Behind every restaurant there’s a back-story. Some are more interesting than others. Santa Fe’s Shohko Café has a really interesting one.
When Shohko and Hiro Fukuda first arrived in Santa Fe in 1973, they opened the Oriental Natural Food Store in an upstairs spot on Washington Avenue just north of Palace Avenue. The shop sold bulk brown rice, tofu, seaweed, tamari, adzuki beans and more. They knew this food well. While art students in Tokyo in the 1960s, they studied with George Ohsawa, often called “The Father of Modern Macrobiotics” and his wife Lima. They were well prepared for their new endeavor, but was Santa Fe?
How the Fukudas got from Japan, half-way around the world to Santa Fe
Ayame Fukuda, who manages Shohko Café along with her sister Iba, says her parents, were “hippies”. In 1960s Tokyo, there was no comfortable place for bohemians like the Fukadas and their compatriots ( including Yoko Ono — they traveled in the same circles but never met). Japan was still working to rebuild an economy devastated by World War II. “At that time, most young people were entering the corporate world and trying to reestablish the Japanese economy and build it up,” Ayame said. “It was very much this frenzied Japanese ‘same think’ homogenous society.”
In 1966, Hiro, an aspiring photographer, entered and won a photography contest sponsored by The Sun Magazine, a publication that Ayame calls the Japanese version of Life magazine (large format, high quality black and white photographs, with a red banner on the cover). The prize: an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world he wanted to go. Hiro felt drawn to the American west and chose “American social foment” as the focus of his photo odyssey. For him the topic included American radicals, hippies and love-ins. Leaving Shohko and the newly born Ayame in Tokyo, Hiro took off for California. He spent two months in LA, San Francisco and Berkeley, observing, taking part in and photographing this vital period of modern US history. He saw riots, was tear-gassed, went to love-ins, saw acid drops and spent time in Golden Gate Park . His photos documented the late 60s cultural transformation. He returned to Japan and his photos were published.
In 1967, the couple left Japan and moved to California with young Ayame in tow. Their two other daughters, Iba and Mika were born in California. The Fukadas bought a VW bus and then a Dodge van, which they lived in for five years while traveling throughout California, Oregon and Washington. They mostly stayed in campgrounds and communes. Hiro, a custom carpenter created a homey interior including ingenious storage solutions.
When Ayame was five the family settled down so that she could go to school. Hiro and Shohko choose New Mexico as their new home. As artists, they were attracted to the light. After two short stops, one in Albuquerque and the other in La Madera, north of Ojo Caliente, they moved to Santa Fe and settled in what Ayame calls, “The Barrio,” the neighborhood west of the now trendy Railyard District, and opened the health food store.
The first Shohko Café
Business at the health food store was slow. While there was a small alternative community in Santa Fe eating health foods, most people were not. To augment the income needed to support a family of five, Shohko and Hiro set up a food both at the 1974 Fiesta, an event held in early September each year in and around the historic Santa Fe Plaza. They cooked teriyaki and yakatori on a hibachi grill in their assigned spot on Lincoln Avenue. The three-days were very lucrative. People, tired of the same old fare, flocked to this stand offering something different and delicious. They earned enough to feed the family for a year in one long weekend. They did it again the following year. In 1976, based on their success at Fiesta, they opened Shohko Café on West Water Street (where Casa Chimayó is today). It was a small spot with nine tables. Hiro, calling on his carpentry skills, built all the chairs and tables and they are still in use today. It was family run and even the young sisters had jobs to do.
When the Shohko Café first opened, Santa Feans were not ready for Japanese food. They served a menu that was an amalgam of Japanese and “Americanized Chinese food”. The menu offered classics like Egg Foo Young and Chow Mein. Ayame says that at the end of their meal, diners would ask where their fortune cookie was. Servers had to explain that was a Chinese rather than Japanese restaurant custom. Business increased and they built a patio for warm weather dining.
Shohko Café today
In 1980, they moved from the 35-seat Water Street location to their current spot at 321 Johnson Street (at the corner of Guadalupe Street) a few blocks north of their original. They now had a restaurant with, three dining rooms and a big kitchen. The historic 200 year old building, started life as a brothel. It was a series of small rooms, each with their own outside door, that clients accessed from the street. If you look closely, you can see the building’s old bones. The new restaurant added a sushi bar (built by Hiro). It was the in New Mexico. It opened just as sushi was becoming trendy in the US and was a great success.
Diners, sitting at either the sushi bar or one of Hiro’s tables, can choose from a menu offering izakaya (Japanese small plates); tempura, classic Japanese entrees, and sushi. One of their signature dishes is Shrimp Stuffed Green Chile Tempura inspired by a New Mexico-style chile relleno that Shokko ate at a neighbor’s home over 40 years ago. The long sushi list offers nigiri (raw fish on an oblong rice base), vegetarian sushi, sashimi, maki, and hand rolls (AKA temaki). You can end the meal with a unique dessert including Green Tea Ice Cream Tempura.
7 things we learned while dining at Shohko Cafe
- Shohko Café is one of two sushi restaurants in Santa Fe with Japanese owners. The other, Sushiland East, was opened by long-time Shohko sushi master, Masa Hattori, who with the Fukada’s blessings went out on his own.
- Japanese people use only a tad of soy sauce on their sushi and don’t often use wasabi. If you want to try genuine wasabi instead of colored, grated horseradish, they offer it as a side dish. Wasabi, a small gnarly root that looks like ginseng, is both antiseptic and antioxidant and helps preserve the fish.
- Sushi, dating to the Edo Era, began as a convenient food for farm workers or travelers. It both preserved it and made it easier to transport. The vinegar in sushi serves to preservative the fish.
- Nigiri, sushi is shaped to look like fish and then draped over a base of elongated rice. The pieces are then artfully arranged on the plate to look like a school of colorful fish. Presentation is very important in Japanese cooking and chefs spend a lot of time shaping the fish into the rice..
- Eat your sushi on the spot or right after you get it home. Shohko doesn’t recommend refrigerating sushi. It hardens the rice and affects the flavor of the fish.
The Sake Connection
Shohko owns the cafe with daughters Iba and Mika, daughters own the restaurant. Hiro and Ayame own a sake distribution business serving New Mexico. They are sake experts the café’s extensive saki list reflects this. If you have a question about what sake to order, ask your server, they, too, are very knowledgeable.
If you’d like to learn about sake, Ayame teaches classes at the café. If you want the class schedule, give them a call. They also offer sake pairing dinners on occasion. These are announced in their periodic email blasts. You can subscribe here.
Eating sushi in land-locked Santa Fe may seem a bit odd. Ayame Fukada says Shohko Café is literally “a fish out of water”. But in these days of efficient air transport and sophisticated cooling techniques, fish here is almost as fresh as fish that has just come from the sea. When you get that yen for sushi, belly up to Shohko Cafe’s sushi bar or sit at one of Hiro Fukada’s handmade tables and indulge your inner sushi-lover. Not a sushi fan? Choose one of Shohko Fukuda;’s authentic Japanese dishes that have been wowing diners for years. Whatever you choose, it’s made with love in this kitchen where the chef believes you are what you eat.
The Fukada family in San Francisco in 1970. Shohko sewed all of the girls clothing by hand. She used old curtains and other fabric scraps. Hiro shot the photo using a timer.
We were guests of Shoko Café for dinner. Their generous hospitality did not affect this post in any way.