It’s easy to think the marker-drawn “open” sign at Golden Land Café (720 St. Michael’s Dr, Unit E, (505) 467-8837) could have been put up by mistake. After loitering a few seconds at the front door trying to figure out the place’s operational status, you might even drum up the courage to enter, but it’s just as perplexing on the inside: Olympics re-runs on a massive wall-mounted television, half a dozen signage pieces propped up against the walls and half-empty boxes strewn around. No other customers are in, though there’s evidence of past patrons, namely, empty and abandoned coffee cups. Maybe this is just a new kind of strip-mall appeal?
“We’ve only been open a month,” says the gentleman behind the counter, and then, as if to reassure me, he adds, “But this is actually our fourth location.”
I figure he says this to impress me, as if to make up for the less-than-appealing surroundings, but it turns out this is real and you can get Golden Land Café sushi plates at Chomp Food Hall (505 Cerrillos Road, (505) 772-0946), Buffalo Thunder Casino (20 Buffalo Thunder Trail, (505) 455-5555) and the Eldorado (7 Avenida Vista Grande, (505) 466-2608) and Pojoaque Supermarkets (9 W Gutierrez, (505) 455-2178) under the name Ocean Real Sushi.
OK, so maybe Golden Land is really more of a wholesale business that’s pushing into brick and mortar. We can work with that. Those kinds of businesses need our support. Even still, there are a few more hurdles. For one, there are a lot of menu options, all of which feel a little too different from one another for a cohesive experience. Some menu pages are taped onto the window outside, one is behind the counter; there are the numerous signs laying on the floor of the dining area displaying various bowls with more handwriting that designates prices. Add to that the very long and somehow still different online menu, and you might wind up feeling a little anxious when choosing between noodle bowls, teriyaki bowls, sushi plates and ramen; breakfast burritos, quesadillas and fajitas; poke, dim sum and more—but again, when every sign differs, customers more accurately might end up not knowing what’s available and what isn’t.
We’ll start with the golden teriyaki bowl with dark-meat chicken ($10.99). The meat vacillates between fine and what feels like chewing on pure fat, and the accompanying mix of broccoli, onion and red and yellow peppers is undercooked and void of seasoning. It’s rare to take note of how veggies get cut, but with long strings of onions and peppers that look as if they’ve been cut by a dull blade wielded by someone who just kind of gave up midway, this time it’s notable. The white rice in the bowl is clumpy, too, and the teriyaki, while decent, might be good in that artificial pumped-full-of-sugar-for-a-long-shelf-life way. If there is thought put into the dish, it didn’t transfer, and “a bowl of stuff” is really the best way to describe it—a food medley that might be good together in theory and has been before, just not this time.
The sushi, however, fares better. We live in a desert town full of diners who regularly bemoan the lack of good seafood (which is absurd, frankly, since all fish served everywhere was frozen on a boat before it ever came to land)—and it can be hard to get motivated to search out the stuff after a while. Don’t forget, though, that veggie sushi can be fresh and refreshing. Sure, you should know Golden Land isn’t fine dining before going in, but the vegetarian roll ($9.99) with carrot, avocado, green bean or baby corn is decent. And you know what else? It holds together. I think sushi people like it when a roll does that. For those who prefer fish, Golden Land’s spicy tuna roll ($9.99), has a much more complex flavor profile but with a fairly weak kick that sadly dissipates in about ten seconds, max—though the umami flavor really impresses afterwards.
Lastly, my companion samples a collection of tuna, yellowtail, shrimp and salmon both smoked and fresh. Known as the marina plate ($10.99), they describe it as “pretty alright” with a shoulder shrug, though they are quite picky, so I ultimately consider this a win for Golden Land Café. Nevertheless, its too-broad menu and janky environs leave a lot to be desired. Little places like Golden Land have proven capable of astonishing turnarounds. Santa Fe, in fact, is littered with joints that started out only OK and circled back around to brilliant. And while it’s tough to be critical of new restaurants just starting out—especially given this economy and labor market—just know the potential is definitely there for Golden Land, maybe just wait a couple months.