South Bourbon Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The South Bourbon Kitchen, New Restaurant in a Familiar, Completely Redone Location

“I got a plate of chicken and taters and a lot of stuff like that
All, all I need is a biscuit, but I wish you’d look where they’re at
I guess I could reach across the table but that’s ill-mannered, Mom always said
I wish I had a biscuit, I just can’t eat without bread.”
~ Jimmy Dean: Please Pass the Biscuits

Country music is renowned for songs that tug at your heart strings. The very best sad country songs render us weepy and melancholic because our very souls can relate to and empathize with the sad, touching lyrics, mournful melodies and tear-jerking tempos. Jimmy Dean’s Please Pass the Biscuits may just be the saddest song ever in country music. This song recounts a boy desperately trying to get someone to pass him biscuits to eat with Sunday dinner. Tired of being ignored by the grown-ups, he finally decides to stop being polite and just reach for one. Alas, by that time, nary a biscuit is left.

Just a Portion of the Capacious Dining Area

How can a song about a little boy not getting a biscuit with his dinner be sadder than He Stopped Loving Her Today? Or Old Shep? Or Chiseled in Stone? Or How Can I Help You Say Good Bye. Sad songs all, but if you’ve ever been cruelly deprived of a biscuit prepared at a true Southern kitchen, you know the sadness of which I speak. Before the Civil War, biscuits were so revered and celebrated that they were usually reserved for Sundays alone. A century and a half later, Southerners still consider the biscuit a delicacy. So do those of us who lived in the Deep South and experienced the incomparable deliciousness of fluffy, flaky golden biscuits slathered in melting butter or strawberry jam.

Come to think of it, the dearth of great Southern restaurants in New Mexico would be a great topic for a sad country music song. When we left Mississippi, we bid adieu to stifling humidity, rampant poverty, high unemployment and politics as corrupt as…New Mexico’s. We also said good bye to great friends, lush greenery, beautiful beaches and close proximity to some of the best Southern restaurants in the country. On a ledger of deficits and surpluses, the biggest deficit might be those Southern restaurants we frequented. Lest you condemn me for undervaluing great friends, you’ve got to understand that in the South, dining is synonymous with family and friends sharing great food and warm conviviality.

Southern Sliders

Nowhere is this better conveyed than in John Egerton’s Southern Food, a magnificent tome which–despite being widely considered the definitive book on Southern cooking–was not as much a cookbook as it was a study on how food could be a unifying force among people of different backgrounds. “Within the South itself,” Egerton wrote, “no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctively characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.”

When we learned of the March, 2018 launch of a Southern restaurant called South Bourbon Kitchen, we had high hopes of recapturing the spirit of Egerton’s declaration that “a meal in the South can still be an esthetic wonder, a sensory delight, even a mystical experience.” Those hopes were somewhat dashed when we asked where the chef was from (expecting somewhere in Dixie) and our server responded “Deming.” Deming! That’s about as South (attitudinally, not latitudinally) as Springville, New York. If learning the chef was from Deming was somewhat deflating, perusing the menu and not seeing biscuits made me even more simpatico with the little boy in the Jimmy Dean song. Thankfully, the rest of the menu restored our hopes (more on the menu below).

Fried Green Tomatoes with Housemade Pimento

While co-owner and executive chef Dru Ruebush may have been born in Deming and raised in Silver City, previous generations of his family did hail from the South. That’s a huge plus! So is the menu’s proclamation “Southern inspired. Locally sourced. Served fresh.” South’s location is both familiar (at least in terms of address) and brand new. South is located at the former home of several short-lived eateries (Heimat House and Beer Garden, Independence Grill, Los Compadres) and the legendary Liquid Assets. Unlike previous tenants who didn’t do much to the tired and aged space, the South has risen again courtesy of a complete make-over. The transformation is stunning inside and out. In fact, the entire retail center has metamorphosed. It’s now comprised exclusively of restaurants (such as the Curry Leaf and Tap That) with inviting patios where once there was only dull views of the back of the edifice. A dog-friendly patio made our debonair dachshund The Dude feel welcomed.

Though the menu lists several of our favorite Southern dishes, albeit several tinged with the decidedly New Mexican predilection for piquancy, we were torn between our yen for tradition and the excitement of disparate culinary traditions melding together. You’ll find, for example, smoked pork ribs with a chipotle Carolina sauce, habanero chicken lollipops with Taos honey, pork chop stew with Hatch green chile and a roasted beet salad with a pinon vinaigrette. It’s a menu wholly unlike that of other attempts at winning over persnickety Duke City diners to the nuances and joys of Southern cuisine.

