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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.

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
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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Chin Shan Chinese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ChinShan Chinese Restaurant in Albuquerque’s West Side

According to the trade magazine Chinese Restaurant News, as of January, 2007, there were 43,139 Chinese restaurants in the United States.  That’s three times the number of McDonalds franchise units and more than the total number of McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s in America combined.  More than 80 percent are family-owned with nation-wide chains such as Panda Express and PF Chang’s accounting for only five percent of all Chinese restaurants across the fruited plain.  Raking in nearly $17 billion in annual sales, Chinese restaurants are nearly on a profitability par with the behemoth burger chain, too. 

Until recent years, many (if not most) Chinese restaurants specialized in inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffets, most of dubitable quality.  Today, buffets are the bailiwick of behemoth supermarket-sized Chinese restaurants, some of which can accommodate hundreds of hungry patrons.  Chinese buffet restaurants remain very popular, perhaps as much because of economic considerations as for their prolific portions.  Prodigious portions do not, however, transformative meals make.  Few, if any,  people who frequent Chinese buffets will admit to visiting because the food is so good it’s memorable.

Crab Cheese Wontons

Urbanspoon shows there are nearly 100 Chinese restaurants (or Asian fusion restaurants featuring Chinese food) in the Duke City.  Only a handful of them offer all-you-can-eat buffets and those which do provide a stunning assortment of Americanized and authentic Chinese favorites (as well as the ever-amusing Chinese buffet standard of chocolate pudding).   During peak hours, the only thing with more variety than the silver trays brimming with multi-colored foods are the parking lots which must certainly be the envy of restaurants which don’t offer buffets.

Take, for example, the Chin Shan Chinese Restaurant on Albuquerque’s West Side.  On the day of my inaugural visit, we counted a total of nine diners over the course of an hour.  A mile and a half away, the parking lot at the Hong Kong Buffet was nearly full.  Why the disparity?  The Duke City dining public, it seems, prefers large quantities and a wide variety of inexpensive food available with minimal waiting instead of very good food prepared to order and which arrives at your table hot and fresh.

Shrimp with XO Sauce

Chin Shan has been serving Albuquerque’s far northwest quadrant since the summer of 2012 in the location whose most successful previous tenant was the much-missed Blue Cactus Grill.  It’s on the opposite corner of the strip mall which also houses Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria.  Though new to Albuquerque, Chin Shan is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment.  The original Chin Shan was a Los Alamos staple for years before being sold and renamed.

The word Chin Shan means “beautiful mountain” in Chinese which is most fitting considering the spectacular view of the Sandias from its east-facing windows.  The interior is accented in the color of sandia (watermelon), too.  Chin Shan is large enough to accommodate large groups, but has an intimate feel.  The restaurant is open seven days a week and offers dining-in and take-out as well as party trays for your own events. 

Crispy Chicken (Spicy)

The menu may not be a compendium of everything which comprises Chinese cuisine, but it’s a formidable menu categorized into soups, appetizers, vegetables, pork, duck, chicken, baby bok choy, baked soy bean, beef, seafood, clay pot, lo mein, Udon noodle, house noodle, fried rice and specialties. A luncheon menu is served Monday through Sunday with chicken, pork and beef combos served with soup (egg drop or hot and sour), egg roll and egg-fried rice. It’s a relatively large menu with just enough  sweet-and-sour entrees to appease American tastes inclined to enjoy candied meats. 

There are only ten items on Chin Shan’s appetizer menu, most of them fairly standard.  If the crab cheese wontons are any indication, the kitchen knows what it’s doing.  Unlike so many Chinese restaurants which offer these deep-fried dumplings, usually under the name Crab Rangoon, these are not dessert sweet.  Each of the eight four-sided star-shaped wontons are stuffed with a combination of cream cheese, crab meat (probably imitation), scallions and garlic.  These wontons are terrific, far too good to be dipped into the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce.  Ask the very accommodating wait staff for chili sauce (the one which resembles tobacco spit) which complements the wontons very well. 

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

From among three entrees shared with friends, the one which stood out most is the Shrimp with XO Sauce…and no, “XO” does not stand for kisses and hugs.  XO sauce is a spicy seafood sauce made of roughly chopped dried seafoods, and subsequently cooked with chili peppers, onions, and garlic.  XO sauce imparts deep, rich, smoky and piquant qualities onto food.  It’s applied at just the right amount on shrimp which are fresh and have a crisp snap to them.  This dish is served with red and green peppers and onions, all fresh and crisp.  This is a delicious dish, much better than you’ll find on any buffet line.

Another very enjoyable entree is Chin Shan’s crispy chicken which can be made to your preferred level of piquancy.  Unlike some chicken dishes in other Chinese restaurants, this dish is made with all white meat which is sheathed in a reddish piquant-sweet sauce.  One of the chicken’s nicest features is that it is indeed crispy, but not so crispy that you won’t enjoy the moist, tender chicken.  It’s also not overly sweet, but melds well with the heat-generating properties of the sauce.  The crispy chicken is served on a bed of lettuce with a side of white rice.

Orange Chicken with an egg roll and fried rice

Orange Chicken with an egg roll and fried rice

The sweet-piquant sauce used on the Crispy beef is dissimilar to the sauce used on the crispy chicken.  It’s a bit sweeter and not quite as fiery, but it’s not cloying as most sweet-and-sour sauces tend to be.  The crispy beef is a treat.  Each tendril of beef is caramelized to the extent that the exterior is crispy while the interior retains  moistness.  You might even get the sensation of eating candied carne seca.  My friend Sr. Plata who loves this dish tells me it’s not often available at Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque. 

SECOND VISIT – 24 JULY 2013: In days of yore, the method of ordering a meal at Chinese restaurants was as simple as choosing one item from Column A, two items from Column B, and so forth. Alas, the Chinese menu system has become somewhat anachronistic. Today, instead of the “one from Column A, one from Column B” system, many non-buffet Chinese restaurants offer combination meals, especially for lunch. Among the attractions of the combination meal is that they’re inexpensive and they’re filling. At Chin Shan, the lunch combinations include fried rice, an egg roll and your choice of hot and sour or egg drop soup.


Curry Chicken with Egg Roll and Fried Rice

Hot and sour soup is a crap shoot, often neither hot nor sour unless you doctor it with vinegar and chili.  The hot and sour soup at Chin Shan is very much on the viscous side–very heavily thickened.  It’s not quite as hot or as sour as I like, but it’s served hot as in steaming.  That makes it a good soup in my book.  Size-wise, the egg rolls are more akin to Thai or Vietnamese egg rolls, not the bulging, overfilled Chinese egg rolls.  They’re good, but hardly memorable.  You might not remember the rice either.  

The orange chicken, bite-sized, lightly battered and fried chicken breast and thigh meat is about what you might expect for a dish of Chinese origin which has been very much Americanized.  The orange-flavored sauce is on the sweet size with not nearly as much chili as diners might want. It’s not overly sweet, but could stand for a bit of piquancy.  The curry chicken is also lacking in punch, but is greatly improved by a bit of chili sauce.

Chin Shan is one of the best Chinese restaurants on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side, but it has the misfortune of being in fairly close proximity to a behemoth buffet restaurant.  If very good food, great service and reasonable prices stand for anything any more, Chin Shan should do well.  Visit once and you’ll probably visit again.

Chin Shan Chinese Restaurant
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite F.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 899-4578
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 July 2013
1st VISIT:  30 October 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shrimp with XO Sauce, Crispy Chicken, Crispy Beef, Crab Cheese Wonton, Orange Chicken, Hot and Sour Soup

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China Luck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

China Luck Chinese Restaurant

China Luck Chinese Restaurant

You can’t accuse Americanized Chinese food of being subtle.  Brash, gaudy and maybe even over-the-top, but never subtle. In fact, the flavor profile of Americanized Chinese food is generally so gunked up with MSG, sugar, salt and vinegar that by comparison, authentic Chinese food may come across to unacculturated diners as comparatively bland or boring. 

