Poki Poki Cevicheria – Albuquerque, New. Mexico

Poki Poki Cevicheria on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Having settled comfortably into middle age, my favorite participatory sports of basketball and tennis have been replaced by more sedentary, safe and slothful pursuits.  Instead of getting my shot rejected almost as often as the cheerleaders in Peñasco spurned my offers of a burger at Victor’s Drive-in, I now delight in catching every grammatical faux pas, malapropism and inaccuracy uttered by the media–not a difficult challenge since the legendary and near infallible anchor Dick Knipfing retired.  

Instead of double-faulting on my serve eighteen times in a row, it’s answering questions which stump Jeopardy contestants that now gets my adrenaline pumping.  Alas, as a fogey who believes music died in the 70s and could not care less about Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling but count among my closest friends, the Albuquerque Adonis, Ryan “Break the Chain”  Scott, pop culture questions are my downfall. Case in point, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” was my answer to a recent question about a video game franchise from Japan.  The correct answer, of course, was Pokemon.  Pokemon?  I could have answered nearly all there is to know about Poke, the Hawaiian culinary craze that’s sweeping the mainland, but had absolutely no clue about this Pokemon creature.

Place your order and in a few minutes, your Poke adventure begins

Now let me tell you about Poke. Poke (sometimes spelled “poki” and always pronounced poh-kay) refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poke” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poke can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

In Hawaii, poke is a ubiquitous comfort food, served in venues ranging from surf shacks to gourmet restaurants. The advent of poke’s popularity across the fruited plain can be attributed to our shrinking world and the popularity of Hawaii as a travel (and increasingly, a dining) destination. It’s only natural that enterprising chefs who fall in love with poke during forays to the island paradise would want to share this pescetarian phenomenon with their own customers. It may be an overstatement to say these chefs have reshaped the American mainland’s culinary culture, but it’s safe to say they may have introduced its most exciting new food trend in recent memory. Sushi hotbeds such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to embrace poke, but even landlocked destinations in the heartlands now boast of poke restaurants.

Spicy Bowl

In a recent discussion about food trends, my friend David, an accomplished chef and barista, lamented how often the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market. He’s very happy to hear Albuquerque isn’t late to the poke party. On May 18th, Burque celebrated the official grand opening of Poki Poki Cevicheria, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls with Latin flair and influence. Poki Poki is a family owned enterprise which allows intrepid diners to assemble their own poke bowls in a fashion similar to Chipotle’s assembly line process. Poki Poki Cevicheria is located on Central Avenue in the Brickyard District just across the street from the University of New Mexico.

If you’re a true foodie, two items on the preceding paragraph probably caught your eye. The first is the inclusion of the term “Cevicheria” on the restaurant’s name. The second is the term “Asian-Latin” fusion. Poki Poki actually takes a creative departure from the standard poke restaurant template by incorporating “Latin” ingredients and flavors with ingredients and flavors rooted in Hawaii. In Albuquerque, when Latin flavors are discussed, it’s often hand-in-hand with the name Elvis Bencomo, the brilliant chef-owner of Passion Latin Fusion. Elvis collaborated on the development of the restaurant’s sauces and chips (more on them later).

Hawaiian Bowl

Though not a true “cevicheria” as you might find throughout Latin America, Poki Poki, it can be said, is a sushi-meets-ceviche-meets-donburi (Japanese rice bowl dish) restaurant, the first, best and only of its kind in Albuquerque. It was difficult to contain my excitement when introducing my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell to Poki Poki. Larry, the professor with the perspicacious palate, told me he’d “been looking for a restaurant like this for a long time.” Deanell,a culinary bon-vivant who’s probably smarter than Larry and I combined, marveled at how the flavors just popped.

The build-your-own poke bowl concept has five distinct steps: (1) select your bowl (regular, large or unlimited and base (white rice, salad or chips); (2) Go fishing. Choose from albacore tuna, ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon or octopus. A regular bowl rewards you with three ounces of your choice, a large bowl with five ounces and an unlimited bowl with seven ounces. (3) Sauce it up. Choose from the house sauce, roasted jalapeno, passion fruit, red pepper, poki sauce, tosa-mi or fusion mayo. Heat ratings for the sauces range from mild to hot. (4) Toppings. With a regular bowl, you can select three toppings; with a large bowl, it’s five toppings and with an unlimited bowl, you can top the bowl until it’s full. (5) Finish it! Elevate its deliciousness with chipotle mayo, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce, chimichurri or Sriracha.

Latin Bowl

15 May 2016: Unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls,” composed poke bowls ostensibly constructed by restaurant staffers after much delicious trial and effort.  Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff  salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, I opted for the Spicy Bowl during my inaugural visit.  With a base that’s half rice and half garlic chips;  spicy tuna and salmon; passion fruit; crab, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, lime, green onion, pico de gallo and furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces, this “better than any sushi roll” poke is an adventure in complementary flavors and textures, an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together.  The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.

17 May 2016: That next poke bowl transpired two days after my inaugural visit with the Hawaiian Bowl gracing my table.  This beauteous, bounteous bowl with a salad base; salmon, albacore and octopus; fusion mayo; a boatload of toppings (crab, avocado, seaweed salad, cucumber, pineapple, mango salsa, edamame, masago, ginger, sesame seeds and furikaki) and a teriyaki sauce is the antithesis of the Spicy Bowl.  Sweet notes are the prominent flavor profile though the sweetness of the teriyaki and the fructose tanginess of the mango salsa and pineapple are tempered by savory ingredients.  Because New Mexicans like their heat, ask the accommodating staff for some spicy mayo to give this bowl a hint of piquancy that marries well with other flavors. 

A Build-Your-Own Masterpiece

19 May 2016: The promised fusion qualities are best experienced in the Latin Bowl (white rice, octopus and albacore tuna, roasted jalapeño and red pepper sauce, avocado, jalapeño, plantain chips, lime, pico de gallo, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds with a chimichurri dressing).  All too often in New Mexico, Latin fusion means an insistence in using New Mexican green chile.  Wonderful as it is, green chile isn’t missed on the Latin Bowl which has plenty of other delicious heat generating ingredients.   With lime slices, you’re free to impart citrusy flavors to the albacore and octopus a la ceviche mixto, the popular Mexican restaurant offering.  The plantain chips as with the restaurant’s yam chips and garlic chips provide a textural contrast and delightful flavor complement to other ingredients.

29 July 2016: Since introducing my friend Bill Resnik to Poki Poki, it’s become a regular lunch destination for him.  He long ago graduated from ordering the prefab bowls and has been masterfully concocting his own creations.  A mathematician who graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology, Bill has an engineer’s mind with a mad scientist’s whimsy.  To see him point out ingredient combinations is to watch mad science or abstract art in action.  It’s not just “give me some of this and some of that.”  In his mind’s eye, he can actually taste what the intricate flavor combinations will be.  That’s why when we celebrated his birthday at Poki Poki, my instructions to our server were “just give me exactly what he’s having.”   Essentially, it was a melange of vegetables, seafood and sauces in complementary proportion to each other.  Alas, I probably wouldn’t be able to duplicate his masterpiece precisely, but should be able to create deliciousness on my own.  So can you!

The Poki Poki Cevicheria is so good, so radically different, so welcome that you just may do the Hokey Poki dance to celebrate finishing your first poke bowl even as you anxiously await your next.