Langoustine and Scallop Po’ Boy

While bologna sandwiches are ubiquitous across the fruited plain, the fried bologna sandwich is especially beloved in the South where it’s considered the “poor man’s steak.”  Thin-sliced bologna won’t do.  Aficionados like their bologna thick, the way it’s offered at the South Bourbon Kitchen.  The very first item on the “Snacks” portion of the menu is, in fact, are two fried bologna sandwiches  fittingly called Southern Sliders (two thick fried beef bologna slices, pickles and mayo nestled between a soft bread roll).  Everyone who’s ever loved a fried bologna sandwich (and there are plenty of New Mexicans who have) will enjoy these very much.  If I had my druthers, the bologna would have been even more deeply fried, not just at surface level and instead of a bread roll, one of those great Southern biscuits.

While Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and a subsequent movie by that name may have introduced much of the fruited plain to fried green tomatoes, at least one culinary historian contends they were actually as unusual in the South before 1991 as they were anywhere else. Robert F. Moss, wrote “they entered the American culinary scene in the Northeast and Midwest, perhaps with a link to Jewish immigrants.” Knish, kugel, fried green tomatoes. Who would have thought? If the birthplace of fried green tomatoes sounds heretical, it might shock you to learn that pimento cheese, the preternaturally delicious combination of shredded cheese, mayo and diced red pimentos, got its start in New York (or so says another source).

Roasted Beets Salad

Regardless of origin (and my money is still on the South), the best fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese come from the South! Exclamation point! End of story! South Bourbon Kitchen pairs fried green tomatoes and house pimento cheese with chili threads in an appetizer so good, it might transport you to the South (where you dare not share the genesis of this delicious duo). The pimento cheese is especially memorable, reminding us why pimento cheese is commonly referred to as “the caviar of the South” and “the pate of the South.” The fried green tomatoes are a bit on the thick side with a light batter so they’re very juicy. Topping them with a bit of the pimento cheese is a preview of what heaven, or at least Charleston, South Carolina is like.

Entrees include Nashville Hot Chicken, the South’s answer to red chile. It was my second choice, right behind a langoustine and scallop po’boy with heirloom tomatoes and an Old Bay aioli. A netful of fried langoustine and scallops is piled into every po’boy. You’ll have to extricate about half the seafood bounty and eat it with your fork (a nice remoulade would have been welcome). Similarly, we removed the thick, meaty, juicy tomatoes and ate them sans sandwich. In our eight years living in Mississippi, we enjoyed a treasure trove of po’boys, not all of which showcased seafood this sweet and succulent.

Chocolate Jar

My Kim has been on a roasted beets kick lately, but it wasn’t the beets which influenced her to order the beet salad instead of one of the myriad Southern entrees. It was the pinon vinaigrette with which that salad (roasted beets, arugula, bleu cheese, pecans) was served. While many Americans were first introduced to the pinon when basil pesto was popularized in the 1980s, New Mexicans (and by extension, my Kim) have long enjoyed the roasted flavor of piñon with its subtle hint of pine and sweetness. That inimitable flavor is prevalent in the vinaigrette though the sharp intensity of the bleu cheese threatened to overpower everything else. Kim raved about every element of the salad (especially the sweetness of the beets) save for its size. We’ve had side salads about the size of the entrée portion at South.

You know you’re in a Southern (or Southern-inspired) restaurant when things are served in a jar (usually Mason). At many Southern restaurants, it’s usually tea or soft drinks, but because Southerners consider the jar a most utilitarian vessel, jars can be used for virtually everything. Consider South Bourbon Kitchen’s Chocolate Jar (fudge brownie, salted caramel, chocolate pudding and peanut brittle). It’s not the most capacious jar we’ve seen, but it’s brimming with flavor combinations that just work well.  The salt caramel is just salty enough to counterbalance the fudge brownie.  Our favorite component surprisingly was the peanut brittle, as good as we’ve had anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line.

John T. Edge, a disciple of John Egerton, believes “it’s not impossible to serve Southern food outside of the South, but it must be done respectfully.” The South Bourbon Kitchen exemplifies that respect. The South has risen again.

