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Discovering Japan, with Asian side trips

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One could be understandably cautious when eating out at a Japanese-only spot in a city not overly inundated with Japanese fine dining, like Albuquerque. For that reason, many places take the middle road and bring a variety of other Asian cuisines to their menu.

From the get-go, Sushi Xuan is staking a claim in both Japanese and Chinese with its amalgamated name and inspired dishes from several Asian nations.

Started by an established local sushi chef, Sushi Xuan is tucked into a strip mall a little north of the freeway – easy to find, with parking in spades. Stepping in from the midday sun is a shock for a few moments while your eyes adjust, settling on the pleasant earth tones and well-spaced tables. A small sushi counter centers the room, but most diners choose tables.

Sushi die-hards will insist that you can never replicate the experience of working one-on-one with the chef with only the counter for separation. To a point, I agree; however, receiving excellent food should never be denied to table occupants, either. Thankfully, Chef Carter and his team are on the ball here with responsive wait staff and inventive flavors.

Sashimi? Nigiri? So many choices! Several passes through the sushi menu landed me on Combo D ($13.95), promising a 12-piece sashimi selection, rice and spicy Viagra salad. Little time at all passed before it arrived, artful and tasty.

Sushi Xuan

LOCATION: 3250 Coors NW, #E (about half a mile north of I-40), 352-9855
HOURS: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays

Most of the fish was of excellent quality, with only a few subpar bites. Frankly a hit-or-miss sashimi spread is par for the course here in town, and thus no big disappointment. My companion’s Sizzling Cumin Beef ($11.95) was outstanding: tender strips of meat with gentle cumin aroma, just enough peppers and onions and a smattering of dried chile peppers for the kick.

One of my few complaints came from the flow of the meal, placing Baked Mussels ($5.95) on the appetizer menu. The rich and bubbling bundles of chopped-up seafood are scrumptious, but with a cook time of 10 to 15 minutes these tiny Dynamite-style boats arrive minutes after all of the entrĂ©es, defeating the purpose of ordering an appetizer at all. I stole bites of the mussels but barely had the attention when my Fire Dragon Roll ($16.95 – not a typo) arrived.

True to its price, this roll is over-the-top huge and delicious. A simple spicy tuna roll with cucumber lays the foundation under a topping of sweet eel, stretching out over a foot to resemble a swimming eel. It’s gorgeous enough that the bi-colored roe topping is mere window dressing.

The disappointing appetizer experience notwithstanding, we really enjoyed ourselves. Many diners seem to be regulars, chatting and noshing intermittently. Relative to local benchmarks, the sushi prices are neither inexpensive nor exorbitant. Take out a little of the sting with the daily happy hour from 2:30-5:30 p.m., when all sushi is 20 percent off. It might not seem like much, but when sushi meals for four easily hit three figures, every bit helps.