Poki Poki Cevicheria
2300B Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1077
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 15 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Bowl, Hawaiian Bowl, Latin Bowl, Make-Your-Own Bowl

Poki Poki Cevicheria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Latitude 33 – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Latitude 33, a Surprisingly Great Asian Fusion Restaurant

“Of all places in the country where you could have opened a restaurant, why Truth or Consequences, New Mexico?”  You can bet Joseph Schmitt has been asked that question many times, especially when people find out his previous address was in Palm Springs, California where he was an accomplished travel writer with a special affinity for cooking and dining.  Schmitt’s introduction to T or C started off as business but wound up as pleasure.   Assigned to write about New Mexico’s salubrious spas, he enjoyed the T or C area so much that he hawked the story idea to several publications, the impetus for several return trips.  With each return trip he found more to love about the area until ultimately relocating in April, 2013.

In all fairness, one of the reasons guests to Schmitt’s Latitude 33 Asian fusion restaurant ask “why T or C” is because they don’t expect to find a restaurant offering such sophisticated fare.  That’s especially true if they haven’t visited America’s most affordable spa town in a while.  In recent years, the influx of free-thinking quirkiness, eclectic artsiness  and a bohemian spirit have touched all aspects of life in this small city, including its restaurants.  If you visit T or C expecting only the solid, but unspectacular comfort food of yore, you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised to find unconventional and excellent eateries offering cosmopolitan cuisine with a local flair.

Main dining room at Latitude 33

No longer are K-Bob’s, Denny’s and Subway among the highest rated Truth or Consequences restaurants on Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. Those paragons of chain mediocrity have been supplanted by fresh, innovative independent restaurants which, quite frankly, would be competitive in larger, more cosmopolitan cities.  These interlopers sport such names as the Passion Pie Cafe, Cafe Bella Luca and Latitude 33, the latter being the most recent addition to a burgeoning dining scene. 

Latitude 33 is so named because it’s on the latitude (33.12889 to be more precise) in which the restaurant and T or C sit.  Portions of Japan and China, two of the pan-Asian countries honored on the restaurant’s fusion menu, also lie on that latitude.  Situated near the heart of the historic bathhouse and spa district, Latitude 33 fits right in with the district’s bright color palette.  Distressed brick and corrugated window treatments give the exterior a rustic look and feel while the artsy interior is a melange of Southwestern art with Asian accoutrements on wasabi green walls.  Three picnic tables are available for al fresco dining with your four-legged children.

Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce

The menu is fresh and innovative, a much-welcome respite from the copycat fare many other so-called “fusion” restaurants tend to offer.  It’s a menu reminiscent not of Albuquerque or Santa Fe Asian fusion restaurants, but of the wildly eclectic and creative fusion restaurants in such cosmopolitan cities as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas.  The price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality, diversity and in-house preparation of all soups, sauces, dressings and stocks. 

While you peruse the menu, make it a point to enjoy a sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade, a homemade puree with soda water.  It’s a wonderfully refreshing blend of sweet-tangy strawberries, tart lemonade and lively ginger with just a hint of fizz.  The coconut-lime elixir (rich coconut milk with lime juice and a touch of mint) blends smooth mellow coconut milk with what is probably its polar opposite, tangy, refreshing lime juice.  The combination just works well.

Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce

Starters include the house Thai-style chicken noodle soup with coconut milk and rice noodles; a small Asian salad (cabbage mix, peanut dressing, veggies, sesame seeds); and a triumvirate of appetizers.  At a bare minimum, you should order at least two because if you order only one, you’ll certainly regret you didn’t sample the others.  If there’s an appetizer you haven’t previously found in New Mexico, that’s one you should consider.  The other should be a favorite appetizer so you can compare your previous favorite with Latitude 33’s made-from-scratch version. 

29 September 2014: Among the former, green chile aficionados should order the shishito peppers, a mild Japanese pepper not entirely unlike our own New Mexico green chiles.  Shishito peppers are three to four inches long and inherit the olfactory-arousing aroma of green chile when flash-fried until their skin is lightly blistered.  Unlike green chile, you don’t peel them after they’re  flash-fried.  Latitude 33  serves them with a green chile ponzu (a watery citrus-based sauce) sauce that complements the shishito peppers wonderfully.  You will absolutely fall in love with shishito peppers.  Note: The only place we’ve been able to find the addictive shishito peppers has been the Santa Fe Grower’s Market.  Shame on Asian restaurants in the Duke City and Santa Fe for not showcasing this green chile “mini me.”

Spicy Peanut Noodles with Flank Steak

29 September 2014: In recent years, fried green beans have become a rather trendy finger food appetizer health-conscious parents are actually able to get their children to enjoy–even if their persnickety children otherwise hate green beans.  Whether ordered in lieu of fattier French fries or for healthful considerations, fried green beans are quite delicious when prepared correctly.  At Latitude 33, the green beans are lightly breaded and fried to a golden hue then served with a Chinese remoulade sauce.  Each about the length of your index finger, they’re crispy just beyond al dente.  The remoulade is a savory-tangy-slightly piquant dip which may remind you of the dip you dredge up with your favorite snack.

29 September 2014: One of the most popular entrees on the menu are spicy peanut noodles, an entree for which the name falls well short of describing its deliciousness. Normally offered with tofu or chicken, the accommodating staff will substitute flank steak for a pittance more. The flank steak is seasoned magnificently and is as tender as the song of a summer wind. It’s a worthy protein for the elongated strands of wild rice noodles in a house-made spicy peanut sauce served with edamame (immature soybeans in the pod) and red peppers garnered with green onion, a wedge of lime and cucumber. The spicy peanut sauce is only mildly piquant, but imbues the noodles with a delightful flavor that marries especially well with the other ingredients. Be very judicious with the lime wedge because too much citrus will change the flavor profile significantly (and not necessarily for the better).

Coconut Green Curry Chicken

29 September 2014: In years of eating at Thai and Asian restaurants, few entrees have surprised me nearly as much as Latitude 33’s coconut green curry chicken. New Mexico’s Thai restaurants tend to prepare green curry dishes with bamboo shoots in a sweet-spicy coconut milk-enhanced curry. Latitude 33’s housemade version is made with Jasmine rice and no noodles. The curry is imbued with a touch of Hatch green chile, fresh broccoli, onion, red pepper, chicken and toasted coconut. The toasted coconut was heretofore not something my pedantic lips had ever experienced with green curry. Texturally and from a flavor perspective, it’s a nice touch. Latitude 33’s green curry isn’t overwhelmed by coconut milk as so many Thai curries in America tend to be. Instead, it treated us to a wide variety of thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture combinations. 

20 December 2015:  In addition to five daily lunch specials (available until 2PM), the menu lists four “day or night delights” sure to delight discerning diners.  One entree rarely seen in restaurants across the Land of Enchantment is Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa.  If you’ve ever heard of or had Mochiko Chicken, it was likely in the Hawaiian Islands where this poultry dish is served as a sort of island style chicken nugget.  Originating in Japan, these nuggets are coated in Mochiko flour, a cornstarch and rice flour which makes a light batter with a golden hue.

Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa

Latitude 33’s version of Mochiko Chicken is somewhat more sophisticated than the chicken nuggets so beloved among Hawaiian children.  Instead of nugget-sized poultry pieces, this entree includes several generously sized thighs lightly coated in the flour and topped with a sweet-tangy mango salsa.  The salsa is punctuated with sliced jalapeños from which it inherits a fresh piquancy. My preference would have been for the even more incendiary Thai bird peppers, but when chopped small enough they’re hard to see and may surprise you with their potency.  For just a bit of savory acidity, the entry also includes small cherry tomatoes.

