Japanese Kitchen is doing something right. The well-established restaurant has barely a glimpse of street view—and from Americas Parkway, at that. Buried in a nondescript business cluster across Louisiana from ABQ Uptown, Japanese Kitchen is spread between two kitty-cornered buildings that are separated by a shaded plaza. Walking to the double restaurant means winding your way through narrow urban canyons. When you finally get there, eating exotic foods feels appropriate. Despite their near-invisibility, Japanese Kitchen’s sushi bar and steakhouse get quite busy—even rowdy at times, especially in the teppan corner.
One evening on the sushi side, I noticed a specials board announcing Kona Kampachi. This type of hamachi is farmed off of Hawaii in open-water cages touted as being more ecologically friendly. The one time I tried it, on New Year's Eve in Hawaii, it was spectacular. I ordered some nigiri pieces.
Without Champagne, passion-fruit-speckled goat cheese and a Kauaian beach, the taste was less mind-blowing then I remember. The Kona Kampachi at Japanese Kitchen didn't seem any different from regular hamachi. But to be fair, that's hardly a problem. The hamachi belly (toro) pieces I tried were sweet, mild, salty and citrusy, and large enough to obscure the rice balls that bore them.
Another nigiri highlight was the aji, or mackerel, a fish that's typically marinated before it hits the plate. Japanese Kitchen offered only minced scallions. They were savage-looking pieces of fish, their silver skin slashed in places to reveal red and white flesh that had a clean, faint sea breeze flavor. Also interesting were carefully cleaned ebi (sweet shrimp), raw but for the heads, which were deep-fried and served on the side.
They were savage-looking pieces of fish, their silver skin slashed in places to reveal red and white flesh that had a clean, faint sea breeze flavor.
Each plate of sushi came garnished with pickled ginger that was, refreshingly, not dyed pink. Also refreshing was the real roasted green in the albacore green chile roll. (Too many places use unroasted Anaheims, which taste a lot like bell pepper.) The cool, white tuna was a perfect foil for New Mexico’s favorite ingredient. But while the green chile made me feel at home, the Baja roll was a total trip. A tuna and soft-shell crab roll was topped with sliced strawberries, mango and a fruity sauce. The mango and tuna worked seamlessly together, smoothly and sweetly revolving around a center of gravity of crisp, fried crab.
I wanted to like the “vegetarian’s delight,” a roll of avocado, cucumber and pickled daikon piled with seaweed salad. But all the seaweed and vinegar overwhelmed the dish. Vegetarians might be more delighted by the umeshiso, which combines pickled salty plum paste and aromatic shiso leaves.
I was so absorbed by this corner of the restaurant that I never got my teppan on across the way. But every hot dish I tried on sushi side was excellent, including perhaps the best udon and tempura I’ve had in Albuquerque. The udon broth was simple and soulful, and the noodles were absolutely perfect—soft but toothsome, they provided true chewing pleasure.
A sashimi lunch special came with an impressive pile of veggie tempura. The batter was crispy but not tough, light but not submissive. The vegetables were presented in bold shapes that maximized their volume-to-surface ratios—a sheet of sweet potato, a smiling slice of kabocha squash, an onion ring, a whole button mushroom, a zucchini half that was bursting with juice inside, and a chunk of bell pepper that I didn’t resent because it wasn’t billed as green chile.
As I finished thick slabs of bright sashimi, I asked the chef at the bar why I hadn’t seen Kona Kampachi on special lately. He shrugged.
“We get it sometimes,” he said.
“How is it?”
Sweet shrimp nigiri