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O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

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Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

O Ramen on Urbanspoon

Lucky Boy – Albuquerque, New Mexican

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque's Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque’s Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

During its seventh season, the X Files television series in which FBI agents investigated paranormal phenomena featured an episode in which a ravenous Lucky Boy employee in California struggled against his craving for human brain matter (almost anything goes in the Golden state). The most paranormal thing about the Duke City Lucky Boy is its “east meets west” dining concept. Nowhere else in town can you order Chinese and American food so inexpensively and from the very same menu.

If you think about it, ordering inexpensive Chinese and American food from within one menu shouldn’t be such an anomalous event–especially when you consider that many of Lucky Boy’s patrons are UNM students, many of whom know how to stretch a buck. It’s not just UNM students who patronize this hole-in-the-wall. You might just as soon find faculty and staff also indulging in inexpensive (but good) food.

Lucky Boy's genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy’s genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy is a quintessential American mom and pop  diner tended lovingly by Chinese proprietors named Suzy and Ron who know what many of their customers are going to order as soon as they walk in. You’ll do a second-take the first time you see a steaming wok preparing noodles next to the sizzling griddle on which burger patties are being cooked.  Lucky Boy has been around since 1968 and it shows.  The restaurant is somewhat bedraggled and is certainly dated with 1960s style paneling on the walls and well-trodden tile on the floor.

Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger is six inches of well seasoned meat and standard (lettuce, pickles, tomato, onions) but high quality condiments, including a tangy Day-Glo colored mustard and ketchup sauce the proprietors refer to as Lucky Boy sauce. The green chile is flavorful and more piquant than at many New Mexican restaurants and proprietors of the green chile cheeseburger (Lotaburger comes to mind).  The buns are lightly toasted, but so thick they obfuscate the flavor of the burger. The beef patties have the telltale signs of having been frozen.  They’re also quite thin so you’ll want to order a double meat burger.  Lest I forget, expect your burger to be prepared at medium-well to well.  Despite these shortcomings, you might be surprised to find yourself craving one or three of them.

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Onion Cakes

Lucky Boy was one of 48 restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys selected for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a celebration of New Mexico’s iconic burger.  When I proposed its entry to the four person team which put the Trail together, there was more than a little sniggering, but since then, several team members have expressed their appreciation for what is actually a pretty good green chile cheeseburger.  Being on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail placed it in select…make that elite, company.  It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger one of the city’s most popular, if not best of its genre.

The menu also includes an Egg Foo Young sandwich, a culinary curiosity served in St. Louis where it’s called a “St. Paul sandwich” and which you won’t find in Minnesota. At Lucky Boy, you can have the Egg Foo Yong sandwich alongside a hamburger beef patty and the condiments which normally accompany a burger (including the aforementioned Lucky Boy sauce, chile and green chile). It’s a great sandwich with or without the beef patty!  It’s become a favorite of my friend Sr. Plata.

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Lucky Boy’s French fries are only so-so (fairly standard).  A better bet are onion cakes, which are rather dissimilar to the scallion pancakes served at many Chinese restaurants.  Their flavor profile is more akin to onion rings though much thicker and more heavily breaded.  Biting into the sweet onion is a treat, but you’ll have to get through the breading first.

While we’ve found the chocolate shakes to be rather gloppy and bland, Lucky Boy has managed to escape the slavitude of the Coke and Pepsi monopolies.  You can actually get an RC Cola (remember those?) or a Diet Rite soda in a can.  A can, by the way, is a much more sanitary way to indulge in soft drinks (another of my soapbox tirades saved for another day).

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Chinese fare includes sweet and sour pork, Mandarin chicken and other American favorites. We’ve  observed that there’s almost a fifty/fifty split among patrons ordering burgers and Chinese food.  The sweet and sour chicken is pretty much what you’d expect for the pittance at which it’s offered.  It’s rather heavily breaded and topped with a lacquered-on orange sauce that emphasizes the sweet component of sweet and sour.  It’s not gourmet Chinese food, but it is what you expect and appreciate most when funds are low.

Lucky Boy is much more than an anomaly worth visiting only for the experiential aspect.  It serves a genuinely good green chile cheeseburger as well as other surprisingly good items.  You can’t beat the prices and the service is warm and genial.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

Lucky Boy
3521 Constitution, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-2785
LATEST VISIT: 11 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Egg Foo Yong Sandwich

Lucky Boy on Urbanspoon

Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Mekong Ramen House just north of Candelaria on San Mateo

In a 2009 movie entitled Ramen Girl, Abby, a wayward American girl unacculturated to life in Tokyo witnesses the radiant smiles on the faces of diners as they eat ramen and receives an epiphany that her life’s calling is to become a ramen chef. Over time she persuades a ramen restaurant’s temperamental Japanese chef to mentor her. Initially he assigns her to perform the most menial and degrading tasks, but she perseveres and eventually convinces her tyrannical mentor of her sincerity and he teaches her how to make ramen. Alas, it’s ramen with no soul until she also learns that ramen must be prepared from the heart and not from her head.

