” article in New Mexico Magazine.  What a difference a change of ownership can make!  In 2009, Lori Lindsey purchased the Mine Shift Tavern and has made it not only “Madrid’s living room,” but one of its best dining rooms.

The menu features “New Mexico Roadhouse Cuisine” showcasing a number of specialty burgers, grilled pizza and specials such as enchiladas, fish and chips and a smoked barbecue sandwich.  Dinner specials are available from Thursday through Sunday after 5PM.  They include a Wagyu “Baseball Cut” Sirloin, Shrimp Brochette and Wild Mushroom Pasta.  If it’s been a while since your last visit to the Mine Shaft Tavern, you might be surprised at how much more varied and inviting the menu now is.  The kitchen’s “mission statement says it best: We take pride in making food from scratch using quality and organic ingredients whenever possible.  Our famous burgers and “Kobe” comes right off the Turquoise Trail, from Bonanza Creek Ranch and Lone Mountain Ranch.”

The Mine Shaft Tavern Stage

With a New Mexican beef pedigree like that, you’ve got to order one of the Tavern’s six specialty burgers which are available from your choice of half-pound Angus, New Mexico Wagyu, Buffalo or Veggie.  The newest specialty burger was created in 2014 for the second annual green chile cheeseburger smackdown in Santa Fe.  It’s called the “Mad Chile Burger” for good reason–because most New Mexicans are absolutely mad about green chile.  The more, the better!  If this describes you, you’ll love the duo of roasted green chile and lightly battered and fried green chile strips.  The Mad Chile Burger also includes a half-pound black Angus Chuck, aged Cheddar and Chipotle Dijonaisse on a Brioche Bun with garnish (pickles, tomatoes, lettuce) on the side.

When I ordered the Mad Chile Burger, my server (who also happens to be owner Lori Lindsey’s niece) was very prophetic in telling me it would be the winning green chile cheeseburger in the Smackdown two days later.  I was skeptical until my second bite when the Chipotle Dijonaisse kicked it.  With the heat-generating triumvirate of roasted and chopped green chile, battered and fried green chile and Chipotle Dijonaisse, this burger blesses you with three times the love and three times the flavor you get from most green chile cheeseburgers.  The battered and fried green chile strips, similar to a chile relleno without the cheese, are especially addictive.  The Chipotle Dijonaisse has the tanginess of mustard with the piquant kick of chipotle, a combination which renders mustard unnecessary.  In fact, to add anything else to this burger would be to desecrate it.  It is simply one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico.  Smackdown attendees obviously agreed, according the Mad Chile Burger the “people’s choice” award for 2014.

The Mad Chile Burger with black and tan onion rings

All burgers are served with your choice of fresh cut French fries or coleslaw.  For a pittance more, you can substitute a salad, sweet potato fries or black and tan onion rings.  Better still, order an appetizer-sized Hatch green chile basket, the same fried, fire-roasted Hatch green chiles found on the Mad Chile Burger.  Served with Ranch dressing, these green chiles will give you yet another reason to be mad about green chile.

Fittingly, the Mine Shaft Tavern is on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and was also recognized by the New Mexico Tourism Department as a Culinary Treasure.

The Mine Shaft Tavern
2846 State Highway 14
Madrid, New Mexico
(505) 473-0743
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 September 2014
1st VISIT: 30 May 2005
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Mad Chile Burger, Black and Tan Onion Rings

The Mine Shaft Tavern on Urbanspoon

Chicharroneria Orozco – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chicharroneria Orozco on Bridge Boulevard

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
~Hotel California – The Eagles

Among the many alluring olfactory temptations emanating from dilapidated and timeworn food stalls and colorful restaurant storefronts throughout Mexico is the warm smell of colitas.  They beckon passers-by to experience the aromas, sights, sounds and flavors of one of the Land of Montezuma’s most intriguing and unique dishes, one which will require timorous diners to renounce the heinous malefaction of consuming artery-clogging and fatty foods.  For many Americans, colitas have a major “ick” factor so they stick with the “safe” foods: tacos, tortas, tostadas and tamales (the “T” food group)…and wisely, they don’t drink the water.

To intrepid gastronomes intimate with Mexican food, “the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air” has a different meaning than the colitas about which The Eagles sang. Though often interpreted as sexual slang (colitas translates to “little tails”) or a reference to marijuana (cannabis buds), band member Don Felder once explained the  colitas referenced in the song are “a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell.”

