The Taste of Redemption
Ichiban has leveled up their sushi game
The mere mention of sushi strikes fear into the hearts of some diners. I should know—I used to be one of them. Born and raised a desert kid, the idea of fish for dinner—even cooked fish, even from a nearby lake—sent me into a panic. I discovered that the trick was to demystify the fear by deconstructing a dish's ingredients. Taken apart, a California roll is just rice, avocado, cucumber and crab meat in a seaweed wrapper—and I'd bet even the most timid palates are familiar with three or four of those.
Of course, sushi can be a bit of a hit-or-miss affair anywhere. Ichiban Japanese Restaurant, open since 2000, like any place open for nearly two decades, has spent time in both camps. The space itself is an embracing haven from the hustle-and-bustle outside, and their sushi bar is impressive. But their food has been somewhat inconsistent in quality. I'm happy to report that they're back on the upswing.
Ichiban offers plenty besides their sushi menu, including some appetizers, a page of lunch specials (which are a great way to sample dishes for just $9.95), dinner plates, some noodle dishes and ending with their specialty sushi rolls. The vegan options are few, but vegetarians fare a little better. And for anyone in your party that just won't go near sushi, there are still some tasty options. But I recommend going for the sushi.
For appetizers, I tried the gyoza ($3.95)—both fried and steamed—to compare. I preferred the steamed, but you'll need to be pretty deft with the chopsticks to keep them from breaking apart. They've got a decent sake menu, and their website features a tiny tutorial which might help you land on a bottle worth trying. Kiddos will want the wacky Japanese sodas, Ramune ($2) in a host of flavors—though I suspect opening the bottle's marble stopper is more even enjoyable than the taste. Of course, you can't go wrong with a Sapporo bomber ($8)—a pint of Sapporo with a sake floater.
The nigiri sushi comes two pieces per order, and I sampled plenty. The fresh water eel ($4.95) was sturdy and smoky yet light, and the mackerel ($3.95) was lean, dry and approachable. The salmon egg ($4.25—very much like fish, with only the delicious parts) and the smelt egg ($3.95) are next level orders, when you're ready to branch out from the basics. Thinking of the subtle joys of caviar without the hefty price tag might be the way to frame this debate. The bright, salty burst of the smelt in particular has become one of my favorites—and Ichiban does a bang-up job with it. But when push comes to shove, the white tuna ($4.25) will probably always be king. It's meaty and luxuriously delicate in the mouth, and I always go with the kick of extra wasabi. It's worth mentioning that Ichiban has changed their wasabi—likely an attempt to tone it down and expand customer appeal. For me, that's a misstep—but one I can forgive.
The rolls come in orders of eight pieces, and with the avocado roll ($3.95) and cucumber roll ($3.95)—the vegetarians at the table can rejoice. Both are straightforward and a great place for a newbie to start. The California roll ($4.95), another worthy introduction to the cuisine, comes two ways: a traditional version, and a newer, more experimental one—so if you have a preference, tell your server. I tried both and the traditional is solid, while the newer version blends ingredients into more of a crab and avocado salad, wrapped up in a seaweed roll. I can't say I'd pick one over the other—both delivered. And because the Fourth of July is fast approaching, we tried the firecracker roll ($12.95)—a specialty roll like many spots offer to set themselves apart. It had shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and cucumber inside, topped with more spicy tuna, fresh chopped green chile, pineapple and crunchy bits of toasted coconut. It was triple-sauced with chili, eel and ponzu. With so much going on, it's hard to piece out strengths or weaknesses—and while I'd certainly eat it again, the price means I probably wouldn't order it again (if that makes sense).
Friends and family who want to tag along, but just can't get themselves to try regional fare that has kept people alive for centuries, there's an easy-to-like vegetable tempura ($11.95), a fried rice plate ($10.95) with your choice of protein, or the standout for me, the tonkatsu dinner plate ($13.95)—two generous pork cutlets, breaded with panko and fried. It comes with a simple bowl of white rice, a couple steamed cabbage leaves—and the silky, savory katsu sauce. Imagine BBQ sauce and soy sauce had a sweet, molasses-y baby—the perfect accompaniment for crispy pork.
In food, as in life, fortune favors the bold. If you're new to sushi, a regular or ready to gamble on some flavors, Ichiban is a great spot to do it. Better still, grab some seats at the bar, buy the house a round, and let an adventure in dining begin.
10701 Corrales Rd. Ste. 18
Lunch: Mon-Sat 11am-3pm, Dinner: Sun 4:30pm-9pm, Mon-Thurs 5pm-9pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-10 pm
Alibi Recommends: Fresh water eel, smelt egg and white tuna; tonkatsu in a pinch—washed down with a Sapporo bomber
Vibe: As relaxing as Mr. Miyagi's backyard