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Chopstix – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chopstix Chinese Cuisine on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro.

Chopstix Chinese Cuisine on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro.

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. 
Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people
ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder,
kites and any number of other useful objects,
and who have a noble history extending back
3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair
of knitting needles is no way to capture food? 
~Bill Bryson

The precise date in which chopsticks were first used has been lost in time. Archaeological evidence found in burial plots indicates they are at least 3,200 years old though some scholars believe they’ve been around even longer than that. Even the evolution of chopsticks is in debate. Some surmise that chopsticks evolved from the practice of using wooden sticks to stir food as it cooked on large pots over an open fire. Others believe that hasty eaters broke twigs from trees to retrieve food as it cooked. Whenever their origin and whatever its genesis, chopsticks have, for thousands of years, been the main tableware of the Chinese. By the Fifth Century A.D., the use of chopsticks had even spread from China to present day Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The dualistic philosophies of Yin Yang that seek universal balance and harmony even posit a correct way to use chopsticks so that the user forges a correct ration of sauce to meat. Their fundamental use remains unchanged over time. While many Americans have mastered the etiquette and techniques for using chopsticks properly, in the hands of others (including me), chopsticks become a lethal weapon, the attempted use of which might result in someone’s eye being gouged out.

The Chopstix dining room

Ironically, the only chopsticks you’ll see when you walk into Chopstix Chinese Cuisine are in the hands of deft users. On unoccupied tables, the place settings are spoons, forks, knives and a napkin. What makes this doubly ironic is that Chopstix, despite the Westernization of the name, is, along with the fabulous Budai Gourmet Chinese Restaurant, the most authentically Chinese restaurant we’ve found in Albuquerque.  How authentic?  For the unacculturated, it’s scary authentic with such rare specialties as chicken feet and pickled kohlrabi with pork and chive (both are delicious).

From its launch in 2005 until my inaugural visit, I received more e-mail about Chopstix than any other restaurant not previously reviewed on my blog. None of the e-mail was more passionate or compelling than one from Tom Donelan who described Chopstix as having “really excellent food with amazing and not familiar flavors.” Tom should know, having sampled 50 to 60 menu items.  While it’s not unusual for Chinese restaurants to have more than a hundred items on the menu, what is unusual for many diners is to sample so many of them.  Most diners seem to settle on a handful of select favorites.

Sesame Shaobing (left) and homemade Szechwan Sausage

Sesame Shaobing (left) and homemade Szechwan Sausage

Chopstix is ensconced in a nondescript shopping center on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro. It occupies the space which once held Taeja, a highly regarded and widely popular Korean restaurant which closed in 2004. On its signage, the “x” at the end of the name Chopstix resembles a pair of chopsticks. The bottom end of the chopsticks (the end used for picking up food) is tapered to a blunt end. That, we quickly found out, is where the “Westernization” ends.

The menu at Chopstix is very similar to what you might find in the Chinatown district of a large Cosmopolitan city such as San Francisco or my former hometown of Boston. Every item on the menu is spelled out in English and in Chinese and is accompanied by a photograph. A plethora of healthful options, including several vegetarian dishes makes this menu unique in that it doesn’t specialize in the deep-fried, heavily breaded, candied meat favorites proffered elsewhere. The menu does include several of the “usual suspects” (Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Orange Beef), but the Chopstix’ version is  better and not nearly as Westernized.

Chinese Fried Bread with Sweetened Condense Milk

Additional dishes (specials) are posted in plastic sleeves on the east-facing wall. Many of these dishes are not to be found anywhere else in Albuquerque and rotate in and out seasonally and as customers request. To my surprise, there were several menu items I hadn’t seen since my days in Boston.  The cuisine is Beijing-style which focuses on poultry and vegetables and relies heavily on spices (though not as extensively as Szechwan style cooking) and breads. This style of cuisine is surprisingly not that common, even in Cosmopolitan cities throughout America.

Most of the dishes are truly authentic, prepared as they would be in Beijing itself, without modification for American tastes. These dishes are prepared from scratch and take meticulous preparation time before they reach your table. When the restaurant is busy, it can mean long waits. While that may tax the patience of some Americans, many of Chopstix’ customers are Chinese who don’t seem to mind the wait. It’s certainly worth it.

The hot and sour soup is really HOT...and thoroughly delicious.

The hot and sour soup is really HOT…and thoroughly delicious.

The appetizer section of the menu lists twelve appetizers including the ubiquitous egg rolls. Appetizers also include sesame shaobing, a layered baked flatbread with sesame on top. In texture, shaobing bears some semblance to naan, the wonderful Indian flatbread.  It’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Unlike naan, however, shaobing is virtually devoid of flavor, not even salt.  In Taiwan, it’s served for breakfast with soy milk, a combination considered the most iconic breakfast in Taiwan.

The shaobing is accompanied by a standard “pot sticker sauce” (soy sauce, ginger and rice wine vinegar) for dipping, but savvy diners order the shaobing with their meals instead of as an appetizer. Dredging up the sauce on some of the entrees with shaobing is an improved use of a very tasty, very utilitarian bread that you just don’t find in many Albuquerque Chinese restaurants.

Shrimp with garlic sauce, the best we've had in New Mexico.

Shrimp with garlic sauce, the best we’ve had in New Mexico.

20 May 2012: Though New Mexico doesn’t currently have a full-fledged Chinese bakery, a surprisingly wide variety of Chinese bakery goods can be found in Chinese restaurants throughout Albuquerque (the dim sum menu at Ming Dynasty, for example, offers several). Only at Chopstix will you find Chinese fried bread, a deep-fried cruller that’s a Hostess cupcake shade of gold served with sweetened condensed milk which has a “frosting” like effect on the bread. It’s akin to having a Chinese donut. Only a scalding cup of coffee could possibly improve on this Chinese fried bread.

