Leona Banh Mi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Leona Banh Mi…Fresh, Healthy, Yummy

“I’m not allowed in the Vietnamese sandwich shop anymore.
They decided to banh mi for life.”

During an ice-breaker at what promised to be a stressful project planning meeting, all participants were asked to stand up and describe their favorite childhood Christmas gift. For the most part, favorite gifts conformed to gender stereotypes. Male colleagues waxed fondly about GI Joe action figures (don’t ever call them dolls), Star Wars Lego sets and their first bike. Females in our group described Barbie dolls, playhouses and cabbage patch kids. Then it was my turn. “My favorite Christmas gift as a child,” I explained “was a dictionary.” Copious groaning ensued though for some reason no one was surprised. As a child for whom English was a second language, my first dictionary was a good friend, one consulted frequently when reading my other favorite tome, the encyclopedia. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Perhaps because it was so ponderous and not a few gazillion bytes of information floating around some ethereal concept called the cloud, the dictionary was much more uncool back then. It was also much more mysterious and stodgy. No one seemed to know how new words were added from year-to-year (I pictured a pantheon of robed academics assiduously considering all prospects). Today, we know that new words are added to dictionaries when they’re used often enough that they can be said to “belong”—they’ve become part of the mainstream vernacular. One particularly rich source of new words is the culinary world. In 2014, for example, the Vietnamese term “banh mi” was one of 500 new words added to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Leo Greets Another Soon To Be Satisfied Customer

If you’re wondering why it took such a long time, consider that the popularity of banh mi has largely been an urban phenomenon. You could, in fact, say the same thing about Vietnamese cuisine in general. Travel around the Land of Enchantment and you’re not likely to find authentic banh mi in Farmington, Gallup, Roswell, Silver CIty or Taos—and they’re among the state’s most populous or urbane cities. No, my friends, for the most part if you want banh mi, you’ll have to trek to the Duke City, Las Cruces or Santa Fe. Though banh mi may have become part of the American lexicon, it’s still largely a strange word to many New Mexicans. Give it a decade or so and that shouldn’t be the case. Banh mi is too good not to be enjoyed by everyone!

We’ve been loving banh mi in Albuquerque since at least 1995 when they were called “Vietnamese Sandwiches” by the few Vietnamese restaurants (May Hong among them) which served them. That’s nineteen years before banh mi made it to the American Heritage dictionary. Albuquerque’s very first Vietnamese bakery whose primary focus was banh mi was Banh Mi Coda which opened in 2010 after a short stint as Lee’s Bakery. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches.” In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of its second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center made infamous on Better Call Saul. Ten different banh mi adorn the menu at this combination bakery, deli and tofu house.

Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

In November, 2016, SweeTea Bakery Café opened its doors in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, gracing the Duke City with yet another very impressive array of delicious banh mi as well as some of the best pastries this side of Paris. Not quite a year later, Rolls & Bowls became the fourth Vietnamese bakery-restaurant specializing in banh mi to launch in Albuquerque. One commonality among this quadrumvirate of banh mi purveyors is some of the city’s very best sandwiches prepared and served by very talented and dedicated owners all committed to proving (to paraphrase the Beatles) you can banh mi love. You may have noticed there remain under-served and even unserved portions of the Duke City in which nary a banh mi can be found. One of those is the burgeoning westside.

On 28 December 2017, westside Vietnamese food aficionados had their prayers answered with the launch of Leona Bahn Mi.  Located in a small, nondescript shopping center, Leona may be the smallest tenant in the area with two four-tops (table seating four diners) and seating for two on a small counter space.  This bodes mostly take-out business–or diners arriving early so as to secure a seat.  You’ll want to do the latter to interact with the very friendly and accommodating owners.  There actually isn’t anyone named Leona at the restaurant.  Leona is a portmanteau for the delightful married couple who own the restaurant: Leo, who runs the front of the house and Hanh who runs the kitchen.  You’ll meet them both.

Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi is aptly named, but banh mi aren’t the sole items on the menu.  Belying the Lilliputian space, you’ll also find seven pho dishes, four different spring rolls and Vietnamese coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Vietnamese smoothies are at the ready though not one made with durian.  Nine distinct banh mi grace the menu including one (sardines and tomato sauce) your intrepid blogger has yet to try anywhere.  Banh mi are available in six- or twelve-inch sizes.  All banh mi include pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and jalapeños or green chile if you request them.  Instead of your banh mi being constructed on the usual Vietnamese-style baguette, you can ask for a lettuce wrap-style banh mi.

Spring rolls, two per order rice wrappers encasing cilantro and lettuce along with your ingredients of choice: shrimp, shrimp and pork, tofu or vegan are the only “appetizers” on the menu–or you can enjoy a six-inch banh mi with a bowl of pho if you prefer.  Don’t pass up the spring rolls.  They’re about five-inches long and are served with Leona’s homemade peanut sauce or fish sauce.  The shrimp and pork spring rolls are terrific–fun, fresh and delicious.  The shrimp has the crisp snap of freshness while the pork is imbued with inimitable Vietnamese grilled pork flavors.  The peanut sauce is a bit on the sweet side, but a bit of chili sauce will quickly fix that.

Fish Roll Banh Mi

After years of being disappointed by so-called Italian meatball subs, my affections have turned to the Vietnamese meatball banh mi.  My disappointment has been abated every time.  There’s just something magical about the moist pork meatballs interplaying with the crunchy carrot-daikon-cilantro-jalapeño slaw that appeals to my taste buds.  As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between meatballs, slaw and sauce.  It’s not drenched in sauce nor is it desiccated.  Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses.  You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi.

