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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10701 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 16
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Miso Soup