20 December 2015:  The “Day or Night Delights” menu includes yet another entree heretofore unseen in the Land of Enchantment.  The pan-seared pork tenderloin entree is a beautifully plated dish showcasing six medallions of marinated pork tenderloin in a housemade strawberry barbecue sauce.  If you’ve never had a strawberry-based sauce on an Asian-style entree, you’re in for a treat.  Strawberry-based sauces are somewhat underutilized in American Asian restaurants, but Latitude 33’s version will make you wonder why.  The lively and pungent ginger-fried rice is a wonderful foil for the sweet sauce.  Punctuated with a vegetable medley (carrots, broccoli, corn), the rice is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico.

Pan-Seared Pork Tenderloin

29 September 2014: During our inaugural visit, desserts were limited to green tea ice cream and coconut black rice pudding with whipped cream. Made with sticky whole grain black rice, just a modicum of coconut milk and a generous sprinkling of toasted coconut, this rice pudding is creamy, mildly sweet, a little savory, and very coconutty. Unlike most of the black rice puddings you’ll find, this one is served cold. It took one bite to get used to the cold sensation and focus on just how good this dessert can be. 

20 December 2015:  Latitude 33’s key lime pie had us wondering if a Key West resident would be able to tell the difference between this key lime pie and its counterpart at the Florida keys.  Unlike far too many so-called key lime pies, this one isn’t overly sweet with a Graham cracker crust providing much of its sweetness.  Instead, the flavors emphasized were a delightful tangy tartness bordering on the lip-pursing variety.  This is key lime pie with a great balance of flavors and an emphasis where those flavors are needed.

Coconut Black Rice Pudding

Latitude 33 is just one more reason we’ve grown to love Truth or Consequences, a city which surprises us more and more every time we visit.  This is one restaurant with which you’ll fall in love, too. 

Latitude 33
304 South Pershing Street
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
(575) 740-7804
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 December 2015
1st VISIT: 29 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Peanut Noodles, Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce, Coconut Green Curry Chicken, Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce Coconut Black Rice Pudding, Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa, Pan-Seared Pork Tenderloin, Key Lime Pie

Latitude 33 on Urbanspoon

Sushiya Asian Fusion Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sushiya Asian Fusion Cuisine on Juan Tabo in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights

Sushiya Asian Fusion Cuisine on Juan Tabo in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights

I don’t eat anything that a dog won’t eat. Like sushi.
Ever see a dog eat sushi? He just sniffs it and says, “I don’t think so.”
And this is an animal that licks between its legs and sniffs fire hydrants.”.

Billiam Coronel

Sushi has come a long way in America.  There was a time–and not very long ago–that many Americans would have agreed with comedian Billiam Coronel’s assessment of sushi.  Fellow funny-man George Carlin certainly did: “I never eat sushi. I have trouble eating things that are merely unconscious.”

The attitudinal shift that has made sushi an explosive American phenomenon was at its peak in the ten-year period beginning in 1998.  Ten years later, there were five times as many sushi bars in the fruited plain and there appears to be no surcease to the popularity of what so many people poo-pooed as just “raw fish” just a few years ago.  Sushi has become so popular, so trendy that Food and Wine wrote in 1995 that “America is becoming a nation of sushi connoisseurs.”

The stylish interior of Sushiya

The stylish interior of Sushiya

There are over 330 sushi restaurants in greater Los Angeles, about 335 in New York City and nearly 300 in Dallas.  There are at least thirty restaurants in Albuquerque which serve sushi.  It’s served in Thai, Vietnamese and Asian fusion restaurants and it’s served in just about every part of the city.  The burgeoning popularity of sushi in the Duke City almost seems correlative to the explosive growth the city has experienced in the last decade or so.

In Albuquerque as in other cities throughout America, avant-garde chefs are bending tradition daily, taking liberties with time-honored techniques and especially in the use of creative ingredients.  Traditionalists might call it heretical, but Americans call it pretty darned good.  You probably won’t find a sushi restaurant in New Mexico that doesn’t offer its own succulent variation on a green chile sushi roll.

Hot and sour soup on the left and egg drop soup on the right

Hot and sour soup on the left and egg drop soup on the right

As in every city, the distinction of being the best sushi restaurant in the Duke City is in dispute with ardent supporters for several local purveyors weighing in.  Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, a faithful reader of this blog long before we became friends and who has pointed me in the direction of several great restaurants, has eaten sushi “everywhere in town” and contends that Sushiya is not only “the best” sushi restaurant, but the “best new restaurant in Albuquerque in 2009.”  That’s the kind of endorsement and passion that motivated me to bump other restaurants on my list.

Sushiya is located in a Far Northeast Heights strip mall with Albertson’s as its anchor tenant.  It’s ensconced in the strip mall’s southeast corner and has prominent red signage on two walls so you won’t miss it.  Previous tenants at this location include Porky’s Pride BBQ.  Within months after its opening, both the Alibi and Local IQ had reviewed Sushiya, raving about the sushi.  More than 90 percent of respondents to Urbanspoon indicate they like it, placing it among the most popular restaurants in the Duke City area.

Monkey balls on a bed of lettuce

Monkey balls on a bed of lettuce

The restaurant’s signage is subtitled “Asian Fusion Cuisine” which denotes the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre.  True fusion cuisine transcends both historical and geographical boundaries to create unique hybrids.  Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular.

Sushiya’s menu is replete with items that don’t appear to fit the traditional definition of fusion cuisine.  The menu features Japanese items and Chinese items, but not in combination with one another (or at least no hybrids I could discern).  In this sense, you could consider The Range Cafe a fusion restaurant because it serves American food and New Mexican food—not necessarily in hybrid combinations, but both occupying space on the menu.

Japanese deep-fried dumplings stuffed with chicken

Japanese deep-fried dumplings stuffed with chicken

Semantics not withstanding, Sushiya does have an intriguing menu, one that will draw aficionados of both Japanese and Chinese cuisine.  The proprietors are from Taiwan, an island nation occupied by Japanese during World War II.  A notable Japanese influence exists in Taiwan’s cuisine because Taiwan was under Japanese rule for several years, so good sushi is definitely not out of the question.

The lunch menu features several bento box meals, a traditional Japanese packed meal served in sometimes elaborate boxes with internal dividers in which different foods are esthetically presented.  Japanese and Chinese appetizers include edamame (steamed and lightly salted soybeans) which are commonplace in sushi restaurants and other items which are not.  In addition to the seemingly de rigueur miso soup also commonplace in sushi restaurants, Sushiya also offers hot and sour soup and egg drop soup.

Sushiya09

Top to bottom: Energy Roll, Crunchy Roll, Geisha Roll, Green Chile Roll, Eel Avocado Roll

The rice and noodles section of the menu features fried rice as well as yaki soba and yaki udon, both stir-fried Japanese soba noodle dishes that provide a nice alternative to rice (especially if you prefer all your rice on sushi rolls).  Main entrees are categorized as “from the land” and “from the sea.”  A nice selection of veggies and sides features three different tofu items as well as other interesting options, some of which you probably won’t see in other Japanese or Chinese restaurants.

The sushi menu lists several salads, most incorporating seafood elements.  Sushi and sashimi are definitely showcased, both in signature items (all priced higher than ten dollars) and in even more expensive chef’s entrees.  Sushi is available in conventional maki and tempura rolls as well as nigiri (a piece of raw fish (or other topping) on top of a small oblong brick of sticky white rice).

