Sushi Zen–El Paso, TX

Sushi Zen
7040 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX
(915) 585-8848
Sushi Zen

Sushi Zen in Coronado


El Paso is actually replete with sushi restaurants, and I think the only parts of town where they are not in abundance are the lower income areas near the International border where it is also hard to find such amenities as grocery stores (other than neighborhood convenience stores). I am not one to start a crusade saying that the people there should demand that something be done about the situation, because it is a matter of economics whether anyone has what could be considered a necessity such as a grocery store or a luxury such as a sushi restaurant. Although both of these are unequally distributed throughout the city’s neighborhoods, market demand dictates that both are in abundance in the area. I think that many people who have the money to go out to eat have sushi high on their priority list, judging by the number of restaurants that have opened.

In El Paso the sushi restaurants are not only all over the map geographically, but this also applies to the quality of the food. Many are not even owned by Japanese people (I would say this is true in the majority of cases). Sushi in El Paso usually refers to the California roll branch of this cuisine rather than trying to import fish that is fresh enough to make a decent nigiri or sashimi. I do not want to get into the argument right now about whether California rolls and other rolls are actual sushi, although the same argument is even made for sashimi.

From reading other web sites I understand that Sushi Zen is owned by Japanese people and that it has some of the best sushi in town, if not the best. I did not try anything from the sushi menu, so I will not attempt to give a rating to a place for which I am unable to evaluate their most popular and best rated dishes. Even though the sushi here is supposed to be the best in town, I will say that I would not expect it to be like places on the west coast, Florida, etc. Still, though, I only want to report on the food I have tried.

Miso and hot tea

A very good miso soup and Japanese green tea are served

What I did find out about Sushi Zen is that they give customers a quality product for their money. A la carte items are fairly inexpensive, and you can arguably get an even better deal with a lunch combination plate consisting of three items for $10.95 (this was the price when I ordered it). Of course I also felt that it was my duty to readers to be able to report on as many items from the menu as possible, and I found the lunch combination plate a good way to do this.

Lunch Special
The A La Carte menu is effective for both lunch and dinner, and is divided into Appetizers (about $3 to $5), Kitchen ($5 to $6), and Sushi ($4 to $8). These prices are for 2018 when I visited. For the lunch special ($10.95) you can pick any three items from any of these categories. I picked two from “Kitchen” (Salmon and Tofu Veggie Plate), and one of the appetizers (Shrimp Tempura).

Shrimp tempura

Shrimp tempura from the “Appetizer” menu

My favorite was probably the Shrimp Tempura, although all three had elements of them that I liked better than others. For instance, I liked the shrimp tempura very much, but I thought the eel sauce that came with it was very thick, very sweet, and not very flavorful.

Salmon

Salmon is one of the “Kitchen” items

The Salmon was very fresh (it did not have a “fishy” taste) and it had a good flavor, but the color was not anywhere close to the red that I associate with high quality salmon. The sauce was also somewhat lacking in flavor. For El Paso this was very good salmon and I would order it again, especially compared to what I find in other restaurants.

Tofu vegetable plate

Tofu vegetable plate from the “Kitchen” section of the menu

The Tofu Vegetable Plate was certainly good quality, but just lacked flavor. I would rather it be this way than the other way around, and like the other two dishes I would order this again. It is a good value for the money, especially if you get it on the lunch combination as I did.

Dinner Menu
For dinner you can also order anything on the three menus I mentioned except the lunch combination special. Dinner also includes some much more expensive items such as special sushi rolls and grilled steak (these items are also available for lunch but they are not available on the lunch combination special).

In short, except for the lunch combination special they serve the same items at lunch and dinner, and they are at the same prices.

Other Observations
The restaurant was quite busy when I went, and I think if there is anything El Pasoans know it is a good bargain. I believe Sushi Zen certainly gives people their money’s worth on the lunch special, and individual items are not expensive compared to other restaurants.

I have not tried the sushi, but I hear that it is good. The menu lists only rolls, though, and there is no traditional nigiri listed. I do not know if any of the rolls contain traditional sushi fish, and if this is true I would question the restaurant’s use of the name “Sushi” although that does not diminish the quality of the food they do serve.

I complained about the flavors of some of the dishes, but the restaurant does not have a sweet Americanized flavor–I think it is real Japanese but perhaps modified because of the ingredients available in the Southwestern desert and also the tastes of the people in the region (which would make it “Americanized,” if true, but I just do not believe the food here is what I would normally classify as being Americanized).