One of the most unique banh mi I’ve ever encountered is Leona’s fish roll banh mi.  My expectations were for some type of fried fish looking like most fried fish look.  Instead, the fish more closely resembles sliced deli turkey about a quarter-inch thick.  Thankfully it doesn’t take like turkey.  Despite its rather unique appearance, it does taste like fish, albeit strangely presented fish.  Hahn explained that the fish is filleted and pressed then fried.  Whatever the process, it’s a good (though not even very good) banh mi.  Flavors didn’t pop as they do with the meatball banh mi. 

Residents of the West Mesa no longer have to trek across the river or to Rio Rancho to get their banh mi fix.  Now if we could only persuade Leona to expand to other unserved and under-served hamlets across the Land of Enchantment, the dictionary entry for “banh mi” will be instantly recognizable to one and all.

Leona Banh Mi
3250 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite H
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 347-1913
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 February 2018
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET:  Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls, Fish Roll Banh Mi, Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Birds Paradise Hot Pot – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Birds Paradise Hot Pot, a Unique Dining Experience

It was 2:15AM on a workday, a full four hours before my dreaded alarm clock was set to utter a tone surpassed for annoyance only by the screechy prattle on The View.  Inexplicably my brain decided it was a good idea to play deejay and serenade me with Sukiyaki, the only Japanese pop song ever to top the charts across the fruited plain.  Yep, my mind had been invaded by an earworm, a song that sticks with you long after the note is played.   Akin to a broken record (millennials may have read about “records” in their history books) scratching the same chords over and over again, earworms can be nostalgic and pleasant or annoying and torturous, especially when they visit in the middle of the night. 

Compounding this earworm is that the version of Sukiyaki stuck in my head was the Japanese version, not the only with English translations.  So instead of repeating lyrics I understand, my mind was trying to replay incomprehensible Japanese phrases.  Sukiyaki is not one of those tunes for which “la la la la la” will work.  “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” works a little better, but it sounds a bit disrespectful.  Replaying an earworm over and over when you don’t know the lyrics is an adventure in futility and frustration.  At least, I consoled myself, it wasn’t Gangham Style, The Macarena or Achy Breaky Heart (and if reading those song titles triggered your own earworm, you probably hate me right now).

The Sauce and Spice Cart

The funny thing is “suki” translates from Japanese to “slice thinly” and “yaki” translates to “boil or sear.”  Put them “together and you’ve got Sukiyaki, a Japanese noodle dish with stir-fried vegetables and some sort of protein (pork, chicken, beef, fish) in a delicious broth.  Other than its title, the song haunting me that night has absolutely nothing to do with the dish called Sukiyaki.  Had Sukiyaki the song been about Sukiyaki the noodle dish, it would have made sense as my mind and stomach sometimes conspire to create dreams about a food I crave.  Those types of dreams recess quickly, but earworms persist in their annoyance, much like winter in Buffalo, New York (a veiled shout-out to my friend Becky Mercuri who’s probably shoveling another foot of snow off her driveway). 

Japanese Sukiyaki is but one form of hot pot cooking.  Most Asian culinary cultures have their own versions of hot pot dishes, but the genesis of this cooking style is China.  History tells of invading Mongol horsemen rigging their shields over campfires to sear meat and turning up those helmets in the embers to simmer soup.  Put the seared meat and soup together and you’ve got a hot pot dish (not to mention the heads of Mongol hordes smelling like delicious soup).  Hot pot has since been one of China’s signature dishes with regional variations accounting for a diversity of ingredients and proteins. 

Veggie Tempura with Tempura Sauce and Spicy Mayo

One commonality throughout Asia is the communal nature of traditional hot pot meals.  Families and friends still gather around a steaming hot pot not only to escape winter’s biting chill, but to spend convivial time together in spirited conversation and fellowship.  Unlike gobble and go meals across the fruited plain, a leisurely hot pot meal can last for hours. Sure, western cultures have fondue, the hearty tradition of spearing and eating gooey, melted cheese and rich, decadent chocolate, but it’s not quite the same as Asian hot pot.

Eating Chinese hot pot is a participatory event which typically begins well before diners are gathered around a communal table. First, soup stock is prepared, a laborious process involving the boiling of beef, pork or (and) chicken bones for a lengthy period of time. Meat is then sliced into thin strips as other fresh (an absolute must) ingredients and sauces are carefully prepared and placed around the table. Then and only then do diners begin the fun part. First they select morsels of prepared raw food and place them into the steaming soup stock until they cook. Diners then fish the cooked proteins and vegetables out of the soup and dip them in their sauce of choice. Of course, they also ladle up the broth and enjoy it, too.

Chili Puff

The Bird Paradise Hot Pot, the Duke City’s first restaurant dedicated to the time-honored tradition of Chinese hot pot cooking opened its doors in November, 2017. It’s ensconced in a very unlikely International District location, essentially next door to the Bird Discount Liquors store and in the front part of a space which houses a bar behind the restaurant. In fact, many of the bar’s patrons walk through the restaurant to get to the bar (and they might just stop to ogle your plate). If you’re familiar with the spot previously held by Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina, you know the space. At present there’s no permanent signage to indicate you’ve made it to the Bird Paradise Hot Pot, just a banner indicating “Now Open.”