Energy Roll (Spicy Tuna), Crunchy Roll, Green Chili Tempura Roll

Energy Roll (Spicy Tuna), Crunchy Roll, Green Chili Tempura Roll

Having an option other than miso soup is a surprisingly welcome departure from the more traditional sushi experience that seems inextricable tied to the smooth, but unexciting miso soup.  Sushiya’s hot and sour soup is as exciting as miso soup leans toward being humdrum.  It’s spicy (pepper hot, but not piquant) and sour (like a diluted vinegar), but not excessively so and it’s absolutely delicious, among the very best of its ilk in the Duke City.  The “hot” could also apply to the soup’s temperature which, thankfully, is not served lukewarm as too many Chinese restaurants tend to serve it.  The egg drop soup, as with most of its kind, needs a generous spraying of pepper to prevent it from being too bland.

An appetizer special called monkey balls (which has nothing to do with simian’s reproductive organs) is always intriguing and though we’ve never been besotted by this appetizer, we continue to order it (perhaps in hope that it will be as delicious as its name is interesting).  Sushiya’s rendition is about as good as we’ve had it at other restaurants which is to say good, but not great.  Interestingly, the monkey balls have been different at every restaurant in which we’ve ordered them.

Sakura Roll: Soy Paper, Shrimp, Tempura, Crab, Salmon, Hamachi and Tobiko

Sakura Roll: Soy Paper, Shrimp, Tempura, Crab, Salmon, Hamachi and Tobiko

At Sushiya, Monkey balls are mushroom caps stuffed with spicy tuna and drizzled with a spicy Japanese mayonnaise.  Bite into them and you’ll luxuriate in the moist, woodsy flavor of mushrooms complemented by a rich, spicy tuna.  Six monkey balls per order means you can share these treats with someone you love.  What could have made these better, despite the spicy tuna, is more piquancy.  The spicy tuna had the bite of a toothless dog. 

The appetizer menu also includes a de rigueur Japanese dumplings (Gyoza) which you can request be prepared pan-fried, steamed or deep-fried.  The dumplings are stuffed with chicken and served with a sauce whose flavor profile was entirely dominated by soy sauce, rendering it entirely too salty.  Because of the saltiness, the dumplings are better by themselves.  Oh, and you’ll want to request the low-salt soy sauce for your sushi rolls because the house soy sauce could use serious desalinization.

Unagi (Eel)

Unagi (Eel)

The sushi menu is replete with cleverly named, inviting delicacies with a nice selection of both raw and cooked sushi.  On the signature items section of the menu, you’ll find such intriguing sushi sobriquets as Buddha Belly, Yankee, Fantasy and Crunchy.  The Crunchy lives up to its name.  It’s shrimp, crab and avocado coated in a tempura batter and deep-fried.  The exterior is crispy thanks to a tempura that is lacy and delicate.  The interior is moist and delicious.  It’s a balanced maki roll any aficionado of tempura and sushi should enjoy.

Because we didn’t see a spicy tuna hand roll on the menu, the next best thing we found was an energy roll, a tempura based roll featuring spicy tuna.  Unfortunately the spicy tuna was hardly incendiary and would barely have registered on the Scoville Scale.  That served to showcase the native flavors of tuna, my favorite fish after having lived off it for two years in Massachusetts.  The wasabi was fairly anemic, too, so it did little to spice up the spicy tuna.

Goo Loo, made from a thousand year recipe

Goo Loo, made from a thousand year recipe

Our inaugural visit was a true tempura triumvirate experience.  The green chili tempura roll showcases the roasted flavor of New Mexico green chile, but lacks the piquancy this native enjoys.  As with green chile rolls at many sushi restaurants, I did marvel at how the roasted flavor shines.  Perhaps those secrets can be shared with some New Mexican restaurants who haven’t mastered that skill.

For me, it wouldn’t be a visit to a sushi restaurant without sampling unagi, a nigiri roll.  Unagi is said to have stamina-giving properties.  Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive.  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.  It’s all about the flavor for me.  Unagi is delicate and slightly sweet, not like barbecue but with the same properties. 

One of the more frou-frou sushi rolls we’ve found in Albuquerque is Sushiya’s Sakura roll.  Solely from an ingredient perspective, the Sakura is a serious roll with soy paper, shrimp tempura, crab, salmon, hamachi and tobiko.  It’s also seriously tasty.  The ornamentation and presentation is what makes it so frou-frou.  The roll is sliced into seven pieces which surround a plastic ice cube atop of which julienne carrots and daikon are strewn.  The plastic ice cube lights up and changes color.  It’s mildly entertaining.

If there’s anything that can pry me away from sushi, it’s something I’ve never had and the menu purported to offer that.  Described as “an authentic thousand-year old recipe sauteed in a sweet-savory sauce plated with tempura vegetables” is an entree called Goo Loo on the “From the Land” section of the menu.  Goo loo can be prepared with chicken, pork and beef.  Alas, it’s very much like the candied, sweet meats about which I rail often on this blog.  Put a few sesame seeds on it and you could have called it sesame chicken or sesame beef, depending on how you ordered it.  It was so cloying we had to temper it with a little soy sauce, not what a “thousand year old recipe should need.”

Sushiya is a welcome addition to the Duke City’s Japanese restaurant scene and one of the best indications in the city that sushi is here to stay.

Sushiya Asian Fusion Cuisine
2906 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-4477
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 July 2013
1st VISIT: 16 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 19
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Unami, Crunchy Roll, Green Chili Roll, Sakura Roll, Geisha Roll, Energy Roll, Eel Avocado Roll

Sushiya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jinja Bar & Bistro – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Albuquerque rendition of Jinja

As of 2009, Albuquerque has two Jinja Restaurants. This one is in the Northeast Heights off Paseo Del Norte

Fusion cuisine.  The term often makes the most stodgy of purists cringe.  Even those among us with the most liberal of palates have been known to cower at its mention.  All too often, fusion cuisine is a loosely defined excuse for restaurateurs to unleash any number of unnatural flavor combinations upon the chaste, unsuspecting taste buds of diners seeking a memorable meal.  Like a shotgun culinary marriage, felonious acts have been perpetrated in the name of fusion, with disparate exotic ingredients forced together by the imagination of sadistic chefs. 

It would be impossible, however, to dismiss fusion cuisine entirely.  In one respect or another, much of the food we eat is a product of fusion.  There is no one national cuisine entirely self-contained and isolated.  Food is a work in progress–always adapting, always assimilating, always evolving.  Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the melting pot that is America where the influence of immigrant cuisine from throughout the world has resulted in a true fusion of culinary cultures, where the sum of the whole is more delicious than the cuisine of each culture individually.

Yin Yang Shrimp

Over the centuries–through brutal conquests, peaceful immigration and mutually beneficial trade–Southeast Asian nations in close geographic proximity to one another have shared culinary techniques, recipes, ingredients and implements to the extent that the dishes of one nation were adopted by other neighbor nations.  Korea, Japan and Thailand (among others), for example, can thank Chinese traders for such everyday stapes as black vinegar, noodles and cured pork.  This culinary evolution over time is not what purists decry.  That would be reserved for the chefs who, like the proverbial mad scientist with bubbling beakers, toss into a pot ingredients which have no business together.

When Jinja  (think about how a citizen of the great state of Massachusetts  might pronounce “ginger”) Bar & Bistro launched in 2002, I wondered just how much, if any, disparate ingredient and culinary technique mixing there would be and whether or not Jinja would even pretend to honor the culinary traditions of the Southeast Asian nations its menu purports to showcase: Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.  The restaurant’s Web site indicates “we use fresh, authentic ingredients, inviting our chefs to add distinctive twists to popular favorites such as pot stickers, noodle bowls, tempura, and beef and fish dishes.”  That sounds innocuous…and interesting enough.

Malay Coconut Soup

More importantly, I wondered if it really mattered whether or not Jinja honored the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia–not by copying them to the letter, but by not making them unrecognizable parodies of the originals–if the cuisine is delicious and the diners enjoy their experience.  Resigned to letting my taste buds, not my over-analytical mind decide for me, I found myself enjoying my inaugural dining experience at Jinja very much.  Jinja  just  seemed to resonate a contemporary, fun attitude and boundless energy.  Looking around me, it was evident other diners genuinely seem to enjoy themselves and the dishes they ate.  In the grand scheme of the dining experience, isn’t that what really matters?

With an intimate neighborhood restaurant setting and and a unique menu, Santa Fe’s Jinja became an immediate success because it filled an untapped niche in the “City Different” dining scene. Remarkably, it did so despite being situated on the northwest fringes of the plaza (the city’s tourist Mecca) and within easy walking distance of the struggling DeVargas mall. Jinja may be the most attractive and welcoming Asian restaurant in north-central New Mexico although if you wear transition lens glasses, you might not be able to tell until your eyes adjust.

Singapore Noodles

Jinja’s walls are adorned with slightly risqué, vintage travel and advertising posters and black and white photos of southeast Asia. Mood lighting, high-backed oversized booths with comfortable throw cushions, plenty of dark wood accents, curvilinear banquettes and appealing pottery add to the restaurant’s unique and inviting ambiance. The look and feel is upscale Polynesian nightclub, circa the 1930s or 1940s. A drink menu highlights exotic Polynesian libations and the bar setting (pictured above left) appears to resonate fun as it dispenses Singapore Slings, Mojitos, Sazeracs and lots of those cutesy drinks with tiny umbrellas.

The chef’s staff employs only authentic, traditional and exotic ingredients, among them galangal root, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf in crafting nearly thirty different sauces. The meats and seafood are of the highest quality.  The not-so-secret ingredient in everything from stock for soups to cocktail mixes is Jinja, er…make that ginger, a versatile spice that enhances both sweet and savory items while providing healthful benefits.

Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewer

The “classic starters” (appetizers) menu offers eleven items, some large enough for two to share while others are sizable enough to make a small entree.  Perhaps the most popular starter are the Imperial Lettuce Wraps, four crisp lettuce cups filled with a mixture of chicken, smoked ham, shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and fresh green onions garnished with fried bean thread noodles and served with a sweet Thai chili sauce.  Lettuce wraps have become a de rigueur offering among Asian fusion restaurants, most notably the popular chain P.F. Chang’s.  Jinja’s version is better.  It’s a messy hand-held dish, but one that’s enjoyable to eat.

Another popular starter are the Yin Yang Shrimp, twelve crispy black tiger shrimp served butterfly style and dusted in salt and pepper, garnished with green onions and served with a yin and yang of sweet, plum ginger sauce and spicy Vietnamese sauce.    In the wild, black tiger shrimp can grow rather large, but because they have a higher moisture content, they tend to shrink significantly when prepared.  They have a very mild flavor some compare to lobster and because of that mild flavor, are excellent vessels for flavorful sauces.  The plum ginger sauce and spicy Vietnamese sauce are both rather on the sweet side, but are greatly improved if you throw in some of the green onions on the plate.

Key Lime Cheesecake

Anne Hillerman, the terrific restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal North, has a very high regard for Jinja’s Malay Coconut Soup.  It’s a Jinja best-seller, the most popular of the three soups on the menu.  The Malay Coconut Soup combines the spice of housemade Tom Yum (a very popular Thai soup) with the sweetness of coconut milk,  mellow flavor of shrimp,  thickness of chewy udon noodles, crispness of carrots, sharpness of green onions and delicate sweetness of bean sprouts.  The Tom Yum components provide distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant herbs judiciously used in the broth.  There’s a lot going on in this bowl of deliciousness.

Among the entrees, the Singapore Noodles (an American Chinese restaurant invention and not native to Singapore) have so totally blown me away that in three visits, I’ve violated a personal convention by ordering it every visit to the exclusion of other potentially delicious entrees.  Jinja’s Singapore Noodles are simply among the best yellow curry dishes I’ve had in the Southwest with a tangle of curry imbued vermicelli noodles which are a delight to eat.  The yellow curry has a kick, but most New Mexicans won’t have a problem with its piquancy.  Ingredients include a generous amount of Char Sui BBQ pork tenderloin (or marinated tofu if you prefer), painfully thin rice noodles, green onions, chopped bell peppers, bean sprouts and egg garnished with chopped peanuts and fried shallots.  The Char Sui barbecued pork is perfectly done with a pleasantly subtle sweet sauce.

Because of my addiction to those fabulous Singapore noodles, it’s been up to my Kim to order other items on the menu and let me try them.  One of her favorites has been the Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewer, a skewer of grilled beef tenderloin marinated in Jinja’s signature teriyaki sauce accompanied by a skewer of red and green peppers, red onion and pineapple (you can choose to omit any of those) and served with your choice of Thai Jasmine white rice or Tsuru Mai brown rice.  One of the things that sets the Teriyaki sauce apart is that it’s not overly sweet and has a complex flavor profile that includes savory and tangy notes.  The beef is prepared at medium-rare unless you specify otherwise.  Each bite-size chunk of meat is tender and delicious, not a hint of sinew or fat anywhere. 

Perhaps even more fabulous than the excellent entrees is dessert, especially the dark, molten chocolate silk cake served with Vietnamese coffee ice cream and toffee sauce. It’s one of the best desserts we’ve had in New Mexico and equal to a similar flourless cake served at Roy’s in Las Vegas.  Another post-prandial sweet treat at which Jinja excels is cheesecake.  A rotating repertoire of wondrous cheesecakes will test your willpower.  One of the most tempting is a key lime cheesecake topped with a pomegranate-cherry sauce on a Graham cracker-coconut pie crust.  It’s sweet, it’s tangy, it’s a bit sour, but it’s mostly decadent and delicious.

Jinja Bar & Bistro is a restaurant which gives the term “fusion cuisine” a good name.  Moreover, it’s a restaurant which prepares Asian cuisine in interesting and delicious ways.  Since the 2002 launch of the original Santa Fe restaurant, two Albuquerque locations have also opened to critical acclaim.

Jinja Bar & Bistro
510 North Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-4321
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Silk Cake, Singapore Noodles, Shaking Beef, Imperial Lettuce Wraps, Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewers, Key Lime Cheesecake

Jinja Bar & Bisto on Urbanspoon

Jinja Bar & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Plum Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Plum Cafe

The branches of the aspen plum
To and fro they sway
How can I not think of her? 
But home is far away,”
Confucius

According to Urban Farm Online, “plums were domesticated in China more than 2,000 years ago and have figured in written documents since 479 B.C. These fruits were the plums Confucius praised in his writings and the ancestors of today’s Asian plums.” In China, plums symbolize good fortune while the blossom of the plum tree is considered a symbol of winter and harbinger of spring.  The Taiwanese consider the plum blossom a symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity during the harsh winter.  In both Korea and Japan, the plum blossom also symbolize spring while in Vietnam, the plum tree and its flowering blossoms symbolize feminine pulchritude.  

Despite its longevity, plums are not as significant on Asian dishes as one might expect, especially considering its versatility and complementary flavor potential.  In excellent Chinese (Ming Dynasty) and Thai (Siam Cafe) restaurants throughout Albuquerque, plum sauce (sometimes called duck sauce) is a staple, a sweet sauce as thick as a jam with a slightly tart  flavor which compliments egg rolls, spareribs and other appetizers and entrees.  It’s better, by far, than the candied, unnaturally red sweet and sour sauce some restaurants offer.

