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 V.23 No.22 | May 29 - June 4, 2014 

Restaurant Review

Go for the Sushi, Stay for the Pork

Wasabi Japanese Cuisine

American Kobe beef bento box
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
American Kobe beef bento box
Wasabi Japanese Cuisine, on Tramway north of I-40, has the hands-down best view of any sushi restaurant in town. The vista is especially stunning in the evening, as the Sandias glow in the setting sun. The restaurant’s layout takes full advantage of this visual endowment with big windows and a simple, open floor plan, with plain walls clad in empty picture frames and line drawings of hanging lamps. Outside, a small rock garden on the edge of the parking lot sports a stone bench.

Being such a pleasant spot, it’s a bit surprising how few customers choose to stay. Cars pull up, doors slam, and a steady stream of soccer moms, professionals on their way home, and all manner of suburban flotsam come and leave with the steady hum of a well-run urban crack house. Speaking of crack, it probably doesn’t hurt to be the only sushi restaurant for miles around.

I would drive from Rio Rancho for this pork belly. I’d do it on a seatless unicycle with no pedals, down a trail of goat heads.

That novelty may get customers in the door. But if they’re anything like me, it’s the pork belly that will bring them back.

I would drive from Rio Rancho for this pork belly. I’d do it on a seatless unicycle with no pedals, down a trail of goat heads.

Several of Wasabi’s dishes feature this special pork part, which is usually turned to bacon. Here it is cooked in a sweet sauce to the point of greasy disintegration. The simplest way to enjoy this delicacy is in the skewered chunks of pork belly yakitori ($4.95).

Sour twist sushi roll
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Sour twist sushi roll
But of everything on the menu, the tonkatsu ramen ($7.95) is not to be missed, due in no small part to the fact that it comes heaped with thick slabs of this pork belly.

Underneath that heavenly hog flesh, the milky, pork bone-based tonkatsu broth is spiked with spicy ginger shards and mellowed with cabbage. The noodles are plump and firm. I wanted it all in my mouth with such immediacy that I burned my tongue. And I still kept slurping.

If that same ramen were presented in a classy ceramic bowl, it would hold its own against top-level competition.

As it is, the ramen, along with all the food, is served in disposable, to-go style dishes. Ordering is done at the counter, after which you’re given a buzzer that goes off when it’s time for you to claim your food. If you pay with a credit card, you are given three tip options to choose from: 18, 20 and 25 percent.

Even if you accept one of these generous tip suggestions, it would still be hard for two people to spend more than 50 bucks at Wasabi, something that can't be said about most other sushi restaurants in town.

Other ramen bowls are available, as well as several udon soups, including the specialty udon noodle soup ($7.95) “with handmade noodles.” This dish is interesting. The noodles are starchy and flat—not the shape of the udon noodles I’m used to.

Unfortunately the pork version of this soup did not come with that pork belly, but thin shards of lean meat. While not spectacular or spellbinding, the specialty soup has a mellow, soy and peppery flavor, and is clearly comfort food to some. Though lacking the range and drama of the tonkatsu, it struck a chord.

The bento boxes, while the most expensive things on the menu, deliver decent value. They come with a salad, a mildly smoky bowl of miso soup, some pot stickers, slices of California roll and a drink. The slab of salmon in the salmon teriyaki bento box ($11.95) was big and tasty. The American Kobe beef bento box ($15.95) featured succulent beef slices rolled, skewered and grilled with green onion sections. It was a bit smaller than the salmon, but was also the bovine equivalent of bacon, juicy and marbled, and highly satisfying when dipped in its tangy sesame ginger sauce.

The donburi bowls, aka rice with stuff on top, are hit-or-miss. The pork belly slice donburi ($8.95) is a hit, for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain by now. So, too, is the beef gyu donburi ($8.95), a pleasant mix of marinated beef and onions. The oyako donburi ($7.95), a chicken and scallion omelet over rice, is well-conceived, but gave the impression of having been heated via microwave.

The tofu nuggets ($3.95) are an interesting appetizer that won me over for its accuracy in naming, as they so closely resembled chicken nuggets. Rather than the chunks of cut tofu I expected, the nuggets were made of compressed pieces of shredded tofu. They were then breaded and fried, just like a McNugget. The occasional edamame (soy bean) appeared in the nugget flesh, a surprising splash of green that, admittedly, one probably wouldn’t want in a pure chicken nugget.

As for the sushi that brought us in the door, alas, we found it unremarkable. It’s very sweet, and most of the specialty rolls, while colorful and pretty, are on the mushy side and drizzled with myriad sauces of tangy, sour and spicy persuasions, which makes it hard to taste the fish or distinguish one roll from another. One exception was the sour twist roll ($10.95). Like the other specialty rolls, it’s as busy as rush hour on the freeway, with many different fillings, but comes together nicely in a tangy sauce.

The onigiri might present the most belly-filling value on the menu. It’s a hand-held, triangular wad of rice wrapped in seaweed, with your choice of raw or cooked fish, vegetable fillings and even musubi—Hawaiian-style with Spam—inside. For $2.95 one onigiri could almost fill you up.

For a place that tends toward sweetness even in its main courses, the desserts are the no-holds-barred decadence that you’d expect. The yam tempura with ice cream is as spectacular to look at as eat, the bright purple yam flesh contrasting in striking fashion with the yellow breading. And the tempura-fried ice cream is a syrupy, fried doughy bowl of creamy sweetness.

Wasabi is a long way to drive for average sushi, but if you’re on your way home, or east on I-40, that’s a different story. And if large, tender slabs of fatty pork are on the agenda, distance shouldn’t be a factor. This is the pork you want to eat.


417 Tramway NE Suite 3
200-2477
wasabijc.com

Hours: Mon-Sat: 10:30am—9pm, Sunday: 11am—9pm

Vibe: Minimal

Vegetarian and gluten free options? Yes.

Weekly Alibi recommends: Tonkatsu ramen, pork belly yakitori, American Kobe beef bento box, tempura fried yam
 

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