A dead give-away that you’ve arrived is the aromas emanating from tables in which other diners are enjoying their hot pot experience.  Those aromas are positively intoxicating.  Much as you may want to begin your own hot pot indulgence, ten appetizers beckon.  Veggie tempura, seven pieces of crispy, lightly coated delights including sweet potato, eggplant and zucchini is an excellent choice if you want smaller fare.  The tempura veggies are served with two dipping sauces, a sweet tempura sauce and spicy mayo with just enough bite to earn its name.  It’s not a mind-blowing way to start an inaugural hot pot experience, but it’ll sate you until the main event.

Pork Hot Pot with Ramen Noodles

More satisfying is a New Mexico meets China starter called Chili Puff, two pieces of green chile lightly coated in tempura batter and stuffed with cream cheese and crab meat with spicy mayo and eel sauce on top.  Fire-eaters might want the green chile just a tad more piquant and the spicy mayo doesn’t add additional heat to counterbalance the sweetness of the eel sauce, the slightly sour, slightly salty cream cheese and the faintly fishy, briny flavor of the crab meat.  Still, it’s a very pleasant appetizer.  Cut it into inch-long slices and you could call it green chile sushi sans the vinegared rice.

There are seven hot pot options on the menu: vegetable, pork, chicken, beef, lamb, seafood and “water-land” (fish, squid, shrimp, scallop, oyster, beef, pork and chicken).  All hot pot dishes are served with your choice of rice or dongfen (organic rice noodles) as well as the hot pot base, a soup stock made by boiling pork, beef and chicken bones for eight to twelve hours.  Obviously, a veggie-based soup stock is used for the vegetable hot pot dish.  Each hot pot dish also includes cabbage, carrots, flammulina (golden needle mushrooms), ice tofu, green onion and inch-long corn on the cob.  If you’re of the carnivorous bent, you also get imitation crab and a beef meatball or pork meatball.

Lamb Hot Pot with Rice Noodles

Instead of raw ingredients presented at our table for us to cook over the tabletop hot pot stove, our server ferried to our table a steaming hot pot pan bubbling with broth, vegetables and our choice of protein (pork hot pot for my Kim and lamb hot pot for me).  Our proteins arrived eighty-percent cooked.  We were instructed to submerge the uncooked proteins under the broth and told those proteins would finish cooking in about two minutes.  Once cooked, we extricated those proteins and vegetables and immersed them quickly into the dipping sauce our server helped us concoct (chile oil, sesame, garlic, soy sauce along with cilantro and green onion for me).  Throughout our meal, as the level of broth dropped because of evaporation and our slurping, our server replenished it faithfully.  Our inaugural hot pot experience proved as delicious as it was enjoyable.  Chinese hot pot is every bit as good as many Vietnamese phos and Thai soups we’ve enjoyed over the years–and it’s more fun.

From an experiential standpoint, the Birds Paradise Hot Pot is unlike any other restaurant in the Duke City.  From the perspective of service, its a bastion of hospitality and kindness.  From a culinary point of view, it’s hot pot dishes are delicious and comforting.  For this earworm-haunted blogger, it’s what I’ll think of when Sukiyaki visits me again.

The Birds Paradise Hot Pot
5407 Gibson Blvd., S.E
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-3151
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 12 January 2018
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Hot Pot with Rice Noodles, Pork Hot Pot with Ramen Noodles, Veggie Tempura, Chili Puff

Birds Paradise Hot Pot Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho Garden – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Pho Garden in Rio Rancho

It should have been a point-counterpoint debate for the ages. My ideologically opposed and perpetually squabbling friends Carlos and Hien were arguing about the concept of American exceptionalism. Carlos took the Reaganesque position that America is the shining city on a hill. “Everything about America is great,” he proclaimed. “We have the highest standard of living and pretty much the best of everything.” Hien mirrored Obama’s stance that America does not have exclusivity in believing itself to be exceptional. Much like the chasm that divides Congress, neither disputant would concede a modicum of merit in the other’s argument. When it seemed as if this argument would end in another stalemate, Hien pulled out his trump (no, not another reference to a President) card.

There’s one thing about America that isn’t exceptional,” he declared. “American fast food is terrible.” With that point having been made, Carlos, long an advocate of independent mom-and-pop eateries, capitulated. True to form, they then began an argument as to which American fast food franchise is the worse. Carlos singled out Taco Bell as a piteous parody of the Mexican and New Mexican food on which he was raised and in which he takes so much pride. Hien wasn’t as singularly focused in his criticism. In his estimation, all American fast food is terrible. “It’s unhealthy, high in saturated fats and calories and it tastes awful,” he argued. Having just recently returned from his native Vietnam, Hien then made his case by boasting about how poorly American fast food has been received in his homeland.

Papaya Salad with Chicken

“In my hometown of Ho Chi Minh City (the largest city in Vietnam with a population of about ten-million), you won’t find a McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or KFC in every corner,” he began. “Everyone went to McDonald’s when it first opened (in 2014) because we’d heard and read so much about it, but curiosity quickly faded. Most of the menu features fried, high-fat, high-calorie foods. McDonald’s never incorporated local flavors and healthy ingredients into their food. Not only that, but you can get a banh mi for under two dollars and it’s much fresher, healthier and infinitely more delicious than a Big Mac.” Since that first McDonald’s launched in Vietnam, only fourteen others have opened. That’s hardly taking the country by storm. Similarly, Burger King has had to close several of its outlets as have other chains which dominate the American fast food market.

Contrast the poor performance of American fast food in Vietnam with the widespread acceptance and burgeoning popularity of Vietnamese food across the fruited plain and you have what might be termed as a culinary trade imbalance. America certainly got the better end of that deal. The Institute for Immigration Research estimated there were 8,900 Vietnamese restaurants in the United States as of 2014, and that number has been steadily increasing. Vietnamese restaurants across the fruited plain serve not only a Vietnamese-American community of almost two-million people, but an increasing numbers of Americans from all ethnic backgrounds. It seems the only people who don’t like Vietnamese cuisine are those who haven’t tried it.

Grilled Beef Rolls with Grape Leaf

Perhaps the one Vietnamese dish which has gained the most sweeping mainstream acceptance is pho, the traditional, slow-cooked soup many of us already consider a comfort food staple. Culinary cognoscenti believe pho could someday soon follow the path of pizza (Italian), tacos (Mexican), gyros (Greece) and sushi (Japanese) as ethnic foods that have become part of the fruited plain’s mainstream culture. When, not if, pho does ascend to this rarefied air, we can thank such restaurants as Rio Rancho’s Pho Garden for having made pho and other Vietnamese culinary delights so accessible and so delicious.

Pho Garden opened its doors in November, 2017, taking over the spot vacated by Pizza 9 in a small strip mall just recessed off Rio Grande Blvd. Pho Garden is Rio Rancho’s fourth Vietnamese restaurant. My friend Hien suggests perhaps the city should change its nickname from “City of Vision” to “City of Vietnamese Restaurants,” indicating most of the lettering is already in place. The restaurant is fairly small with fewer than a dozen tables in near personal space proximity. Step inside and you’ll likely be greeted by Khan, the effusive owner and a familiar face if you’ve frequented Que Huong, his previous Duke City restaurant venture.

Rare Steak & Well Done Noodle Soup

Unlike at Que Huong and other Duke City Vietnamese restaurants with their compendium-like, multi-page menus (novels), Pho Garden’s menu is limited if you consider 75 items (not counting beverages) to be limited. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of how the menu is organized: appetizers, sandwiches (banh mi), beef-rice noodle soup (pho), Udon-style noodle, noodle bowl, rice dishes and house specialties. Beverages include the usual suspects including durian shakes. The smaller menu is befitting a small kitchen, but it doesn’t translate to smaller portions. Steaming bowls of pho ferried to your table are roughly the size of a swimming pool.

My Kim calls Vietnamese grilled beef rolls wrapped in grape leaf, a Vietnamese specialty offered at Pho Garden, “Vietnamese dolmas.” That there are similarities between the Greek dolma and the Vietnamese grape leaf rolls often surprises people. What shouldn’t surprise anyone is that these starter favorites are an absolutely delicious way to begin a meal at a Vietnamese restaurants. Entirely different than Greek dolmades which are more often stuffed with rice and herbs, Pho Garden’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased in a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf served with a sweet, spicy and tangy dipping sauce. They’re served five to an order.

Combination Beef Noodle Soup

As a naïve child, I probably learned as much about the world from watching Gilligan’s Island as I did in some of my grade school classes. Gilligan’s Island taught me about the versatility of papaya, a fruit theretofore unavailable in Northern New Mexico. Professor Roy Hinkley used glycerol from papaya seeds as an ingredient in a bomb. He used ferric nitrate from papaya root to create an antidote for a deadly mosquito bite. What Gilligan’s Island never taught me is how wonderfully delicious papaya salad is. It’s become one of my very favorite starters in Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. Pho Garden’s version is terrific with sweet, savory, tangy and piquant notes tantalizing and titillating our taste buds. We ordered the version with chicken on which cold-cut type chicken strips were laid out atop the salad with crushed peanuts forming a crown of sorts.

When you visit a restaurant whose name includes the name of the dish in which it ostensibly specializes, you’ve got to have that dish.  While ordering pho at the Pho Garden was a no-brainer, deciding which of the more than thirty pho options to order was a much greater challenge.  My Kim surprised me by ordering the rare steak and well done steak noodle pho.  Before she captured my heart there’s no way she would have ordered something so primal sounding as rare steak.  In truth, the thinly sliced steak doesn’t remain rare for long.  It actually cooks within the steaming beef broth.  And what a broth it is.  It’s rich, delicious and as all great pho should, its presence is preceded by its aroma.

My first choice would have been the spicy Hue style noodle soup, but apparently it’s the favorite of other diners as there was none to be had.  You could hardly call the combination beef noodle soup (rare steak, well done steak, beef tendon, tripe and beef meatball) a consolation price.  It’s a carnivore’s choice with meats of varying textures and flavors.  Beef tendon and tripe are among my favorite pho meats, but it was the beef meatball with its assertive seasoning that garnered most attention.  Served alongside the pho is a plate replete with fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, jalapeños and lime.

The very name Pho Garden has connotations of freshness and deliciousness and indeed, this is one restaurant that lives up to its names.  It’s so good my friends Carlos and Hien might not find anything about it to warrant an argument.