South Bourbon Kitchen
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 March 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Jar, Langoustine and Scallop Po’ Boy, Fried Green Tomatoes with Housemade Pimento, Roasted Beet Salad, Southern Sliders
REVIEW #1033

&South Bourbon Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Philly’s N Fries – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED: May 18, 2018)

Philly’s N’ Fries on 2nd Street

Over the years, my Kim and I have had the privilege and honor of getting to know and love many wonderful restaurateurs who put their hearts and souls into feeding their guests and giving them a wonderful dining experience.  Among our very favorites are Steve and Cathy Garcia who shuttered the doors of their fabulous restaurant Philly’s N’ Fries on Friday, May 18th, 2018.  As Steve so graciously told us, “when God closes one door, he opens another.”  He and Cathy will be moving to Tucson, Arizona where they’ll begin operating their brand new food truck.  Albuquerque’s lost is Tucson’s gain–not only the best green chile Phillys in the universe, but two of the very best restaurateurs and people you could ever hope to meet.

But it’s a dry heat.”  You’ve probably seen that slogan emblazoned on tee-shirts depicting a sun bleached skeletal figure lying prostrate mere feet from a thirst-slaking, life-giving oasis.  You’ve gratefully expressed that sentiment every time Channel 13’s manic meteorologist Mark Ronchetti (or better yet, the pulchritudinous Kristen Currie) predicts yet another day of 90 degree plus weather as you rationalize that you could be in one of the South’s sweltering, sauna-like cities with temperatures comparable to our Duke City, but with 80 percent humidity.  You may even have muttered that phrase while scalding your feet as you scurry to a swimming pool the temperature of bath water.

For years, Albuquerque spelled relief from the oppressive heat “I-T-S-A” as in Itsa Italian Ice, a veritable oasis of cool refreshment on scalding New Mexico summer days.  Itsa was situated in a Lilliputian locale at Lomas and Washington, offering drive-up service for cavalcades of parched motorists.  The specialty at Itsa was a veritable phalanx of Italian ices, a flavor or more for each color on the ultraviolet spectrum.

Cherry Italian Ice at left; Tangerine Italian ice at right

Unlike snow cones and other ice desserts, all ingredients–typically water, sugar and flavoring–used in making Italian Ice are blended together prior to being frozen.  Italian ice is baby-butt smooth and soft while snow cones have a granular, crunchy texture and the flavoring is added afterwards.  Most Italian ice is made with sugar, not corn syrup and has neither fat nor milk products.  It is far more refreshing than ice cream, gelato, snow cones or shaved ice.  It is the paragon of frozen pleasure.

Much to the dismay of Duke City heat-stroke candidates, Itsa Italian Ice shuttered its doors in 1996, a year after we moved back to Albuquerque.  Though you could still find Itsa products on the frozen food aisles at some grocery stores, it just wasn’t the same experience as rolling down your window to place your order and experience glorious heat relief and blissful, flavorful, sweet satisfaction seconds later.

Just after the lunch rush on a Friday

In 2006, Steve and Cathy Garcia purchased Itsa and procured a refrigerated trailer they could ferry to outdoor events throughout the dessert-dry Duke City.  Three years later they actualized their vision for a brick and mortar Italian ice business by launching Itsa Italian Ice on the corner of Second and Phoenix, N.W., two blocks north of Menaul.  The facility isn’t set up for drive-up service, but you’ll want to take a seat and linger for a while at the 50s themed full-service restaurant where now you can get not only your favorite Italian Ice, but hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, a Philly cheese steak, hand-cut French fries, Frito pies, Frontier cinnamon rolls and more. 

In February, 2015, Itsa Italian Ice was renamed Philly’s N Fries.  It’s not everyday a highly regarded and successful business tampers with an established brand identity, but the move was deemed necessary because (surprisingly) not everyone associated the name Itsa Italian Ice with food.  Then, of course, not everyone reads Food & Wine Magazine which, in October, 2010, featured Itsa in its Trendspotting segment.  No, they’re more apt to read Albuquerque the Magazine which spotlighted Itsa’s “better than Philadelphia Philly” in a feature entitled “The Ex-Pat’s Guide to Eating in Abq.”  The rename has proven very successful.