Ramen with soul? Ramen chefs? Ramen prepared from the heart? That just doesn’t describe the ramen experience for most Americans. In the fruited plain, ramen is typically thought of as “budget” food, something to fill your belly when your bank account is empty. Few foods offer as much bang for the buck as the ubiquitous low-brow meal most often associated with the college student demographic. Fittingly, in Japan ramen is often called “gakusei ryori” which translates to “student cuisine.” It’s not just students and budget-conscious diners, however, who love ramen.

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The colorful interior of the Mekong Ramen House

Ramen is beloved worldwide to the tune of 95 billion servings in 2011.  That’s enough ramen to feed 260 million people for an entire year. Invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods, the original “Top Ramen” noodles with which most of us are familiar, rakes in some 3.2 billion dollars a year.  Throw in competing ramen clones made in other countries and you have an estimated world market of ten billion per year.  That’s a lot of noodles. 

When first introduced in Japan, ramen was considered a luxury item and was six times more expensive than homemade noodles found in Japanese grocery stores.  Ramen made its ways across the Pacific in 1972 and was marketed as “Oodles of Noodles” throughout the East Coast  The following year saw the introduction of “Nissin Cup Noodles” in the familiar and convenient Styrofoam cups.  Before long, hundreds of knock-offs flooded the market.

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Tom Yum Soup

How important is ramen in the Japanese culture? In a poll  conducted by the Fuji Research Institute, instant ramen was named by Japanese respondents as the greatest “made in Japan” invention of the 20th century, edging out karaoke, headphone stereos, TV game players and compact disks.  Attribute its popularity in part to economics.  It’s been estimated that a person can live off ramen for an entire year at a cost of under $150, approximately three-percent of what Americans spend a year on food.

It’s not solely the inexpensive instant ramen that has captured the hearts and imaginations of connoisseurs throughout the world.   The gourmet ramen craze has dispelled the stereotype that ramen is cheap food reserved exclusively for broke college students and that it’s always served in Styrofoam packages.  Gourmet ramen is an epicurean experience showcasing deeply soulful (there’s that term: soul) ramen dishes such as Tonkotsu soup with roasted Kurobuta pork for which the bones have simmered for hours, if not days.  This ramen is fresh and handmade, not instant or dry.   The quality is telling.

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Beef Stick

When fellow gastronome Chris Reddington told us about Mekong Ramen House on the northwest intersection of San Mateo and Candelaria, we entertained faint hopes that the Duke City had finally graduated in culinary sophistication to have its own gourmet ramen house.   I say “faint” because the name “Mekong” has no affiliation with Japan.  The Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, meanders from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all nations with some ramen tradition.

Although ramen is prominent on the menu (and it’s made on the premises), the Mekong Ramen House is not a traditional gourmet ramen house.  Instead, the restaurant offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience which showcases cuisine from several Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as well as from Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region which sits just across the Mekong River from Laos.  The chef is from Laos, home in my opinion to one of the world’s most under-appreciated cuisines.  Perhaps because of the restaurant’s “newness,” we found the cuisine relatively unspoiled by the over-the-top Americanized sauces which lean heavily toward cloying sweetness.  The food is refreshingly authentic, clean and untainted.

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Cucumber Ramen Salad

Ensconced in a nondescript shopping center, the Mekong Ramen House is tastefully arrayed in walls of many colors festooned with attractive wall hangings.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Although English is a second language to the wait staff, service is unfailingly polite, prompt and attentive.  The menu is priced comparably to most Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City and while offering the cuisine of several Southeast Asian nations, is not an especially ambitious menu, listing only 41 items.  A limited menu does not limited flavors make.

22 February 2014: No sooner had we been seated and our beverage order taken than our server brought us a delightful amuse-bouche, a bowl of Tom Yum soup.  If you’re used to Tum Yum soups being served in tureens big enough for a small family with shards of lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms bobbing to the surface, you’ll wonder where those elements went.  Mekong’s version is as “murky” as a light chicken noodle soup with only scallions floating to the top.  Though the aforementioned ingredients aren’t in evidence to the eye, they are pleasantly discernible to the taste buds.  This Tum Yum is simple and delicious, not lip-pursing as too many Americanized versions are made.

Egg Rolls

22 February 2014: One of the ways in which ramen is showcased on the menu is in a crispy appetizer.  The cucumber ramen salad (sliced cucumbers topped with crispy ramen noodles and served with a sweet chili sauce) highlights the diversity of ramen in ways most college students probably haven’t explored.  My Kim frequently orders dehydrated noodles and delights in their squiggly qualities coming to life when introduced to sauces.  She enjoyed the crispy ramen, too.  This is a relatively simple salad emboldened by a sweet-tangy-piquant chili sauce.

22 February 2014: Another simple appetizer popular in street-side stands throughout Laos is the beef stick, Lao style grilled beef skewers served with chili lime sauce.  Their portability make them an ideal street food snack while their simplicity and deliciousness will make them a popular draw to the Ramen Noodle House.  Three perfectly grilled skewers of tender, delicious beef are served with a gunpowder strong chili lime sauce.  The piquancy of the sauce means you’ll likely perform “touch and go” maneuvers with your beef stick instead of dipping or scooping. 

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Pad Ramen Noodle

19 February 2015:  Forgive me if you’ve read this before on this blog, but egg rolls–or at least Chinese egg rolls–have morphed into one of the most uninteresting and tasteless appetizers in creation.  What ever happened to Chinese egg rolls stuffed with julienne pork, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and just a bit of cabbage wrapped by crispy, slightly chewy skins. Today, cabbage comprises approximately 90% of the content of Chinese egg rolls.  If you want a good egg roll, you’ve got to visit an Asian restaurant other than Chinese.  While every Asian culture makes its egg rolls differently, the concept is basically the same.  The wrappers on the Mekong Ramen House’s egg rolls have a golden sheen and a crispy exterior that belies an interior of cabbage, carrots, ramen noodles and more.  These egg rolls are slightly larger than a Cuban cigar and are served with a sweet-tangy sauce.

22 February 2014: The menu offers a number of pad (stir-fry) dishes, two made with ramen noodles, one with Udon noodles and one with a simple rice noodle.  The Pad Ramen Noodle (ramen noodles, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and green onions) dish is perhaps the most simple, but it’s a dish which very well demonstrates stir-fry executed by a wok master.  Available with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu or shrimp, this dish emphasizes the tangle of noodles and their harmonious interplay with other ingredients.

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Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

22 February 2014: There are a number of Lao dishes interspersed throughout the menu, but there’s also a page dedicated solely to the cuisine of Laos.  Alas, there are only six items on that page, but they include some of the Lao dishes with whom acculturated Americans are familiar: Laab, beef Jerky, Lao sausage and Lao papaya.  The menu also includes a Lao grilled chicken served with sticky rice and Mekong chili tomatoes sauce.  The grilled chicken–a leg, a breast and a thigh–is dissimilar to the way grilled chicken is prepared in Mexico in that it’s not infused with charcoal flavor.  Though there is a pleasant smokiness, the grilling influence penetrates deeply and it’s delicious.  The accompanying sticky rice is served in a cute little wicker basket that retains heat.

19 February 2015: It stands to reason that because Laos and Thailand border one another, their cuisines are very similar.  That means rich, coconut-milk based sauces, fresh ingredients and exotic flavors such as galangal, Kaffir lime, and curry paste.  The latter is best on display in the Mekong House’s Red Curry Ramen, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with ingredients: cabbage, broccoli, julienne carrots, bean sprouts, chives, bell pepper, red curry and some of the most unctuous, rich and delicious ramen noodles you’ll ever have.  Those noodles would easily be the starring attraction on this excellent soup were it not for the red curry itself.  Not quite as coconut milk-sweet as most Thai curries, it’s got an assertiveness (courtesy of ginger) I’ve often missed in curries which emphasize sweetness.  This is an excellent curry dish, albeit one that’s not available on the daily menu but shows up periodically as a special of the day.

Red Curry Ramen

9 March 2015:  The bordering nations of Laos and Thailand share many culinary commonalities, including a love for larb, a moist, citrusy minced-beef or chicken salad.  There are sometimes subtle differences in the ways it’s prepared, but such differences exist from restaurant to restaurant and home to home.  Mekong Ramen’s version isn’t nearly as citrusy as larb offered at most Duke City restaurants.  It’s still punctuated with citrus influences and remains lively, a melange of lime, shallots, scallions, mint, cilantro and chile with toasty notes from pulverized toasted rice which lends an interesting textural profile.  The larb is available with either beef or chicken.  It’s not a dish everyone will love, but if you do, this is one you’ll appreciate.

Lao Larb

22 February 2014: Our preferred way of enjoying sticky rice is with mangoes, the quintessential Thai and Lao dessert.  Few desserts of any nation are as wonderful as mangoes with sticky rice, especially when the mangoes are in season.  In-season means their flesh is a sweet and intensely tropical with a fragrant aroma and a fibrous texture around the pit.  The intensity of mangoes in-season marries oh so well with the sticky rice which swims with rich, sweet coconut milk.

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Mangoes with sticky rice

If you survived on ramen noodles during your collegiate days, the Mekong Ramen House will introduce you to ramen in ways of which you may not have conceived, all of them delicious.  It will also introduce you to some of the best Thai and Lao cuisine you’ll find in the Duke City.

Mekong Ramen House
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2326
LATEST VISIT: 9 March 2015
1st VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken, Egg Rolls, Red Curry Ramen, Larb

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon