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Ming Dynasty – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ming Dynasty, the very best Chinese restaurant in New Mexico.

Ming Dynasty, one of the very best Chinese restaurants in New Mexico.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was renowned as one of the greatest periods of governmental and societal stability in the history of mankind. Before long, history just might recognize the Ming Dynasty restaurant as one of, if not the, greatest Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque.  

Launched at 11AM on Sunday, April 27th, 2003, it returned our friend, proprietor Minh Tang and his loyal staff to the Duke City dining scene after the dissolution of an unsuccessful partnership that precipitated the closure of the great Beijing Palace. In Ming Dynasty, there’s a lot of addition by subtraction. Minh no longer has a partner to hold him back and he no longer offers a buffet that drew in patrons who didn’t necessarily know or appreciate real Chinese cuisine.  Beijing Palace’s buffet was living proof that you shouldn’t judge a Chinese restaurant by a buffet.  It wasn’t bad, but ordering off the menu is several orders of magnitude better.

Happy customers are typical at Ming Dynasty.

Happy customers are typical at Ming Dynasty.

Though his parents are southern Chinese, the youthful and exuberant Minh was born forty some years ago in Vietnam. The story of his family’s migration to America is one of fortitude, courage and determination. Should you get to know him well, he might recount it to you in his usual self-effacing and humble manner.  Similar to the large-bellied Buddha near the restaurant’s cash register, Minh sports a perpetual smile no matter how hectic and harried the day may be going.

About the only time the good-natured Minh lets his hair down is when Ming Dynasty hosts the annual dragon dance during Chinese New Year. He beats on the drums with the fervor of a real rock and roller.  He also greets some of his long-time customers and friends with “Buenos dias, como estas?”  It’s about the only Spanish he knows, but that’s more than many lifelong New Mexicans.

Dim sum cart

Dim sum cart

Prior to the Chinese New Year in February, 2008, Minh was invited to prepare hot and spicy pork chops on the CBS affiliate Channel 13’s morning show. At the unholy hour of 6:30AM, synchronized stomach growling among Albuquerque viewers could be heard all the way to China (or maybe that was just mine).

Minh is also the hardest worker of any restaurant owner I’ve ever met. Seven day work weeks without respite are typical. None of his wait staff can keep up with his multi-tasking routine of clearing tables, serving customers and keeping the kitchen running.

Dim Sum treasures (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

Dim Sum treasures (Photo by Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

Ming Dynasty is more upscale and classy than its predecessor and like its predecessor, will draw more Chinese and Asian patrons than any other restaurant in town. I receive more feedback on Ming Dynasty than on any other Asian restaurant save for Budai with favorable comparisons to Chinese restaurants in New York City, Vancouver, Hong Kong and San Francisco often made. By the same token, I receive a lot of feedback from diners who “don’t get” Ming Dynasty and can’t understand my high regard for it.

Ming Dynasty’s decor is very traditional though unacculturated patrons might consider it a bit stereotypical. From the moon gate entrance surrounded by a ferocious dragon and a resplendent phoenix to the restaurant’s wasabi-colored walls, Minh can tell you the significance of every artifact, each having a purpose in his restaurant’s design.

Some of Ming Dynasty's dim sum treasures

Some of Ming Dynasty’s dim sum treasures

The menu is a veritable compendium of Szechwan and Cantonese cuisine, with more than 100 examples of authentic Chinese treasures prepared exceptionally well. A well-stocked tank with live lobster and crab is the source of some of the menu’s popular seafood entrees.

Ming Dynasty offers a wonderful Saturday and Sunday dim sum lunch (and you can ask for a dim sum menu every other meal). Dim sum, a Cantonese word meaning “a little bit of heart” has captured my heart and seemingly the heart of every Asian in Albuquerque.  Get there right at 11AM on Sunday morning and watch the restaurant fill up quickly.  There are seemingly three “shifts” of diners–those who get there as the restaurant opens, a second shift an hour later and a smaller phalanx of diners at about four o’clock.  Regardless of when you get there, freshness is a hallmark.

Minh escorts two dim sum carts through the restaurant (Photo courtesy of Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

Minh escorts two dim sum carts through the restaurant (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

At Ming Dynasty, you might swear you’re in San Francisco, the domicile of American dim-sum dining (and four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Jamison even compared Ming Dynasty’s dim sum to similar fare in Hong Kong). A fusillade of stainless steel carts make their way to each table, each cart wielding several different treasures. Most dim sum dishes come in multiples of two, three or four so it will behoove you to dine with someone you love.

