Sushi in the high desert Southwest? Yes! Shohko Cafe, Santa Fe’s first Japanese restaurant, has been doing it since 1980. And, they do it well. Immigrants Hiro and Shohko Fukuda arrived in the US from Japan in the late 1960s and settled in California. They arrived in Santa Fe in the early 1970s to open a health food store. But Santa Fe wasn’t ready for this and they weren’t earning enough money to live.
They tried an experiment. They took a food booth at the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, selling teriyaki and yakatori cooked on a hibachi grill. It was a hit! They earned enough in one long weekend to feed them for the next year. Not convinced, they tried it the following year; again the Japanese cuisine was a huge seller.
Buoyed by their success they decided to open a restaurant. The city wasn’t quite ready for Japanese food; Shohko Café’s original menu was a fusion of Japanese and “Americanized Chinese food,” such as Egg Foo Young and Chow Mein. By 1980, when opened their current location, the sushi craze had hit America; it was time for sushi in Santa Fe.
Location: 321 Johnson Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Menu: The menu leans heavily towards sushi, offering nigiri (raw fish on an oblong rice base), vegetarian sushi, sashimi, maki and hand rolls (AKA temaki). Not a sushi fan? The menu offers a lot of alternatives. Menu categories are: Izakaya (Japanese small plates), Tempura, Salads, Entrees, Bento Sets, Soba or Udon, and Sides. Japan meets the Southwest in Shoko’s signature Shrimp Stuffed Green Chile Tempura served with a sweet red chile sauce. There’s a great story about how Shohko came up with her chile tempura. It was inspired by a New Mexico-style chile relleno she ate at a neighbor’s house over 40 years ago when the family was living in rural Northern New Mexico. If you don’t mind a little heat; try it!
Thoughts: I used to scoff at the idea of sushi in the high desert, far from the ocean. But today with efficient, overnight air transport and sophisticated cooling techniques the fish is almost as fresh as it was when it came out of the sea. We’ve been huge Shohko fans for years. It’s one of two restaurants in Santa Fe with a Japanese sushi chef; for us that makes a difference. We have a fairly set routine: miso soup, followed by sea weed salad and then often either Ageh Tofu or the above mentioned Shrimp Stuffed Green Chile Tempura. Next, with pencil in hand we write out our sushi order. I always include an eel roll and Steve always orders spicy tuna. From there we diverge; perhaps a spider roll or a shrimp tempura roll. Steve often adds an order of nigiri (raw fish over pressed, vinegared rice).
If you’re not a sushi fan, there are a range of options. You could make a meal from the small plates (Izakaya) on offer. For something more substantial there are three kinds of teriyaki (chicken, beef or salmon), vegetable, shrimp or seafood tempura, soba, and udon as well as bento boxes. If you’re a dessert fan and you still have room for food, try the banana tempura.
Decor in the over 200-year-old building that was once a brothel is minimalist rooms, fitting a Japanese aesthetic. The furniture and sushi bar were handcrafted by Hiro and his photographs adorn the walls. Hiro and Ayame Fukuda own a sake distribution business serving New Mexico. The restaurant features an extensive sake list and the servers are very knowledgeable and can make recommendations. While tourists find their way to Shohko Cafe, diners are mostly locals coming for their sushi fix. Some come so often they are greeted by name and even get hugs. If you are visiting Santa Fe and get a yen for sushi, head for Shohko Cafe and tuck in.
Prices: Izakaya (small plates) run from $5 to $12; tempura $7 to $19; salads $7 to $15; entrees $16 to $38. The sushi menu offers nigiri from $6 to $12 (with some selections at market price); vegetarian sushi from $4 to $7; sashimi at $19 and $20; hand rolls $6 to $14; maki from $6 to $19 (the Chef’s Roll, which changes depending on what’s on hand runs from $20 to $35); sushi entrees start at $30. Glasses of sake run from $6 to $14; bottles run from $39 to $78.
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Billie and Steve live have lived in Santa Fe, since 2004. They have been traveling together and sharing dining adventures for over 40 years.
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