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Far East fusion: Raw & Sauce puts a New Mexico spin on Asian favorites

The Barelas rolls are a twist on California rolls in which the sushi is wrapped in sleeves of green chile and served with red chile aioli at Raw Sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Even on a Saturday night, the scene behind 6910 Montgomery NE, a small complex of restaurants near Louisiana, is as forlorn as an Edward Hopper painting. A server sits in a chair outside the entrance to the Indian restaurant Curry Leaf, gazing out at the almost empty parking lot. His counterpart at the Raw & Sauce Ultralounge holds a cellphone to his ear while heaving a basketball toward a hoop hung near the patio.

Nowadays, you may want to attribute low turnouts to the coronavirus, but a more plausible explanation here is the law of averages. More than half of restaurants fail in their first year. This fourplex alone has has Tap That, Poki Poblano and South Bourbon Kitchen close in the past few years.

At first blush, it’s not a bad spot. Coe & Peterson, developers who specialize in sprucing up generic strip malls, lined the back of the place with patios, awnings, pergolas and a fire pit. In the front, a skeletal framework rises above a façade hung with big red letters that say “Eats Beers Desserts Cocktails.”

We were there that night to check out Raw & Sauce, a lounge and restaurant that opened in October in the space vacated by Poki Poblano.

The same staffer who was shooting hoops hustled around to the front and led us past the long bar on the upper level to a table a couple of steps below. The only other patrons in the place were two women chatting over cocktails, oblivious to the multiple TV screens tuned in to a UFC fight night in Las Vegas.

The name, the late hours, the thumping music, the DJs and open mic comedy nights – all point to a nightclub scene, an attempt to bring some of the energy of the old Raw & Sauce Liquid Lounge Downtown to the Heights.

The drink menu is suitably comprehensive, with wine, sake and lots of local beers on tap for $4 a pour. Craft cocktails incorporate unusual ingredients such as cucumber sake, yuzu-ginger syrup, roasted jalapeños and pickle peppercorn-infused vodka. The 505 platano ($9), with rum, banana liqueur and banana chunks muddled in brown sugar, is like bananas foster in a glass.

For the fumar y manzana ($10), one of two smoke-box drinks on the menu, a glass of Buffalo Trace bourbon and apple liquor is sealed in a chamber and infused with smoke from apple-wood chips. The flavors and smoke evoke burning leaves and apple cider. Great drink, wrong season.

The food menu offers a New Mexico spin on Asian restaurant standards such as sushi and egg rolls. The dishes we tried had a lot of heat, starting with a Tajin cucumber salad ($3.50) consisting of a colorful mix of sliced cucumber, quartered cherry tomatoes, green soybeans and ogo, a lacy, purple seaweed. The whole thing is tossed in a dressing with Tajin, a Mexican seasoning of ground red chiles and dehydrated lime juice, making for a dynamic mix of textures and flavors. A few words of advice: Don’t get this and the edamame ($3.50) unless you really like green soybeans.

A bowl of spicy garlic shrimp ($12.00) delivered the promised heat, with a crackling red chile seasoning bringing the dozen or so plump shrimp to life.

Barelas rolls ($9), the most visually impressive presentation on the menu, are a spin on the California rolls so common to sushi joints. Here the eight sushi rolls with spicy crabmeat filling are arrayed around a pile of red chile aioli and wrapped in a collar of roasted green chile. The heat level is significant but not unbearable, and the arrangement of the sushi and sauces into a Zia symbol was a nice touch.

Raw & Sauce’s carne asada egg rolls come with a ponzu-chile dipping sauce and wasabi guacamole. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Egg rolls are offered with a variety of fillings. For the carne asada version ($9.00), cubes of beef are wrapped in asadero cheese, a mildly tangy white cheese from Mexico. After a few minutes, the beef was set in the cheese like bricks in mortar. The ponzu-chile sauce accompanying the rolls was nicely done, both tangy and spicy, but brown spots on the avocado marred a side of wasabi guacamole.

There’s a small menu of sushi, with the usual suspects like salmon, yellowtail, ahi and albacore tuna. Prices run from $12 up to $19 for wagyu tataki, finely marbled Japanese beef seared on the outside and left raw in the middle. The menu also has flatbread pizzas ($6-$15) and five entrées ranging in price from pumpkin curry ($16) to a $32 wagyu sirloin that is seared at your table.

Despite the lack of patrons, the staff never checked out on us. The bartender wore multiple hats with aplomb, taking orders, delivering food and answering questions about the menu. The cook emerged from the cramped kitchen in the back at one point to deliver a plate of Barelas rolls and give a brief primer on the dish.

The sight of an almost empty restaurant on a Saturday night doesn’t inspire much confidence, but Raw & Sauce exceeded expectations with the breadth and creativity of its menu. It’s the kind of place where you can drop $100 on dinner for two or share a bowl of edamame and watch a sporting event – once sporting events return, that is. It’s a worthy candidate to stick around and slow the turnover of restaurants at this location.

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