Roll with it
On-ko chi-shin — it means, “To know the old is to understand the new.” While this ancient maxim might typically be seen scrawled in Japanese calligraphy at martial-arts studios and tattoo parlors, it also applies to food. In recent weeks, I sojourned to the roots of my post-adolescent Santa Fe-sushi education, a place that is also where my freelance restaurant-review career began nearly a decade ago.
Tucked inside a strip mall in Solana Center, Masa Sushi’s casual décor hasn’t changed much since I reviewed it in 2002. Pale yellow walls are neutral background for Japanese art prints, black wooden tables, and a scattered army of ceramic kittens in a variety of sizes and colors — Hello Kitty-shabby-chic. A clean, well-stocked sushi bar in the back of the restaurant seats seven people comfortably and is overseen by chef/owner Sammy, a Thailand-born, classically trained sushi chef who took over the business a few years ago.
I ordered lunch to go on a recent Monday afternoon. Masa Sushi does a brisk takeout business, and my order was ready to haul off in 15 minutes, as the friendly hostess had promised. Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: always check your to-go order before you leave a restaurant. After returning to my office, I discovered a few mistakes. An order of oshingo (pickled daikon radish) had been replaced with an oshingo sushi roll. The same fate befell an appetizer order of shrimp tempura. Both were good, but I was looking forward to hot, fried, whole shrimp on a cold day. Steamed edamame pods contained tender, buttery soybeans, and a hot cup of miso soup was briny and flavorful, a few small cubes of silky tofu and some toasted seaweed hiding at the bottom.
Gently grilled unagi (freshwater eel) was evenly coated with kabayaki (sweet soy-based sauce) and draped over two nubs of perfectly cooked and seasoned sushi-rice pearls. Too large for a typical onebite approach, I split the nigiri bundles in half with a chopstick. The hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri was smaller and easier to manage, its ultra-fresh, fleshy, off-white meat melting in my mouth.
The Heart Attack maki roll was a thing of beauty, its name describing its heat level, not its nutritional influence on the myogenic organ. The roll’s spicy tuna was tame, but pickled jalapeño slices nicely supplied the heat. Crisp cucumber and “tempura crunch” added a coolness and textural counterbalance to the mild tuna’s sticky-smooth consistency. The Camel Rock roll is where the new meets the old here. I usually shy away from regional takes on sushi, but “green chile tempura” isn’t something I come across every day. It was surprisingly delicious and subtle when paired with yet more unspicy spicy tuna, creamy avocado, cucumber, and sweet soy sauce. It was on-ko chi-shin lightning in a nori-flavored bottle.
During dinner at the sushi bar on an early Saturday evening, sushi service was top-notch. But when we asked a waitress to bring a list of sakes, she pointed to the dinner menus already in our hands. Three or four choices, none of them very inspiring in light of chef Sammy’s great skill, were only available by the glass or bottle. Our half-bottle of cold Gekkeikan “Haiku” sake (made in the United States) was placed in front of us unopened — with two embarrassingly enormous white wine glasses.
Coconut shrimp consisted of five teeny, tail-on shrimp coated in a thick, sickeningly sweet batter that tasted like ancient Hostess Sno Balls dipped in sea water. Chef Sammy came to the rescue with his dinnersized sushi combo. A conical spicy-tuna hand roll was enormous, and this time, actually spicy. The combo’s accompanying California roll contained the expected surimi (fake crab), avocado, and cucumber, but Sammy smothers his version in crunchy smelt roe. We called “chef’s choice” for the combo’s six pieces of nigiri sushi and six pieces of sashimi, which lit up Sammy’s smiling face like a Macy’s Christmas tree. Before we knew it, we were bombarded with compact slabs of high quality salmon belly, cooked shrimp, yellowtail, albacore tuna, and sea urchin. Stuffed to the gills, so to speak, we skipped dessert — which wasn’t offered anyway. Masa Sushi continues to do sushi well. But it still struggles to provide certain forms of service, in a manner that is at best average and at worst stupefying.