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China City – Albuquerque, New Mexico

China City on San Mateo

The Claw: Actually the only girl we want is Princess Ingrid.
Maxwell Smart: Then why did you abduct the others?
The Claw: Unfortunately, Mr. Smart, all Americans look alike to us.
~Get Smart

Leave it to iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks to turn cultural stereotypes around to create a hilarious interchange between The Claw, the head of the Asian arm of the criminal spy agency KAOS, and Smart, the bumbling American secret agent who fights on behalf of the forces of goodness and niceness. Many of us who followed Twitter commentary after the United Sates Women’s National Soccer team played to a draw against North Korea shrank with embarrassment at comments which evinced the fact that there are still people who subscribe to ill-founded stereotype that all Asians look alike.

If there’s a more innocuous and less offensive concession that can be made, it’s that most Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque do look alike in much the same way so many “red sauce” Italian restaurants of the 1960s looked alike. That’s a point even the most politically correct among us will concede. You’ll arrive at that conclusion about Chinese restaurants if ever you’re driving the city streets looking for a new place to eat. Ensconced within a significant number of strip malls throughout the Duke City are Chinese restaurants which almost seem to subscribe to a template of “sameness” when it comes to look, feel and even name. That “sameness” is also pervasive within the restaurant’s interior.

China City ‘s dining room

Not surprisingly even the menus have a very familiar uniformity down to the little chili icons next to specific items to denote levels of spiciness. Save for the amazingly low prices, surprises on a typical Chinese restaurant menu are very rare. One of the reasons for this “standardization” is because American guests are likely to be familiar with menu items which have been designed for American tastes, the so-called “Americanized” Chinese food.

The Daily Meal, an online resource which purports to produces more culinary content than any other resource recently published a feature entitled “Chinese Food You Won’t Find in China.” The list was replete with many popular favorites you’ll find at virtually every Chinese restaurant in America: General Tso’s Chicken, Crab Rangoon, Fortune Cookies, Chop Suey, Sweet and Sour Pork, Egg Foo Yong, Orange Beef and even Egg Drop Soup. Many of these dishes were, in fact, invented in the United States.

Egg Flower Soup

In truth, most of us know exactly what we’re getting when we frequent most Chinese restaurants throughout the fruited plain. For the most part, that’s inexpensive food with which we’re intimately familiar because we’ve had it before in restaurants very similar to those we frequent. That’s pretty much what I expected during my inaugural visit to China City, a stereotypically homogeneous Chinese restaurant in a homogeneous strip mall on a homogeneous street (San Mateo). More than for other Chinese restaurants I could have visited for the first time, my expectations were heightened by glowing reviews on Zomato.

Comments on Zomato have two common themes–huge portions and great food.  Reviewers were poetic about this humble Chinese restaurant: “tastes like everything is made from scratch,” “food always taste great got good flavor,” “food is very good, and usually more than you can eat,” “Best Anywhere” and “sized to feed a whole family with only one plate and it tastes soooo good” Is it no wonder my expectations were high.

Spice Chicken with Shrimp and Sweet and Sour Pork

Perusing the menu confirms the items listed on The Daily Meal’s “Chinese Food You Won’t Find in China” are prominently featured at China City.  The lunch menu occupies the left side of the menu, listing some 32 entrees, all of which are accompanied by egg flower soup, an egg roll and fried rice.  For a pittance more you can opt instead for hot and sour soup or wonton soup, but even with this substitution, there’s nothing on the lunch menu north of eight dollars.  The dinner menu features some 21 combination plates with the aforementioned accompaniment.  All dinner combos are priced at under ten dollars. 

While most Duke City Chinese restaurants tend to offer egg drop soup, China City serves egg flower soup. Similar in taste, these two soups differ in presentation.  Egg drop soup is made by “dropping” the whisked eggs very slowly into to boiling stock and stirring rapidly in one direction. The result is thin, wispy strands of silken egg. Alternatively, egg flower soup is made by plopping spoonfuls of whisked egg into the soup instead of drizzling the egg; ergo the egg “flower” effect.  Technique not withstanding, this is an excellent soup, maybe the best in the Duke City.  It’s served steaming hot and needs absolutely no amelioration though a bit of pepper does infuse it with even more personality. 

A word of caution–should you order one of the dinner combination plates, it may be more than any one person can finish.  The plate is brimming with food piled high and spread wide.  Among the more interesting (and it doesn’t appear on The Daily Meal’s list) entrees is the spice chicken with shrimp, a dish almost as generous with pork and shrimp as it is with al dente vegetables (snow peas, carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms, corn and zucchini) on a spicy, garlicky sauce.  It’s a very good dish deserving of better than being paired with a rather disappointing (but fairly typical) sweet and sour pork.  Some five or six porcine nuggets somewhat heavily sheathed in batter are served on a pool of sweet and sour sauce, emphasis on the sweet.  The fried rice is a bit on the insipid side while the egg roll is on par with most. 

China City has no pretensions to serving unique gourmet Chinese food. It’s a restaurant which has garnered a loyal following by serving large portions of familiar and well prepared Chinese food favorites in profligate portions. It’s no wonder so many Duke City diners love to visit China City.

China City
3325 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-8787
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spice Chicken with Shrimp, Egg Roll, Egg Flower Soup

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Bangkok Bite – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bangkok Bite Thai Cuisine

Several years ago during an ice-breaker introduction at project team meeting,  we were all asked to introduce ourselves and explain where we were from.  Introducing myself as being from Massaman Curry, New Mexico drew absolutely no reaction, leading me to conclude two things: (1) my colleagues knew absolutely nothing about the Land of Enchantment and probably wondered if I needed a passport to get to Phoenix; and (2) despite one of our corporate values being “risk-taking,” none of them had ever dined at a Thai restaurant.  These conclusions were reaffirmed during a break when one colleague commented about all the strangely named places in “Mexico,” citing Tacos (Taos?), Captain (Capitan?) and Lost Curses.

When an introductory situation calls for giving my place of birth, my deadpan reply is generally “I was born in Saginaw, Michigan,” a reference to a 1964 song of that title performed by Lefty Frizzel.  Because my delivery is so straight-faced (like a mendacious politician delivering a campaign promise), rarely are my impish replies called into question.  It would be impossible, however, to maintain a straight-face should someone dig more deeply about Massaman Curry.  It’s hard to remain impassive when you’re drooling.  Yes, Massaman Curry does have that effect on me sometimes.  For years it’s been my ut assolet choice during an inaugural visit to any Thai restaurant. But I digress…

Bangkok Bite Dining Room

It could well be argued that there IS a Massaman Curry, New Mexico and that it’s clustered in the two-mile span between Constitution and Menaul on Wyoming. Within that stretch you’ll find what is probably the largest concentration of Thai restaurants in the state. At the southeastern-most flank is the elder statesperson (at only ten years) in Thai Tip.  About half a mile north is Tara Thai Cuisine, also on Wyoming’s east side.  Half a mile further north on Wyoming’s west side, the Hoffmantown Shopping Center is home to both Sizzling Thai and Bangkok Bite. Drive less than a mile west on Menaul and you’ll find Krung Thai. That’s five Thai restaurants in close proximity to each other.  That’s a lot of Massaman Curry!

Bangkok Bite opened its doors in March, 2015. True to its name, the restaurant’s emphasis is on Thai cuisine as it’s prepared in the capital city of Bangkok. Unfortunately there’s no way to duplicate the experience of dining on the famous floating river market outside of Bangkok where local cuisine is prepared on floating kitchens right on boats. Experiential aspects aside, you can find wonderful cuisine on the “dry” sections of Bangkok, too. As with all cuisine of the region, Bangkok’s food tends to emphasis the flavor profiles of sweet, salty, hot and greasy. Steamed rice is served with different types of nam prik (chili dipping sauces) and soups.

Deep-Fried Dumpling

Ensconced within the fairly monochromatic (can you say stucco?) Hoffmantown Shopping Center, Bangkok Bite has one of the smallest storefronts on the complex, standing out only because of its signage’s yellow Asian font style. The dining room is fairly Liliputian, too, with just about a half-dozen ten four-top tables in close proximity to one another. Even the menu is abbreviated, a far cry from some of the compendium-like menus at other Thai restaurants. Within that menu, you’ll find a smattering of soups, salads, noodle dishes and of course, Massaman Curry.

When you’ve got a limited number of appetizers from which to choose, the decision should be easy, right? Not necessarily. Appetizers at Thai restaurants are not just a precursor to larger deliciousness, they’re often a memorable highlight, sometimes even better than the entrees they precede. Dumplings are always a safe and delicious bet. We expected Thai-style dumplings, the type made from fresh steamed rice noodles, but delivered to our table were the crescent-shaped dumplings more common in China. These are the dumplings to which many Americans refer as potstickers. Engorged with juicy pork and chives in a golden-brown skin with a crispy bottom and springy, chewy sides, the dumplings are served with a thin soy-based sauce which complements them well.

Pad Thai

The introductory Thai dish for many diners, especially those of the unadventurous ilk, is Pad Thai. It’s the “safe” choice for the trepidacious of taste. In that respect it’s a sort of the “fried chicken” of Thai cuisine. Pad Thai is generally good. It’s filling, tasty and…passable, but I’ve never had exceptional, life-altering, transformative Pad Thai. My Kim loves it, however, and she’s fine with it being “just good enough” (which might explain why we’ve been together for thirty years) and it suits her sweet-tooth. The Pad Thai at Bangkok Bite is just fine…as good as you’ll find at any good Thai restaurant in town. It’s just not especially memorable which makes it par for the course. If I’d had my druthers, it would have been covered in prik nam pla, my favorite Thai chili and fish sauce condiment.

A friend of mine from Santa Fe who shares my passion for Massaman Curry considers its fragrant bouquet a sort of aromatherapy. Her ritual involves not only bending down to inhale the comforting aromatic spices, fresh herbs, rich coconut and full-flavored curry, but in using her hands to fan its steaming aromas upward to her awaiting nostrils. She loves the purity of Massaman Curry by itself and does not mix it with the steamed rice which customarily accompanies the curry. On the basis of this practice, she might not have liked the Massaman Curry at Bangkok Bite.

Massaman Curry

That’s because the steamed rice isn’t plated separately from the Massaman Curry. At Bangkok Bite, the twain does meet, whether you want it to or not. Although there is a clear demarcation between rice and curry, my friend would find it too easy for the two to mix and not in the proportion she would like. She makes a good point! The Massaman Curry is a harmonious interchange of sweet and savory flavors in a rich, yet mild and thoroughly delightful dish. Alas, perhaps because of its plating, there just isn’t enough curry and there’s too much rice. The ratio of curry to rice should be about 65/35 or the rice absorbs the curry and renders the dish a bit on the dry side. By itself, the Massaman Curry is a pleasure to eat, but is best when plated separately from rice.

It’s become increasingly rare for Thai restaurants to cite “seasonal availability” as reasons not to have mangoes with sticky rice on the menu year-round. Alas, the mangoes are generally not those grown in Southeast Asia, but those grown in Mexico and other tropical nations in the western hemisphere. Proximity has increased their availability greatly, much to the detriment of American waist lines. Paired with sticky rice in rich, sweet coconut milk, there may be no dessert which couples fresh, tangy fruit with a sweet-savory complement so deliciously. The mangoes and sticky rice at Bangkok Bite will remind you why “off-season” can be so painful.

Mangoes with Sticky Rice

The aforementioned stretch of pavement on which several Thai restaurants can be found will probably never be known as “Little Thailand,” but anyone jonesing for another Thai restaurant to add to their rotation should visit soon…and often. Bangkok Bite is a welcome addition to the Duke City’s Thai cuisine scene.

Bangkok Bite
8246 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 291-3831
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Dumplings, Mangoes with Sticky Rice

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Nagomi Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

Everyman philosopher Homer Simpson once posed the profound existential question “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” One thing at which donuts seem especially adept is ensnaring the hearts and affections of youth—and not just American youth. The Huffington Post reported recently that in Japan, “the younger generation is increasingly eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and McDonald’s, not rice.” Fast food chains such as the aforementioned Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza and others have become ubiquitous in Japan—much to the detriment of traditional Japanese culinary traditions, many of which are closely linked to family relations.

The popularity of fast food is the likely culprit for the steep decline in annual rice consumption across the Land of the Rising Sun. In recent decades, rice consumption has fallen 17 percent, from 9.44 million tons to 7.81 million tons per year. According to the Post, the fast food diet and its “spicy oily food” has also largely decimated the ability of young people to discern “umami,” a fundamental taste in the Japanese palate along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The exodus from Japanese culinary traditions has also had an esthetic impact. While Japanese food and its plating have always been beautiful and pleasing to the eye, fast food has a more “thrown together” visual quality.

The interior of Nagomi

In my own callow and shallow youth, the addictive properties of fast foods laden with carbohydrates and fats were an enticing mistress and similar to so many of my peers, I succumbed to the lure of caloric overachievement. My epiphany as to alternative (and much better) culinary options occurred when the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts where a world opened up of gustatory delights theretofore rare in New Mexico. The rich, diverse and exotic culinary offerings of Asian cultures became my passion, each new experience teasing and tantalizing my taste buds in so many new and beguiling ways.

So, you’ll forgive me if my first impulse at reading about Japanese youth eschewing their traditional cuisine is to want to shake some sense into them. How could anyone possibly prefer the empty calories and negative nutritional values of American fast foods to the much more delicious, not to mention dietetically healthier Japanese style of eating? My friend Andrea Lin describes the former as “akin to planting a flower in your garden that blooms beautifully for a day and then your soil is destroyed.” The latter is a healthy balance of delicious, filling lower-calorie foods presented beautifully with reasonable portion control.

Miso Soup

Author Naomi Moriyama who wrote Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat believes the Japanese way of dining “encourages you to “eat with your eyes” by enjoying the beauty of your food. The result? You’ll want to slow down to savor every bite, which means eating less, because it gives your brain time to realize your body is full.” Eating with your eyes, savoring every bite…if you didn’t know better, you might wonder if these phrases were written to describe a meal at Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo.

The name Nagomi represents “the comfort you feel after a good meal. Imagine, you take time off from your busy schedule and the stress of everyday life to treat yourself to a really, really good meal. The minute you take your first taste, you feel a warm, comforting, serene feeling that envelops your entire body. You feel a satisfaction deep in your body and your soul. This is the sensation we hope you will feel when you eat our food.” That’s what you’ll read on the cover of the menu and that’s what Nagomi strives to deliver.

Assorted Tempura

Nagomi’s culinary techniques and hospitality practices are steeped in traditional Japanese traditions. For owners Masahito and Kelly Sano, it’s the only way they know how. Masahito’s family has owned a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo for 100 years. Wanting to own and operate his own restaurant, he migrated to America and most recently worked as executive chef for Albuquerque’s venerable Japanese Kitchen. Until its closure several years ago, Kelly worked at Noda’s Japanese Cuisine. While influences from both the Japanese Kitchen and Noda’s Japanese Cuisine are evident, Nagomi has a personality all its own.  It’s a personality Nancy D. couldn’t wait to recommend to readers of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. Thank you, Nancy.

Nagomi’s menu is both very traditional and very varied. American tastes which gravitate toward sushi will find a wide array of nigiri and maki rolls as well as sashimi. The menu also features a ramen sure to sate the current ramen craze. You’ll also find curry dishes, tofu in several forms, salads, seafood dishes and so much more. One of the restaurant’s specialties is shabu-shabu, a sort of Japanese fondue which gives diners the opportunity to prepare at their tables, meat and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth.

Chicken Kara-age

Scant minutes after you place your order, a steaming bowl of miso soup is delivered to your table. Your first spoonful is a revelation that miso soup doesn’t have to require desalinization. The second spoonful might introduce the element of cabbage, an ingredient not often used on miso soup in other Albuquerque restaurants. You’ll also find Wakame seaweed and finely chopped onions among a very satisfying, very warming miso soup sure to start your meal off on a good note.

Although there are only eleven appetizers on the menu, most are familiar even to casual visitors of Japanese restaurants: edamame, gyoza, egg rolls, tempura, chicken katsu and others. The assorted tempura (shrimp, imitation crab sticks, calamari and three types of vegetables) is always a good bet. The assorted seafood and vegetables are sheathed in a light, golden batter and served with a savory-sweet teriyaki sauce. Each piece is delectable with nary a drop of excess oil dripping off. The textures and flavors range widely so it’s easy to discern exactly what you’re enjoying without having to study its shape.

Tonkotsu Ramen

When in Japan, why have KFC when you can have JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken), more commonly known as chicken kara-age?   Chicken kara-age is the antithesis of the uniformly shaped, golden sheened chicken nuggets you find in American fast food restaurants.  It’s not as though they’re misshapen and dreary; they’re just not “manufactured” as their American counterparts.  Chicken kara-age are bite-sized chunks of soy-sake-ginger marinated chicken coated in cornstarch and deep-fried.  They’ll go quickly so it will behoove you to order at least one other appetizer.

The ramen craze in America pales in comparison to the religious fervor with which ramen is regarded in Japan where some spa houses go so far as to offer “ramen baths” for their clientele.  Consisting of ramen, pork broth and synthetic noodles, the bath apparently helps improve patrons skin.   Frankly, it sounds like a tremendous waste of good ramen.  If all ramen is as delicious as Nagomi’s tonk0tsu ramen, anything other than eating it is sinful.  For all intents and purposes, tonkotsu is literally the essence of pork distilled down through the process of pork bones being boiled for hours to spoonfuls of murky broth bathed over chewy noodles.  My Kim considers Nagomi’s tonkotsu ramen the very best in town.

Trio Donburi

Years ago, the sublime Noda’s introduced me to donburi, a dish which became preferable to me even over sushi.  It’s been said that donburi isn’t so much a dish as it is a concept.  Meats, vegetables or seafood and any combinations thereof placed over rice in a deep bowl becomes a donburi though it’s not quite that simple.  The ingredients from which donburi is constructed must be unfailingly fresh and must be able to harmonize together on your taste buds.  Nagomi offers a number of donburi dishes, arguably the most beautiful being the donburi trio featuring tuna, yellowtail and salmon.  Each piece of fish is masterfully sliced and presented.  Each is as delicious as it is beautiful. 

After finishing a meal in Japan, diners express their gratitude for the meal by saying “gochiso sama deshita,” which translates to “it was quite a feast. It might behoove you to learn those words before visiting Nagomi. You’ll be uttering them after every visit.

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant
2400 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E. # G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-3081
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Trio Donburi, Tonkotsu Ramen, Chicken Kara-Age, Assorted Tempura, Miso Soup

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon