Budai Gourmet Chinese – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque’s Far North Shopping Center

The true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent.
His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection
Ludwig Bemelmans

By definition, gourmets are connoisseurs, taking food more seriously than most and embodying the axiom  “live to eat rather than eat to live.”  True gourmets, as Ludwig Bemelmans would define them, appreciate food of the highest quality, exalting only in the rarefied experiences–those which require the most discerning palates and noses to cognize subtle nuances in complex and sophisticated flavors and aromas.   Bemelmans, himself an internationally known gourmet, posited that the true gourmet will find joy only in tasting, smelling and appreciating perfection, not in its pursuit.

I’ve known several true gourmets fitting Bemelmans definition.  Most of  them are insufferable and condescending.  Though endowed with refined palates cultivated by years of indulgence in the finest foods and blessed with olfactory senses which would put a German shepherd to shame, they derive no sensuous enjoyment from most culinary experiences.  Nothing is quite good enough.  Nothing meets their demanding and exacting standards.  Dining (they don’t eat) with them is a test in patience as they deride and diminish everything put before them.

Pineapple slush and organic flowering tea

Perhaps the best example of a Bemelmans’ style gourmet is Anton Ego, the notoriously harsh food critic from the wonderful animated movie Ratatouille. Ego earned the nickname “the grim eater” for his impossibly difficult to please, pedantic palate. His ironic proclamation, “I don’t like food; I love food.” belied his joyless, funerary approach to dining.

In 1984, British authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy, coined the term “foodie” to describe passionate food-lovers who have enraptured conversations about their food discoveries.  As with gourmets, foodies have a passion for high-quality food and they pursue it with zeal.  Unlike gourmets, however, foodies are interested in all kinds of foods–up to and including pedestrian, everyday foods such as donuts and potato chips, as long as they are of the highest quality.  Foodies find joy in the pursuit and are generally a lot of fun to break bread with.

Boiled chive pork dumplings

Over the past two and a half years, none of my faithful readers have provided more solid tips on where to go to find great food than my friend Barbara Trembath who has shared her finds with me not only for Albuquerque, but for Boston, Sacramento, Phoenix and other locations to which I’ve traveled. A seasoned traveler with a sophisticated palate, Barbara exemplifies the term “foodie” in the best sense of the term. She  revels in the sensuous enjoyment of a great meal and like me, is hardly monogamous when it comes to eating out. She is constantly on the look-out for the next great dining experience and is finding a lot more of them recently because she moved to Boston in 2012.

A great dining experience.  That’s one of several things that distinguish a foodie from a Bemelmans style gourmet.  Foodies like Barbara relish the holistic experience of dining.  They initiate and enjoy the interaction with chefs and wait staff alike, gleaning as much information as possible about their meals.  They savor the experience of trying new and different entrees.  They engage in the discernment of ingredients, even to the point of trying to figure out how to recreate recipes for those  they enjoy most.  They talk during their meals…mostly about their meals.  Sharing a meal with them–and they do share–is akin to sharing a meal with me.

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

After far too many weeks of failed attempts to break bread together, we finally met at Budai Gourmet Chinese in the Far North Shopping Center.  For adventurous foodies, there are few restaurants in New Mexico as accommodating–and as much fun.  Barbara had been to Budai several times, predating reviews by both the Albuquerque Journal and the Alibi.  I was pleasantly surprised to see she was on a first-name basis with Chef Hsia Fang and his effervescent better half, the pulchritudinous pint-sized hostess Elsa.

More impressively, Elsa didn’t try to dissuade them against trying something from the “non-secret” menu (thank you Ari Leveau) as she might people she pegs as “sweet and sour” loving Americans.  That’s a sign of respect.  That’s a sign she’s earned her stripes by having proven themselves as atypical diners.  Being presented with the “other” menu places her in an exclusive class usually reserved for Asian diners who were raised on foods many Americans might consider weird, strange, different…or worse.

Beef stew in clay pot

Budai Gourmet Chinese opened its doors shortly before the dawning of the year 2010.  It didn’t take long for savvy Duke City diners to realize Budai was a special restaurant, one for which the appellation “Gourmet Chinese” is appropriate.  Budai is named for a small fishing village in Taiwan, the “beautiful island” about 75 miles from mainland China.  Neither Hsai nor Elsa are from Budai, but both are inspired by the little village for which they named their restaurant.  Hanging on a wall is an intriguing poem from Budai written in sinography, the unique Chinese character writing style.  Elsa says the poem loses a lot in translation.

On another wall are several photographs taken during a “wrap” party when the filming of a Jackie Chan movie in Albuquerque was completed in 2008.  The Fangs got to know Jackie fairly well and broke bread with the acrobatic actor several times during his stay in the Duke City.  Chan, as it turns out, is quite a cook himself.  It’s doubtful he’s of the caliber of Budai chef Hsai Fang.  It’s possible no one in Albuquerque is.  The day after my inaugural visit, I craved its incomparable flavors so much I had to visit Budai again.  Barbara told me that would happen, that I wouldn’t rest until I’ve tried everything.  I’m off to a good start.

Tea Leaves Smoked Duck (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

Perhaps because of the many and varied economic, geographic, ethnic and cultural influences, Budai’s menu is inspired–and not just the not-secret one.  The regular menu showcases a variety of dishes and cooking styles from several provinces in China as well as several dishes native to Taiwan and even some influenced by the Japanese who occupied Taiwan for many years. Dishes are categorized into chicken, beef, pork, duck, shrimp, fish, squid, scallop, mussel, tofu and vegetable entrees.

A limited–nine small plate treasures–dim sum menu provides tantalizing temptations, several of which might together constitute a meal.  Some diners eschew appetizers altogether and substitute  a dim sum treasure or two.  Though the de rigueur Chinese soups (hot and sour, won ton and egg drop) are available, adventurous diners will see “fish and Goji berry soup” on the menu and read no further.  A separate section highlights hearty noodle soups.

The vivacious Elsa delivers a bowl of lamb stew to our table

Organic flowering tea served in a clear glass pot offers a visually stunning alternative to traditional teas. If you’ve never had flowering tea, you’re in for a surprise. Hand-picked premium tea flower buds are actually hand-sewn into rosettes. When steeped in hot water, these rare artisan tea buds slowly blossom into a bouquet of breathtaking shapes. Budai calls these teas “liquid meditation.” At the other extreme is a slush of the day offering in which fresh fruits are mixed with pulverized ice to fashion a refreshing beverage.

23 November 2013: One of the telltale signs of a great dim sum house is high quality dumplings.  Though Budai’s dim sum menu has but two featured dumplings, another is available on the “no longer secret” menu.  The boiled chive pork dumplings are absolutely not to be missed.  Fifteen juicy and meaty (porky?) dumplings with a perfect consistency between thin translucent wrapper and fillings have that familiar, comfortable flavor that will remind you of why you fell in love with dumplings in the first place.  Immerse them in a light sauce of ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and chili and that comfortable flavor becomes intimate with your taste buds.

Three cup catfish

31 August 2010: The Taiwanese beef noodle soup is an elixir for whatever ails you–a warm, nourishing, soul-warming broth flavored sublimely with star anise, Chinese five star powder and other, more subtle seasonings. Luxuriating in a bowl the size of a small swimming pool are yellow and green onions, thick wheat noodles, shards of Napa cabbage (a very flavorful but drastically underutilized cabbage) and stewed beef. Budai will prepare it to your preferred spice level, taking care to ensure it’s neither too incendiary nor too weak. The only beef noodle soup in Albuquerque that’s comparable is the spicy beef stew at Cafe Dalat and May Hong. That places it in rarefied company.

1 September 2010: The beef stew in clay pot is equally enrapturing. Served in a clay tureen is a bounteous stew that will make you long for the cold snap of winter when the stew’s enveloping warmth can mollify any of old man winter’s misery. Basking in a beguiling broth are cellophane noodles fashioned from mung beans, chewy beef tendon the consistency of gummy bears, succulent stewed beef, yellow and green onions, earthy shitake mushroom buttons and a variety of spices which impregnate the stew with flavor. If possible, this stew is even better the second day when those flavors have penetrated even more deeply.

Dong Bo Pork (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

1 September 2010: Elsa delights in offering suggestions, describing each dish’s provenance and composition at great length if you ask–and she does so with a rare alacrity that bespeaks of her love for the cuisine masterfully prepared by her chef husband.  Her knowledge of the menu will ensure complementary dishes are served.  When my Kim ordered the tea leaves-smoked duck, Elsa diverted me from ordering a beef tongue entree, indicating the beef stew in clay pot would provide a better, more complementary alternative.  She was right!

1 September 2010: The tea leaves-smoked duck is magnificent, each meaty morsel of a half duck imbued with a bacon-like smokiness that complements the essential duck flavor.  It’s a juicy duck with a perfectly crisp skin and just enough glistening, glorious fat to lend to the textural experience.  Thankfully Budai doesn’t serve the duck with a Hoison sauce or with incendiary chili as some Chinese restaurants do.  Instead, a very light and subtle rice wine sauce lends just a hint of savory sweetness.  Tea leaves-smoked duck is a quintessential Szechuan entree and is generally served in festive and celebratory events–like enjoying a great meal with friends.

Beef Tongue

31 August 2010: Budai’s orange peel beef is also subtle, a subdued version of a dish Americanized Chinese restaurants tend to overdo with sauces that are usually cloying and redolent with an excess of tangy orange peel.  Americanized Chinese restaurants also tend to over-caramelize the beef, leaving it an overly chewy, sweet and sticky mess that tastes very much like candied beef.  At Budai the orange peel beef is lightly seasoned with flavors that tease, not overwhelm.  The beef is breaded to a whisper-thin consistency then fried along with slices of orange peel and dried chilis.  It’s a very nice version of a very popular dish.