Ming Dynasty’s 43-item dim sum menu includes a boatload of steamed seafood treasures such as seafood salad rolls, stuffed crab claws and shrimp-stuffed bell peppers. There are also steamed, baked and fried items of all shapes and sizes, including chicken feet (which are actually pretty tasty but a pain to eat because chicken feet tend to have a lot of cartilage),  fish maw, Mixal ox stew and shark’s fin gow.  Minh’s professional catering team can craft party trays with all your favorites for parties of all sizes.  On many a Saturday during the spring and summer, Ming Dynasty is actually closed because it is hosting a wedding.

Seafood salad rolls with Chinese mayonnaise

Seafood salad rolls with Chinese mayonnaise

Dim sum protocol dictates that you dispense with soy sauce which tends to mask the subtle flavors of some items. Instead, use Minh’s chili sauce, made on the premises, in moderation to enhance inherent flavors. I’ve also seen some patrons mix plum sauce and Chinese hot mustard to create a gunpowder hot and fruity sweet mix they swear enlivens the flavor of the dim sum even further.

Ordering off the menu is an adventure in decision-making. The 120-item plus menu includes many traditional Chinese favorites prepared with an authenticity you rarely find in New Mexico. In every respect, Ming Dynasty is a formidable, world-class Chinese restaurant with the operative word being “Chinese.”

Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken

Although he serves the sweet and sour standards, Minh’s offerings aren’t “Americanized.” The sauces he employs (lemon, plum, orange, etc) are subtle ameliorants, not candied and overwhelming such as served at other Chinese restaurants. Fellow gourmand and friend Bill Resnik often refers to the culinary offerings at other Chinese restaurants as “chicken in syrup sauce, twice chewed pork and pork tasting like fish.”

If you are in the mood for something sweet, my highest recommendations go to the orange beef or either lemon chicken or orange chicken. The pork chops in Peking sauce are also quite wonderful. All of Ming Dynasty’s sweet and sour meat entrees are lightly battered and replete with high-quality white meat, a contrast to the heavily breaded, dark meat served elsewhere.

More Dim Sum Treasures

If you want something on the spicy side, order the Twice Cooked Pork–fresh pork sautéed with green pepper, vegetables and a hot, spicy Hoisin and black bean sauce. This entree is proof that you don’t need to load up a dish with Thai peppers to make it firecracker hot.

Want fried rice? Minh makes the best fried rice in town, flavored with a unique Chinese sausage which has a savory and sweet taste similar to longoniza, the wonderful Filipino sausage. Chinese sausage, made from pork, has a distinctively reddish tint.  The rice is fluffy, not clumpy with green onions, eggs, green peas and a hint of soy sauce and sesame oil.

Fried rice with Chinese sausage, the very best fried rice in town

Minh’s salt and pepper chicken wings are an interesting, but delicious entree in that the prominent flavor profile isn’t salt or pepper, but rather green onions and minced garlic.  Never mind the misnomer, these chicken wings are absolutely delicious.  Each golden hued wing is lightly battered, a thin batter sheathe briefly concealing white and dark meat.  The meat is moist and tender with the influence of its seasoning quite prominent.

In the fall of 2005, Minh launched a satellite restaurant in the Chinese food starved east side of the Sandias. Ming’s Chinese Cuisine (12128 Highway 14 North, Cedar Crest) met with critical success from day one, but closed in 2008.   The restaurant was smaller (only twelve tables) and had a somewhat limited menu, but it brought great Chinese food to our neighbors in the east.

Shredded duck, a wonderful entree

If you think, I’ve got exclusivity of opinion as to how terrific Ming Dynasty is, buy a copy of Scott Sharot’s outstanding book New Mexico Chow in which he lists among his favorite restaurants in New Mexico, only two Chinese restaurants. One is Ming Dynasty and ABC Chinese is the other.  Sally Moore, one of New Mexico’s most prolific travel writers, also waxed poetic about Ming Dynasty in her terrific tome Culinary New Mexico

In her March 11, 2011 post on her Tasting NM Blog, my friend Cheryl Alters Jamison, the scintillating James Beard award-winning author listed “5 New Mexico Hot Spots for Chinese Food.”  Of Ming Dynasty she said, “This east-side establishment reminds me of the epic dim sum houses of Hong Kong, the capacious ones where families gather, carts roll continually, and you pick what you’d like when they come by. Carts piled with dim sum roll here too on weekends, but ordering off the menu at times that aren’t so busy keeps the little dishes fresher. There’s a full menu of Sichuan and other Cantonese too. The attentive owner will guide you.”