Pho Garden
1751 Rio Rancho Blvd, S.E., Suite 106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 404-0774
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2018
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Beef Noodle Soup, Rare Steak & Well Done Noodle Soup, Grilled Beef Rolls with Grape Leaf, Papaya Salad with Chicken

Pho Garden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro on The 25th Way in Albuquerque

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. 
Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.
If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.
And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.
In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said:
“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
~ Jim Jarmusch
American Film Director

I discovered that pithy pearl shortly after a recent email exchange with Gil’s thrilling pollmeister (my spellchecker still insists on “poltergeist”) Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos.  We were deliberating whether to ask if you believe New Mexico’s talented chefs “invent” new dishes or if the cuisine found across the Land of Enchantment is primarily dishes that have been copied from recipes by chefs in other cities.  Rather than declaring “nothing is original” as the only possible answer to the proposed poll question, Jim Jarmusch’s sapient quote prompted even more questions such as: Is adding red or green chile to a non-New Mexican recipe inventing something original?  Isn’t any variation to an existing recipe actually making it an original recipe?  Does it matter?

Butternut Squash Dumplings

“Does it matter?”  It’s a question my Kim asks when I whine and complain at her suggestion that we give P.F. Chang’s China Bistro another shot.  My retort is typically something along the line of “but it’s so Americanized” or “it’s not real Chinese food” and of course “but it’s a chain” and most often “but the P.F. in P.F. Chang’s stands for “Paul Fleming,” the American restaurant impresario who co-founded the Asian-themed casual dining restaurant chain in 1993.  She reminds me (and rightfully so) that we both used to like P.F. Chang’s back in the mid-1990s before I became so narrow-minded (she doesn’t buy my claims of being enlightened) about food.  Further, she argues “if it’s not “real” Chinese food, it must be original.”  Aaargh!  She got me again!  

In a thinly-veiled attempt at saving face, I agreed to take her to P.F. Chang’s but only to prove how inauthentic and unoriginal it is (as if I’m really an expert on the 2,000-year-old tradition of wok cooking in China).  In truth,  P.F. Chang’s roots are deeply and authentically Chinese with an impeccable and unimpeachable culinary pedigree that includes Cecilia Chiang.  Often called “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking,” Cecilia essentially introduced authentic upscale wok-centric Northern Chinese cuisine to America at her legendary San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin.  Her son and culinary disciple Phillip is one of P.F. Chang’s founding partners (the “Chang” in P.F. Chang’s).

Kung Pao Dragon Roll

P.F. Chang’s “farm to wok” approach is a novel idea.  Every one of the more than 200 P.F. Chang’s restaurants across the fruited plain has a scratch kitchen where chefs prepare fresh food daily.  They chop vegetables, hand-roll sushi, hand-fold dim sum, juice fresh ginger root for the housemade ginger beer and create sauces from scratch.  (You might be surprised at just how many Chinese restaurants uses out-of-a-bag sauces purchased from food distributors.)  The wok cooking favored by the restaurant generates an intense flame which accounts for the smoky, caramelized flavors and crispy textures enjoyed in Northern China.  Chefs use all-natural meat, responsibly sourced seafood, and local produce whenever possible–and here’s one you may not have known: The New York Times credits P.F. Chang’s with being the first national restaurant to use Sriracha.  Today, its restaurants use nearly 100,000 bottles of Sriracha per year.

As if welcoming us back home after a twenty year hiatus, a special seasonal menu featured two of my very favorite food items any time of year: curry and butternut squash.  For me, there was no reason to peruse the main menu any further.  Hand-folded butternut squash dumplings (a savory squash filling and umami butter sauce topped with Thai basil and Fresno peppers) made good use of the butternut squash which is meant to be savory, not made to taste like pumpkin pie filling.  The rich umami butter sauce was “lick the plate” worthy while the aromatic, fresh basil and the sprightly piquancy of the Fresno peppers imparted contrasting, yet complementary flavors.

Harvest Curry

For my Kim who’s been on a sushi quest of late, P.F. Chang’s six item sushi menu made it easy to decide which sushi roll we would have.  When presented with compendium-like sushi menus, we typically can’t decide which select few to have and end up ordering too much.  A good choice was the Kung Pao dragon roll (California roll topped with seared Ahi, Sriracha, tempura crunch and peanuts).  Peanuts aren’t something you see that often on sushi, but along with the tempura crunch, they provide a nice textural contrast to the vinegared rice and pleasantly pink Ahi.  Go sparingly on the soy-wasabi mix.  There’s plenty enough flavor on the sushi roll.

Aptly named, the Harvest Curry (red curry, butternut squash, five-rice tofu, rustic vegetables and Asian mushrooms topped with Fresno peppers) would give the red curry at many a Thai restaurant a run for its money.  Red curry teases your taste buds with more savory flavors than green curry or massaman curry, but the coconut milk gives it a nice balance.  It’s the curry for those of us who don’t want a savory entree to taste like dessert.  The so-called rustic vegetables include such upscale paragons of freshness as cherry tomatoes and red peppers.  Then there’s the butternut squash, a sweet-savory blend which seems to bring out the invigorating qualities of aromatic basil and earthy mushrooms.

Wok-Fried Filet Mignon

For my carnivorous queen, the wok-fried filet Mignon (sliced eight-ounce filet, black pepper butter sauce, rustic potatoes, onion and lime-garlic vinaigrette) beckoned.  Born and bred in the City of Big Shoulders (and big pork chops, steaks and ribs), she’s a meat and potatoes aficionado.  Maybe if all steaks were wok-fried at intense heat, her husband might become a convert to the joys of the carnivorous persuasion.  The light caramelization on each meaty morsel and the tender, rich smokiness made this skeptic a believer.  Kim didn’t like the rustic potatoes, but they didn’t go to waste.  They fit well with the rustic vegetables in the Harvest Curry.