31 August 2010: Budai’s sugar vinegar short ribs belie the named ingredients, being neither overly sweet nor vinegary.  Both flavors are present, but not in the proportions the name sugar vinegar might hint at.  In fact, these ribs are wholly unlike Chinese barbecued ribs which tend to be lacquered with sauce. Instead the sauce is light and delicate, a flavorful sheathing to complement the meaty short ribs which you’ll gnaw with delight.

Hollow Heart, a rare, very seasonal Chinese vegetable sauteed with fermented tofu

30 August 2010: During our third visit, Elsa came to our table and excitedly told us Budai had a unique vegetable the Chinese call “hollow heart” because its stems are characteristically hollow.  Sometimes called water spinach, Chinese watercress and a host of other names, it’s got nutritional benefits comparable to spinach.   Budai’s rendition is prepared the Cantonese way, with fermented tofu which imparts a very nice flavor.  The hollow heart is fun to eat though it can be messy because you either cut it or you wrap your fork around it like spaghetti.

31 August 2010: One entry a Bemalmans style gourmet would probably not appreciate in the least is Budai’s Dong Bo pork, a fatty pork stewed for eight hours. This half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish  has a very interesting texture.  The fatty portion is almost gelatinous to the point many would find it off-putting.  In concert with the lean meat portion, however,  the fatty flavors sing. Though very fatty, the dong po pork isn’t discernibly greasy.  It’s very tender, so much so that  if you wish to forgo  the sensation of fattiness, all you need to extricate succulent meat from fat is a fork.  To fully enjoy this dish, have it as the chef intended–and centuries of tradition dictate–intact with glorious fat and meat. 

Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables

9 June 2012: Diners who might find the texture of the fatty portion of Dong Bo Pork a big off-putting will delight in the Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables entree.  The Shanghai ribs are essentially the lean portion of the Dong Bo Pork in the form of the most delicious, most tender and glorious short ribs you’ll ever have.  As with most items on the menu, Chef Hsai Fang takes no shortcuts in preparing this entree, a painstaking process that involves several cooking techniques including flash-frying, baking and grilling.  The result is fall-off-the-bone tender short ribs that melt in your mouth.  The sauce is complex and delicious with such components as hoisin and light soy, but in such light proportions as to be a challenge to discern, thereby not being dominated by any flavor profile.

The Chinese vegetables bed on which the Shanghai ribs lie will vary depending on what’s in season.  One popular choice in Taiwanese cooking is Taiwanese Napa cabbage.  Napa cabbage is so important to Taiwan that a sculpture of the vegetable is on display at the National Palace Museum.  The name Napa has nothing to do with California’s famous viticulture epicenter, but translates from the Japanese term referring to the leaves of any vegetable.  Taiwanese Napa cabbage is crisper than other varieties of Chinese Napa cabbage.  It does not wilt under the sauce used on Shanghai Ribs.

Taiwanese Pork Chop Served with Mustard Greens and Fried Rice

Taiwanese Pork Chop

30 August 2010: The most passionate foodies don’t think twice about trying something that might inspire fear and loathing in less adventurous diners.  During my third visit to Budai, I ordered beef tongue only to find out my friend Barbara had ordered  and enjoyed it thoroughly the night before (a little cliche about great minds might be appropriate here).  Having had lengua (Spanish for tongue) in various ways and on many occasions, the notion of trying tongue was a no-brainer.  Contrary to what one might think, the texture of tongue is not akin to shoe leather nor is it comparable to menudo.

The tongue is thinly sliced and on the plate resembles several little, oval tongues, none pink.  Texture-wise, it might remind you of the sliced sausage adorning some pizzas.  It’s not tough, sinewy or chewy in the least.  Budai’s  tongue recipe calls for  grilled jalapenos, green onions, white onions and a soy sauce based sweet sauce invigorated by the jalapeno.  This is excellent tongue, so good you might just tell your friends you got some “tongue action” last night.

The Uniquely Named Lion’s Head (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

30 August 2010: Taiwanese pork chops are another Budai specialty prepared in ways you might not see at any other Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque.  The pork chop is breaded almost Milanesa style, but it’s just an exterior covering for a very tender and juicy pork chop flavored with soy sauce and five spice powder among other seasonings.  What makes this pork chop special are its accompaniment–mustard greens and fried rice.  The mustard greens have a tangy, almost vinegary flavor with a crunchy texture.  The fried rice isn’t made with soy sauce, but is light, fluffy and delicious.

15 December 2010: From Shanghai comes a playfully artistic and playfully named casserole dish called Lion’s Head.  Budai’s rendition is somewhat different from the rare (at least in New Mexico) Chinese restaurants which offer this entree.   Instead of one gigantic meatball configured by ingredient placement to resemble the head of the king of the beasts complete with a shaggy mane, Chef Hsai serves up several large (by American standards) meatballs.  The meatballs are constructed from pork he grinds himself then tops with shredded greens (Chinese cabbage black mushrooms, bamboo shoots) meant to represent the mane.  This flavorful melange, redolent with garlic and star anise in a fragrant brown sauce, is prepared and served in a clay vessel as big around as a wading pool.  It’s a fabulous entree!

Curry Shrimp

15 December 2010: For sheer fragrance, perhaps the most olfactory-arousing, palate-pleasing dish at Budai is the curry shrimp, equaled only by the rendition proffered at Ming Dynasty.  The curry is gravy thick and brackish in color–not quite green and not quite brown, but a combination of both.  It has equal pronouncements of savory and sweet though not nearly as sweet as a coconut enriched Thai curry.  The vegetables in this curry dish–potatoes, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms are perfectly cooked with the potatoes reminiscent of those you might find in massuman curry.  The shrimp are large and absolutely magnificent, a sweet and briny foil to the pungency of the curry.

15 January 2011: In January, 2011, my friend Alfredo Guzman regaled me with tales of his recent visit to California and the terrific Chinese food he ate during his stay all the while lamenting the absence of great Chinese food in Albuquerque.  That was akin to throwing down the gauntlet in my direction so I invited my  friend to Budai.  A whiff of the magical aromas emanating from the kitchen followed by a couple of bites of the chive pork dumplings and the California Chinese restaurants suddenly didn’t measure up any more.  The smiles of sheer joy on his face were a testament to yet another convert won over by the greatness that is Budai.

Pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup

15 January 2011: In between utterances of pure joy, my friend, a native of the Philippines, exclaimed (several times) how our shared entrees elicited flashbacks to the style of food on which he grew up.  The flavors triggered happy memories of great meals he hadn’t experienced in years.  Fred couldn’t believe a Chinese restaurant in New Mexico would serve pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup.  He couldn’t believe just how good this dish is.  The pig’s feet are meaty and delicious with a surprising tenderness.  The mung bean noodles, some at least a foot long, are perfectly prepared.  The broth, an amazing elixir in a swimming pool sized bowl more than big enough for two, includes bak choy and scallions.

15 January 2011: When we inquired about the three cup chicken dish on the menu, Elsa explained that when she grew up in Taiwan, chicken was a rare delicacy so the family cook found ways to stretch it as far as it would go.  One way was by creating a broth made with one cup rice wine, one cup sesame oil and one cup soy sauce along with ginger and basil.  The broth was simmered for a long time in an earthenware pot along with chicken.  The slow simmering ensures the sauces are absorbed by the chicken.  This dish is served in the earthenware pot on which it is prepared.

An appetizer of thinly-sliced beef

15 January 2011: Elsa also shared that, courtesy of the three sauces, the dish was extremely salty so it was served with rice to absorb the saltiness and in the process, stretch the dish. Conscious of today’s low sodium lifestyles, Chef Hsia’s version of three cup chicken is far less salty.   Elsa informed us that several Filipino customers asked that instead of chicken, catfish be used on the three cup dish.  That’s the way we requested it.  The three cup catfish was absolutely amazing with the prominent flavors of ginger and basil enveloping us in warmth and deliciousness.  It’s one of my new favorite dishes at Budai…along with the pig’s feet and mung bean noodle soup, Dong Bo pork, etc., etc….

7 May 2011: If you make it a practice to ask Elsa to select your meal, you’ll always be pleasantly surprised.  When my friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of Break the Chain, walks into Budai, he’ll tell Elsa “I’ve got $25 to spend for lunch” and places himself entirely in her hands.  He’s never had the same thing twice and has nothing but praise for everything he’s had.  One new favorite he and I shared is an appetizer of lightly marinated and seasoned thinly-sliced beef served on a bed of lettuce.  Not quite as thinly sliced as carpaccio and far more generously plated than carpaccio tends to be, this cold-served beef may remind you of high-quality roast beef, but with subtle seasoning that brings out even more of the beef’s natural flavors.

Spicy Beef Tendon

15 May 2011: In recent years, foodies have embraced the holistic potential of every part of an animal, many discovering that offal isn’t awful.  Offal, a culinary term referring to the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal is often considered a delicacy. Budai subscribes to the use of all animal parts, unleashing deliciousness in every part.  Take for example  beef tendon, which some might dismiss as elastic, sinewy and tough.  In the hands of Hsia, tendon is prepared with incendiary chilis, whole peanuts, green onions and lively seasonings that will awaken your taste buds.  Thankfully Tsai doesn’t boil the tendon to the point that it’s soft and flavorless.  Its texture is honest and its flavor is fulfilling.

