Anyone who strayed from the Plaza during the week of Fiesta de Santa Fé may have been momentarily alarmed by the taiko drumming that briefly dominated Burro Alley. It was the strangely timed grand opening of a cleverly marketed and well-designed “Japanese tapas” joint called San Q Japanese Sushi and Tapas, and the drummers were putting some additional aggressive, disciplined “multi” in the “culti” of Fiesta.
It kind of makes sense—if you think too deeply about it. Fiesta is Santa Fe’s bizarre group psychology struggle with the legacy of colonialism, and San Q is (loosely) emulating a type of eatery that arose in Japan in the cultural confusion that occurred following World War II devastation and the American occupation.
It was a difficult time in Japan, and American culture and European intellectualism made for strange mashups with the angst of the populace. The terrifying and violent dance art Butoh arose during the era, as did a number of impromptu bars and pubs that served small plates and copious, cheap beer. This posttraumatic comfort food and the spirit of thrift and community that came with it are hinted at on the menu and in the interior construction of San Q.
As the latest project by Sanggyoo, the current owner of Kohnami Japanese Restaurant and former owner of Xiclo Vietnamese Restaurant, San Q follows his keen aesthetic both in its presentation of food and its atmosphere. In the husk of what used to be Café Paris in Burro Alley, Sanggyoo has orchestrated a kind of rugged pan-Asian, Arte Povera minimalist sensibility. Surfaces are rough but clean; the place is mostly free of distracting business; and the sushi counter dominates the center of the front room. The lengthy back room, full of sunken, built-in table and bench combos, has the narrow perspective and bare-bones sensibility to be a postwar drinking hall, but the construction is done with heavily lacquered waferboard, bringing a contemporary do-it-yourself vibe into the mix. Putting aside that the waferboard is manufactured with some pretty nasty chemicals that tend to outgas for prolonged periods, it looks good.
The food, too, is good-looking, and the menu is reasonably priced.
Several delights are among the small plates San Q refers to as Japanese tapas. The green chile tempura with rock salt ($5) is the best companion to a cold Japanese beer or an artisanal sake (both of which are well-represented on the menu) that one could ask for. I was afraid of the “heart attack” ($8)—raw tuna and cream cheese stuffed in a deep-fried jalapeño—so I settled for some grilled rice balls ($4), which I have to admit were pretty damn satisfying in a shell-shocked peasant sort of way.
An assorted sashimi platter ($16) was beautiful to look at, well-cut and proportioned, and full of fresh, vibrant notes. The nigiri-style monkfish liver ($5) was flavorful, if a bit mushy in overall texture. The caterpillar roll ($14) was a simple combination of eel and avocado—tasty enough and a huge serving
—but a bit more eel inside each roll would add to the flavor.
My lone disappointment was the buta kimchi carbonara ($13), a handsome bowl of udon noodles, pork, kimchi, eggs and cheese. The egg was not finished on the pasta in true carbonara style, and it tasted like something made for children that comes out of a small cardboard box.
But if that’s the worst that San Q has to offer, I’ll be heading back for the kalbi barbecue and the fried oysters and the quail eggs wrapped in bacon and the grilled salmon belly and the…
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