Quail marinated in five spice powder

Over the years, my colleagues and I have taken business partners from throughout Asia to Ming Dynasty and they offer the highest praise possible, “it’s as good as home.”  They don’t say that about P.F. Chang’s.

Ming Dynasty
1551 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 296-0298
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 August 2014
# OF VISITS
: 27
RATING
: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shredded Duck, Roast Duck, Pork Chops with Peking Sauce, Dim Sum


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Ming Dynasty on Urbanspoon

Tao Chinese Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho

Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho

It’s highly unlikely ancient Chinese philosophers ever intended the concept of Tao to be used as an approach for the serial seduction of women, but that was the premise of the 2000 movie The Tao of Steve.  Filmed in the Santa Fe area, this campy romantic comedy centered around a corpulent, underachieving former philosophy student who christened his approach after the somewhat stolid “cool” epitomized by three Steves: Steve McQueen, Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O and Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man.

The Tao of Steve–which proves a very successful approach for sexual conquests–is comprised of three rules:  ((1) Be desire-less. If your body language indicates a lack of interest, a woman’s attraction to you will increase. (2) Be excellent.  Grasp the opportunity to showcase your talents, thereby proving your sexual “worthiness.” (3)  Be gone.  Leave women wanting more by not overstaying your welcome.

Feng Sui Principles on Display

For years, the concept of Tao has been and is being demonstrated in ever more creative and unique ways.  There was the Tao of Pooh, an introduction to Taoism using the beloved fictional character of Winnie the Pooh.  The Tao of Bow Wow taught pet owners how to better communicate with and relate to their dogs using these same principles.  The Tao of Physics provided an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.  There’s even The Tao of Tweeting intended to help maximize the enrichment and insightfulness of 140 words or less.

Tao (pronounced dao) is loosely defined as “doctrine” or “principle” but the word itself translates to the “way,” “path” or “route.”  Taoism, therefore, is not so much about a destination, but about experiencing life within the journey itself.  It’s a system of faith, attitude and practices designed to help its practitioners be true to and live their nature, to flow with life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things.

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

Throughout this path, one will encounter opposing, but equal forces or poles of existence that flow in a natural cycle, always seeking balance.  Known as yin and yang, these forces are opposite but complementary, opposing but not in opposition to one another.  They are instead two aspects of a single reality–light blending into dark, for example.  This is clearly depicted in the yin and yang symbol, one of the best-known symbols in the world.  The yin and yang symbol depicts the light, white yang moving up blending into the dark, black yin moving up–dependent, opposing forces seeking balance.

For New Mexicans familiar with the culture of the Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region, the Taoist desire for flowing through life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things sounds very familiar.   The Diné call it “hózhó,” a word embodying the striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Peking Dumplings: Hand wrapped Crescent shaped dumplings filled with ground pork and green scallions served with homemade sauce

Very prominent on the north-facing wall at the Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho is a six-foot tall Chinese ideogram depicting the Tao symbol.  There is nothing else near the symbol, making it the most pronounced point of focus when you walk into the restaurant.  Shades of green, gray and gold with soft wood colors give the milieu a relaxing feel.  The ceilings are a grayish-black with subdued lighting which imbues the restaurant with a sense of intimacy.  Additional soft lighting is available behind the blond wood trim along the east and west walls.   A serpentine half wall bisects the front of the restaurant from the spacious dining area which seats 70.

From the outside, the Tao Chinese Bistro isn’t much to look at.  In fact, unless you look closely at the signage, you might mistake the storefront space for a martial arts studio.  It’s sandwiched between the now empty space that once housed the Black Olive Wine Bar & Bistro on the east and Fratellis Pizzeria on the west in the Country Club Shopping Center, one of several nondescript shopping centers off heavily-trafficked Southern Boulevard.  One of the shopping center’s long-time anchor tenants is the fabulous Joe’s Pasta House, but it’s Albertson’s which dominates the complex.

Tao’s Marinated Chicken Wings

The Tao Chinese Bistro’s February, 2010 opening has been a welcome one at the City of Vision which has several Chinese restaurants, but none of which are transcendent.  Though the ambiance bespeaks upscale and classy, the price points are reasonable, particularly for lunch.  The specialty is gourmet quality wok-fried Szechwan cuisine and dishes from China’s remote Southeast provinces.