There is another Sushi Zen at 2400 N. Mesa Street (I believe this is the original restaurant). I think that both of them have the same food, and the one at 7040 N. Mesa would certainly be easier in terms of finding a parking spot.


RATING: N/R

Cuisine: Japanese
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 30, 2018
Number of Visits: 1
Best Item: Shrimp Tempura

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Green
MSG: No
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Shrimp Tempura
star 4 Salmon
star 4 Tofu Veggie Plate

Some of My Favorite El Paso Lent Specials

Many restaurants in El Paso (particularly Mexican restaurants) offer Lent specials in the days leading up to Easter. These are usually served on Friday, but some restaurants have them for other holy days as well.

I found out a long time ago that this is some of the best Mexican food served, and rather than Lent being a “fast” I always found it to be a treat to enjoy the food served by these restaurants. Most Lent specials are served with fish or shrimp, but some vegetarian dishes are also available such as enchiladas (they frequently use some special sauce that is not normally served on enchiladas). The Lent specials at restaurants can really be anything as long as there is no meat.

Lentil soup

Lentil soup

My favorite Lent specials are ones that include a vegetarian lentil soup (lentejas) and the traditional bread pudding dessert (capirotada). The main plate on traditional meals usually includes mashed potatoes and either rice or bread. I usually like to get fish because the restaurants usually prepare it so well, but I think I see about two shrimp specials on the menu for every one that is fish.

Capirotada

Capirotada

The following list includes recent places I have visited, with two of them (El Jacalito and Carnitas Queretaro) being long time favorites:

 

San Isidro Mission Cafe

1071 Country Club Rd.
El Paso, TX

This restaurant seems to be well known for its Lent special, although I just tried it for the first time this year.

Pescado Marinero

Pescado Marinero

Unlike other restaurants, though, San Isidro only has one Lent special. It is called Pescado Marinero, and is cooked in foil with a fish fillet, clams, squid, and shrimp all cooked together. Frankly, I went with a friend who shared this dish with me, and we both got full. We were both very happy with the food as well. The dinner came with lentil soup and capirotada (the only down side with sharing the meal is that you only get one of each of these side dishes).

The up side of this meal was that the fish was good and the seafood and vegetables mixed in were a nice added touch. The down side was that there were no other items on the Lent menu–this was the only special available. The lentils were prepared in a different style than the others I tried (heavy on the cilantro) and were very good. The capirotada was moist to the point of being soggy (more like an actual pudding than the others). Although different, this was also a worthwhile experience.

Edit: I should mention that we got an extra order of lentils and that is the reason both of us were full.

 

Carnitas Queretaro

7410 Remcon Circle
El Paso, TX

Carnitas Queretaro is the only restaurant I have found which serves Filete Veracruzano (fish with Veracruz sauce) on a regular basis, meaning every Friday during Lent. Thus, I got to try the one dish which is probably my favorite during Lent.

Filete Veracruzano

Filete Veracruzano

I loved the sauce here, but the fish fillet was probably the most disappointing out of the ones I tried this year. I also know that it was not up to the standard I experienced in previous years at Carnitas Queretaro. This was quite an expensive meal, and I just do not understand why this restaurant has changed so much (even so it was almost worth it to get such a good veracruzana sauce).

The lentil soup and capirotada were both excellent, and Carnitas is excellent on items such as the chips and salsa. The main plate came with mashed potatoes, rice and bread. To me this is overkill on the starchy items, although I enjoyed the mashed potatoes very much.

 

Delicias Cafe

865 N. Resler Dr.
El Paso, TX

Delicias Cafe had good fish and an excellent poblana sauce. Several shrimp items were on the menu, and the staff explained that the owner and chef decide the night before what items to put on the Lent menu (so it changes weekly).

Filete with poblana sauce

Filete with poblana sauce

The lentils here were probably my least favorite of the ones I tried, but the capirotada was one of the best. The meal was a little bit strange because they had put “Filete a la Veracruzana” on the menu but the meal they brought me had a different sauce (the poblana sauce). When I asked about this they gave me some veracruz sauce to try, but I found that the poblana sauce was actually much better. In any case, if you are all right with being surprised (in a good way) then this is a good place to come.

Edit: I returned to Delicias on Good Friday and ordered the Filete a la Veracruzana. It confirmed my previous observation that the poblana sauce was better (and at Delicias I would probably skip the veracruzana sauce).

 

El Jacalito

2130 Myrtle Ave.
El Paso, TX

El Jacalito is one of the restaurants that changes the menu weekly, and like most of them offers both fish and shrimp. This is my favorite restaurant for the veracruz style fish (which I did not have this year), but it is also my favorite for breaded fish (empanizado). In fact, this is really my favorite place for Lent specials.