To say Chinese desserts haven’t occupied much of a place in the world culinary stage is a vast understatement.  Save for the few dessert items you’ll find at Ming Dynasty‘s amazing dim sum menu, we’re hard-pressed to name any.  So, you could hardly blame P.F. Chang’s for offering “Asian inspired” American desserts then christening them with Asian themed names.  The largest is the aptly named Great Wall of Chocolate.  It’s been rumored that astronauts can see this humongous dessert from the space station.  Picture a multi-layered slab of chocolate upon chocolate armored with chocolate chips.  Six layers of chocolate ganache divide this chocoholic’s dream.  Too much of a good thing?  Maybe not, but it’s got a week’s worth of sinfully indulgent calories.

The Great Wall of Chocolate

So there you have it!  2017 probably won’t be remembered as the year in which you read reviews of two national chain restaurants on Gil’s Thrilling…, but if you want a memorable Chinese dining experience, this over-the-top franchise will give you one.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
4440 The 25th Way, N.E.
Albuquerque New Mexico
(505) 344-8282
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 December 2017
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Harvest Curry, Butternut Squash Dumplings, The Great Wall of Chocolate, Wok-Fried Filet Mignon, Kung Pao Dragon Roll

P.F. Chang's China Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar in Rio Rancho

From our home in northeast Rio Rancho, it’s about thirteen miles to the Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar on Southern Boulevard.  It would have been safer to run with the bulls at Pampalona than it was driving the half hour it took me to get to Nori.  In those thirty minutes, an impatient tailgater blasted her horn at me for having the audacity to come to a complete stop at a stop sign in our subdivision.  As she roared passed me on a 25 miles-per-hour street, she contemptuously extended her middle finger out the window (in the same way drivers espying the Dallas Cowboys plate on my car acknowledge the Cowboys are number one).  Once on Highway 528, I witnessed drivers running red lights, exceeding the speed limit by at least warp five, turning from the wrong lane and not using turn signals (even though the season of lights is approaching).  “Phew,” I thought “at least we don’t live in any of the other 48 states whose drivers are more impolite.”

Yep, you read that correctly.  A June, 2017 survey conducted by Kars4Kids ranked New Mexico as the second-most polite state in which to drive.  At this point you’re probably laughing uproariously or wondering how New Mexico’s notorious election officials managed to stuff the ballots for the Land of Enchantment and abscond with ballots from other states.  “More likely,” you’re thinking “the survey’s respondents included such paragons of impartiality as Governor Martinez, the New Mexico Tourism Department and former Albuquerque Mayor Berry’s effusive spinmeister.”  For those of us with lengthy daily commutes into the heart of the Duke City, there’s more credibility in little green men landing their extraterrestrial craft in Roswell than there is in a survey indicating New Mexico’s drivers are the apotheosis of politeness.

The interior of Nori

Chanting Frank Costanza’s “serenity now” mantra as you navigate the metropolitan area’s mean streets is hardly a match for crazed, oblivious and wholly impolite drivers…and not even Calgon can take you away when driving in New Mexico leaves you frazzled and harried.  Fortunately there are three havens of civility in Rio Rancho where you can find solace and regain your composure. One is Joe’s Pasta House where possibly the very best wait staff in the Land of Enchantment is as welcoming as your most comfortable slippers.  Another is Namaste where respect and graciousness are practiced daily.  The third and most recent addition is the Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar which opened its doors in October, 2017.

Until 2010 when it shuttered its doors, Noda’s Japanese Cuisine may have been the Land of Enchantment’s very best purveyor of sushi as well as a nonpareil paragon of politeness.  Other sushi restaurants such as Ahh! Sushi and Sushi King have tried to fill the void, but all have fallen short in comparison to the sublime greatness of Noda’s, a once in a generation restaurant which many of us miss direly.  Nori won’t make anyone forget Noda’s, but Rio Rancho diners who appreciate good Japanese food and professional service will like it very much…especially if your commute was as harrowing as mine.

Tonkotsu Ramen

It seems the template for Japanese restaurants emphasizes professionalism.  In the Land of the Rising Sun, good service is associated with professionalism, not friendliness.  Wait staff are trained to maintain a professional, polite distance.  Instead of the chatty, often insincere wait shtick practiced by servers at many American restaurants (particularly the cookie cutter chains), servers in Japan don’t engage in small talk (especially of a personal nature) or try to establish personal rapport with their guests.  It’s the way some of us like to be treated.  By the way, if you appreciate the impeccable timing of servers who don’t hover over you and ask how your meal is just as you’ve taken a hefty bite, you’ll like Nori.

Nori, the Japanese name for edible seaweed, is appropriately named as nori is indeed an ingredient in several sushi rolls and dishes.  Neither the Japanese menu nor the sushi menu feature any real surprises, but offer familiar standards prepared well.  Appetizers include such recognizable favorites as edamame, gyoza, egg rolls and tempura.  Ramen and donburi dishes make up the entrees portion of the menu.  The sushi menu includes all familiar favorites: nigiri (a slice of raw fish over pressed vinegared rice), sashimi (slices of very fresh fish served raw) and maki (roll-style sushi in which ingredients are often wrapped in roasted seaweed sheets (nori) and seasoned rice). 

