Neko Sushi – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In 1968, Mexico City played witness to one of the most overt and controversial political statements ever issued during the modern Olympic Games when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos extended their right arms upward and clenched their gloved fists in a black power salute.

During our inaugural visit to Neko Sushi in the Sun Country Plaza, we couldn’t help but remember the famous civil rights protest when we espied two ceramic Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) figurines on a shelf. The Maneki Neko, a common Japanese sculpture believed to give its owner good luck, depicts a cat beckoning with an upright raised paw (which supposedly attracts money). The pose is eerily and innocently similar to that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the medal ceremony.

Obviously there’s absolutely no relationship between two infamous Olympic athletes and a symbolic cat, but there’s definitely a reason the popular Japanese cat figurine has a prominent place in a sushi restaurant–and it’s not just because the owner wants good luck. The owner’s name is Cathy (“Cat” for short) Punya and “Neko” is the Japanese word for cat. Cathy is a restaurant impresario with three other restaurants in the Duke City. Her expansion into the city’s northwest quadrant is much welcome among sushi aficionados.

Cathy launched Neko Sushi on October 31st, 2006 at the site of the defunct Tips Coffee Shopjust south of the Cottonwood Mall. Considering Tips was a “nifty 50s” themed restaurant, we expected a major make-over in decor. That didn’t happen. Instead, Cathy interspersed Japanese themed accoutrements–such as the Japanese rising star flag over the north entrance and ceramic cat figurines in a glass case–throughout the restaurant. The 50s style speckled teal tables; teal and red vinyl seats and black, red and teal floor tile still remain as does the blue ceiling. Easy listening American music resonates throughout the restaurant.

It might take nine cat lives to sample everything on Neko Sushi’s menu. The menu is replete with sushi of both the nigiri and roll varieties as well as sashimi and a variety of noodle dishes and soups. Included among the sushi menu are several of the high-dollar variety. Before you even order, a bowl of steaming miso soup is brought to your table. The soup is a delicious precursor of what is to come.

Because our first visit was during the restaurant’s grand opening, we were lucky enough to order dinner specials which let us sample an assortment of nigiri and roll style sushi which we prefaced with an appetizer of Japanese ceviche.

Similar to its Mexican counterpart, Japanese ceviche is raw seafood marinated or “cooked” in a citrus mixture. At Neko Sushi, the seafood is nearly of nigiri sushi size (much bigger than you’d find on Mexican ceviche) and includes shrimp, tuna and crab as well as micro-greens and mixed greens in a citrus dressing. The freshness of the ingredients and the tanginess of the citrus dressing combined harmoniously.

Freshness also defines the nigiri sushi in which vinegared rice is hand-formed into clumps then topped with different seafood. I’ve had three stand-outs: the salmon roll, scallop and spicy yellowtail. The mackerel with its strong fishy taste is just so-so. If you find a truly good piece of mackerel, you’ll remember it; more than likely, it won’t make much of an impression and that was the case at Neko Sushi.

One word of caution about Neko’s wasabi–it will water your eyes, redden your face, make your nose run and have you coughing and sputtering if you’re not careful. Many sushi restaurants serve an anemic wasabi that barely tingles your tongue. Neko serves it gunpowder explosive…or at least if you’re audacious enough to think you can handle enough wasabi to fell a raging bull elephant.

The de rigeur California roll (cucumber, crab and avocado), without a doubt the most common (in every way) maki style sushi roll, is nothing special at Neko’s–or anywhere else for that matter. It’s an “introductory level” sushi roll that sushi veterans use to get novitiates to feel they’ve tried “real” sushi.

For optimal taste and texture, the spicy tuna handroll, a conical temaki (handroll) sushi is meant to be eaten immediately after the it is crafted since the cone quickly absorbs moisture from the filling and loses its crispness. If you don’t wait too long, you’ll be treated to a very nice handroll in which the spicy tuna lives up to its name. Neko Sushi’s spicy tuna (including the yellowtail) is very good.

Among the warm, tempura-based sushi, the Albuquerque roll stands out in both texture and flavor. It is imbued with the incomparable flavor of New Mexican green chile and we all know how great that can be. The spider roll, on the other hand, was made with a “mushy” rice that denigrated its flavor.

Not surprisingly, Neko Sushi offers 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. What is surprising is that it is served maki (roll) style instead of nigiri style. In any case, it’s a nice piece of sushi.

For dessert, an absolute must-have is the plum sorbet which is velvety smooth and refreshing. Most sorbet has a smooth texture, but this one is James Bond smooth.

Neko Sushi
Sun Country Plaza
9421 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Japanese Ceviche, Albuquerque Roll, Spicy Tuna Hand Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Plum Sorbet

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