Pork by the pound is the specialty here

The carnitas which delight diners throughout Mexico are indeed “little tails.”  More precisely, they’re turkey tails (colitas de pavo), they’re a delicacy and you’ll never convince aficionados of these crunchy, fatty, meaty treats that the immortal Eagles lyrics weren’t written about them.  Their first and most logical argument, of course, is the warm smell rising up through the air.  It’s a smell you can find in the Duke City only at Chicharroneria Orozco just north and west of the Barelas neighborhood. 

Though only a few blocks south of downtown, the area just over the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande on Bridge Boulevard may remind you of crossing into Juarez.  The flesh-rending razor wire fence atop the walls and roofs of nearby businesses will certainly tell you this isn’t the kinder, gentler side of Albuquerque.  Don’t let that scare you.  Most of the visitors to Chicharroneria Orozco are young immigrant families jonesing (or would that be martinezing) for a taste of home.

Celebrating the charro

There’s a lot to see, hear and smell when you step into the restaurant.  The cynosure is most definitely an island of deliciousness–a glass case displaying fried goodness in all shapes and sizes.  Save for the colitas de pavo and higado ensebollado (beef liver and onions), featured fare is of the porcine variety: tripitas (intestines), buche (stomach), carnitas, carne al pastor and costillas de puerco (pork ribs).  For an insanely low price, one pound of the meat of your choice includes a stack of fresh, steaming corn tortillas and a bowl brimming with chopped cilantro, onions and limes.

On one corner of the restaurant is a celebration of the charro, the Mexican horseman of legend and lore.  Atop stacked hay bales is a colorful Mexican blanket, a saddle and a lariat.  The walls immediately behind the hay bale “horse” include other accoutrements of the charro.  An adjacent dining room includes an automated teller machine (ATM) so you can settle your bill of fare.  Take a gander at the refrigerator in which a number of Mexican and American beverages brewed in Mexico (you haven’t lived until you’ve had a Cherry Pepsi bottled in Mexico and made with pure cane sugar) are available.

Salsa and Chips

As you await delivery of your meal, chips and salsa are delivered to your table.  The salsa is uniquely Mexican. It’s not made with either onions or tomatoes as most New Mexican salsas tend to be.  The salsa, a rich red chile punctuated with cilantro and salt will still win you over.  It’s not especially piquant and it’s almost watery in its consistency, but it’s got a great flavor.  Because it is so thin, the thick, crisp chips will function more efficiently if you dip them instead of trying to scoop Gil-sized portions of salsa. 

If you’re averse to fried pork, the Carne Al Pastor is an excellent choice.  Al pastor, which translates to “in the style of the shepherd” is a ubiquitous street food option in Mexico where al pastor means thin cuts of marinated pork whittled away from a cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit similar to an gyro.  At the Chicharonneria Orozco, the carne al pastor arrives at your table in cubed form, a bright red reminiscent of tandoori meats in its splendorous patina.

Al Pastor with Onions, Limes and Cilantro

The corn masa taco shells are about four-inches around and remain hot to the touch during your entire meal even though they’re not presented in a warmer of any sorts.  A few spoonfuls of carne al pastor, some freshly chopped onions and cilantro followed by a squeeze of lime and you’ve got a taco which may transport you to the streets of Mexico.  The marinated pork includes some sinewy and fatty bits, but that should be expected considering the price.  You’ll have enough carne al pastor to share and still have some left over for the following day. 

In Mexico, carnitas are the undisputed king of the taco cart as well as of cholesterol.  Every region has its own version of deep-fried pig.  Sometimes shredded like pulled pork and sometimes cubed into small pieces, carnitas should always be moist, juicy and redolent with porcine flavor.  The Chicharroneria Orozco’s version of carnitas is very typical.  One pound of these smoky golden-hued beauties may permanently imprint a smile on your face.

One pound of carnitas with corn tortillas

Where many couples might celebrate a wedding anniversary at an upscale eatery, my Kim and I couldn’t resist the warm smell of colitas and celebrated our momentous day at Chicharroneria Orozco.  She told me we could return any time.

Chicharroneria Orozco
709 Bridge S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 873-4806
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carnitas, Al Pastor

Chicharroneria Orozco on Urbanspoon