When Daniel Wilcox recommended a visit to China Luck, my initial inclination was to dismiss the restaurant as yet another in the pathetic pantheon of Albuquerque’s Americanized Chinese restaurants.  That dismissal was based on previous visits to both the now defunct China Luck restaurant in Rio Rancho and the also now defunct China Luck in Albuquerque’s Montano Plaza Shopping Center.  Both epitomized the type of Americanized Chinese restaurants my discerning friend Bill Resnik refers to as having “copycat menus full of candied, fried and breaded mystery meats that all taste the same.”

Still, Daniel’s recommendation was so animated and thoughtful that it remained in the back of my mind.  The facts that he lived in South Korea for two years, shares my opinion (and disdain) of buffets and craves an authentic experience when he visits Asian restaurants gave his recommendation tremendous credence with me.  His eloquence in describing his meal at China Luck flowed with such passion that he inspired me to try almost every dish he recommended and to use his words below to describe those dishes we had.

Chicken wings and legs at China Luck

Chicken wings and legs at China Luck

China Luck is owned by Taiwan-born Megan Yeh who moved to Albuquerque from Michigan in the mid 90s with her husband who’s been a chef for more than two decades and now manages the kitchen at China Luck.  The youthful and energetic Megan flits from table to table with the energy of a hummingbird.  She is an effusive presence, checking in on all her guests with regularity.  Obviously very proud of her restaurant and its cuisine, she willingly shares her encyclopedic knowledge of authentic Chinese cuisine with one and all. 

She will also admit that her previous instantiations of China Luck were Americanized by design.  Both previous locations featured a low-cost buffet replete with the popular sweet-and-sour entrees so many Americans enjoy.   At the newest and sole remaining China Luck on San Pedro, there is no buffet.   Similar to Budai Gourmet Chinese,  China Luck  has a “not-so-secret” Chinese menu that is the antithesis of Americanized Chinese food.    It delighted and amused me when our server cautioned us that unlike the “American menu,” the entrees on the Chinese menu are prepared to order, aren’t pre-made and therefor would take a bit longer.  

Xiaolongbao, a terrific pork dumpling

Xiaolongbao, a terrific pork dumpling

Now, the standard menu does feature all the de rigueur offerings you’ll find at most Duke City Chinese restaurants.  It’s what most diners expect and the reason they visit.  It’s largely why China Luck was lauded in 2007 by Chinese Restaurant News which annually recognizes the 100 best Chinese restaurants in the United States. Considering there are over 46,700 Chinese restaurants in the United States (that’s more than there are McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s combined), any Chinese restaurant singled out by Chinese Restaurant News is worth noting. Readers of Albuquerque The Magazine certainly took note; they selected China Luck as Albuquerque’s very best Chinese restaurant in 2007.

Both from the outside and in, China Luck is relatively stark in its design.  A singular statue of Buddha stands on a corner as if to oversee the restaurant and its patrons.  Aside from Buddha and a few Chinese accoutrements, the restaurant could almost pass for that of many other shopping center restaurants of any genre.  That is if the aromas emanating from the kitchen at other shopping center restaurants are the familiar bouquet of Chinese food.  Standard booths and tables provide seating which is both functional and comfortable.  

Lettuce Wraps

Lettuce Wraps

There are no surprises on the appetizer menu–at least in terms of something new.  The surprise is in how good the appetizers are prepared.  Take the fried chicken wings, for example.  These are not salt and pepper chicken wings or sweet and sour chicken wings, both of which fall into the “not subtle” category I described to start this review. Served six to an order are lightly coated, deep-fried chicken wings and legs the color of spun gold.  They crunch when you bite into them even as flavorful juices flow lightly from the moist, delicious meat.  This is the type of fried chicken you might expect served with ranch or blue cheese dressing although neither is needed.