15 May 2011: Another greatly underutilized ingredient which in the hands of a master can be quite good is taro, a tuberous root vegetable which, much like a sponge, can absorb the flavor of almost anything with which it’s cooked.  Taro is sweet, but not cloying.  It’s starchy–much like a parsnip or turnip–and retains its form when cooked.  Budai serves a taro and chicken stew that is simply redolent with flavor.  The savory qualities of the chicken and the sweetness of the taro coalesce in a thick broth that impregnates the dish with deliciousness.  The chicken is not de-boned, a minor inconvenience considering how taste each morsel is.

Taro root and chicken stew

Taro root is perhaps not so much an acquired taste as it is an ingredient you either  like  immediately or you’ll never like it.  On its own, it’ll probably never win any favorite flavor contests, but as a complementary ingredient it melds well, like a good supporting actor.  The not-so-secret menu has offered, on occasion, a crispy fried duck layered with taro root paste.  Perhaps only vegetarians would find fault with the crispy duck which is succulent and tender, a paragon of poultry perfection.  The taro root paste, on the other hand, is starchy and semi-sweet.  To me, it’s a nice complement; to my Kim, it’s a nuisance to be scraped off.

23 November 2013: As with many great restaurants, Budai offers a seasonal menu that takes advantage of ingredients which are at their freshest during each of the four seasons.  Though winter is not often thought of as a growing season, it’s the time of year in which Chef Hsai prepares soul-warming specialties not available any other time of year.  Among the very best of these is a luscious lamb stew wholly unlike the mutton stews so prevalent in New Mexico’s Navajo country.  It’s a stew so rich that Hsai dares not serve it any other time of year, so rich that Elsa contends it can give diners a bloody nose if eaten in summer.  That sounds like the perfect wintery elixir and it is.  The lamb, as tender as can be at under one year of age, is selected personally by Elsa and Hsai from a local rancher.

Five spice and honey lacquered ribs

One-inch lamb cubes (bone included) are marinated-brined-stewed for hours in a sauce that includes rehydrated figs, scallions, chilies, star anise, garlic skins, fresh ginger and other seasonings then is served with mung bean noodles, shitake mushrooms and cubes of tofu.  The tofu is “honey-combed” thanks to first being frozen then thawed.  The tiny holes allow the cubes to absorb the unctuous broth very well. The stew is served in a clay pot nearly the size of a swimming pool.  It’s one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had at any Chinese restaurant anywhere, but then I say that about almost everything at Budai.

23 November 2013: When ordering something as large, filling and rich as the lamb stew, Elsa will recommend a “smaller” appetizer such as the five spice and honey lacquered ribs. Smaller in this case means four large meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs instead of say fifteen boiled chive pork dumplings. Lacquered in a rich sauce of five spice powder and honey, the ribs give the appearance of being very sweet, but they’re not anywhere close to the “meat candy” some Chinese restaurants serve. Nor is the meat “disguised” in the sauce. These are so good and so tender you don’t even need teeth to enjoy them.

Five Flavors Mussels

9 June 2012: There is never a shortage of adventurous surprises on the Budai menu and if you’re an adventurous diner who likes to try new things, you’re bound to find a new favorite every visit.  Pity the monogamous diners who eat the very same thing every visit because they’re missing out on the joy of new discoveries.  On the other hand, those of us who try new items every visit won’t partake of the type of wondrous deliciousness you can eat every meal.  One item I’ll surely miss until it comes back up on my rotation are the Five Flavor Mussels (alternatively you can order Five Flavor Cuttle Fish), New Zealand green-lip mussels in a multi-ingredient, multi-flavored sauce.  The base for the sauce is a sweet tomato sauce (you’d be surprised at just how much tomatoes and even ketchup are used in Chinese cuisine) to which is added garlic, ginger, scallions and chili.  It hits every note on the flavor scale. 

1 May 2014: Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet) posited that “Scallops are expensive, so they should be treated with some class. But then, I suppose that every creature that gives his life for our table should be treated with class.”  Imbued with a mildly sweet and delicate flavor and a tender, but not mushy texture, scallops are often maltreated at restaurants which deploy sauces which obfuscate their natural flavor.  That has long been my opinion of restaurants which cover scallops in marmalade-like orange sauce so cloying there is little natural citrus influence discernible. 

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

My friend and fellow gastronome Hannah Walraven of Once Again We Have Eaten Well raves so effusively about the crispy orange peel scallops at Budai that trying them was inevitable.  If anything, Hannah sold this entree short.  It is simply fabulous!  Served in a ceramic seashell, the scallops are lightly battered and covered in a reduced orange sauce with ginger, Szechuan chiles and plenty of crisp yet chewy orange peel with a candied texture and flavor.  The sauce doesn’t detract from the flavor of the large scallops and is wholly unlike the syrupy sauce so many other restaurants serve. 

2 May 2014: With almost every Chinese entree you can name, there’s a version other restaurants serve then there’s Budai’s version.  Invariably Budai’s version is the very best.  That goes for Budai’s Singapore Rice Noodles, which rank with those at May Cafe as the very best in the city.  Singapore noodles are a tangle of thin rice vermicelli noodles stir-fried with pork, shrimp and vegetables (green and white onions, julienne carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts) in a light curry.  The curry is terrific with more than a hint of piquancy coupling with a pungent quality while the clear vermicelli noodles are delightful, requiring no cutting or twirling around your fork.  Both the pork (which is plentiful) and the shrimp are perfectly prepared.

Singapore Rice Noodle

Singapore Rice Noodle

31 October 2015: For years, American restaurants seemed to shun the long, narrow razor clam, an aversion likely triggered by the worm-like creature in the shell.  Asian restaurants, meanwhile, showcased them in diverse and delicious ways.  Resembling an old-fashioned straight razor, these mollusks may not be the most appealing in appearance, but their deliciousness outweighs any ill-founded prejudice.  When Elsa is effusive about any menu item (as well she should be when her genius chef husband prepares it), you’ve got to try it.  She raves about the stir-fried razor clams.  So will you!  A generous bowl of razor clams are served in a brown “gravy” with basil leaves, minced garlic, green onions and sheer magic.  These magnificent mollusks are absolutely addictive, so good you’ll be tempted to order a second portion.

31 October 2015: If ever a dish earned its name, it’s Chow Fun, a stir-fried dish made with a broad rice noodle.  For my Kim, few things are as much fun as showing me her adroitness with noodles, knowing anything longer than a rigatoni noodle confounds and endangers me (as in accidentally stabbing myself while trying to wrap the noodles around a fork).  Chow Fun noodles can be longer than six-inches.  In the hands of a stir-fried master, they can be quite wonderful.  Budai prepares a version that includes chicken, onions, cabbage and chili.  Though this dish has an oleaginous texture, Budai’s version is the antithesis of greasy and oily.  That, too, evinces the chef’s deft touch and experience.  This is the best chow fun dish in Albuquerque.

Chow Fun Noodles with Chicken

31 October 2015: What’s the best way to respond to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) denouncement of bacon as a cancer-causing scourge?  If you’re tired of alarmist bureaucrats telling you what to do, you’ll thumb your nose and fry a rasher or two of bacon for your next breakfast.  My way of showing rebellion was by ordering the pork belly bacon with spicy onion dish at Budai.  Not even the hypocrites at the WHO would be able to resist this bounteous bowl of sheer deliciousness.  The pork belly bacon combines the richness of pork belly with the smokiness of bacon, the best of two qualities.  The onions inherit their spiciness from chili and jalapeños, stir-fried to a delightful consistency.  Elsa suggested coupling this dish with rice, a good idea if you want the dish to go just a little further…or if you can’t handle the intense piquancy.

11 November 2012: Ask many people about Chinese desserts and the answers you’re likely to hear–almond cookies, fortune cookies, etc.–might induce laughter. In truth, many Chinese prefer fruits instead of the cloying, tooth-decaying sweets Americans crave.  Leave it to Tsia to introduce us to something decadent, delicious and different–a lovely plating that resembles an orange noodle nest surrounding a patty of some sort.  The “patty” is a roundish quarter-inch thick, maybe seven-inch around mound of sweet, sticky rice and raw peanuts caramelized to form a sort of pie.  In fact, Elsa sliced it for us in the way we might slice pizza.  This is an outstanding dessert which should be on the daily menu.  That, too, is something which could be said about so many items at Budai, but then if you continuously repeat your favorites, you won’t experience the soon to be new favorites.

Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions

7 August 2016: In 2008, restaurateur extraordinaire Tom Hamilton invited us to dine at his fabulous restaurant, the Hamilton Chophouse then a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango. By the terminus of an exceptional meal, our high regard for the Chophouse was surpassed only by our esteem for its affable owner with whom we’ve remained friends. Tom Hamilton is an exemplar of class and integrity, one of the most devoted family men I’ve ever met. Though we’d seen him beam with pride when waxing poetic about Ellyn, the lovely love of his life and their delightful daughter Haley, we met them for the first time at Budai, one of Tom’s favorite restaurants in Albuquerque. Fortunately Elsa sat us at Budai’s most capacious table because the table’s Lazy Susan, roughly the size of a hot air balloon, was nearly overflowing with all the appetizers and entrees we shared and  beautifully photographed by the talented Haley.