Double Meat Burger with Fries

The panoply of Italian ice flavors includes lemon, watermelon, cantaloupe, lime, grape, black raspberry, tangerine, cherry, banana, blue moon (cotton candy) and chocolate.  The only flavor which  didn’t initially survive the decade plus was Root Beer, my very favorite flavor.  Fortunately, it was added to the menu in June, 2010.  It’s as wonderful as ever with a pronounced adult root beer flavor–strong and peppery.   Unlike some Italian Ices, these actually taste like the fruits (and chocolate) for which they are named. They are still as refreshing as a dip in a cold mountain lake.

Philly’s N Fries provides diners with a nostalgic trip back to a carefree, more innocent time before the infestation of chain restaurants.  Even if you’re not old enough to remember it, you’ll appreciate the sundry bric-a-brac from the Fabulous Fifties.  The Fifties theme starts with the black and white checkerboard tile of the era which blends thematically with the red and white kitchen-style chairs, brushed chrome tables, refurbished Conoco gasoline pump and on the northwest corner of the restaurant atop a vintage Pepsi machine, a bulky, boxy period era television set.

Green Chile Philly & Fries

Although prices are hardly reminiscent of the 1950s (or 1996 for that matter), there are good meal deals on the menu.  Hamburger and hot dog combo meals (French fries and a soft drink with unlimited free refills) are a good bet for cost conscious consumers.  A regular ice goes for $2.50 while a large will put a slight dent in your wallet for two dollars more.  Still, this is Itsa Italian Ice we’re talking about and it’s worth it!

Philly’s N Fries doesn’t offer table-side service.  Cathy and her perpetual smile are  ready to take your order at a counter and she’ll deliver it to your table when it’s ready unless long lines prevent her from leaving her post (in which case, you’ll be called up to pick it up).  If there’s one thing reminiscent of the 50s (from what I’ve heard), it’s the service–friendly, accommodating and pleasant.  The service is enough to bring me back.  Steve, Cathy and their daughter Desiree are among the most friendly restaurateurs in the Duke City.

Philly Cheesesteak at Itsa Italian Ice

Another View of the Fabulous Philly Cheesesteak (Photo courtesy of Sean O’Donnell)

9 February 2018: Philly’s N Fries may be just as adept at satisfying the pangs of hunger as it is refreshing your thirst and you won’t go away hungry.  That’s especially true if you order the double-meat green chile cheeseburger, a behemoth by any measure.  Prepared at just a shade beyond medium, the beef patties are thick and juicy.  American cheese, lettuce, tomato and of course, green chile adorn the burger.  This green chile cheeseburger is one of my Kim’s favorites, but occasionally a burger so good she actually eschews the green chile Philly. The green chile not only has the piquancy New Mexicans love on their favorite burger, but it’s got a nice flavor and the restaurant doesn’t scrimp on it.  

The French fries are crisp inside and out, almost as if they’re fried twice in very hot oil.  These fries are fresh and hand-cut on the premises.  In a city in which most restaurants serve frozen French fries out of the bag, these fresh not-quite-shoestring thin fries are a welcome change.  You’ve got to order a combo meal (sandwich, fries and a drink) because a Philly without fries is like a day without sunshine.

Green Chile Chicken Philly with Fries

2 May 2009: Being a 50s themed restaurant, it’s only fitting that Philly’s N Fries offer a hot dog that was actually around in the 1950s.  Nathan’s Famous were first seen on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1916.  Not only have they stood the test of time, they’ve expanded nationwide and are available in grocery stores and food courts everywhere.  Despite being ubiquitous, Nathan’s hot dogs are a take it or leave it proposition with as many aficionados as there are detractors.  At Philly’s N Fries these fat all-beef dogs are griddled to a crispy exterior.  They’re browned outside but retain their juiciness inside.

During our inaugural visit, we overheard Steve tell a customer that Philadelphia natives who ordered Philly’s N Fries Philly Cheesesteak compared it to the one offered at Pat’s King of Steaks, arguably the City of Brotherly Love’s best cheesesteak.  I dismissed that as pride of ownership until Sean O’Donnell (the very entertaining former KOB FM radio personality), a Pennsylvania native, told me he was “ecstatic” about finally finding “a place in town with a decent Philly Cheesesteak,” “a big deal for a PA transplant.” Considering Sean has steered me toward other great dining destinations, I place a lot of stock in his recommendation.

Nathan's Hot Dog

Nathan’s Hot Dog

9 February 2018: It’s a well-founded recommendation.  the Philly Cheesesteak is terrific!  Sweet white onions are grilled to perfection, not caramelized, but on that fine line between being crispy and soft.  Green peppers are grilled to a slightly crunchy consistency.  Two slices of white American cheese are arranged on each sandwich and it’s a wonderfully creamy and nice melting cheese.  The meat is chopped thin on the grill (a melodic percussion) and is seasoned well; you won’t find any fat or sinew anywhere.  The bread is a soft receptacle for the contents and is quite good.  This isn’t a huge sandwich except in terms of flavor.  No matter what you might read in “# of Visits” below, you can probably double that number.  This is my very favorite sandwich in the Land of Enchantment.  Nine visits out of ten, it’s what I’ll have at Philly’s N Fries.

17 December 2015: The only Philadelphia cheesesteak better in Albuquerque is the restaurant’s Green Chile Philly, a Philadelphia cheesesteak with New Mexican green chile.  Green chile makes everything taste better, especially when the chile has a piquant bite.  My friend “Señor Plata,” an aficionado of the Philadelphia cheesesteak ranks this sandwich even higher than his previous favorite at the now defunct Petito’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho.  The biggest difference, in his estimation, is the steak itself which isn’t shaved sliver-thin as at Petito’s.  It’s also not quite as lean which generally means just a bit of fat for flavor.  A Los Angeles native, Señor Plata has had the very best cheesesteak sandwiches America’s second largest city has to offer and he rates Philly’s N Fries higher.

Cantaloupe Italian Ice

17 December 2015: Not that very long ago, a chicken Philly would have been considered sacrilege, especially in the City of Brotherly Love where the Philly cheesesteak originated.  Today, chicken Phillys are ubiquitous throughout Philadelphia.  It stands to reason that persnickety, variety-oriented diners would want a non-red meat option and chicken, after all, is the other white meat.  As with the more conventional steak-laden Philly, the chicken is finely chopped (it’s a wonder Steve doesn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome) and is available with green peppers and sweet white onions.  Risking the guilt of betrayal for not having our beloved cheesesteak, my  friend Bill Resnik and I were inaugurated into the chicken Philly option in December, 2015.  The date is significant because it’s the day we found a viable alternative to the sacrosanct cheesesteak.

Dessert offerings include the aforementioned Italian ice as well as an old favorite, the Nutty Buddy.  Philly’s N Fries also carries the fabled Frontier rolls, those hot, buttery, gooey rolls of pure deliciousness with a cinnamon sugar glaze.  They pack a day’s worth of tooth-decaying, waist-expanding calories, the kind you love to consume.  Among the very best cinnamon rolls in the Land of Enchantment, they’re worth the extra time at the gym.

Italian Ice–it’s a refreshing, fat free, non dairy dessert that’s an Albuquerque tradition now energizing and winning over yet another generation of thirsty, overheated residents. The green chile Philly cheesesteaks are the very best in Albuquerque (certified by experts like Sr. Plata) and the service is warm and hospitable.

Philly’s N More
215 Phoenix Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2017
1ST VISIT: 1 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 23
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Double meat green chile cheeseburger, French fries, Italian Ice, Hot Dog, Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Green Chilly Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Frontier Roll, Green Chile Chicken Philly

Itsa Italian Ice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED: 2018)

Aya’s New Asian on Menaul

There’s an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between restaurant guests and the restaurant personnel with whom we interact. As guests, we show our appreciation for a dining experience well executed by tipping generously and maybe complimenting the kitchen and wait staff during and after the meal. Representatives of the restaurant– whether they be chefs, maître ds, servers or owners—typically thank their guests and invite them to return. All too often these interactions seem trite, maybe even rehearsed or expected. It’s what we all do because it’s what we’ve always done and it’s what’s expected to be done. Only during and after exceptional (or exceptionally bad) dining experiences do interactions between guests and restaurant personnel become more effusive…or so we thought.

During our inaugural visit to Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine on Menaul, we experienced gratitude and friendliness so sincere and authentic that we couldn’t help but be touched.  Even if the Japanese cuisine hadn’t won us over, the humility and friendliness of Aya herself would have.  Let me step back at this point and explain that the restaurant is actually operated by two women named Aya (short for Ayako).  One Aya runs the front of the house and serves as sushi chef while the other runs the kitchen.  We only met the Aya who’s the public face of the restaurant and we were impressed.

