I first noticed Japengo Sushi while eating dessert at the neighboring Café Jean Pierre. As I sipped my coffee I watched the great chef Jean-Pierre dash from his just-closed kitchen and out the restaurant’s door, returning moments later with a plate of sushi. This quiet endorsement spoke louder than words.
On a recent Saturday night, Japengo was so busy you had to be proactive if you wanted attention. The servers were warm and helpful when eventually flagged down; one waitress earned big points for recommending a less expensive Happy Hawk sake over the pricier Haiku. Served cold, the Happy Hawk went down like butter but gave a superior buzz.
Japengo’s décor is open and sparse. There’s jazz as likely as Journey on the speakers, football on the tube behind the sushi bar and geisha prints on the wall. It’s a no-nonsense place to eat generous portions of creative, daring and deliciously irreverent Japanese fusion—though purists may cringe.
Consider the “monkey ball,” sliced and deep-fried wads of spicy tuna capped with mushrooms. The slices were laid on a bed of greens, topped with little piles of black caviar and sliced scallion, and drizzled with a sesame sauce. This ball was badass.
On a Wednesday evening near close, when I had the whole restaurant to myself (a situation I highly recommend), I had the immense pleasure of trying the Viagra salad, which contained a truly insane amount of fish, mostly tuna and salmon. (The sweet, vinegary seafood sunomono comes with a pile of octopus and squid. But if you're more into the fishy side of the ocean, stick with the Viagra.) It was tossed with a large pile of mesclun greens and sweet-and-spicy Viagra sauce. As I kept finding more pieces of fish below the leaves, $8.95 seemed more like the wholesale price. Mildly concerned about the dish’s name, I inquired to the sushi chef whether the salad would create an awkward moment when I stood up. “We only use real Viagra on the weekends,” he said.
The sushi bar seemed more consistent than the kitchen, despite the impressive monkey ball. A large piece of grilled mackerel was awesome, oily and juicy in a soy-based sauce, and I appreciated the unexpected tempura that accompanied it on the plate. But the tempura was too crunchy—what should have been a delicate crisp was more like the coating on fried chicken.
During my chaotic Saturday night visit, the sushi chefs did an admirable job handling drive-by orders of the rushing waitstaff. Their most visually striking creation was a riceless New Yorker roll of tuna, krab, red snapper, pickled gourd, tobiko roe and avocado, wrapped with a skin of thin-sliced cucumbers. The New Mexico roll proved, yet again, that green chile goes well with almost anything (in this case, salmon, avocado, cucumber and krab). But along those lines, the Japengo roll—green chile tempura, real crab, tuna and cucumber with a sweet red chile sauce—was even better. More props to the sushi department for serving naturally hued pickled ginger (rather than artificially dyed pink) and giving you as much as you want.
The spicy scallop hand roll didn’t surprise or disappoint. If you like scallop hand rolls, you’ll be happy. But if you’re looking for the creative flair that characterizes Japengo, look elsewhere.
Hardcore Japanese foodies will certainly be able to spot holes in Japengo’s game. But what it may lack in polished traditional sophistication, Japengo makes up for with its relaxed, generous and fun approach to good food.
The Alibi recommends:
• New Yorker roll
• Monkey ball
• Viagra salad
• Japengo roll
4959 Pan American West Fwy., Suite C (AKA: between I-25 and the Century Rio 24 movie theater)
Lunch hours : Monday thru Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., closed for lunch on Sunday
Dinner hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. weekdays; open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. Sunday
Price Range: Nigiri sushi starts at $4 an order; most sushi rolls are $5 to $15; steak and lobster will set you back $29.
Ambience: Laid-back and fun
Booze: Sake, wine and beer
Credit cards: Yes