Potstickers: Wok fried dumplings filled with minced chicken, Napa cabbage, shallots and scallions served with ginger garlic soy

Perhaps as a portend of great fortune, brothers-owners Wyn Chao and Brian Triem named their newest restaurant venture–which they launched on November 17, 2012–the Plum Cafe Asian Grill.  The brothers are veteran restaurateurs and no strangers to the Duke City area, having started Rio Rancho’s Banana Leaf restaurant in 2005.  The Plum Cafe Asian Grill is located in the former home of the Asado Brazilian Grill and the Charcoal Mediterranean Grill in the  Jefferson Commons area commonly referred to as the Pan American Freeway restaurant row.  It’s within easy walking distance of the Century Rio multiplex theater. 

Its operating model–ordering at a counter–isn’t exactly unique, but more than at some restaurants, you might long for tableside service.  Almost as soon as you arrive at the counter, expect the perplexing question “are you ready to order.”  It’s especially perplexing if you’re a first-time visitor who likes to peruse the menu carefully before ordering.  The Plum Cafe’s menu is one you want to spend time studying.  It’s a fusion of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes with several intriguing surprises.  After you place your order, you’ll settle the bill of fare which includes adding a tip without knowing what the quality of service will be.  Then you’ll find your own table, retrieve your own beverages, napkins, condiments and plates.  At least the wait staff will deliver your order to your table.

Vietnamese Taco: Grilled beef, scallions, cucumbers, daikon, carrots, and cilantro served with corn tortillas with Sriracha mayo (Tacos are served with mango salsa and sweet potatoes fries)

The menu lists five starters, all but the Vietnamese spring rolls being Chinese.  Hot and sour soup and wonton soup constitute the entire soup section of the menu which surprisingly has no Vietnamese pho.  Three beautifully plated salads are available for the health-conscious.   Items on the fried rice and noodles section of the menu can be made with your choice of vegetables and tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or a combination of any.  Eight items on the “Signature” section of the menu provide perhaps the greatest intrigue; some, like the Vietnamese taco, are quite interesting.  There are also eight items on the “Entrees” section.  The menu is very descriptive and enticing. 

Pot stickers have become so commonplace as to become practically passe.  Very few–the sublime pot stickers at Hua Chang come to mind–actually stand out.  The Plum Cafe’s rendition are good, if not memorable.  Six per order pot stickers filled with minced chicken, Napa cabbage, shallots and scallions are served with a ginger garlic soy dipping sauce that would be better with a little heat.  These wok fried dumplings are steaming when brought to your table and may burn your mouth if you’re not careful.

Vietnamese Vermicelli: Vermicelli noodles, egg rolls, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, mint, cilantro, scallions and crushed peanuts served with a chili lime vinaigrette

In a surprising “Vietnam meets Mexico” twist reminiscent of the creativity found in China Poblano, the Signature section of the menu includes the Vietnamese Taco, an anomalous appetizer-sized entree melding the culture and cuisine of two diverse and distinct nations.  Picture if you will, two corn tortillas engorged with your choice of grilled beef or chicken (you can’t have both), scallions, cucumbers, daikon, carrots and cilantro with Sriracha mayo.  It’s unlike any taco you’ll find in Mexico.  The corn tortillas are soft and oil free, bursting with contents.  The tacos are served with a sweet-piquant mango salsa and sweet potato fries.

The Vietnamese Vermicelli entree—vermicelli noodles, egg rolls, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, mint, cilantro, scallions and crushed peanuts served with a chili lime vinaigrette–arrives in a swimming pool-sized bowl.  The chili lime vinaigrette, served in a small ramekin, is reminiscent of Vietnamese fish sauce in that it is redolent with sweet, piquant and tangy elements.  It’s a very good sauce which penetrates deeply into the fresh ingredients.  This entree, from the Fried Rice/Noodle section of the menu, is served with your choice of vegetables and tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or combinations thereof.  The chicken, mostly thigh meat, is moist and delicious, but is cut in long strips that are more than bite-sized.  It’s the only downside to an otherwise good, fresh, healthful entree.

Thai Mango Curry: Mango, pineapple, bell pepper, bamboo shoot, onion, cashews, basil and red curry coconut sauce

My favorite entree is the Thai mango curry made with both mangoes and pineapples as well as bell peppers, bamboo shoots, onion, cashews, basil and a red curry coconut sauce.  The curry has a nice balance of flavors–piquancy, sweetness, savoriness and tanginess and is served steaming hot.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared– fresh and crisp.  As with other entrees, it’s available with your choice of meat or shrimp.  Alas, as with the Vietnamese vermicelli, the chicken is cut into long strips that are somewhat larger than bite-sized.  The mango curry is available with your choice of rice and comes with steamed vegetables on the side.

The Plum Cafe’s Web site bespeaks of promise and potential: “We want to introduce Asian Fusion cooking that incorporates all types of Asian cuisine. Our fusion cooking techniques adapts modern and traditional ideas from various cultures while combining herbs and spices from these cultures to enhance each dish for volumes of flavor. Another integral part of this concept is to serve healthy, fresh, and made to order meals at a comfortable price. Plum receives fresh meat and produce each week which are all utilized in the daily preparation of our dishes. Nothing is cooked till it’s ordered. This ensures each dish comes out hot and fresh.”

It’s in the execution of its operating model that the Plum Cafe may be off-putting to some.  When done with our meal, we contemplated dessert, but didn’t want to repeat the ordering process at the counter.  Consider us spoiled in that way.  We would have preferred tableside service to match what was mostly pretty good food.

Plum Cafe Asian Grill
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 433-3448
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vietnamese Taco, Vietnamese Vermicelli, Thai Mango Curry, Potstickers

Plum Cafe Asian Grill on Urbanspoon

China Poblano – Las Vegas Nevada

China Poblano, a fusion of Mexican and Chinese Cuisine From the Brilliant Mind of Juan Andres

Mexican history and folklore recount the story of a remarkable woman who would come to be venerated as a holy woman and prophetess.  Born to nobility in India and possessing remarkable beauty, she was kidnapped as a young child and brought to Mexico, an intended gift to the Viceroy of Mexico whose personal harem of gorgeous women was known far and wide.  When she arrived in Acapulco on a Chinese ship, people were in awe of her breathtaking appearance and exotic ensemble, detailed with dazzling sequins and complex embroidery.  Her stye would come to be imitated far and wide by Mexican women who called it and her China Poblana which translates literally to “Chinese Pueblan.”  At the time, China was a term used to describe the entire Far East and all Asians.

Instead of winding up one of the Viceroy’s concubines, she was adopted by a childless couple from Puebla who loved and raised her as their own daughter.  An extremely attractive and capable young woman, she nonetheless opted for a spartan life in a convent. Though she did not take her vows as a nun, she did lead an ascetic life and was reputed to have had visions of angels as well as long conversations with the Virgin Mary. Until her death at the age of 82, she was frequently consulted by the clergy. Her tomb in the Sacristy of the Jesuit Temple of Puebla is still known today as the Tumba de la China Poblana, the Tomb of the China Poblana.

Would Frida Cahlo and Chairman Mao actually eat here?

Celebrated chef, restaurant impresario and television glitterati Jose Andres pays tribute to the idea of East meets West with one of his signature concept restaurants that presents a unique way of preparing and serving Mexican and Chinese foods.  Las Vegas Weekly called China Poblano “quite simply the perfect restaurant for today’s hipster foodie.”  Fittingly, it’s housed in The Cosmopolitan, a 3.9 billion dollar luxury resort casino and hotel on the Las Vegas strip.  The Cosmopolitan lives up to its name; it’s hip, chic and happening, the place to be seen and to espy the hipsters who frequent this Sinatra cool hot spot.

