I have a love/hate relationship with Santa Fe this time of year. The Plaza is a shit-show, and the everyday inconveniences caused by our resident seniors reach nearly unbearable levels of annoyance thanks to the influx of tourists. Sometimes, I wonder if Santa Fe isn’t Texas’ “sixth borough.” Last week, business forced me to enter the downtown fray. Luckily for me,
(60 E San Francisco St., 820-1178) was there to soothe my spirit with its fresh fish and biodynamic sake.
Sushi Land East is a sweet little Japanese joint run by chef/owner Masa Hattori. Hattori used to run Shohko Café before returning to Japan in the early 2000s. He returned to Santa Fe several years ago to open Sushi Land East.
Hattori enjoys a loyal following in Santa Fe for his innovative Kyoto-style Japanese cuisine. His menu is simple and straightforward, and includes many of the dishes Americans have come to expect from top-end Japanese restaurants in this country. However, enthusiasts in the know often bypass the menu altogether and have Hattori prepare an “omakase” meal for them.
Simply put, omakase means “chef’s choice.” Going omakase at Sushi Land East can be a revelatory experience. Hattori takes great joy in preparing specialized meals for his dedicated fans. After asking a few questions to gauge what the diner is in the mood for and willing to spend, Hattori leans on his decades of experience to create unique and inventive dishes from the restaurant’s freshest ingredients (fish delivery three times a week = fresh). Omakase meals cost a bit more and take a little longer to prepare, but dining on Hattori’s custom dishes is a special treat. Hattori recommends doing it earlier in the week, when the restaurant isn’t as busy.
Short on time and money, I skipped the omakase full-monty and instead went for a bento box. Bento loosely translates to “convenient”; it’s the lunch of schoolkids and day jobbers. Being the working stiff that I am, I often turn to Sushi Land’s bento boxes when I’m in need of a quick, tasty and convenient lunch downtown.
For the uninitiated, a bento consists of rice with meat or fish, and small portions of cooked and pickled vegetables, all served in a compartmentalized box or tray. Bento boxes range from 7-Eleven to four-star in their sophistication, with some sushi masters elevating them to an art form.
Sushi Land has five standard bento boxes on the menu in the $10-$15 range, including a completely vegan option perfect for all you rabbit-people out there. Personally, I like the fish bento box (in this case, mackerel) for $12, but the chicken teriyaki ($11) and the sushi-sashimi boxes ($15) are excellent as well.
Hattori serves a traditional Japanese bento, tweaked to accommodate American tastes and expectations. Items like the mackerel filet and cucumber and seaweed salads stay true to their Japanese roots. The fish, painted with a thin glaze of ginger and soy, and lightly broiled, is presented front and center next to a serving of unadulterated and perfectly cooked white rice.
And then there are items like tempura and the California roll, which are almost as American as they are Japanese. The portions are generous, and the vegetables in the tempura change daily, varying from carrots and yam to nori and kale. Rounding out the bento are small tastes of pickled veggies, a cup of excellent miso soup and a couple pork gyoza.
As a whole, the bento box lunch at Sushi Land East is much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a completely satisfying lunch, made even better by one of the restaurant’s many sakes and Japanese beers. Sushi Land’s dimly lit, intimate interior provides sweet refuge from the heat and hustle of Santa Fe’s summer streets. Join Hattori and his courteous staff at the sushi bar for a lunch that lands somewhere between East and West. It doesn’t disappoint.
Lunch (11 am-2:30 pm)
and dinner (5-8:30 pm), Mon.-Sat.
Sushi, soba, sake
10-20 minutes, depending on the crowd