Chef Johnny Lee, formerly of the Fortune Cookie Chinese restaurant on Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico, is at the helm.  Chef Lee is passionate about fresh ingredients and balanced flavors.  He doesn’t take short-cuts, using no monosodium glutamate on his cooking.  The restaurant serves lunch and dinner six days a week (closed on Mondays) and offers both take-out service and catering for parties and special events.

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

The lunch menu served Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM through 2:30PM provides excellent value with a phalanx of familiar favorites averaging around seven dollars each.  Lunch entrees are served with steamed or brown rice and your choice of egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soup.  You can upgrade to fried rice for a dollar more.

The dinner menu is segmented into several categories: Soups, Rice, Noodles, Entrees, Vegetarian, Egg Foo Young, Tao’s Classic Dishes, Kid’s Menu, Desserts and Drinks.  The menu is a familiar one with few surprises save for on the Classic Dishes portion of the menu where you’ll find Coffee Chicken (chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce), Fisherman’s Feast (large prawns, scallops and lobster meat quickly cooked to perfection) and Walnut Shrimp (Lightly fried shrimp with roasted walnuts in a creamy sauce).  The menu offers more seafood entrees than most Albuquerque area Chinese restaurants.

Coconut Curry with prawns

Coconut Curry with prawns

Even though the restaurant specializes in Szechuan cuisine, there are but a handful of entrees asterisked (*) to denote a greater degree of spiciness.  Szechuan cuisine, which originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China, is renown for its bold flavors, emphasizing the qualities of spiciness and pungency.  Szechuan cuisine’s liberal use of chili peppers and garlic make it a favorite of discerning diners who want their meals to grab their attention.

19 March 2010: It was thus surprising that the hot and sour soup is somewhat subdued, lacking the intensely piquant and lip-pursing, vinegary tartness which defines the way some people measure how good this soup is.  It is a flavorful soup served steaming hot and delivered promptly within minutes after you place your order.  It’s just not as intensely, boldly flavored as one might expect from a restaurant specializing in Szechuan cuisine.

Orange Peel Beef

Orange Peel Beef

15 August 2014: Pork dumplings are served at most Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area and are generally among the most consistently good dishes you’ll find at those restaurants.  Tao’s Peking dumplings–six hand-wrapped, crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground pork and green scallions served with a homemade sauce–are among the very best in the area.   The sauce, which has sweet, savory, tart and piquant properties makes them even better.  In fact, the sauce would make a good beverage to accompany your meal.

15 August 2014: Chicken wings are another appetizer staple in Duke City area Chinese restaurants, but unlike dumplings, most aren’t very good.  Tao’s marinated chicken wings, six wings sauteed in black pepper and salt, are terrific.  The black pepper imbues the wings with an assertive flavor profile, but doesn’t overwhelm the moist, tender chicken.  Only larger chicken wings could improve this starter.  Our server informed us that with enough notice we could have an entire chicken prepared in this style.

Chicken with Black Bean Sauce: slices of chicken, stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce

19 March 2010: If the hot and sour soup is insipid, how then does an asterisked entree called Szechuan Beef fare?  Szechuan beef is one of the most popular wok-fried entrees in Chinese restaurants throughout America.  Tao’s rendition is a melange of thinly sliced beef, garlic, ginger, green and red peppers, snow peas, garlic and strategically positioned throughout the plate, several incendiary dried peppers that you dare not bite into unless your mouth is lined with asbestos.  This entree is served steaming hot (a consistent quality among the restaurant’s entrees) so that the flavors wafted upwards to excite your nostrils.  The beef is of high quality, not the cheap, sinewy beef this dish might use if in a Chinese buffet restaurant.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared and very fresh.

19 March 2010: One of the surprising lunch menu entrees is a Thai inspired coconut curry with prawns (or beef or chicken) which emphasizes the pungent piquancy of curry and not the cloying qualities of coconut milk.  This generously plated entree is redolent with the melding of flavors which go together very well, including fresh, crisp vegetables: onions, red peppers, black mushrooms and baby snap peas.  The prawns are large, wholly antithetical to the concept of shrimpy shrimp.  The number of prawns on the plate is surprising, too.

Tao’s Spicy Chicken

19 March 2010: Orange peel beef is an entree seemingly done by most Chinese restaurants, but most don’t do it well.  Tao Chinese Bistro does.  The beef is wok-fried to the point of being caramelized on the outside while retaining a perfect tenderness on the inside with an orange peel sauce that is most definitely citric, but not syrupy or cloying.

12 April 2011: Half of the entrees from the “Tao’s Classic Dishes”section of the menu feature chicken, a meat which tends to shine when stir-fried or wok-fried.  Dark meat, which tends to be more juicy and flavorful, is used on all but one of them.  The chicken with black bean sauce features slices of dark meat chicken, red and green peppers, pea pods, onions, water chestnuts and broccoli stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce.  The black bean sauce has a garlicky profile and isn’t overly thickened with corn starch so the flavor is predominantly of fermented black beans.  The vegetables are perfectly stir-fried so that they’re crispy and fresh.  Tao’s rendition of this dish is a good one.

Double Pan-Fried Noodles

21 March 2012: Even better is Tao’s Spicy Chicken, chicken breast rubbed with cayenne chili cut into bite-sized pieces then wok-tossed with garlic, ginger, green onions and Sichuan dry chili (with a hint of five-spice powder that’s not listed on the menu).  The flavor profile is intense as in this is a very garlicky, nicely piquant dish.  It’s made with white chicken for discerning diners who care about such matters.  In three visits, this is the best entree I’ve sampled. 

15 August 2014: My Kim’s favorite Chinese dish is a nest of double pan-fried noodles which reconstitute in a light brown sauce.  She typically orders it with onions, omitting such vegetables as green peppers and with pork.  The pork has a characteristic reddish ring around the pinkish-white meat.  It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a marinade.  Until you mix in the light brown gravy, the double pan-fried noodles  have a texture similar to Shredded Wheat before milk is poured on.  One reconstituted, the noodles are delightful, both to eat and to enjoy the transformation process.

Coffee Chicken

15 August 2014: Conceptually, the notion of Coffee Chicken sounds like a winner, but it’s in its execution that it seems to fall consistently short.  Tao’s menu describes its coffee chicken as “tender chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce.”  The description borders on fallacious.  First, the chicken is hardly tender.  It’s rather heavily breaded and stir-fried to the point of being caramelized, rendering it crispy.  Secondly, the sweet spicy sauce has virtually no spiciness.  It’s got a surfeit of sweetness, so much so that an entire bowl of fried rice doesn’t temper its cloying qualities.  Desserts envy this dish for its sweetness.

After four visits, it might be audacious to proclaim the Tao Chinese Bistro the best Chinese restaurant on the west side.  Four visits in four years is more than most Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque are accorded so it must be good.

Tao Chinese Bistro
3301 Southern Blvd., Suite 500
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 962-0168
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2014
1st VISIT:  19 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Peel Beef, Coconut Curry with Prawns, Szechwan Beef, Hot and Sour Soup, Tao’s Spicy Chicken, Chicken with Black Bean Sauce

Tao Chinese Bistro on Urbanspoon

Budai Gourmet Chinese – Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque's Far North Shopping Center

Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque’s Far North Shopping Center

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

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

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

Pineapple slush and organic flowering tea

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

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

Boiled chive pork dumplings

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

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

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

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

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

Beef stew in clay pot

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

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

Tea Leaves Smoked Duck

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

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

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

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

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

Three cup catfish

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

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

Dong Bo Pork (Fatty Pork Stewed For Eight Hours)

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

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

Beef Tongue

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables

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

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

Taiwanese Pork Chop Served with Mustard Greens and Fried Rice

Taiwanese Pork Chop

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

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

The uniquely named “Lion’s Head” entree

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

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

Curry Shrimp

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

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

Pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup

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

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

An appetizer of thinly-sliced beef

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

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

Spicy Beef Tendon

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

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

Taro root and chicken stew

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

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

Five spice and honey lacquered ribs

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

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

Five Flavors Mussels

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

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

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

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

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

Singapore Rice Noodle

Singapore Rice Noodle

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

A wonderful Chinese dessert featuring caramelized sticky rice, peanuts and carrots

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

BUDAI GOURMET CHINESE
6300 San Mateo, N.E., Suite H-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-7898
Web Site
1st VISIT: 31 August 2010
LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dong Bo Pork, Sugar Vinegar Short Ribs, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Orange Peel Beef, Hollow Heart, Taiwanese Pork Chops, Beef Tongue, Curry Shrimp, Lion’s Head, Three Cup Catfish, Pig’s Feet with Mung Bean Noodle Soup, Spicy Tendon, Taro Root and Chicken Stew, Crispy Duck with Taro Paste, Lamb Stew, Honey and Five Spice Lacquered Ribs, Five Flavors Mussels, Shanghai Ribs, Crispy Orange Peel Scallops, Singapore Rice Noodles


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