Pescado empanizado

Pescado empanizado

One reason it is good is because of the price, but where the food is concerned I really like everything I have tried. The breaded fish had a very good sauce which was not quite like the veracruz sauce I had hoped to try, but what I had was very enjoyable. The fish itself was very fresh, and was the best I tried at any restaurant (although San Isidro was very close). The lentils and capirotada are always my favorites here, and this year was no exception.

El Jacalito is only open for lunch (as is San Isidro) but it is a great place for Lent specials if you can make it. Sometimes they do not have either the breaded or the veracruz style fish, but others may be happier with the shrimp options than I am, and there are other items on the menu you can also choose (enchiladas, etc., or even a meat item if you are not following a Lenten diet). In any case, I think it is worth coming here just for the lentil soup and capirotada.

In past years I always included their horchata as part of the Lent tradition. This year I decided on iced tea, but the horchata really is one of the best I have found anywhere.

 

Kiki’s–El Paso, TX

Kiki’s Restaurant & Bar
2719 N. Piedras St.
El Paso, TX
(915) 565-6713
Kiki's

Kiki’s


Kiki’s has been around so long it is an El Paso tradition, yet even though the items served are similar to the ones found at just about every other restaurant in the city, they are done with a unique twist. Kiki’s has solid Mexican food, and I especially like the fact that everything is cooked in vegetable oil (it was one of the first Mexican restaurants in El Paso to cater to El Paso’s small vegetarian community). For years it was also home to live blues music on Sunday nights, but I have not heard about this being the case recently.

The building shows obvious signs of age, and although the restaurant is not quite at the stage that it would be considered as a historic landmark, that honor might be bestowed upon the large bar if such a designation existed. A history I read about Kiki’s said that the building has been in continual use since 1928, and was home to several businesses until it became the Manhattan Beer Depot and Bar in 1937. The bar had two more names before the Keg and Fork opened in 1974 (which seems to be the first time it could be considered a real restaurant). In 1976 it became Kiki’s (named after the owner’s two year old daughter), and in 2012 the restaurant’s long time manager bought it. Thus it is clear that the attraction here was the bar before the food attained equal popularity.

When the city’s first anti-smoking ordinance was passed the non-smokers were afforded a small dining room with about eight tables, while the large dining room and bar area remained smoke friendly. With all restaurants being forced to be smoke free under the current ordinance, I think the atmosphere has changed somewhat and I would say has become more family friendly than previously when it mainly had a bar atmosphere. If anything, though, Kiki’s seems to be more popular than ever leading to even worse wait times for a table and having to park even farther down the street as the parking lot becomes perpetually full.

I can understand its attraction, though, because it serves “real deal” border Mexican food. It does not seem to me to be typical of El Paso or Ciudad Juarez Mexican food because it makes such liberal use of chile con queso as a topping rather than the more ubiquitous red or green chile (although Kiki’s does have dishes with red chile and the chile con queso is their version of the green sauce). Even though the style is a little different, the flavors are very much in keeping with the fresh and local style food served in restaurants throughout El Paso.

Some of the highlights of Kiki’s include the superbly flavored Spanish rice, the refried beans, and a huge, homemade, and always fresh flour tortilla served with all of the combination plates and some of the “Specialties” (I think they adjust the prices upward to pay for such a work of art, but what you don’t eat you can take home and use it for breakfast the next day). I sometimes tend to take these normal accompaniments to a Mexican dinner for granted, but when you come to Kiki’s you will likely realize how important they can be to the overall quality and enjoyment of the meal. If anyone thinks Mexican food has to be cooked with lard to taste good, I challenge them to come to Kiki’s to see how good food cooked with vegetable oil can be.

Appetizers

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

The green chile Salsa here is much spicier than any of the food they serve with green chile, and is excellent as is the norm in El Paso. It seems that they serve a small amount of chips, but it usually seems to be enough to be able to enjoy the potent salsa (and I believe you can get more chips if you request them).

Kiki’s “Specialties”
For the most part my favorite items here are the ones listed as their “Specialties” on the menu. While I like exploring the menus at many restaurants, I have also wished that others would do what Kiki’s has done and tell customers what they consider to be their specialties. I have a few favorites at Kiki’s that are not on their list of specialties, but for the most part I think their list is right on the mark.

Here is the entire list of Kiki’s Specialties as listed on their web site and menu:

  • Machaca
  • Green Crab Enchiladas
  • Caldillo
  • Chicken Mole
  • Fajitas
  • Caldo de Res
  • Burrito Special (with green sauce)
  • Picadillo

Chile colorado was on an older list I had but is not currently listed as one of the Specialties.

