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Japanese institution Shohko still serves intriguing food after 35 years

Victor Matzir, a sushi chef at Shohko Cafe, makes a sashimi combination of yellowfin tuna and salmon during lunchtime. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Victor Matzir, a sushi chef at Shohko Cafe, makes a sashimi combination of yellowfin tuna and salmon during lunchtime. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Japanese food is simple food, compounded of a very few basic ingredients that combine for different, but subtly related, flavors. There is none of the baroque exuberance of Thai food, or even the regional variations that lend so much variety to Chinese cuisine. Like its famous gardens and interiors, Japan’s food is restrained.

Still, I do get hungry for it. And to assuage that craving, Shohko Cafe is an ideal place to go. And lunch might be the ideal meal here if the Thursday we tried it is any indication. It was uncrowded, unhurried and serene.

I ordered one of my favorites, a bento box – the Japanese version of a cafeteria tray, I guess you might say, with raw fish sashimi ($21). I was disappointed only by the fact that it didn’t arrive in an actual bento box, but rather on a giant plate, with various little plates containing the goodies nestled on top.

I chose tuna as my fish, and three large and succulent pink slices arrived atop a tangle of daikon radish threads. Alongside were just-wilted spinach, a seaweed salad and a heap of crisply fried vegetable tempura. It was a nice mix of textures and flavors.

The spinach, heated just past raw, was draped in a tahini dressing that was a nutty complement to what otherwise could be the blandest of dishes. The seaweed salad – by far my favorite – was slightly crunchy and dressed only lightly with a rice-wine vinaigrette.

I should have mentioned that soup – a minimalist bonito broth with miso (fermented soybean paste) and a scattering of tofu – came first. It, too, was tasty and best savored by sipping from the bowl.

As a sort of bonus, my sashimi came with a heap of vegetable tempura, at which Shohko excels. The batter was lighter than light and perfectly crisp. I tasted sweet potatoes – a tempura favorite. Also a strip of sweet pepper, a couple of onion rings and a wedge of summer squash. And a lone shrimp (I could have added more at $1.50 apiece).

All were excellent, and accompanied by a broth-like and comparatively bland dipping sauce, as well as bright green (and very spicy-hot) wasabi horseradish and plain soy sauce.

My companion asked for a complete order of seafood tempura ($18) and was equally pleased. Calamari, scallops, shrimp, fish and crab were coated with the same light batter and hauled piping hot from the deep-fryer to the plate. Alongside were more wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. We were impressed not just by the crispy and fresh coating, but also by the ingredients – my guest pounced on the calamari bits and the scallops, leaving the shrimp and fish to wait until round two of sampling.

For lunch, Shohko also offers a variety of noodle dishes, including cold noodle “salad,” with protein additions ranging from chicken and tofu to shrimp. I love these dishes and plan to go back for a sampler soon.

Another Japanese classic, what I call chicken-fried steak with rice, or donburi, is also offered. This is a bowl of rice topped with vegetables, and a breaded and quick-fried piece of steak, fish or chicken. If you are at all hesitant about Japanese food, donburi is the place to start.

Japanese cuisine is not noted for its desserts. But we were pleasantly surprised by Shohko’s dessert menu, which included tempura ice cream (of course) but also plum ice cream, adzuki-bean cake and fried bananas. We chose the banana fritters ($6) and the adzuki tea cake with plum ice cream ($7), and were pleasantly surprised.

The bananas were dipped in panko – crunchy Japanese white breadcrumbs – and crisply deep-fried. They were delicious. But how can a hot banana go wrong?

I was more impressed by my adzuki-bean cake and the plum ice cream. For one thing, the cake, made of rice flour and stuffed with sweet red bean paste, qualified as a pastry – not a traditional dish in Japan.

The plum ice cream, made with plum wine, was sweet enough, but tart, too, and the perfect complement to the bean cake. This was a dessert for the Western tourist, I thought, just enough like a European pastry to be familiar, but exotically different in taste nonetheless.

Shohko has been open for 35 years, making it a veritable institution among Santa Fe restaurants. I remember Santa Fe in the early ’70s and was fascinated by Shohko’s web page, which chronicles its Japanese-born owners who arrived here as (more or less) hippies, opening a grocery store and then branching out into the restaurant. Here we are, in another age altogether, and Shohko still intrigues.