In two visits to I Love Sushi, I witnessed four birthdays. Having never partied there myself, I asked a sushi chef to fill in the blanks on why the place is such a popular birthday destination.
He nodded with a sly smile, saying something about free ice cream and getting to wear a mask.
All of the festivities went down across the room from my perch at the sushi bar, in a teppan area inhabited by hot, table-sized griddles. Manning the grills were puffy-hat-wearing chefs who weren’t afraid to throw fireballs. As one grill master arranged piles of meat and veggies on the teppan (which means "iron plate"), patrons leaned on its wooden bar as if it were a piano. A reveler in a Mardi Gras mask shook a tambourine as their unexpectedly rowdy waitresses led the party in song. From where I was sitting, you’d have thought there was a bachelor party going on.
Its wild and crazy side notwithstanding, I Love Sushi is a well-oiled machine. Moments after sitting down at the sushi bar, a waiter slides bowls of soup and salad in front of you like a breakfast mama slinging coffee at a greasy-spoon diner. The soup is cloudy, white miso; the salad offers crisp lettuce leaves in a ginger-soy dressing. If you prefer a fork over chopsticks, you’ll have to ask—though I have a hunch the sushi chefs might poke fun at you.
Not surprisingly, the sushi is more efficient than flamboyant. The selections are well-executed renditions of finely tuned dishes with clever flavor equations, many of which you may not have encountered before.
One of my favorites was the mackerel nigiri. Usually served lightly marinated, most of the Japanese restaurants I’ve eaten at order it pre-seasoned from the supplier. I Love Sushi starts with the whole fish and marinates it in-house. The resulting saba had the creamy, dreamy flavor of hamachi. And while the hamachi used in sushi is almost always farmed, mackerel is wild. A nigiri topped with baby scallops in a smoky mayo sauce kept me busy as I ate them piece by piece with my chopsticks. New Zealand green-lipped mussels, baked in spicy mayo and topped with masago roe, were juicy and chewy.
Another fave was the “burrito,” a deep-fried, mayo-mortared lobster roll (one of many lobster-filled options on the menu) served with Sriracha sauce. Even better was the amigo roll, with its solid core of tuna, salmon, snapper and krab. The California roll was perfect. A special of calamari stuffed with lobster, however, needed some work. The two flavors were too much alike, and there wasn’t much else in the dish to distinguish or enliven them.
The stumble was quickly forgiven, as the fun factor and overall high-quality food won me over. At the end of one meal, I caught my dinner date rereading the sushi list. “My mom’s still hungry,” I told our chef.
I Love Sushi starts with the whole fish and marinates it in-house. The resulting saba had a creamy, dreamy flavor.
“You like deep-fried?” he asked her.
Soon he handed her a roll with tempura shrimp inside. “You no like, no pay,” he said sincerely.
“You like, you pay triple,” he added, laughing heartily at his own joke, as if it were the first time he’d heard it. (I’d already heard it on a previous visit, from a different chef.)
Mom’s roll was awesome. The only other player was avocado, which was warmed by the tempura. Serving warm avocado is a risk, and it paid off here.
I’m always looking for examples of how local ingredients find their way into exotic foods. Many Japanese restaurants offer a roll with green chile in it, but sometimes it’s actually bell pepper, jalapeño or raw green chile. Even when true roasted green is used, its heat and flavor are usually too understated.
The New Mexico roll at I Love Sushi crosses this divide intact. Tempura-fried strips of spicy green chile—more than hot enough, more than green enough—commanded all the attention in this simple roll. I guess it isn’t surprising that I Love Sushi does justice to green chile. For all of the restaurant’s undeniable Asian authenticity, it manages a New Mexican ambience that feels like home.
When I further prodded my sushi chef about the birthday parties going on in full view, he offered, "You get a prize." He didn't tell me about the birthday coupon on the website for 15 percent off. But that's OK. At least he didn't charge me triple for mom’s deep-fried surprise.
The Alibi Recommends:
• Mackerel nigiri
• Amigo roll
• New Mexico roll
• Deep-fried surprises