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Try a tasty Japanese experience with sushi, hibachi

Sam Yiu, sushi chef, works behind the counter at the Tokyo Cafe on Cerrillos Road. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sam Yiu, sushi chef, works behind the counter at the Tokyo Cafe on Cerrillos Road. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — I’d driven past the unassuming Tokyo Cafe, next to Baskin Robbins on Cerrillos Road, scores of times.

Then, one pleasant afternoon, a friend suggested that we stop in for lunch. Now, I’m wondering why I waited so long.

The space, a former fast food spot, has been recreated as a lovely, quiet haven with wood and stone touches. There’s a sushi bar in the back where you can watch the chef at work and an inflatable cat on the porch. The drive-up window remains, however, making this Santa Fe’s only spot where a Mango Lobster Roll and udon noodles will be delivered to you while you sit in your car.

The subtitle of Tokyo Cafe is “Sushi and Grill.” Hibachi grill offerings and sushi provide the largest number of choices. Sushi includes rolls and nigiri, or fish atop a platform of rice. The menu features more than a dozen kinds of nigiri, including several cooked varieties.

Tokyo offers something I hadn’t seen before: “low carb” sushi rolls wrapped in soybean paper. The menu features other examples of the Japanese food Americans expect, including tempura, teriyaki, noodle bowls and dumplings.

My friend and I ate here twice and enjoyed both lunches. My favorite of everything we tried was the Deluxe Combination Box with teriyaki salmon. It was beautifully presented and a bargain at $10.99. The assortment of food looked delicious, each dish on a tray in its individual box, with soup and salad delivered beforehand.

The soup, a light miso broth, was simple and satisfying, as was the large salad of fresh iceberg lettuce with a mild dressing.

For the box, diners can choose the protein they’d like, with tofu, shrimp, chicken and steak available in addition to the salmon. You also select either a spring roll, shrimp tempura, gyoza dumplings or edamame to round out the meal. Hot rice, steamed vegetables and a California roll – a kind of sushi with a crabstick and avocado – are included.

The salmon arrived cooked as I like it, moist but not too rare and not a bit dry. I didn’t care for the sauce. It was too heavy and not as warm as the fish, so I scraped it off.

The fish sat on the bed of crisp, fresh veggies, with broccoli crowns as the main component. The gyoza were excellent, crisp and hot, and not a bit greasy. The California roll was too heavy on the rice. I’d have this meal again and give the steak or chicken a try.

Besides the California roll, we sampled another sushi creation, the cafe’s own sliced Tokyo roll ($11.99) with blackened tuna, avocado, red and green bell peppers, shrimp and tuna.

The menu mentioned jalapeños in the mix, too, but I didn’t taste anything spicy. Each of the 10 larger-than-a-mouthful pieces looked different because of the skillful way the chef layered the ingredients. Nice!

Another great value for lunch is the hibachi meal, also served with a house salad and steamed rice. I tried the chicken, chopped bite-sized and sprinkled with white sesame seeds. It came with a large portion of fresh, stir-fried veggies.

Although the sauce could have been more flavorful, the two condiments served on the side – spicy mustard and a slightly sweet ginger sauce – enabled me to customize.

For $6.99, this is a healthy, ample and well-priced lunch. If you don’t want chicken, you can get a vegetarian version or several types of seafood or beef.

My friend’s seafood soup ($5.99) got my attention from the start because of the mouth-watering fragrance of the broth. It was mostly fish and shrimp, with a few carrots and mushrooms, beautifully sliced into the light brown liquid. The broth tasted as good as it smelled, savory without being too salty.

The white fish and pink shrimp stayed firm; the fish used in the “crab stick” dissolved into shreds that added a pleasant consistency. The soup itself is not quite enough for a meal but, with the addition of sushi or a small hibachi side of meat or veggies, would make a fine meal.

The ambiance here, at least the days we came for lunch, was low key and peaceful. The restaurant was about half full, and the staff did a fine job of seating customers for conversation and privacy.

Soft Japanese music played and, atop the sushi bar, a few fish swam in circles with contented ignorance in a small aquarium.