4 August 2007: Another appetizer unique in Albuquerque to Chopstix is Szechwan Sausage. While Szechwan cooking is characterized by spicy and piquant food, the Sausage barely registers on the piquant scale, but is redolent with spices (ginger, star anise, dried red chili and wild pepper), making it a very flavorful appetizer.  Szechwan sausage is made from shredded fresh pork, both lean and fat meat cuts.  You’ll occasionally bite into a sinewy bit, but for the most part, the texture of the sausage is akin to that of many German dry sausages.

Mustard with dried bean curd.

Mustard with dried bean curd.

17 March 2007: There’s a lot of truth in labeling when an asterisk (*) prefaces a dish. That means the dish is hot and spicy. Even the hot and sour soup (one of three soups on the menu) is gunpowder incendiary. It’s also as delicious and comforting as any hot and sour soup we’ve had, with throat and stomach warming properties that move it near the top of my favorite soup list.  There are plenty of woody mushrooms on this soup, a sign of its authenticity.

17 March 2007: Near the very top of my list of outstanding garlic shrimp entrees I’ve ever had is the Chopstix version. Laden with minced garlic and populated with barbed hot peppers, it is intensively flavored and preternaturally delicious. Prepared to absolute perfection were the dish’s vegetables: sweet snow peas, julienne carrots, green peppers, white onions and more. The sauce is incredibly flavorful, a perfect accompaniment to the aforementioned shaobing.

Dong Bo Pork on a Hoison-Soy Sauce

17 March 2007: Chinese physicians tout the healthful properties of mustard seed (which contain lots of protective substances called phytochemicals, which may inhibit the growth of existing cancer cells and help prevent normal cells from turning into cancerous ones), while diners will tout the surprising deliciousness of mustard with dried bean curd. Somewhat resembling, in both taste and appearance, the mustard greens so popular in Southern cooking, this dish doesn’t have the intense flavoring of the garlic shrimp, but it may be the most surprisingly good version of “greens” I’ve ever had. 

20 May 2012: If the Chinese dish of mustard with dried bean curd resembles the mustard greens of the Deep South, Chopstix’ rendition of Seafood Noodles has only a passing resemblance to the Caldo de Siete Mares served in many Mexican mariscos restaurants.  It more closely resembles a Vietnamese pho with a rich broth redolent with the flavors of the bounty of the sea–shrimp, crab, squid and fish.  The baby bak choy lends a slightly bitter flavor profile while the thick rice noodles provide one of life’s best pleasures, that of slurping perfectly prepared, almost buttery noodles.

Vinegar and sugar ribs

Vinegar and sugar ribs

4 August 2007: Pork entrees include Vinegar and Sugar Ribs in which pork ribs are stewed with soy sauce, Chinese vinegar, various seasonings and what is likely brown sugar. Not everyone appreciates a sweet and savory combination, and even if you do, this may be too much of a good thing–as in not enough taste contrasts for you to continue enjoying it with the same gusto as you had when gnawing the meat off the first few bones. 

20 May 2012: In recent years, perhaps as an offshoot of bacon’s popularity, one of America’s favorite gourmet cravings has been for pork belly.  The Chinese version is called Dong Bo Pork and it’s fabulous.  On the bowl in which it’s served, it bears an almost off-putting resemblance to fatty pork served in ink or tar.  The sauce in which it is served is a Hoisin-soy sauce mix that’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.  This half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish is a wonderful study in textural contrasts, but if you like pork regardless of texture, it’s a dish you’ll love.

Chicken with Ginger

2 October 2015:  Little chili icons next to specific items on the menu denote levels of spiciness.  Several items are rated one chili, but only one item has two chili icons next to it.  That’s the chicken with ginger, a unique dish unlike any we’ve had in Albuquerque.  Lightly breaded chicken usually means tender and moist, but not on this dish.  Texturally the chicken is chewy and crisp with not as much moistness as you might expect.  Piquancy is courtesy of finely chopped bird peppers as well as stir-fried ginger strips.  It’s not the type of piquancy which should intimidate most New Mexicans, but it’ll make most of us happy.

Several entrees are accompanied by steamed white rice, but for a pittance you can also have fried rice, with or without pork. Chopstix’ version of fried rice isn’t as soy sauce salty as most fried rice you’ll find in Americanized Chinese restaurants. It lets other flavors speak out for themselves.

Seafood Noodles (Baby Bak Choy, Shrimp, Crab, Squid, Fish)

You should never visit Chopstix alone because while every item might be good, you miss out on the fun and adventure of sharing and even a good thing (like the Vinegar and Sugar Ribs) might be too much of a good thing. There is much to like and much to be explored at Chopstix, a restaurant which may have a Westernized spelling, but which serves some of the best, most authentic dishes of any Chinese restaurant in New Mexico. This one will remain highly placed on my rating list!

6001 Lomas Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mustard With Dried Bean Curd, Shrimp With Garlic Sauce, Sesame Shaobing, Hot & Sour Soup, Seafood Noodles, Chicken with Ginger, Vinegar and Sugar Ribs, Dong Bo Pork, Chinese Fried Bread with Sweetened Condense Milk

Chopstix on Urbanspoon

China City – Albuquerque, New Mexico

China City on San Mateo

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

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

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

China City ‘s dining room

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

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

Egg Flower Soup

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

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

Spice Chicken with Shrimp and Sweet and Sour Pork

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

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

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

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

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

Click to add a blog post for China City Restaurant on Zomato

Lucky Boy – Albuquerque, New Mexican

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

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

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

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

Lucky Boy's genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy’s genial proprietors hard at work.

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

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

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Onion Cakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

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

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

Sweet and Sour Chicken

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

Lucky Boy on Urbanspoon