Another appetizer not to be missed are the pot stickers, also served six to an order.  I’ll let Daniel describe these: “The pot stickers were made from scratch, down to the wrappers. Plump to almost bursting, they were steamed to perfection then lightly fried on just one side without excess oil.  The pot stickers were accompanied by a perfectly matched soy sauce-based dipping sauce.  I lived in South Korea for two years and had some good mandu (Korean pot stickers), but not many (if any) that were better than these.”  Alas, those pot stickers are no longer on the menu, replaced by another version of Chinese dumplings called Xiaolongbao.  Served steamed in bamboo baskets, xiaolongbao don’t resemble other Chinese dumplings, as the skin is gathered and pinched at the top instead of folded in half.  They are also unique in that in addition to the traditional pork filling, a tiny amount of aspic is folded into the dumpling.  The aspic melts when steamed, allowing the filling to stay moist and flavorful.


Scallion pancake

In culinary lexicon, a “lettuce sandwich” has always been a cultural metaphor representing something mundane, boring, unappealing, weak or unattractive.  That changed in 1993 when Paul Fleming launched P.F. Chang’s in Scottsdale, Arizona and made lettuce sandwiches sexy.  More precisely, he made lettuce wraps one of the most popular appetizers offered in Chinese and fusion restaurants throughout the fruited plain.  China Luck’s lettuce wraps are pretty standard stuff–very finely minced chicken, scallions, garlic, minced mushrooms, crunchy rice noodles and possibly other ingredients with several large leaves of Romaine lettuce.  Unlike P.F. Chang’s version, China Luck doesn’t offer a cloying Hoisin-based dipping sauce.  Your taste buds will focus on the sandwich-marriage of crisp lettuce and the flavorful minced amalgam that has won over so many American diners. 

Still another appetizer prepared extremely well is the scallion pancake, a twelve-inch-pizza-sized starter formed from hard dough rolled out in such a manner that it creates a series of layers similar to Greek phyllo without the flakiness and delicateness.   In between those layers, a sheen of oil (or perhaps clarified butter) is applied and scallions are spread in between.  After the scallion pancake is rolled into a flat disc, it is fried in butter or oil until completely cooked  and crisp on the outside.  The scallion pancake is served with a fairly simple dipping sauce in which even more scallions swim.

Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot

Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot

The “crowning part of the meal,” as Daniel describes it is the Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot, a restaurant specialty very popular among Chinese patrons.  It’s a dish you probably won’t find anywhere else in Albuquerque.  It’s a dish I’ve had twice at China Luck, a rarity in that I rarely order the same thing twice.  I’ll let Daniel take it from here.

It arrived sizzling in a small, wooden-handled pot. I quickly realized the dish is not for the casual eater; the chicken pieces were definitely NOT boneless; the small pieces of meat had small to medium bones still attached. From my time in Asia, I knew this was a good sign of an authentic dish. My first bite brought surprise to my eyes.  What I thought was a wood mushroom of some kind was in fact a thinly sliced shard of ginger. Expecting my taste buds to be overwhelmed, I was pleasantly surprised to meet some of the most delectable flavor combinations I’ve ever encountered. The Chinese basil, the ginger, the meat and the sauce, each with a unique strong flavor, combined in a new and wonderful gastronomic symphony balanced in perfect tone and meter.  The only possible improvement I can imagine would be a few more basil leaves. Though the ginger was surprisingly bountiful, that effect was perfect. I had been apprehensive at the pending chore of picking each small bone from the chicken pieces, but even that task contributed wonderfully to the experience; we were forced to indulge in this version of heaven slowly and carefully, which gave our taste buds proper time to experience the new, unique flavors. Consequently, though the dish took a long time to eat I wouldn¹t have shortened that experience for anything.”

Orange Peel Chicken

Orange Peel Chicken

Frankly there’s not much more I can add as Daniel’s experience was mirrored by my own.  The Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot is indeed a surprising entree, one of several surprises Megan assured me are available on the not-so-secret Chinese menu.  She added that although the entree is primarily ordered by Chinese diners, it has become increasingly popular among other diners. 

No longer on the Chinese menu, but something the chef will prepare for you if all the ingredients are available is the Chicken Meatball Casserole.  The Chicken Meatball Casserole is a fabulous dish, a wonderful find.  Served in a ceramic hot pot is a bowlful of vegetables and huge meatballs in a delicious sweet, savory and slightly piquant sauce.  The vegetables–red and green pepper, Thai bird peppers, white and green onions, ginger, Chinese basil and more–are fresh and delicious, prepared to the optimum of flavor.  The broth’s aroma is enticing, like a flavorful siren’s call.  A very generous number of delicious meatballs takes best advantage of that broth.  As with the Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot, this dish exemplifies just why Chinese buffets are often disastrous.  Chinese food is meant to be served immediately after it’s prepared, not to be left sitting under a heat lamp.  China Luck’s entrees arrive at your table steaming hot and fresh, the way Chinese food should be served.

Chicken Meatball Casserole

Chicken Meatball Casserole

If the term “secret menu” conjures images of foods prepared from ingredients you wouldn’t ever consider eating, fear not.  Some of those dishes are prepared from the most common of American ingredients.  They’re just prepared the Chinese way.  One of those items is the deep-fried chicken with salt and pepper.  The chicken, mostly white meat, is tender and delicious, many orders of magnitude better than the Colonel’s secret recipe could create.  Salt and pepper are the only condiments used.  The light, delicate crust sticks to the chicken.  Bite into a bite-sized morsel and wisps of steam will escape.  The chicken is served with deep-fried basil, as light and airy as gossamer.

One of the other pleasant surprises not from the Chinese menu is an Orange Peel Chicken entree that isn’t cloying enough to decay teeth on the spot as you’ll find at some Chinese restaurants.  If you don’t want “dessert chicken,” this is one you’ll appreciate.  The orange flavored sauce is subtle, but not boring.  It is punctuated with flecks of ginger and garlic as well as the incendiary dried Thai peppers that enliven the dish with heat.  The chicken is mostly white meat and it’s only lightly breaded so you’re tasting chicken and not some crispy, crunchy breading.  This rendition of Orange Peel Chicken is neither too spicy, too sweet or too tangy; it’s a harmonious blend of flavors you’ll appreciate if you’re tired of orange marmalade chicken.


Deep-fried chicken with salt and pepper; served with fried basil

Another surprise is the fried rice which China Luck steams before frying. It’s a little secret that seems to make for perfect fried rice every time. This fried rice isn’t clumpy or gummy. In fact, you can probably pick up and taste each grain of rice individually and it will retain the flavors of the fried rice. Now, it’s not the most flavorful fried rice we’ve ever had, but it absorbs the flavors of any sauce you may add to it. Perhaps that’s a recognition that rice is the supporting cast and other dishes are the starring attraction.

You will want to save room for dessert because China Luck offers one of the most refreshing and delicious desserts this side of Beijing.  It’s a mango custard resplendent in freshness and flavor.  As with other items at China Luck, it’s not sweetened for American tastes, but that allows the natural mango flavors to shine.  With the texture of jello, each spoonful is to be savored slowly and appreciated fully.  It is a fabulous dessert.

Mango Custard at China Luck

Mango Custard at China Luck

Daniel told me if he was to rate China Luck using my scale, it would warrant a rating of 20 at least.  Considering he didn’t steer me wrong in food choices, I’m inclined to agree. This is a very good–and very authentic–Chinese restaurant, one which doesn’t need the over-the-top effusiveness of the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese template.

China Luck Chinese Restaurant
7900 San Pedro Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 822-0525
Web Site
1st VISIT: 25 July 2009
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot, Pork Dumplings, Orange Peel Beef, Mango Custard, Chicken Meatball Casserole, Deep Fried Chicken With Salt and Pepper,

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