Top: Buddy Crunch Bottom: Unagi

Over the decades, ramen has evolved from a staple of the Japanese working class to a mainstay of impoverished American college students to most recently, a trendy Japanese restaurant favorite.  The latter is ramen all grown up, the antithesis of the budget dorm food favorite.  There are many different types of Japanese noodle soups, but tonkotsu ramen may be the most revered. Two main components define tonkotsu: tangles or nests of thin, starchy noodles in a rich salty pork broth. Traditionally made by boiling pork bones for twelve hours or more, the broth is incomparable.  Nori’s version also includes two marinated hard-boiled eggs, scallions, niblets of corn and fatty pork cutlets.  It’s a satisfying soup, filling and tasty, but much better versions can be found in Albuquerque at O Ramen and Naruto (both of which would require matador-like maneuvering among polite Duke City drivers).

Rather than one of the appetizers on the menu, my starter choice was unagi, grilled freshwater eel served nigiri style. Unagi is much sweeter and more tender than its saltwater cousins and is said to have stamina-giving properties. Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, it’s believed to heighten men’s sexual drive. Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they wanted an intimate night.  While some may find the thought of eel repellent, “eel sauce” is a popular topping for various sushi rolls.  A thick sweetened sauce made from soy sauce, mirin or sweet rice wine and sugar, it’s akin to fish candy.

Several of Nori’s maki rolls are topped with a crunchy tempura flakes instead of wrapped in nori sheets.  Among them is the buddy crunch (shrimp tempura, salmon tempura, avocado, spicy mayo inside tempura flakes and the aforementioned eel sauce).  During my novitiate days of enjoying sushi, my Kim questioned whether it was really the incendiary wasabi I really enjoyed.  Back then I drowned maki rolls in combustible mix of soy sauce and wasabi.  With more refined and developed tastes, it’s the ingredients within the vinegared rice that now enthrall me most.  My buddy roll barely touched the soy-wasabi mix, allowing me to enjoy balanced flavors from fresh ingredients.

Nori Ramen’s wait staff can show the fruited plain’s second most polite drivers a thing or two about politeness.  Moreover, they can show you a menu of familiar Japanese favorites prepared well.

Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar
2003 Southern Blvd., S.E., Suite 116
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 796-5065
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2017
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Ramen, Buddy Crunch, Unagi

Nori Ramen & Sushi Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aya’s New Asian on Menaul

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

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

Aya’s Dining Room

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

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

Vege Tempura

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

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


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

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

Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate

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

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


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

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

Green Chile Tempura

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

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

Miso Ramen

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

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

Green Tea Parfait

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

Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake

Aya’s New Asian
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-5441
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 November 2017
1st VISIT: 31 December 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate, Yakisoba, Vege Tempura, Gyoza, Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake, Green Tea Ice Cream Parfait, Miso Ramen, Green Chile Tempura

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

Thai Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Vegan on Osuna

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
– William Shakespeare

Contrary to the Bard of Avon’s most famous sonnet, what something is named does matter.  It matters at least as much as what it is.   Some would say, in fact, that a name is everything.  If a steak restaurant was named Rotted Meat, it’s unlikely it would entice enough diners (much less pedantic critics) to ever discover it serves four-star gourmet quality cuisine.  Diners would stay away in droves and those intrepid enough to visit would likely find the suggestive nature of its name  greatly diminishes the deliciousness of the food.

A restaurant’s name is its identity.  The right name imprints a good and lasting impression on a restaurant’s customers.  It’s an effective way to draw first-time visitors to a restaurant, if only to satisfy their curiosity.  Choose the wrong name and your restaurant could be subjected to pejoratives and ridicule. Zagat’s, one of the most prolific print and online sources of user-generated restaurant reviews rounded up what they consider the worst restaurant names they could find — “silly, sexually suggestive, potty referencing and all.”

Thai Vegan’s exotic dining room

The list was comprised of Asselina, an Italian restaurant in New York; Beaver’s Choice, an Arizona Scandinavian eatery; Big Wong, a New York City Chinese institution; Crabby Dick’s, a Mid-Atlantic seafood chain; Crapitto’s, a Houston Italian diner; Fu King, a Chinese restaurant in Florida; Goat Lips, a Florida deli; 9021Pho, a Beverly Hills Vietnamese restaurant; Phat Phuc, a Vietnamese noodle Bar; and Pink Taco, a Las Vegas taco restaurant.  It’s possible the double-entendre and scatology will appeal to the sophomoric among us–at least the first time we visit.  After that, return visits are unlikely if the food isn’t up to par. 

Rather than risk scaring potential customers away or worst, bringing in an “undesirable” crowd, most restaurant owners play it safe and give their restaurants fairly generic, but descriptive names that leave no doubt as to what type of food is proffered.  Albuquerque’s Thai Vegan restaurant, for example, will never be mistaken for a restaurant which serves steak and chops.  The name is clearly indicative of the type of food this restaurant serves.  What the name doesn’t come close to describing is just how good Thai vegan food can be under capable hands. 

Steam Dumplings (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

At Vegan Thai, the capable hands belong to chef-owner Pat Phomnoi and they’re on display for all diners to admire in two Albuquerque locations–the original on Osuna and one in Nob Hill–and one in Santa Fe. It’s obvious from Thai Vegan’s “I love me” wall that the original restaurant’s success spawned the need for expansion. One section of the wall just as you walk in is plastered with all the “best of” accolades the restaurant has earned over the years from such publications as Albuquerque The Magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, The Daily Lobo and more. Not only has it earned honors as the city’s best vegan restaurants, but in recent years has also been recognized as the city’s best Thai restaurant.

