Despite our landlocked status, Santa Feans are big fans of sushi. Nearly every neighborhood in town has its own fresh-fish joint, and at both lunch and dinner most are packed to the gills. Floating into that world is a new downtown haunt that's a little different from the rest.
Sushi Land East, a tiny noodle/sushi shop located on the Water Street side of the Santa Fe Arcade, where Cold Stone Creamery used to blend together frighteningly unhealthy combinations of ice cream and mix-ins, is an elegant, little traditional shop that has a casual feel without being dressed down. The menu is simple and includes basic rolls and nigiri as well as udon, soba and rice bowls. The space's large windows brighten the dark wood of the tables and benches, and traditional and contemporary artworks add a touch a color and shape to the sparse and open space. Taketo Yamshita's "Techno Zodiac" prints, in white-on-black and conversely black-on-white, are thoroughly contemporary, though their subjects are traditional Eastern zodiac symbols.
With its early hours and inexpensive menu, Sushi Land East positions itself as a quick-bite type of restaurant, the kind a few friends hit before a night on the town. It's a stopover, rather than a destination in the evening and, for a lunch, a spot that's great for a calming but fast out-of-the-office business meeting or a solo meal away from computers.
While the food at Sushi Land East is good, it's not great. Overripe avocado in a Philadelphia roll ($6) added an unwanted touch of bitterness that didn't overtake the flavor but made the freshness of the fish and the perfectly cooked and light coating of rice less than memorable. Similarly, the beef in the sukiyaki beef udon bowl ($8.95), which was flavorful and the perfect portion for lunch, was a touch fatty and oily, making the meal good, but not a standout. The spicy tuna roll ($5.50) lives up to its name with just the right amount of spice and is as good as any found in the more expensive shops around town.
What Sushi Land East does really well is its nigiri. Crab, which comes in imitation crab fishcake ($1.50) or real ($2.50), is flavorful and presented beautifully on a bed of rice and seaweed, topped with a few thin slices of lemon that aren't necessary to freshen the fish. Nigiri ($1.50-$2.50) comes as one-piece orders, which allow diners to branch out and try shrimp, egg omelet or monkfish liver without committing to any one fish. Its bento boxes ($8.50) change on a daily basis and are another great way for diners to get a sampling of what Sushi Land East has to offer.
As is expected in a Japanese noodle shop, Sushi Land East does not skimp on presentation. From soy sauce in glass decanters to crisp white plates with rolls and nigiri laid out perfectly with a dollop of wasabi and a pile of ginger on the side, the mouth waters the instant the food is set down.
Despite its imperfections, Sushi Land East is a great little hangout. The aesthetic ignores Santa Fe style completely and feels like a restaurant that could exist in any city. It also offers little surprises such as Japanese candies and UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. canned coffee and teas ($1.85). Tasting much like Starbucks' bottled Frappuccino, but with a stronger emphasis on coffee than sugar, the canned coffee offers a subtle caffeine rush that goes surprisingly well with sushi.
In a downtown littered with expensive eateries and greasy New Mexican food, Sushi Land East should find itself a following with the local crowd that works downtown. It's fresh, healthy and the staff, one of whom jokingly said "see you tomorrow" as I left, doesn't put on any pretensions. Sushi Land East knows there's other sushi in town, but it fills a void Santa Fe didn't know it had.
Sushi Land East
60 E. San Francisco St., No. 102
11 am to 7 pm, Friday-Sunday 11 am-8 pm