7 August 2016: Haley, it turns out, spent a summer studying in Taiwan where she developed a fondness for scallion pancakes.  Budai’s version is reminiscent of those she enjoyed so much at the island nation formerly known as Formosa.  At Budai, a scallion pancake is roughly the diameter of a personal-pizza.  Scallion Pancakes are formed from hard dough rolled out in such a manner that it creates a series of layers similar to Greek phyllo without the flakiness and delicateness. In between those layers, a sheen of oil (or perhaps clarified butter) is applied and scallions are spread in between. After the scallion pancake is rolled into a flat disc, it is fried in butter or oil until completely cooked and crisp on the outside.  These golden orbs are superb!

Scallion Pancake (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016:  Bon Appetit describes soup dumplings (not pictured) as falling “in the category of “delicious things we love to order when we’re out, but would never even dream of making at home.”  A mainstay of dim sum menus, these steamed buns are an intricate dish whose Houdini-like preparation baffles non-chefs.  Within each plump dumpling is nestled a little pork meatball surrounded by a delightful meaty broth.  How the broth gets in there is a mystery, the answer to which you can find online, but one foodies prefer not to contemplate as we’d rather be enjoying these tender pouches of porcine perfection with the liquid surprise.

7 August 2016: An episode of Friends in which Joey Tribbiani urinated on Monica’s jellyfish sting contributed to an inaccurate myth about jellyfish, the sting of which should be treated only with vinegar.  Another myth is that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Don’t ever tell Chef Hsia or anyone at our table that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Not only that, they’re delicious…or at least the way they’re prepared at Budai whose Jellyfish Salad  is magnificent.  You’ll never give it a second thought that you’re eating jellyfish whose texture and flavor are palate pleasing as are the melange of ingredients (well-cooked jellyfish with celery, cilantro, rice cooking wine, white pepper powder and scallions) with which the jellyfish is prepared and served.  Few dishes have surprised me as much as this one did.

Jellyfish Salad (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Regular readers have been subjected to my incessant whining about Americanized Chinese food and especially anything sweet and sour (typically described as “candied”).  When Elsa recommended sweet and sour flounder we momentarily wondered if had forgotten who we are.  She then explained that Shanghai style sweet and sour is very different and far superior.  True enough.  Instead of the cloying reddish sauce served at just about every other Chinese restaurant in town, Budai’s Shanghai style sweet and sour sauce is far more balanced with no one flavor component (sweet, savory, tangy, piquant) overwhelming the other.  The flounder is delicate, flaky and absolutely delicious.

7 August 2016:  As is often the case when ordering a number of dishes at Budai, you probably won’t achieve consensus in deciding which is the best or favorite.  One dish came close.  That would be the pork belly with bamboo.  In this novel-length review you’ve already read about the Dong Bo Pork, the half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish with which I fell in love during my first visit to Budai.  Picture smaller pieces of unctuous pork belly served in a rich, luxurious sauce with shredded bamboo (similar to  the bamboo served with green curry at Thai restaurants).  I was the sole hold-out who preferred the Dong Bo Pork whose combination of gelatinous fat and crispy bacon appeals to some primitive manly instinct.

Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Though we rarely order from the regular menu, we’ll forever make an exception for the Black Pepper Lamb, a wok-fried dish with a piquant bite (courtesy of incendiary Thai bird peppers) served over crispy cellophane noodles.  If you’ve ever lamented the gaminess of lamb, this is the lamb dish for diners who don’t like (or think they don’t like) lamb.  The lamb is moist and glistening from the fiery influence of chili oils.  Despite the heat, this is a very balanced dish with several tastes.  Had it not been for the Shanghai-style sweet and sour flounder, this would have been my favorite dish.

7 August 2016:  Thematically this review been a reflection on the pleasures of dining with friends peppered with my feeble attempts at describing dishes so good mere words don’t do them justice.  Dining with the Hamiltons ranks up there with Friends of Gil outings for the sheer delectation of dining with great people who share a passion for wonderful food.

Pork Belly with Bamboo (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

In all likelihood, a Bemalmans style gourmet might not enjoy much about a meal at Budai, but most true foodies will.  Budai is a very special restaurant, one which should be shared with open-minded friends who love food as much as you do.

6300 San Mateo, N.E., Suite H-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-7898
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 31 August 2010
LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dong Bo Pork, Sugar Vinegar Short Ribs, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Orange Peel Beef, Hollow Heart, Taiwanese Pork Chops, Beef Tongue, Curry Shrimp, Lion’s Head, Three Cup Catfish, Pig’s Feet with Mung Bean Noodle Soup, Spicy Tendon, Taro Root and Chicken Stew, Crispy Duck with Taro Paste, Lamb Stew, Honey and Five Spice Lacquered Ribs, Five Flavors Mussels, Shanghai Ribs, Crispy Orange Peel Scallops, Singapore Rice Noodles, Razor Clams with Basil, Chow Fun with Chicken, Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions, Jellyfish Salad, Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder, Pepper Lamb, Pork Belly with Bamboo, Scallion Pancake,

Budai Gourmet Chinese Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine on San Pedro Just North of Lomas

Several years ago and much to the surprise of the proprietor, I ordered a durian shake at a Vietnamese restaurant.  She proceeded to caution me that durian has a very powerful aroma and flavor many people find off-putting.  When she witnessed my enjoyment of the cold pungent fruit beverage, she gave me a big hug and told me I was the “only white boy” she ever saw who delighted in the odoriferous nuances of what is known widely as “the world’s stinkiest fruit.”  Indeed, durian is one of the very few things in the world Travel Network celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern cannot eat.  Its sulfurous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and even decomposing corpse.

It was deja vu all over again (as Yogi Berra once said) when I visited Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine with my good friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell.  When I ordered a durian smoothie, shock and awe registered in the face of  proprietor Mindy Nguyen who proceeded to warn me that durian has a very strong flavor, a flavor my well-traveled friends had never before experienced.  Much to my own surprise, Larry and Deanell both loved the fusty flavored drink, neither of them finding it especially malodorous.  For years I’d proudly worn a badge of honor as the “only white boy” to enjoy durian.  Now Larry and Deanell join me in a rather exclusive club.  We all received hugs from Mindy who must have marveled at our intrepidity (or foolhardiness) for even trying the durian smoothie, much less enjoying it so much.

Le Bistro’s Dining Room

In a spirit of full disclosure, durian shakes and smoothies are rather tame compared to extricating the pulpy flesh from its spiky host and eating that yellowish flesh unadulterated.  My first experience with durian occurred in Massachusetts when my friend Fred, an Air Force veteran who had served in Vietnam and was married to a beautiful Vietnamese woman, essentially dared me to try it.  He was stunned that I not only didn’t gag at being in the proximity of durian, but genuinely enjoyed it.  His wife hugged me.  Hmm, do you see a pattern here?

If there’s one trait most Vietnamese restaurants share, it’s that the aromas emanating from the kitchen are absolutely alluring.  Even though Le Bistro offers the pungently potent fruit in smoothie form, the most prevalent bouquet–even before you enter the bistro–is that of baking bread.  One whiff will trigger wonderful memories for those of us who grew up with moms baking the staff of life.  As the marquee notes, Le Bistro is a bakery as much as it is a restaurant.  It’s the bakery side of the 4,500 square-foot edifice you’ll step into and where you’ll immediately be enveloped by addictive aromas.  A brightly illuminated menu board complete with food porn quality photos lists some ten banh mi, the incomparable Vietnamese sandwiches that are taking America by storm.

Le Bistro’s Bakery Features Ten Different Banh Mi

The restaurant side of the complex is inviting and beautiful  Framed photograph-quality paintings of pulchritudinous Vietnamese women festoon the walls.  Tables are adorned with white tablecloths, a centerpiece of which is a condiment caddy with such Asian food ameliorants as Sriracha and soy sauces.  Seating–tables and booths–is as comfortable as it is functional with good spacing between tables.  Le Bistro is an attractive venue.  Service is genial and warm.  Both our server and the perpetually smiling Mindy answered all our questions about the menu, exercising great patience when we (mostly Deanell and I) couldn’t decide what to order.

We continued to peruse the menu as we enjoyed our appetizer, listed on the menu in both Vietnamese (Wonton Ga Chien) and English (chicken fried dumplings).  Served six per order, the dumplings are engorged with minced chicken which is seasoned well.  Enjoyable as the dumplings are, the real palate-pleasing aspect of this starter is the dipping sauce, a wonderful departure from the seemingly de rigueur soy-based dipping sauces served ad-nauseum with dumplings.  Le Bistro’s alternative is a reddish-brown (likely from tamarind) sauce with a light syrupy consistency and balanced flavor notes of sweet, savory, tangy and piquancy.

Chicken Dumplings

Larry’s selection, as it was when we visited An Hy Quan was a stir-fried noodle dish (Hu Tien Ap Chao) in the shape of a crispy, crunchy bird’s nest.  Concerned with maintaining his svelte physique, before ordering Larry verified that stir-fried doesn’t mean a long, luxurious bath in hot, calorific oil.  Instead, the pre-fried noodles are flash fried–just momentarily immersed and quickly extricated from the oil then served with fresh garden vegetables (onions, broccoli, cabbage, celery and carrots), shrimp and a sauce that reconstitutes the noodles.  Larry loves this dish and raved about Le Bistro’s version.  He even ate the broccoli which he usually enjoys about as much as President George H. W. Bush did (which means not at all).

For Deanell, a vermicelli noodle dish with shrimp and grilled pork called loudest.  The grilled pork, marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon and possessing a pronounced grilled flavor, is delicious and Le Bistro doesn’t scrimp on portion size.  Douse the entire dish with nuoc mam, a delightful Vietnamese fish sauce, and even the vermicelli noodles come to life.  The dish also includes chopped and whole peanuts and fresh vegetables (bean sprouts, lettuce, cilantro and mint leaves and scallions).  It’s served in a swimming pool-sized bowl, but is so good you may not be able to stop yourself from eating it all.

Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork and Shrimp

My Kim would have been proud of my choice.  Listed on the menu as steamed vermicelli with grilled pork, shrimp and pork sausage, the vermicelli noodles are often called “patter noodles” which don’t really seem to be noodles at all.  In fact, they’re more akin to one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern.  The grilled pork shrimp and pork sausage are topped with crushed peanuts and scallions.  As we learned at the legendary May Hong, it’s traditional to wrap the proteins first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro and fresh basil leaves inside.  These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Le Bistro’s terrific fish sauce.  Only the pork sausage lacks personality.

It’s oft said that you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach lest you return home with bags of comestibles you might not otherwise have ordered.  You’d think the same premise would apply at restaurants, but on our way out the aromas of fresh bread wafting from the front room pulled me in like a siren’s call–to the tune of three banh mi sandwiches: the special combination, grilled pork and grilled chicken sandwiches.  Those I took home for dinner which pleased my bride of 31 years very much.  The banh mi were superb, but frankly, your humble blogger was still rather sated from lunch and didn’t enjoy them as much as a famished Gil would have.

Steamed Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, Shrimp and Pork Sausage

Le Bistro is located on San Pedro between Lomas and Constitution (almost directly across the street from Christy Mae’s).  It’s a destination which promises to draw savvy diners with a magnetic pull.  With more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants, Albuquerque hasn’t reached a critical mass.  As long as they’re all as good as Le Bistro, we’ll continue to frequent them.

Le Bistro Vietnamese Bakery & Cuisine
1313 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-6118
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 August 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Fried Dumplings, Steamed Vermicelli, Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork and Shrimp, Stir-Fried Noodles with Pork, Special Combination Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Poki Poki Cevicheria – Albuquerque, New. Mexico

Poki Poki Cevicheria on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Having settled comfortably into middle age, my favorite participatory sports of basketball and tennis have been replaced by more sedentary, safe and slothful pursuits.  Instead of getting my shot rejected almost as often as the cheerleaders in Peñasco spurned my offers of a burger at Victor’s Drive-in, I now delight in catching every grammatical faux pas, malapropism and inaccuracy uttered by the media–not a difficult challenge since the legendary and near infallible anchor Dick Knipfing retired.  

Instead of double-faulting on my serve eighteen times in a row, it’s answering questions which stump Jeopardy contestants that now gets my adrenaline pumping.  Alas, as a fogey who believes music died in the 70s and could not care less about Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling but count among my closest friends, the Albuquerque Adonis, Ryan “Break the Chain”  Scott, pop culture questions are my downfall. Case in point, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” was my answer to a recent question about a video game franchise from Japan.  The correct answer, of course, was Pokemon.  Pokemon?  I could have answered nearly all there is to know about Poke, the Hawaiian culinary craze that’s sweeping the mainland, but had absolutely no clue about this Pokemon creature.

Place your order and in a few minutes, your Poke adventure begins

Now let me tell you about Poke. Poke (sometimes spelled “poki” and always pronounced poh-kay) refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poke” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poke can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

In Hawaii, poke is a ubiquitous comfort food, served in venues ranging from surf shacks to gourmet restaurants. The advent of poke’s popularity across the fruited plain can be attributed to our shrinking world and the popularity of Hawaii as a travel (and increasingly, a dining) destination. It’s only natural that enterprising chefs who fall in love with poke during forays to the island paradise would want to share this pescetarian phenomenon with their own customers. It may be an overstatement to say these chefs have reshaped the American mainland’s culinary culture, but it’s safe to say they may have introduced its most exciting new food trend in recent memory. Sushi hotbeds such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to embrace poke, but even landlocked destinations in the heartlands now boast of poke restaurants.

Spicy Bowl

In a recent discussion about food trends, my friend David, an accomplished chef and barista, lamented how often the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market. He’s very happy to hear Albuquerque isn’t late to the poke party. On May 18th, Burque celebrated the official grand opening of Poki Poki Cevicheria, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls with Latin flair and influence. Poki Poki is a family owned enterprise which allows intrepid diners to assemble their own poke bowls in a fashion similar to Chipotle’s assembly line process. Poki Poki Cevicheria is located on Central Avenue in the Brickyard District just across the street from the University of New Mexico.

If you’re a true foodie, two items on the preceding paragraph probably caught your eye. The first is the inclusion of the term “Cevicheria” on the restaurant’s name. The second is the term “Asian-Latin” fusion. Poki Poki actually takes a creative departure from the standard poke restaurant template by incorporating “Latin” ingredients and flavors with ingredients and flavors rooted in Hawaii. In Albuquerque, when Latin flavors are discussed, it’s often hand-in-hand with the name Elvis Bencomo, the brilliant chef-owner of Passion Latin Fusion. Elvis collaborated on the development of the restaurant’s sauces and chips (more on them later).

Hawaiian Bowl

Though not a true “cevicheria” as you might find throughout Latin America, Poki Poki, it can be said, is a sushi-meets-ceviche-meets-donburi (Japanese rice bowl dish) restaurant, the first, best and only of its kind in Albuquerque. It was difficult to contain my excitement when introducing my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell to Poki Poki. Larry, the professor with the perspicacious palate, told me he’d “been looking for a restaurant like this for a long time.” Deanell,a culinary bon-vivant who’s probably smarter than Larry and I combined, marveled at how the flavors just popped.

The build-your-own poke bowl concept has five distinct steps: (1) select your bowl (regular, large or unlimited and base (white rice, salad or chips); (2) Go fishing. Choose from albacore tuna, ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon or octopus. A regular bowl rewards you with three ounces of your choice, a large bowl with five ounces and an unlimited bowl with seven ounces. (3) Sauce it up. Choose from the house sauce, roasted jalapeno, passion fruit, red pepper, poki sauce, tosa-mi or fusion mayo. Heat ratings for the sauces range from mild to hot. (4) Toppings. With a regular bowl, you can select three toppings; with a large bowl, it’s five toppings and with an unlimited bowl, you can top the bowl until it’s full. (5) Finish it! Elevate its deliciousness with chipotle mayo, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce, chimichurri or Sriracha.

Latin Bowl

15 May 2016: Unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls,” composed poke bowls ostensibly constructed by restaurant staffers after much delicious trial and effort.  Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff  salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, I opted for the Spicy Bowl during my inaugural visit.  With a base that’s half rice and half garlic chips;  spicy tuna and salmon; passion fruit; crab, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, lime, green onion, pico de gallo and furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces, this “better than any sushi roll” poke is an adventure in complementary flavors and textures, an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together.  The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.

17 May 2016: That next poke bowl transpired two days after my inaugural visit with the Hawaiian Bowl gracing my table.  This beauteous, bounteous bowl with a salad base; salmon, albacore and octopus; fusion mayo; a boatload of toppings (crab, avocado, seaweed salad, cucumber, pineapple, mango salsa, edamame, masago, ginger, sesame seeds and furikaki) and a teriyaki sauce is the antithesis of the Spicy Bowl.  Sweet notes are the prominent flavor profile though the sweetness of the teriyaki and the fructose tanginess of the mango salsa and pineapple are tempered by savory ingredients.  Because New Mexicans like their heat, ask the accommodating staff for some spicy mayo to give this bowl a hint of piquancy that marries well with other flavors. 

A Build-Your-Own Masterpiece

19 May 2016: The promised fusion qualities are best experienced in the Latin Bowl (white rice, octopus and albacore tuna, roasted jalapeño and red pepper sauce, avocado, jalapeño, plantain chips, lime, pico de gallo, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds with a chimichurri dressing).  All too often in New Mexico, Latin fusion means an insistence in using New Mexican green chile.  Wonderful as it is, green chile isn’t missed on the Latin Bowl which has plenty of other delicious heat generating ingredients.   With lime slices, you’re free to impart citrusy flavors to the albacore and octopus a la ceviche mixto, the popular Mexican restaurant offering.  The plantain chips as with the restaurant’s yam chips and garlic chips provide a textural contrast and delightful flavor complement to other ingredients.

29 July 2016: Since introducing my friend Bill Resnik to Poki Poki, it’s become a regular lunch destination for him.  He long ago graduated from ordering the prefab bowls and has been masterfully concocting his own creations.  A mathematician who graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology, Bill has an engineer’s mind with a mad scientist’s whimsy.  To see him point out ingredient combinations is to watch mad science or abstract art in action.  It’s not just “give me some of this and some of that.”  In his mind’s eye, he can actually taste what the intricate flavor combinations will be.  That’s why when we celebrated his birthday at Poki Poki, my instructions to our server were “just give me exactly what he’s having.”   Essentially, it was a melange of vegetables, seafood and sauces in complementary proportion to each other.  Alas, I probably wouldn’t be able to duplicate his masterpiece precisely, but should be able to create deliciousness on my own.  So can you!

The Poki Poki Cevicheria is so good, so radically different, so welcome that you just may do the Hokey Poki dance to celebrate finishing your first poke bowl even as you anxiously await your next.

Poki Poki Cevicheria
2300B Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1077
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 15 May 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Bowl, Hawaiian Bowl, Latin Bowl, Make-Your-Own Bowl

Poki Poki Cevicheria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hot Pink Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hot Pink Thai Cuisine on San Pedro

Black socks and sandals, mixing plaids and polka dots, middle-aged men sporting the “pants falling down” look, T-shirts that accentuate the “spare tire” look, fat guys wearing culottes…  If there’s a fashion faux-pas out there, you can bet some of us XY-chromosome-enabled fashion Luddites have committed it and then some.  When it comes to fashion, many of us are as clueless as a pirate wearing two eye patches.  There is, however, one fashion statement we won’t make.  Among the six to seven shirts hanging (wrinkles and all) in our closets, none will be the color pink.  Nor will they be salmon, carnation, rose, Amaranth or any other shade of pink fashionistas invented in an effort to get us to wear pink.

For men, the only pink thing that’s really cool (despite what we tell our wives and girlfriends about their pink “unmentionables”) is the Pink Panther.  You know, the Pink Panther…the “one and only, truly original, Panther-pink (panther) from head to toe.”  Men have a very special affinity for the “rinky-dink” Pink Panther.  “He really is a groovy cat and what a gentleman, a scholar, what an acrobat!”   He’s everything we want to be, but aren’t cool enough to pull it off.  Alas, they don’t make intellectual cartoons like that any more.  Thank goodness for DePatie-Freleng (whoever they are) and United Artists for syndication.

Interior of Hot Pink Thai Cuisine

Perhaps only in Thailand do men not have an aversion to wearing the color pink. Traditionally every day of the week is assigned specific colors, some of which are considered lucky or auspicious and others which are deemed unlucky. Tuesday’s lucky color, for example, is pink while the day’s unlucky colors are yellow and white. On Wednesday, however, pink reverts to an unlucky color. In 2007, pink gained even more popularity because a Thai astrologer advised the ailing king to wear pink in order to heal quickly and remain in good health (in the pink, so to speak). As a result, millions rushed to purchase pink polo shirts.  (Hmm, will America embrace pink pantsuits should Hillary win the Presidential election?)

We’re always tickled pink when we hear of a new Thai restaurant in Albuquerque and were especially intrigued to learn of one sporting the curious appellation Hot Pink Thai Cuisine. We wondered if the “hot” part of its name was meant to bring additional luck on Tuesdays or perhaps it’s a description of the piquancy level. Hot Pink, it turns out, is a rechristening of the Thai Cuisine Express restaurant and is located in a small shopping center on San Pedro about a block north of Menaul. Though we’d never visited Thai Cuisine Express, we were acquainted with its reputation for serving perhaps the most incendiary Thai food in the Duke City.

Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce

Ironically our inaugural tarriance at Hot Pink occurred just before it was visited by Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp. Howie’s spot-on assessment: “Virtually nothing else changed with the name switch aside from, ironically, the spice level. They wussed out on me, man. It used to be that around here, “Thai Hot” translated to “engulf your mouth” and, later, your innards. No longer. They’ve gone temperate, or Not So Hot Pink. So if you’re a heat junkie, like moi, make sure to emphasize your foodie demise.” In his usual eloquent and balanced manner, he also noted that: “Otherwise, this remains a solid place to get comparatively fresh ingredients and solid interpretations of Thai standards.”

Grrr! Had I read Howie’s review earlier, it would have been “Thai hot” for me instead the rather benign just “hot,” but I digress. Hot Pink Thai Cuisine is Lilliputian in size, but all-enveloping aromas emanate from its kitchen. Step into the restaurant and the mingling of exotic Thai sauces, spices, vegetables and proteins has the pull of a seductive siren. Walls are tastefully appointed though orange (Thursday’s lucky color) is more prevalent than pink. Elephants, the official national symbol of Thailand, festoon the walls (along with Buddha and the requisite pictures of the Thai royal family) though there are no pink pachyderms anywhere.

Fish Cakes

Peruse the menu and you’ll espy many of the “usual suspects” found at every Thai restaurant in town. You’ll also find some items (such as the pumpkin curry) which aren’t quite as commonplace. The menu not only lists and describes each item, but includes full color photographs which may have you drooling before you even place your order. The menu proudly proclaims “we do not add MSG to any of our products or our recipes” and more audaciously warns that “Selection of Thai Hot are irreversible. Management accepts no responsibility for side effects on any spice level.” Methinks the latter warning may be unnecessary based on what we (and Howie) experienced.

The reasons men don’t wear pink aren’t solely esthetic. They’re practical, too. Spillage, particularly of messy sauces, is something at which men are especially adept (largely attributable to our enthusiasm for what we’re eating). Spillage would be as conspicuous on a pink shirt as the plumage of a peacock is during mating season. With chicken satay, we should all wear bibs because there’s bound to be spillage. Hot Pink’s chicken satay, a very delicious poultry Popsicle, is laden with curry, a key component of which is turmeric (which gives satay its characteristic yellow color). Four skewers per order are served with a peanut sauce and a cucumber sauce, both of which are on the sweet side and messy.

Pad Thai

On Fridays during Lenten season, salmon patties were a frequent guest at our family table. With enough salsa they were palatable, but nowhere in the deliciousness vicinity of Thai fish cakes, a common street food in Thailand. Thai fish cakes would proverbially kick sand on American fish cakes. Sliced into small pieces, the fish cakes are bite-sized morsels of concentrated flavor with spices and herbs complementing the fish. Lightly breaded and pleasantly piquant, they’re a perfect foil for the accompanying cucumber sauce whose sweet notes play very well against the savory, briny, spicy fish cakes. My Kim who doesn’t especially like seafood polishes these off with alacrity.

Because our visits to Pad Thai (the restaurant) on the Talin Market complex rewarded us with the best Pad Thai (the dish) we’ve had in New Mexico, my Kim is adamant that lightning can strike twice, that there may be more than one Pad Thai worth ordering. Hot Pink’s rendition of this overwhelmingly popular Thai staple, while good, pales in comparison to Pad Thai’s eponymous dish. This stir-fried Thai noodle dish made with egg, peanuts, shallots, sprouts and pork (Kim’s choice) is prepared in a moderate amount of oil, meaning it’s not nearly as greasy as some Pad Thai tends to be. The tender noodles contrast nicely with the sprouts, but this is not a dish in which you necessarily evaluate how ingredients work in smaller combinations. This is a dish you enjoy as a composite, a whole, a compilation of several ingredients which work well together.

Pumpkin Curry

We’ve only found a couple of restaurants in Albuquerque who serve pumpkin curry and one of them has closed down. It was, therefore, a thrill to find pumpkin curry at the Hot Pink. That thrill was exacerbated by the freshness of the pumpkin. This was not mushy canned pumpkin, but fresh pumpkin which the purveyors scoured the city to find. The pumpkin luxuriates in a large bowl of red curry made wonderfully fragrant and delicious with herbs and spices simmered in a rich and creamy coconut milk enriched with basil leaves, lime leaves, bell pepper and zucchini. If you’re a bona-fide fire eater, go for the “Thai hot.” Even my Kim, whose tolerance for heat extends only as far as Pace Picante Sauce, found the merely “hot” to be rather tepid.

Thank goodness for mangoes being “in season” because that means we can have mangoes with sticky rice, our very favorite Thai dessert. Made with steamed glutinous rice (that sometimes clumps) mixed with coconut milk and topped with mango slices, it is an addictive dessert—even if you don’t eat it the traditional way. That would be, rolling the rice with your fingers and scooping up mango slices, a rather messy way to eat anything. Hot Pink’s version is a wonderful way to finish a very satisfying meal.

Mangoes with Sticky Rice

While most men may not like the color pink in our fashion ensemble, most of us will like the Hot Pink Thai Cuisine restaurant…especially if when we dial up the heat level.

Hot Pink Thai Cuisine
2626 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 872-2296
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 July 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Pumpkin Curry, Chicken Satay, Fish Cakes, Pad Thai

Hot Pink Thai Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!

Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre. Indeed, much of the restaurant’s traffic comes from word-of-mouth. That’s truly the best advertising you can get.

iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavors

Bourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1 Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employs to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.

16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  Note: For the fire-eaters among you, ask Hien to replace the jalapeños with Thai bird peppers which are far more incendiary and delicious.   The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Grilled Chicken and Pork Banh Mi

23 July 2016: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.  If you can’t make up your mind between grilled pork and grilled chicken, the ever-accommodating Hien will build a combination grilled pork and chicken banh mi for you.  It’s my new favorite among the grilled banh mi.

16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

Sugar Cane Juice

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Ikrave Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pop-Up Dumpling House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pop-Up Dumpling House Within the Talin Market

 “And her dumplings were so light they would float in the air and you’d have to catch ’em to eat ’em.”
~Author: Fannie Flagg

Think you know dumplings? Believe you’ve tried almost every type of dumpling there is? That’s what I thought until discovering a Wikipedia page called “List of dumplings” which essentially opened up a large world of ne’er sampled dumplings. For the glass-is-half-full types among us, this list is a challenge…an opportunity to broaden our dumpling horizons. Alas, such a horizon (and waist) broadening experience will mean crossing many borders.  Not surprisingly, not every dumpling type is to be found in the Duke City, although you just might be surprised at just how many types of dumplings you can find within our little slice of heaven on Earth.

Your veritable “around the world in fifty dumplings” tour should start at Ming Dynasty where the dim sum menu showcases such Chinese dumpling treasures as crab Rangoon, har gow (shrimp dumplings), shumai (steamed dumplings stuffed with prawns), sausage buns, steamed barbecue pork buns, shrimp stuffed bean curd and several others prepared so authentically and so well you might swear you’re in Hong Kong. For a dumpling tour of Japan you need go no further than Magokoro where some of the best gyoza (a mix of chicken and pork potstickers) is to be found. For the best dumplings in the exotic Indian sub-continent, track down the Karibu Cafe’s mobile kitchen where the samosas are sumptuous. Better yet, visit the Cafe on Eubank. There’s no need to meet in the mountains of Nepal to enjoy momos, steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings with flavors as impressive as Mount Everest.   Visit Namaste for these momentous momos.  One of the Duke City’s best kept secrets is the Arirang Oriental Market where you’ll find the best Mandu (Korean potstickers) in New Mexico

Susan Creates some of the Best Dumplings in New Mexico

Enthusiasm in Europe runs high for dumplings. At the Red Rock Deli, you’ll want to play Russian roulette with the restaurant’s incomparable sweet and savory pierogi and nalesniki. Even if you can’t pronounce them, you’ll also want to order pyzy, grated Polish potato dumplings. For the best fruit filled empanadas (blueberry is the bomb) in town, a trip to the Golden Crown Panaderia is in order while savory empanadas are made incomparably well at Passion Latin Fusion.  If you’re one of the few Duke City diners who hasn’t visited El Modelo for their fabulous tamales, your around-the-world tour should be reason enough to drop everything you’re doing.  These are arguably the best tamales in New Mexico.  Several metropolitan restaurants offer delicious versions of Italian dumplings, one exemplar being Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho where you can enjoy mouth-watering gnocchi, ravioli and tortellini. If Southern-style chicken and dumplings are more your style, Bucket Headz is your hook-up.

“”What’s this?” you ask. “Empanadas and tamales are a type of dumpling?” “Ravioli, too?” According to Wikipedia and several dictionaries, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Not only are empanadas, tamales and ravioli a type of dumpling, but so are matzo balls, wontons and even Yorkshire pudding. Most dictionaries are rather noncommittal in firming up a definition for the term “dumpling,” though most seem to agree dumplings include a portion of dough or batter that is usually steamed or boiled…though they can be baked or fried. The Kitchen Project goes a bit further: “It can be a batter or dough rolled out that is cooked by itself or filled with anything from meat to fruit. It can be a main dish, side dish or dessert.”

Hot and Sour Soup

The term “dumpling” is even used as a descriptor for people and animals, the context being “something soft and rounded like a dumpling, especially a short fat person or animal.” Thankfully at 6’1” that sobriquet probably won’t ever be used to describe me. With such versatility and universality, we can probably agree that the dumpling is practically a food group in itself. There isn’t a culture on planet Earth that doesn’t enjoy dumplings in one form or another, finding extraordinary satisfaction in biting into a filled or unfilled, crescent-shaped or not, fried, steamed, boiled, sweet or savory, main course or dessert…culinary conundrum.

Unless you consider Chef Boyardee’s “Raviolios” a type of dumpling, my sole experience with dumplings was with empanadas and tamales–until the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts.  There this unacculturated, bumpkinly hayseed from Peñasco discovered Italian dumplings at such paragons of dumpling deliciousness as Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington.  Later when my friends frequented the “Combat Zone,” Boston’s notorious red light district, for adult “entertainment,” I walked the streets of Chinatown in pursuit of dumplings in the area’s dumpling houses.  Despite the name, dumplings weren’t the exclusive offering at these dens of dumpling deliciousness; they also offered an extensive array of Chinese delicacies.

Hot and Spicy Cucumbers

Albuquerque’s very first dumpling house launched in September, 2014 within the sprawling confines of the Talin Market.  The curious appellation Pop-Up Dumpling House implies it’s a mini-restaurant not tied to one brick-and-mortar edifice that doesn’t function as a full-time restaurant.  True enough this Pop-Up enterprise is open only on Fridays and Saturdays in Albuquerque and on Mondays in Santa Fe.  Step into Albuquerque’s commodious Talin Market and the aromas emanating from the dumpling house don’t just pop up; they lure you in like an irresistible siren’s call.  It’s a delicious detour you’ll want to repeat over and over again.

A small menu belies the huge flavors you’ll encounter at the Pop-Up Dumpling House.  Aside from dumplings, the menu offers a number of noodle dishes including an addictive beef noodle soup, beef chow fun and dan dan noodles.  Two mini sandwiches–a “duckwich” and a braised pork belly sandwich–what many of us would consider “finger foods” are also available as are appetizer sized bowls of spicy steamed eggplant and hot and spicy cucumbers.  As at sushi restaurants everywhere, you place your order on a paper menu you can mark up with your lunch or dinner choices.  Your meal will be delivered minutes later with the dumplings likely being the last item you receive as they’re prepared to order.  That’s right!  They don’t sit under some heat lamp until someone orders them.

Beef Noodle Soup

True to the name on the marquee (if the pop-up restaurant had one), the big draw at this Pop-Up is dumplings–delicious, delectable, overstuffed delights–which are handmade by a friendly Sichuan family. Watching Susan at work is a real treat. She handcrafts each and every dumpling, paying meticulous attention to her work. The dumplings are engorged (not an exaggeration) with your choice of lamb, rib eye, shrimp, traditional (pork), vegetarian, wild coho salmon and (on occasion) lobster. Eight plump dumplings comprise an order (or you can split an order into four dumplings of two different types) along with your choice of hot and sour or egg drop soup. Your choice from among three dipping sauces–traditional, spicy or Sichuan-style–completes your order and frankly, that may be more than enough.

15 July 2016: During our first two visits we’ve enjoyed three different dumplings: traditional pork, rib eye and lobster.  These dumplings aren’t exactly standard in size or shape, but the telltale hand-pinched seal that keeps the filling in place is readily apparent.  It’s a Tupperware-like seal that prevents the filling from spilling out while the dumplings are immersed in a boiling bath which renders them soft, but chewy.  Bite into them and you expose the minced protein with which the dumplings are stuffed.  Tiny bits of carrot and scallions punctuate the pork and lamb.  Though most familiar to anyone who frequents Chinese restaurants, the traditional pork dumplings may be the most satisfying.  From the lamb-filled dumplings, we just didn’t get much of the gaminess that characterizes lamb.  With the sweet, briny flavor of lobster, the lobster dumplings transported us to the coast of Maine where even locals would enjoy them immensely.

Pork Dumplings

Though the dumplings need absolutely no amelioration, the dipping sauces provide an additional level of flavor and interest.  For New Mexicans used to piquant flavors, neither the spicy or even spicier Sichuan-style sauces will be much of a challenge, but they do boost the flavor profile.  Both the spicy sauce and the Sichuan-style sauce are redolent with aromatic, herbaceous notes  inherent from a unique peppercorn-like spice we’ve experienced at a few Asian restaurants.  In any case, with or without sauces, the dumplings warrant a return visit on their own.

15 July 2016: Hot and sour soup and egg drop soup have become such de rigueur options at Chinese restaurants that it’s a surprise when something else is offered.  It’s even a greater surprise when either soup is more than just passable.  The Pop-Up Dumpling House’s hot and sour soup borders on greatness.  No!  Make that this hot and sour soup is great!…as in among the very best in the city great.  This intensely flavored elixir actually lives up to its name, imparting a vinegar sweetness and Sichuan and black pepper heat.  It’s also served hot.  The steamy, nasal-clearing heat rises up to cure whatever may be ailing you.

Beef Chow Fun

9 July 2016: You can easily fill up with even a half order (four) of dumplings and a bowl of hot and sour soup.  Don’t let that sway you against ordering yet another outstanding soup.  The beef noodle soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl redolent with the olfactory-arousing aroma of star anise and rich with mildly astringent bak choy is fabulous!  Long, thick noodles swim in the coffee-colored broth where larger than bite-sized chunks of beef are submerged.  This is the type of soup which tastes just as good, if not better, the next day.  It’s not likely you’ll finish it during your visit unless you forego having dumplings and that would be a shame.

9 July 2016: Hot and spicy cucumbers are a perfect foil for the beef noodle soup, providing the type of contrast which goes oh so well with the rich, sweet-savory broth.  Thin-sliced cucumbers cut diagonally are seasoned with oil, red chile flakes and Sichuan pepper, rendering them deliciously piquant and reminiscent of the cucumber pickles often served at Korean restaurants with banchan (side dishes) offerings.  The hot and spicy cucumbers are delightfully crunchy and positively addictive and if you like the hot and spicy flavor profile, the hot and spicy soup is a palate-pleasing pairing.


9 July 2016:  When she was a young child, one of my nieces referred to Beef Chow Fun as “fun chow.” From the mouth of babes oft emanates great wisdom. Beef Chow Fun can indeed be fun chow. The term “Chow Fun” applies to both a type of noodle and a popular stir-fried dish with meat and vegetables. Only very wide noodles, usually made from ground rice, qualify as chow fun. At a minimum, they’re usually about an inch-wide and can range in length from six to twelve inches. At the Pop-Up Dumpling restaurant, the noodles are stir-fried with bak choy, carrots, white onions and celery. While the addition of vegetables may sound healthy, chow fun shouldn’t be considered a health food as it’s fairly oily and calorific though so delicious, it’s hard to show much restraint.

15 July 2016: If you’ve got just a little room left after polishing off an order of dumplings and soup, one of the two sandwiches on the menu may be a nice option. Neither sandwich comes close to breaking the bank, each setting you back south of four dollars. The duckwich is a thing of great beauty—tender tendrils of moist, cold duck, thin slices of green apple and a smear of Hoison nestled in the same dough from which dumplings are made. Providing only five or six bites, let’s face it, this is finger food, but it’s duck and it’s delicious. The contrast of rich duck and tangy green apple slices is particularly pleasing. If duck isn’t what your heart desires, there’s also a braised pork belly sandwich with the inimitable flavor of smoked bacon with a fatty texture.

