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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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
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
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Egg Foo Yong Sandwich

Lucky Boy on Urbanspoon

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

18 November 2014:  Unbeknownst to much of the dining public, there is so much more to Chinese soups than the egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soups often served in combination meals in cheap eats Chinese restaurants.  In fact, soups are a deep-rooted and endeared Chinese food tradition enjoyed for generations both for their flavorful qualities as for their healthful properties.  In America, Chinese soups have taken a proverbial back-seat to Vietnamese phos, perhaps the most beloved of any nation’s soups. 

Ming Dynasty has two soup menus. One menu lists the hot and sour, wonton and egg drop soups with which most Americans are familiar. It also lists soups that will entice more adventurous diners–soups such as the crab meat with shark fin. The other soup menu lists seven noodle soups, one of the best being the roast pork with wonton and egg noodle soup.  It’s an outstanding soup, the type of which will warm the cockles of your heart and leave you deeply satisfied.  It may also remind you of a high-quality Vietnamese pho.  The roast pork has the traditional reddish hue and temptingly tasty flavor of Chinese barbecue.  The noodles are delightfully delicious while the broth will leave you very happy.  If you enjoy more “personality” with your soup, add some of Ming Dynasty’s chili sauce to taste.

Roast Pork with Wonton & Egg Noodle Soup

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: 18 November 2014
# OF VISITS
: 28
RATING
: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shredded Duck, Roast Duck, Pork Chops with Peking Sauce, Dim Sum, Roast Pork with Wonton & Egg Noodle Soup

Ming Dynasty on Urbanspoon