That last honor–best Thai restaurant–places the emphasis on “Thai” cuisine, not “vegan” cuisine.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate rates Thai Vegan as the third best Thai restaurant in the Duke City, right behind the Pad Thai Cafe and Thai Tip.  When it comes to purity of flavors, Thai Vegan, he emphasizes, is spot on.  After his inaugural visit, he returned to Thai Vegan four times in a two week span.  I joined Larry and Dazzling Deanell on Larry’s fourth visit.  He was excited to see if maybe a more recent visit to Thai Vegan might persuade me to up my rating from “20” to “22,” the rating he would accord the restaurant on my scale.

Papaya Salad (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

Chef Phomnoi launched Vegan Thai in 2010 at the former site of Lotus Cafe, quickly winning over the hearts of many of its predecessor’s devotees and bringing in the niche demographic of vegans wanting high-quality Thai cuisine.  No matter your preference, Vegan Thai will win you over when you step into the restaurant and are immediately enveloped in the olfactory arousing aromas of spices and sauces.  If you had any doubts before walking in, the fabulous fragrances will dispel them as they waft toward you like a sensuous siren’s call.

Thai Vegan will appeal to your visual sense as well.  The attractive dining room is adorned in gold trim with a gold symbol resembling a seahorse particularly prominent.  An aquarium teeming with goldfish seems strangely out of place though it does add to an already tranquil ambiance.  Service is friendly, attentive and employs tandem concepts.  The waitress who takes your order may not be the one to deliver it.  Whichever waitress is closest to you at any given time will be the one to refill your drink order or check up on you.

Red Curry (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

The menu is very similar to that of many Thai restaurants with a few surprises thrown in.  For example, the appetizers include not only edamame (soybean pods more commonly served in Japanese restaurants), but French fries, too.  Perhaps because of the commonality of the pairing, the menu also lists eight burgers–tofu burgers, legume veggie burgers, soy burgers, wheat meat burgers and wheat and soy burgers, all of which you can have with fries.  Many entrees are available with your choice of soy chicken, soy pepper steak or soy fish.

2 November 2017: Dumpling appetizers come six to an order or you can request an assortment of each of three types of dumplings: veggie, steam curry or red chili.  The dumplings are decoratively plated on a bed of lettuce, julienned carrots and purple cabbage.  The steam curry dumplings stand out largely because of the green curry sauce drizzled on top.  The red chili dumplings   have a crispy texture as if deep-fried.  The red chili is more cloying than it is piquant.  One of this appetizer’s best qualities is that when you’re done with the dumplings, you still have a salad well sauced with green curry and red chili.

Praram’s Plate with two spring rolls and a salad

2 November 2017: The menu offers eight different salad options including larb (the national dish of Laos) and papaya salad.  The papaya salad is as beautiful to behold as it is a joy to eat.  A bed of lettuce is crowned with julienned papaya and carrots, minced peanuts, cilantro and purple cabbage flanked by tomatoes.  Ordered at medium piquancy, there is barely a discernible hint of heat (at least to fire-eaters like Larry and me) on an otherwise very tasty, very fresh papaya salad.  Papaya salad is one of the most fresh and vibrant dishes on a Thai menu.  Even if newcomers don’t like anything else about Thai food, they’ll probably enjoy papaya salad.

30 July 2011:My server looked at me as if I had a death wish when I requested green curry at a “Thai hot” level, prompting me to question my own sanity.  I shouldn’t have.  The heat level was innocuous–maybe a third as piquant as the incendiary heat generated at Thai Cuisine.  That’s too bad because a little heat would have elevated the flavor profile of a pretty good green curry.  Even my Chicago born-and-bred better half thought the heat level to have been strictly “gringo.”  Stricken by a desire to experiment, I asked for the curry to be prepared with the soy pepper steak which will never be mistaken for the real thing, but shouldn’t be discounted either. 

Mangoes with sticky sweet rice

5 May 2015: Thai Vegan’s daily lunch and dinner combinations are a bargain at under ten dollars. Both are served with steamed brown rice, a spring roll and salad with your choice of tofu, soy chicken, pepper steak or soy fish. For a pittance more, you can also have soy shrimp or soy chicken nuggets. If the curiously named Praram’s Plate (marinated soy chicken pan-fried with peanut sauce on a bed of steamed spinach) is any indication, these combination plates are special. The pan-fried soy chicken may not perfectly mimic the taste and texture of real white meat chicken, but it’s close enough to the real thing that not everyone will notice. The tofu chicken is drenched with a peanut sauce very much reminiscent of the peanut sauce often served with satay. For those of us who love peanut sauce, the profligate portion of sauce is very much welcome. The spinach also goes well with the peanut sauce. As Thai spring rolls tend to be, the spring roll is excellent.

30 July 2011: Our mangoes with sticky rice dessert was a bit of a let-down. Though the mangoes were in-season, fresh and juicy and the sticky rice was perfectly prepared, this simple but elegant dessert favorite lacked coconut milk, the ingredient which coalesces all flavors in this dish.

So, what’s in a name?  In the name Thai Vegan, there’s the promise of very good and very healthy Thai food prepared before your eyes in a very attractive milieu.

Thai Vegan
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-4610
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 November 2017
1st VISIT: 30 July 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Green Curry, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Dumpling Assortment, Praram’s Plate, Spring Rolls, Spicy Eggplant

Thai Vegan on Urbanspoon

1 2 3 22