Aya’s Dining Room

The two Ayas have been in Albuquerque for just over half a year, having made the move from Seattle which they found too rainy and dreary.  In contrast, they love the Duke City, especially its incomparable skies and weather.  The Ayas plan on making their lives in the United States, having liquidated their assets in Japan to move here.  Both classically trained in Japanese culinary techniques, they hope to introduce Duke City diners to the food of their homeland…and indeed, the menu offers a few “just a little different” items heretofore not found in the area’s Japanese restaurants.

Aya (the restaurant, not the owners) is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Menaul.  To its immediate west is a Flying Star and just east is Relish.  Wasabi and cranberry colored walls are festooned with serene paintings of lotus blossoms on one side and magnificent glass art showcasing Michael Miro‘s kabuki series on the other.  Aya was delighted in my knowledge and appreciation of the kabuki practices depicted so colorfully.  With an amazing command of English–considering she’s only been in America for about a year–she told us about her life in Okinawa.  Her self-effacing modesty in accepting compliments on her English was but one thing we immediately liked about her.

Vege Tempura

We also liked the Web site’s URL. It’s not just aya.com. It’s ayako-san.com. In Japanese, appending a name with the suffix “san” is a title of respect which can be used with both female and male names and with either given names or surnames. It can also be attached to the name of occupations and titles. In Japan, restaurant owners are often called mama-san or papa-san by both customers and employees. This signifies a level of affection as well as respect. It’s easy to see that Aya deserves such a title of endearment. We also liked that menu items are spelled phonetically—how they sound. Some menu items aren’t necessarily spelled the way Americans or even other Japanese restaurants would spell them. For example, the American spelling for Japanese dumplings is “gyoza” but the Aya menu spells it “gyouza.”

There’s much to like about Aya’s menu. There are seven starters on the menu, including three recently added (such as the green chile Ohitashi and poke salad). Four ala carte tempura options and miso soup can also be ordered as starters. The next section of the menu is dedicated to curry—five types, each served with a small salad. Six noodle dishes, including miso ramen, will sate all of us who love to nosh on noodles. Nine rice dishes, several of the donburi variety, follow suit. Next on the menu are three platters which are served with steamed rice, small salad, soup and small dish of the day. Sushi, available only during dinner time, follows suit then it’s a vegetarian tofu teriyaki dish. Last, but certainly not least is a three item dessert menu.

Gyouza

31 December 2016: Let tempura tease your taste buds. The vege tempura is an excellent starter option, rewarding you with a generous plating of deep-fried assorted seasonal vegetables sheathed in a crispy tempura batter. Having been born and raised in the Windy City area, my Kim generally eschews vegetables unless they’re covered in meat and potatoes, but she loves tempura vegetables. Unlike fried foods in Chicago, these are virtually grease-less. Aya served us lightly battered green beans, zucchini, squash and carrots. Underneath the tempura sheath, each vegetable retains a nice crispness that is indicative of fresh vegetables. Tempura dishes are served with a light soy-based sauce.

31 December 2016: Another excellent starter is the aforementioned gyouza, five lightly stir-fried, house-made Japanese pork dumplings served with ponzu (thin, tart citrus-based) sauce. While Japan is steeped in ancient culinary traditions, gyouza isn’t one of them. Japanese didn’t start making gyouza until after World War II when Japanese soldiers were exposed to Chinese dumplings while serving in Manchuria. Gyouza are usually thinner, smaller (two to three bites), more delicate and fillings tend to have a finer texture than their Chinese counterparts. Made well, gyouza is as good as any Chinese dumplings you’ll ever have. Aya makes them well.

Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate

31 December 2016: You can emphasize the word “special” when a special of the day is posted on the slate board or Facebook page. As someone who tends to order specials more often than from the regular menu, I’m ever attuned for something new and different such as the Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate (cubes of tuna, boiled shrimp, egg, zencom, cucumber and avocado over sushi rice). While we’ve certainly had chirashi before, it’s always been served donburi-style (in a bowl).  At Aya, the chirashi is served in a rectangular plate. The dish is pleasing to the eye and the palate with a nice balance of ingredients in good proportion to one another. Unlike chirashi we’ve had in other Japanese restaurants, we weren’t provided wasabi-sushi which really changes the flavor profile. Instead, we were left to enjoy sweet, delicate flavors that practically had us swooning.

31 December 2016: The Chirashi Sushi Plate is served with a salad, miso soup and pickled vegetables somewhat reminiscent of Korean namul (assorted unfermented salads). A simple salad (iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots) is transformed into a paragon of deliciousness with a cool, refreshing ginger dressing so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate. The miso soup is much better than most we’ve had in Albuquerque where bouillon cube quality miso is maybe not the norm, but it’s shamefully all too common. It’s served hot as opposed to warm which gives it good miso creds with us and the tofu appears to have been made in-house.

Yakisoba

31 December 2016: Another popular Japanese dish of Chinese origin is Yakisoba, a fried noodle dish similar to chow mein. Aya elevates this relatively simple dish of fried noodles and vegetables with the addition of bacon. Yes, bacon! In Japan, thinly sliced pork is most commonly used on Yakisoba. Japan needs to have a bacon epiphany! A generous amount of bite-sized pieces of smoky, delicious bacon coalesces with the thick, sweet sauce to make this potentially the best Yakisoba dish we’ve ever had (we can’t remember having one better). 

6 November 2017: On the first Monday following the long overdue return to standard time, it seemed nothing could get me going despite having supposedly gained an hour of sleep.  What’s the cure for Monday malaise you ask.  The prescription for whatever ails you on Monday or any day is green chile–even in a Japanese restaurant.  Aya’s green chile tempura is as good as you’ll find at many New Mexican restaurants.  Not only does the chile have a pleasant piquancy, it’s served with something other than the de rigueur ranch dressing.  A soy-rice wine dressing imparts sweet notes that contrast nicely with the heat of the green chile strips.  The tempura batter is lightly applied and lends a delightfully crispy texture.

Green Chile Tempura

6 November 2017: Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto describes ramen as “a dish that’s very high in calories and sodium.  “One way to make it healthier,” he advises is to “leave the soup and just eat the noodles.”  Do that at Aya’s and you’ll miss out on a very satisfying, soul-warming soup that’s surely the epitome of Japanese comfort food.  Picture tangles of ramen noodles in a miso flavored soup topped with corn, sprouts, minced meat and butter.  While other Japanese restaurants across the Duke City favor a pork broth for their miso ramen minced meat makes for a surprisingly flavorful protein.  My sole complaint about this ramen–and it’s a nit–is the very thin sliver of butter.  My preference would be for a healthy half pound of butter.  The ramen noodles are a joy to eat though the Iron Chef’s contention that eating solely the noodles would be healthier has got to be wrong.  These noodles are much too tasty not to be calorie-laden.

31 December 2016: Great desserts and Japanese restaurant are two terms not commonly associated with one another. If a Japanese restaurant in New Mexico even deigns to serve dessert, it’s usually plum sorbet or green tea ice cream. Aya offers several desserts heretofore unknown to us. The most intriguing may be the green tea parfait which is served on a goblet similar to what Dairy Queen might use to serve a sundae. Layers of flavor, color and texture define this dessert. Imagine corn flakes (yes, the Kellogs type), green tea ice cream, whipped cream, green tea jelly, chocolate and seasonal fruits. Where do you start? We discovered early on that this dessert is best experienced if you can combine flavors and textures in each spoonful. The combination of corn flakes, chocolate sauce and green tea ice cream is especially satisfying.

Miso Ramen

31 December 2016: We first experienced green tea tempura cheesecake at Naruto, one of the Duke City’s premier ramen houses.  It’s since been an obsession.  Comparisons with Naruto’s version were inevitable.  At Naruto, the cheesecake is drizzled with cocoa powder served atop a swirl of chocolate.  Not so at Aya where a thin tempura batter sheathes a beautiful wedge of green tea cheesecake.  A dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top is served on the side.  It’s a very good cheesecake.

My introduction of this review posited the existence of an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between guests at a restaurant and the restaurant personnel who serve them.  I explained that our experience with Aya was unlike the usual polite interaction between the two parties.  As we settled our bill of fare and prepared to leave, Aya didn’t extend the perfunctory “come back soon.”  She embraced us as one might an old friend or family member and told us how much she appreciated our visit and interest in her food.  She meant it!

Green Tea Parfait

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine offers many of the comfort food favorites Americans have come to love as well as some new and different options which just might become new favorites.  There’s also a strong chance Aya herself will quickly become one of your favorite restaurateurs.

Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake

Aya’s New Asian
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 November 2017
1st VISIT: 31 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate, Yakisoba, Vege Tempura, Gyoza, Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake, Green Tea Ice Cream Parfait, Miso Ramen, Green Chile Tempura

Ayas New Asian Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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