China Poblano is not a fusion restaurant per se in that it doesn’t take Mexican and Chinese dishes and transform the diverse and certainly disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients of the two very different nations to form an entirely new genre.  Instead, the restaurant serves Mexican dishes and it serves Chinese dishes and the twain…well, occasionally it does meet.  Jose Andres has pondered “If Mexico hadn’t shared its chiles with China, would we have spicy Chinese food?”  Obviously he’s grateful for that peppery philanthropy.

Chairman Mao watches over the exhibition tortilla and taco prep kitchen

China Poblano is an over-the-top loud and colorful restaurant that presents a stunning visual and olfactory sensory experience most will find fun though some may  find aspects of the experience offensive.  Located on the third floor of the stunning Cosmopolitan, it’s got some can’t miss qualities that grab you as you’re walking toward it.  The entrance is shaped like a fat Buddha in a lotus position.  Flanking the entrance are two take-out windows: “Chinese Food” on the left and “Mexican Food” on the right.  

Behind the Chinese window, you’ll find an exhibition dumpling, noodle and dim sum station on one side with an industrious kitchen staff hard at work hand-crafting and plating exquisite Chinese items.  Behind the Mexican window is an exhibition tortilla and taco prep kitchen where you can watch the delicate practice of creating edible art.   On a wall to the right is a digital photography display which rotates historical figures from both China and Mexico.  The notion of Chairman Mao and Frida Kahlo overseeing the restaurant may not be intended as an effrontery, but we did run into an elderly Asian who found Mao’s countenance offensive.

The noodle and dumpling station

Hanging from the ceiling are a phalanx of bicycle wheels, perhaps a playful recognition of the plenitude of the ubiquitous two-wheeled conveyance in China.  A stair-step wall is dedicated to statues not entirely unlike the terracotta soldiers unearthed several years ago, but decidedly less military.  Other walls are accented with colorful Chinese and Mexican masks.  Seating is rather casual–communal wooden tables, each with a 50s-style metal red napkin dispenser.  The restaurant is not nearly as commodious as most Vegas casino eateries, but you’re also not sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbors either. 

Servers, dressed in sharp black Mao-styled jackets with Chinese and Mexican symbols, are attentive and friendly, working in tandem to meet the needs of their guests.  You might be surprised at just how well informed they are on all aspects of the restaurant concept.  You might even be graced by the chef (not Jose Andres) delivering a plate or two to your table.  It’s an efficient experience executed flawlessly.

Cochinita Taco: Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork/marinated onions

The avant-garde menu offers a wide selection of Chinese and Mexican items served tapas style and priced moderately compared to other Vegas upscale establishments.  The menu is apportioned into several sections: dim sum, noodles and soups, tacos and sections called “From China” and “From Mexico.”  Some of the restaurant’s interpretations honor tradition while others are playful and fun–up to and including the names given them. 

Scour the twelve-item tacos menu (one taco per order) and you’ll see a lot of familiar offerings (especially if you live in the great southwest).  The tacos range from simplicity itself (refried beans with chipotle salsa and queso fresco) to the familiar (carnitas: braised baby pig, pork rinds, spicy salsa verde cruda) to the Mexican favorite (slow-cooked pork belly, pineapple) to the Mexican-Chinese fusion favorite Viva China (soft beef tendon, Kumamoto oyster, scallions, Sichuan peppercorn sauce).  You’ll also find a Langosta taco (lobster, salsa Mexicana, arbol chile sauce).  Let’s see Taco Bell come up with a line-up like this!

Scallop Ceviche: bay scallops/key limes ancho chile sugar

China Poblano’s answer to the Old El Paso commercial in which a young boy invents a flat bottom taco so the ingredients don’t spill out is a stainless steel taco holder in which each individual taco is nestled.  The taco holder helps the warm, freshly made tortillas hold in ingredients such as the Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork and marinated onions in the Cochinita Taco.  What it can’t hope to contain are the fabulous flavors of the sweet, tender and juicy meat punctuated by onions pickled pink  Each taco goes about four bites, but you’ll enjoy every one of them. 

Founder Jose Andres has long been regarded as one of the pioneers and foremost practitioners of molecular gastronomy, a term he despises, preferring to say chefs are closing the gap and bridging the differences between science and cooking.  Perhaps culinary gastronomy would be a better term to describe what some of his creations do in maximizing the creativity in the use of ingredients.  The scallop ceviche would fit that description.  You’ll do a double-take when it’s delivered to your table.

Like Water for Chocolate: fried quail/ dragon fruit/rose petals/chestnut and dragon fruit sauce

Perched above a layer of river stones are four bay scallops sitting atop four key limes dipped in an ancho chile sugar (but don’t call it molecular gastronomy).  This is most certainly a play on oyster shooters, meant to be eaten by picking up the key lime and shooting it in your mouth while squeezing the lime behind it.  The tart tanginess of the lemon and the sweetness of the sugar combine with the savory-sweetness of the scallop to give your mouth a burst of contrasting yet surprisingly complementary flavors.  This is a must have!

On the surface, Laura Esquivel’s wonderful 1990 tome Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) is about the struggles of a couple passionately in love but cruelly fated to be kept apart.  Below the surface, however, is a brilliant novel that celebrates the passion food can–and does–inspire.  China Poblano pays tribute to the novel and to its sentiment with a dish aptly named Like Water for Chocolate.  This dish’s most elegant feature is perfectly braised quail which borders a beauteous array of dragon fruit sauce, chestnuts and rose petals.  The quail’s skin is wonderfully crispy, its meat delicate and juicy.  The dragon fruit sauce, which is almost mousse-like, lends a bit of sweetness which pairs very well with the quail.  The rose petals are also surprisingly good.

Gaspacho Morelia: pineapple/ watermelon/ jicama/dragon fruit/ queso fresco/chile pequin

To Jose Andres, even the sacrosanct traditions of his home nation are subject to reinterpretation.  Gazpacho, for example, is almost always a cold, tomato-based raw vegetable soup.  Inventive chefs sometimes incorporate watermelon for a sweet contrast.  China Poblano’s reconstruction, called Gaspacho Morelia, includes pineapple, watermelon, jicama, dragon fruit, queso fresco and chile pequin.  Not a tomato in sight!  When it’s delivered to your table, your server will use an orange juicer to squeeze an entire orange on top of the gaspacho.  The three savory ingredients–queso fresco, chile pequin and celery–provide a wonderful contrast to the citrusy melange.  

China Poblano’s lamb pot stickers stuck on you are a fusion treat that arrives at your table looking unlike any pot stickers you’ve ever seen.  A crispy, lattice-like cover drapes over six pot stickers.  It’s as much fun to extricate them from their crispy lace dome home as it is to eat the pan-fried dough from which it’s made.  More fun–with an appropriate exercise of caution–will be popping the dumplings into your mouth.  They literally burst with the hot liquid flavor of the meaty, cumin-laced juices in which the tender Colorado lamb shoulder is braised.  The lamb is oh, so delicious.

Lamb Pot Stickers Stuck on You: (six pieces) vegetables/crispy lace

Desserts are as imaginative, maybe even moreso, than the savory dishes.  That may be especially true of the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, a whimsical take on the warriors unearthed in the Chinese city of Xian.  Only a handful of items on the menu are more steeply priced, but splurging will ensure, at the very least, ogling admirers on all sides.  A chocolate statue crafted from an outer shell of Oaxacan chocolate is stuffed with a chocolate-peanut butter mousse. The statue is surrounded by a melange that includes caramelized bananas, ginger ice cream and dark chocolate cookie crumbs.  It’s as pretty as a picture so it’s a pity the only way you can eat it all is by cracking open the chocolate shell and melding all ingredients in each spoonful. 

Dinner at China Poblano could easily set you back a C-note and it might not even fill you up, but you will most certainly enjoy every adventurous bite and look forward to a return visit.  One of the great thrills of your visit is watching food being delivered to adjacent tables.  It’ll give you an idea what you might want to order the next time you visit.  Because of the popularity of this phenomenal new restaurant, you’ll want to make reservations.

Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors: A shell of Oaxacan chocolate/chocolate mousse interior/ caramelized bananas/ginger ice cream/cookie crumbs

In 2011, China Poblano was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant award.  Jose Andres didn’t go home empty-handed, however, as he took home the coveted Outstanding Chef award and an episode of 60 Minutes in which he was profiled won a James Beard Award  for best television segment.  Leave it to a Spaniard to start a delicious Mexican-Chinese revolution.

China Poblano
Cosmopolitan
3708 Las Vegas Blvd, South
Las Vegas, Nevada
702-698-7000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25

COST: $$$$
BEST BET:Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, Lamb Pot Stickers, Gaspacho Morelia, Like Water for Chocolate, Cochinita Taco, Scallop Ceviche

China Poblano (Cosmopolitan) on Urbanspoon

Chino Bandido – Chandler, Arizona

Chino Bandido in Chandler, Arizona

Chino Bandido in Chandler, Arizona

Gustavo Arellano has the right idea. The brilliant and hilarious author of Ask A Mexican, a widely syndicated alternative newspaper column, confronts the “bogeymen of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance” with humor. In his weekly column, he defeats stereotypes and those who wield them by using deprecatory wit to exaggerate those stereotypes to the point of the ridiculous.

In the Language chapter of his uproariousbook, he provides a list of commonly used Mexican terms and phrases so that “you, too, can become a Mexican.” The book defines a “Chino” as “literally “Chinese,” but the catchall phrase Mexicans use for all Asians regardless of nationality.” This is clarified with the example: “Vietnamese food is my favorite Chino cuisine.”

I found it deliciously ironic when my friend and fellow gastronome Bill Hanson told me about a Phoenix restaurant named Chino Bandido which supposedly takes “fusion” cuisine to a new level.

Fusion cuisine is the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre. In large metropolitan areas, particularly in California, the fusion of different cuisines is commonplace. Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular.

Guy Fieri loved Chino Bandido

Guy Fieri loved Chino Bandido

The joining of Mexican and Chinese cuisine is nothing new to me. The now defunct Maverick Cafe in San Antonio, Texas, which I frequented back in the 80s became famous for their “East Meets West” dining concept. It wasn’t so much a fusion of cuisines as it was the plating of different cuisines (Mexican and Chinese) on the same salver.

Chino Bandido takes fusion cuisine to a level far beyond what the Maverick Cafe envisioned. That fusion was celebrated on a Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives program celebrating a veritable smorgasbord of inspired international cuisine in America.

It stands to reason that host Guy Fieri would relate to the cuisine. Several years ago Fieri launched Tex Wasabi, a restaurant serving Southwestern barbecue and California-style sushi, as innovative a fusion of disparate cuisine as you’ll find anywhere.

Raw fish and ribs on the same plate seem perfectly normal to the hyper-energetic Fieri who is never at a loss for catch phrases such as “off the hook” and “out of bounds,” two of the buttery axioms he used to describe Chino Bandido.

His effusiveness for the restaurant is obviously genuine. He scrawled “This is the greatest place in the USA! If I lived here, I’d eat it 3X a week!” on a signed poster now posted in a prominent space within the restaurant. Now that’s a rousing endorsement, one that has generated a lot of new traffic to and interest in a restaurant concept that as Fieri might say is “too cool for school.”

Chino Bandido is the brainchild of Frank and Eve Collins who started the business in November, 1990. The restaurant’s name was initially suffixed with the term “Takee-Outee” reflecting much of its business. At only 1,000 square feet, it didn’t accommodate too many patrons. Today the original Chino Bandido in Phoenix is over 5,000 square feet and seats around 150 patrons. In June, 2005, a second location, this one over 6,000 square feet plus an outdoor patio, launched in the burgeoning city of Chandler.

A two item combination plate

A two item combination plate

The Chino Bandido way of placing a food order is unique and fun. An accommodating wait staff will help you every step of the way and will even provide you with samples to help you decide what to order.

All meat items are listed in the “rice bowls” section of the menu. A sole item in this section means a bowl of white rice with a single item on top. For a pittance, fried rice can be substituted for the white rice.

A combination is any two items and includes beans and rice. Those two items can be ordered in any of three ways:

  • If you want the meat alone, place a checkmark on the takee-outee menu next to the meat you want.

  • If you want your meat in a quesadilla, scrawl the letter “Q” by the number.

  • If you want the meat in a burrito, place a “B” by the number.

In addition to the rice bowl combinations, you have your choice of black beans or regular refried beans and either white rice or fried rice. The rice bowl possibilities are almost endless. There are 96,420 different combinations possible so it would take a lifetime of visits to try them all. It’s possible, for example, to have Emerald Chicken on a quesadilla and a Jerk Chicken Burrito. Talk about variety!

In addition to the rice bowl combinations, you have your choice of black beans or regular refried beans and either white rice or fried rice. The rice bowl possibilities are almost endless. There are 96,420 different combinations possible so it would take a lifetime of visits to try them all. It’s possible, for example, to have Emerald Chicken on a quesadilla and a Jerk Chicken Burrito. Talk about variety

Now it’s one thing to feature a clever food gimmick; it’s another to deliver. Chino Bandido does so with award winning food sure to please even the most discerning palate.

Your palate will certainly enjoy an Emerald Chicken quesadilla (pictured above right). This is tender grilled, skinless chicken breast meat served with a fresh ginger and green onion sauce resembling Argentinean chimichurri in appearance. The ginger and green onion sauce packs a punch despite any discernable piquancy. In the proportions used on the chicken, the sauce will have a fresh and invigorating effect on your taste buds.

Snickerdoodle

Snickerdoodle

Jade Red Chicken, lightly coated, deep-fried chicken glazed with a slightly spicy sweet sauce, is the most popular item on the menu. Though it resembles the lacquered candy-coated sweet and sour stuff served in many Chinese restaurants, it’s better than most. My only complaint is that thigh meat is used instead of breast meat. While juicier than breast meat, thigh meat may be sinewy and tough.

The refried beans are topped with shredded white and yellow cheese and are as good as any refried beans I’ve had in Chandler.

For a taste of the Caribbean, try the jerk fried rice, a Chinese-style fried rice with chopped jerk chicken and green onions. This is a fiery fried rice thanks to the Jamaican spice mixture that makes jerk style cooking one of the most tongue-tingling and delicious cuisines in the Western hemisphere.

Each combination plate includes a Snickerdoodle, a sugar cookie characterized by its cracked surface. There’s plenty of cinnamon on these cookies, but the sweet taste is balanced by the slightly savory flavor of cream of tartar.

Guy Fieri called Chino Bandido “one of the neatest places shot on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” I’ll echo that!

Chino Bandido
1825 West Chandler Blvd.
Chandler, AZ
(480) 889-5990
LATEST VISIT: 25 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jade Red Chicken, Jerk Fried Rice, Emerald Chicken Quesadilla, Snickerdoodle

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