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver Enjoys the Eggplant

15 July 2016: One of the most irrefutable truths in the Albuquerque culinary world is that no restaurant prepares eggplant quite as well as Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. It’s eggplant the way the culinary gods intended eggplant to be made. Despite his undying devotion to Joe’s stuffed eggplant, my friend Sr. Plata isn’t eggplant monogamous. He’ll try eggplant anywhere and any way its prepared. The Pop-Up Dumpling House’s version, spicy steamed eggplant is the antithesis of Joe’s in that it’s assertive and piquant, very reminiscent to a version you might have at a Korean restaurant. Silky eggplant is made hot and spicy courtesy of chili and Sichuan sauces. Much like tofu, eggplant absorbs and complements flavors very well. It’s an excellent canvas for the piquant pepper based sauce.

Popping in to the Pop-Up Dumpling House will enhance your appreciation for the humble and incomparably delicious dumpling.  It’s a great place to start your own “around the world in 50 dumplings” tour.

Pop-Up Dumpling House
Talin World Food Market
88 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-0206
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 July 2016
1st VISIT: 9 July 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Noodle Soup, Pork Dumplings, Ribeye Dumplings, Hot & Sour Soup, Beef Chow Fun, Hot & Spicy Cucumbers

Pop-Up Dumpling House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

An Hy Quan for Outstanding Vegetarian Vietnamese Cuisine

Celebrity chef  and professional cynic Anthony Bourdain, one of the more vocal detractors of the vegetarian lifestyle, contends “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”  He’s not alone in his opinion.  Vegetarians are perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood group in the culinary community.  Consider the stereotypes.  Nay-sayers with their preconceived and oversimplified notions founded on ignorance would have you believe all vegetarians are emaciated and pallid tree-huggers who worship at the altar of PETA.  They attack vegetarian fare as bland and boring, lacking in variety and mostly tofu and lettuce. 

You can bet they wouldn’t spout their ill-founded drivel about vegetarian cuisine if they partook of just one meal at An Hy Quan, a Duke City restaurant showcasing Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine.  An Hy Quan’s cuisine is every bit as good as the food served at Albuquerque’s best Vietnamese restaurants, all of which cater primarily to carnivores.  They’d also have to toss out their stereotypes that a vegetarian diet renders its practitioners pale, sickly and scrawny should they meet Bill, the restaurant’s affable proprietor.  Admittedly not a bona fide vegetarian, Bill has reduced his consumption of meat over the years by nearly ninety-percent and he’s never felt better.  He sports a mesomorphic somatype (meaning he’s really built) that would put some athletes to shame.

Papaya Salad: The Very Best I’ve Ever Had

Interestingly,  even though many Vietnamese dishes are replete with vegetables, a vegetarian diet is rare in Vietnam.  Bill confirmed that strict adherence to vegetarianism is practiced mostly in Buddhist temples and on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month when all Buddhists shy away from meat.  In Vietnam as in much of Asia, the citizenry believe meat is the best part of any dish.  Try going meatless along the Mekong and you can expect quizzical looks if not being overtly asked “why would anyone would turn down meat?”  It’s not easy for Vietnamese to comprehend that someone wouldn’t want meat which they believe imbues people with strength, stamina and vigor.  Eschew meat and they worry you’ll become too enfeebled and malnourished to function.

An Hy Quan, a term which translates to “a place of peace and happiness” is breaking down any stereotypes diners may have about vegetarian food and is earning converts daily in the process.  One of the reasons for its popularity is that An Hy Quan features Vietnamese vegetarian fare that’s true to traditional Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.  It’s the antithesis of faux burgers which, even diehard vegetarians will admit, taste like desiccated, overcooked corrugated cardboard.  Another reason so many savvy diners flock to An Hy Quan is Bill, the peripatetic owner and amiable ambassador of an addictive restaurant.

Egg Rolls

Bill grew up in the restaurant business.  His mother was a pioneer, launching Huong Thao back when there were fewer than a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City.  From the onset, Huong Thao had a reputation as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, earning accolades from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.”  Bill eventually bought and operated Huong Thao for about seven years before embarking on other ventures.  When he made his return to the restaurant business, he wanted to do something different, something as pioneering as his mother had done.  He launched An Hy Quan in 2015.

Almost from the beginning, An Hy Quan was recognized as something special. In September, 2015, it was named by Movoto, a multi-state real estate brokerage, as one of the “ten best Albuquerque restaurants for vegetarians.”  Movoto wrote “The menu at An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant is enough to make a person cry with happiness. From appetizers to dessert, dining is an adventure in flavor and technique combined with excellent service and generous portions. Select memorable dishes like Vietnamese spring rolls, avocado shakes, mock pork, and much more.”  Not long thereafter, An Hy Quan was recognized by Three Best Rated as one of the Duke City’s three best vegetarian restaurants.

“Chips and Salsa” An Hy Quan Style

Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly discern many familiar favorites–ranging from rice plates to noodle dishes and some of the best, most diverse soup (including pho) selections in the city.  While some Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque boast of menus listing well over one-hundred items, An Hy Quan’s menu seems somewhat abbreviated in comparison.  That doesn’t make it any easier to decide what to order.  Put yourself in Bill’s hands and you’re assured of a great meal.  There are at least two “must have” appetizers, one of which I had both during my inaugural and second visit.  It’s an addictive dish you might dream about.

24 June 2016: That would be the papaya salad, the very best my Kim and I have ever had.  A fresh and invigorating starter possessing more mouth-pleasing qualities than any salad in recent memory, it’s artfully plated and large enough to share.  Matchstick-like slivers of papaya resembling noodles are tossed with fresh basil, chopped peanuts, ground chili and mock ham in a shallow pool of pleasantly piquant “fishless” sauce with tangy citrusy notes.   You’ll be tempted to lap it up off your plate when the last remnants of the salad have been polished off.

Curry Tofu with Rice

24 June 2016: Following traditional New Mexican restaurant practices, An Hy Quan delivers complimentary Vietnamese “chips and salsa” to your table.  They’re not chips and salsa as you’d enjoy them at say, Mary & Tito’s Cafe.  They’re chips and salsa as they might be served in Vietnam.  The chips are made from fried potato starch.  Texturally they resemble the packing peanuts you shove into boxes to protect your delicate valuables.  The salsa is a chili sauce with a nice level of heat.  Instead of dipping the chips into the sauce, you’ll spoon it on as liberally as your taste buds can appreciate.

25 June 2016: Vegetarian egg rolls sound much like an oxymoron, a seemingly contradictory term much like “honest politician.”  Though described on the menu as “deep-fried egg rolls,” eggs aren’t used in preparing these tightly-wrapped, golden-hued cylindrical treasures.  Served four per order, they’re as good as any egg rolls served at any Vietnamese or Thai restaurant in the Duke City.  Because most egg rolls are engorged primarily with vegetarian ingredients, you might not be able to tell any difference.  They’re absolutely delicious.  So is the dipping sauce with flavor notes resembling fish sauce.

Curry Noodles

24 June 2016: Regular readers recognize my rapacious love of curry, whether it be Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese or meteorologist (KRQE’s pulchritudinous Kristen Currie).  It stands to reason vegetarian curry would be added to that list…and it was.  My inaugural meal at An Hy Quan was curry tofu served with rice.  Vietnamese curry tends to be very aromatic, somewhat lighter than Indian curries and not cloying as some coconut-infused Thai curries tend to be.  Though you’ll be tempted to finish the large portion, consider that the flavors of curry get better over time and the promise of left-overs becomes something to look forward to.  This curry is served piping hot and has a pleasant amount of piquancy that’s tempered only slightly by the cubed tofu and vegetable variety.  It’s an absolutely delicious curry dish!

25 June 2016: If your preference with curry leans toward noodles instead of rice, An Hy Quan has you covered.  The curry noodles dish features wide rice noodles, cubed tofu and assorted vegetables (including yu choy which resembles spinach in both appearance and flavor).   As with the curry rice dish, curry noodles are served with tofu which inherits the wonderfully pungent and pleasantly piquant flavors of the curry.  The assorted vegetables are fresh and unfailingly crispy–not quite al dente, but perfectly prepared.  My Kim, who doesn’t share my affinity for curry, loved this dish.  So will you!

Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles

25 June 2016:  One of An Hy Quan’s most popular dishes (raved about in several Yelp and Zomato reviews) is the cashew mock pork rice dish.  My Kim who prefers noodles (even over Alford) asked nicely if she could have the mock pork and cashews over crispy noodles and the ever-accommodating Bill agreed.  The dish was even more delicious than she could have conceived.  Kim finds something magical in the reconstitution of crispy noodles in the dish’s light sauce.  She loved the mock pork, admitting it’s as good as the real stuff.  She even enjoyed the vegetables and the sesame seeds which topped them.  This dish should be standard on the menu (Kim won’t even ask for residuals).

If you’ve never enjoyed vegetarian fare, it’s time to visit An Hy Quan where you might not be able to taste any significant difference and even if you do, you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.  An Hy Quan isn’t only one of Albuquerque’s very best vegetarian restaurants, it’s one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.  Make that best restaurants of any genre.  It’s that good!

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant
1405 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 332-8565
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2016
1st VISIT: 24 June 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Curry Tofu, Egg Rolls, Curry Noodles, Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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