Kiki’s green sauce is a key component in many of the Specialties. From my research and past experience it seems that their green sauce and chile con queso sauce are the same thing (or at least the flavor is very similar). One thing I have found to be true, though, is that Kiki’s green sauce is the reason that many of their dishes are so enjoyable and stand out from the ones at other restaurants.

Burrito with green chile con queso sauce

Beef burrito with green chile con queso sauce

I think the dish where I most enjoyed Kiki’s “legendary Green Sauce” (the terminology from their web site) is the Burrito Special which is listed as one of the restaurant’s “Specialties.” This is one example where I think following the restaurant’s suggestions will in fact give you their best food.

Another one of my favorites is the Crab Enchiladas (served as the Saturday lunch special but available any time at the regular price). For these I recommend the green sauce because the crab gives an extra flavor component that for some reason seems to bring the green sauce to its full potential (I am not really a crab lover but I think having it on this dish is something a lot of people are going to want to try).

Chicken mole

Chicken mole

Chicken Mole is one of the specialties that does not have green sauce but which I think is very good (it  is their Sunday lunch special in addition to being on the Specialties menu and available all the time at the regular price). The mole served here was spicier than most I have tried in El Paso, and it was also very much on the sweet side (these two attributes together make a good combination, and this definitely was a very good mole).

Many of my friends and co-workers have talked about the machaca over the years, and there are others I have yet to try but which I am sure will prove to be very good.

Other Chile con Queso Dishes

Hamburger steak con queso

Hamburger steak con queso

The Chile con Queso Hamburger Steak is the Saturday dinner special (although it can be ordered any time at the regular price). The now defunct La Paloma Restaurant had a chile con queso hamburger steak that was spicier and a little more flavorful than the one at Kiki’s, but I think Kiki’s is still ahead of most every other restaurant in town that tries to serve the same thing. Probably the key to the preparation of this dish is the inclusion of large chunks of green chile that make this a large flavor component of the dish.

Huevos rancheros

Huevos rancheros

Kiki’s is not the only restaurant in town which tops Huevos Rancheros with chile con queso, but this is a very good version of it. Kiki’s opens at 10:30 daily and offers several breakfast items such as this one (or the machaca) for a late breakfast or for any time of the day.

Other Items
Items that are my favorites at most restaurants are not so here, with the Red Enchiladas being a case in point. They do not have a lot of red chile spice, although I think their toning down has been a fairly recent development (the flavor is still good, though).

Green Enchiladas are similarly not my favorite although the sauce is still good. The use of Kiki’s unique chile con queso as their green sauce on the enchiladas gives a fairly bland version of this dish in my opinion, although the same sauce on other dishes gives a quite satisfying contrast of flavors.

The Chile Relleno is something that I found to be tough and somewhat lacking in flavor, although I liked the Spanish sauce they serve on top (this sauce is not very spicy because you get enough spice with the chile itself). Chili Rellenos (as the restaurant spells it) are the Thursday dinner special, or you can order the same plate from the regular menu or get a chile relleno as part of a combination plate.

For a change of pace you can order Black Beans instead of the refried–both are very good (and vegetarian).

An Overview
The “Specialties” listed on the menu are definitely worth considering, and I think they are generally the best items at the restaurant.

For items that are not the “Specialties,” I think my favorite is the chile con queso hamburger steak. Not to be discounted, though, is the fact that the rice, salsa, and flour tortillas are some of the best in El Paso (flour tortillas come free with the combination plates and some of the “Specialties”).

The green sauce may be the most distinctive feature of Kiki’s, and is one of the reasons I keep coming back. The Burrito Special and Green Crab Enchiladas are two of Kiki’s Specialties which I think especially showcase the restaurant’s green sauce. The green cheese enchiladas, though, are something that did not quite hit the mark for me here.

Not all of the dishes here come with a free flour tortilla, but this is another item that I think is especially worth seeking out.


RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: Has a bar

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 25, 2018
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Beef Burrito with Green Sauce, Crab Enchiladas with Green Sauce, Mole, Hamburger Steak, Salsa, Rice, Refried Beans, Flour Tortilla

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: Vegetable

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Burrito Special (Beef Burrito with Green Sauce)
star 5 Hamburger Steak con Queso
star 5 Green Crab Enchiladas
star 5 Mole
star 4 Red Cheese Enchiladas
star 4 Green Cheese Enchiladas
star 4 Chile Relleno
star 5 Flour Tortilla
star 5 Rice
star 5 Refried Beans
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa