M’Tucci’s Kitchina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Kitchina, an outstanding Italian restaurant on Montano

Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone..”
Stanley Tucci as Segundo in Big Night

With a name like M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you might wonder if the Italian restaurant on the intersection of Coors and Montano is named for Academy Award nominated actor Stanley Tucci. After all, Tucci co-starred in Big Night and Julie & Julia, arguably two of the very best food movies in recent years. The “Kitchina” part of the restaurant’s name is obviously a whimsical play on “cucina,” the Italian term for kitchen, but is spelled more similarly to Kachina, the Hopi ancestral spirits. In any case, if the amusing name and fun, casual ambiance doesn’t hook you, the food certainly will.

Step into the expansive dining room and the playfulness hinted by the restaurant’s name continues. Our immediate impression was “Laissez les bon temps roulette” (let the good times roll) as in New Orleans Mardi Gras. That impression was gleaned from the colorful Mardi Gras-like masks on several walls and a life-sized alligator on another. Then there’s the pergola–large enough to accommodate a table of four–with an ominous lizard crawling down the roof. There’s something to pique your interest everywhere you turn.

M’Tucci’s colorful dining room

The colorful masks (which are easily mistaken for those widely seen in New Orleans) are Venetian, a staple of the Carnival of Venice. The alligator…well, he’s there because co-owner Katie Gardner likes him. The chandeliered pergola is designated for feting guests celebrating a special occasion. When we commented on the restaurant’s “wildly eclectic ambiance” Katie explained that she’s a wildly eclectic person. She’s also very experienced in running successful restaurants, having owned eleven of them along with her husband in New York City…and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Succeeding where other restaurants have failed will certainly be a challenge. M’Tucci’s is situated in the digs formerly occupied by The Mill of New Mexico, Tomato Café and Spinn’s Burgers and Beer. It’s a tough location exacerbated by the fact that its storefront, while facing heavily trafficked Coors Boulevard, is obfuscated by distance, traffic flow and other shops. A very active Facebook presence and (mostly) glowing reviews by print and online media (including Cheryl Alters Jamison for New Mexico Magazine) have helped tremendously, but word-of-mouth from satisfied guests (especially those returning) is a major catalyst for drawing new guests. In October, 2013, scant months of its July launch, M’Tucci’s finished as runner-up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants  as the “best restaurant on the west side.” 

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Borlotti White Bean Soup

Katie and her husband Jeff Spiegel moved to Albuquerque, his hometown, in 2007. Eventually they started to miss the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business and launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in July, 2013. The “M’Tucci” in the restaurant’s name is in honor of Richard Matteucci, a friend of Jeff’s. A framed black-and-white photo of Jeff, Richard and an unidentified frolicker celebrating a (very) good time hangs among the bric-a-brac. You’ve got to love an owner who shares in his fun.

While the ambiance bespeaks of fun and whimsy, the menu includes some seriously good dining options, some heretofore unseen in the Duke City. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this modern contemporary Italian restaurant which offers playful takes on classic dishes as well as a bit of local flavor (it’s virtually impossible to have a menu in New Mexico without red and green chile). Six Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven. The bar menu, which varies daily, includes tapas-style small plates.

House Bread Imported From Three Doors Down

The visionary behind the menu is John Hass, executive chef and member of the restaurant’s ownership triumvirate. John’s interpretation of traditional foods often involves their deconstruction, refining and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes with which you’ve grown up, but they might not be exactly as you  John is already so highly regarded that he was named “best chef” runner up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants 2013.  Traditional items he prepares might not be exactly as you may remember them. They’ll be better! The ricotta stuffed cannelloni dish, for example includes both marinara sauce and New Mexico red chile which is why it’s sub-titled “Enchiladas Italianas” on the menu.

5 October 2013: You won’t need cold weather to luxuriate in the warmth and deliciousness of the Borlotti White Bean Soup, M’Tucci’s answer to the seemingly de rigueur pasta fagoli. This superb soup is constructed from Haas-made (get it?) sausage, arugula, carrots and fennel in a steamy chicken broth with just a sprinkling of Parmesan. It’s Italian comfort food at its finest even without pasta or tomatoes. The Borlotti white beans are terrific with a “meaty” flavor, creamy texture and nary a hint of sweetness. The sausage is a bit coarse, but has excellent fennel enriched flavor. A bowlful will cure whatever ails you.

Fried Brie crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

Fried Brie
crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

27 August 2016: When M’Tucci first launched, the house bread came from America’s breadbasket. That’s one of the nicknames for the state of Kansas which is renowned for its high quality wheat production. It was an excellent bread!  Three years later, the house bread is imported from four doors down.  It’s baked by the talented bakers at M’Tucci’s Italian Market and Deli and it’s outstanding!  A basketful of the staff of life includes six lightly toasted and buttered  slices. A hard exterior crust belies a pillowy soft inside with plenty of air holes. It’s the type of bread for which you risk filling up quickly, but can’t stop eating because it’s so good. 

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.”  In far too many restaurants, you practically need a degree in Egyptology to understand the hieroglyphics placed in front of you.  As creative as they are with food, many chefs lack creativity with words.  This translates to overly confusing, overly wordy menus.  Kudos to Chef Hass and the M’Tucci staff for publishing menus diners can actually understand.

Golden Beet Salad

19 April 2014: One of the most exquisite appetizers on the M’Tucci’s menu is the fried brie.  Call it a finely choreographed symphony of simple flavors which go so well together.  A wedge of soft brie is sheathed beneath a crisp, light, golden crust.  It’s intended to be spread onto thinly sliced, pomegranate glazed grilled baguette.  From there you’re on your own.  You can then add crisp apple slices, strawberries and even mixed greens, a brie sandwich of sorts.  The warm silkiness of the brie amplifies the tanginess of the apples and strawberries and the bitterness of the greens.

27 August 2016: One of the more interesting items on the Antipasti menu when we first visited in October, 2016 was  the quaintly named Fauxpaccio de Barbietola Arrostite.  Fauxpaccio is obviously a play on the word carpaccio, (thinly sliced or pounded thin meat or fish) while Barbietola Arrostite is an Italian terms for roasted sugar beets.  The menu had me at Fauxpaccio.  Served in a dinner plate, it was a beautiful dish: roasted yellow beets shaved supermodel thin and as gold as New Mexico foliage in autumn, pickled red onion, goat cheese and a pile of arugula all lightly drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. It was a marvelous contrast of ingredients with varied flavor profiles and textures, all thoroughly enjoyable.  A few days after having this wonderful appetizer we learned that it is no longer offered because, for some reason inexplicable to me, it just wasn’t selling.  Grrrrr!  During our August, 2016 visit, we espied a “roasted beet salad” on the menu.  Comprised of the same ingredients as the aforementioned Fauxpaccio, the golden beets aren’t shaved or presented quite as artistically, but you still get an excellent salad as exciting as its predecessor.

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Pan Seared Duck Breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions, cherry balsamic reduction

Some Italian restaurants segregate their menus into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, loosely translated to appetizers, first course and main course.  M’Tucci’s also includes a Pizza menu, offering some six pizzas, including gluten-free options.  Portion sizes will make it a challenge to order one from each menu then expect to have dessert, too.  The Secondi menu, available during dinner hours, is replete with proteins (rotisserie chicken, fried fish, duck breast, braised tripe, Kurobuta Pork and ribeye).  Some of them are  also available for lunch, too. 

19 April 2014:  One of the most ambitious items on the menu is the Risotto Del Giorno, a daily risotto special featuring seasonal ingredients.  Even the most intrepid of chefs avoid risotto because it’s easy to make simple mistakes that ruin the dish.  You’ve got to admire Chef Hass’s gumption.  He doesn’t just prepare risotto on special occasions, he’s got the temerity to offer it every day.  If the seafood risotto is indicative of his mastery of this oft-intimidating dish, I’ve got to visit more often.  The triumvirate of mahi mahi, shrimp and mussels in a sumptuous and rich saffron sauce was absolutely perfect.   The saffron imparts the color of a sunny disposition and a uniquely umami quality.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  The rice is a smidgeon past al dente, a textural success.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Risotto

5 October 2013: Much as we admire the monogamy of ducks, it’s hard to resist the beautiful feathered waterfowl when it’s on the plate and it looks so inviting.  The pan-seared duck breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions and a cherry Balsamic reduction is so good, it’ll mitigate any guilt we might feel.  The duck breast is perfectly prepared and sliced thinly.  The end pieces are slightly crispy.  The polenta, often a “take it or leave it” dish is definitely a “take it” at M’Tucci’s.  It’s creamy, light and fluffy and it inherits additional flavor from the braised kale and caramelized onions which blanket the polenta.  If polenta is an oft unappreciated dish, kale is often disdained, even by foodies.  This kale might win over some converts. 

19 April 2014:  The two culinary feats I have yet to master after five decades on Planet Earth are using chopsticks and twirling spaghetti around a fork.  Because of the latter, my appreciation for pastas other than spaghetti has grown tremendously.  For fork challenged diners, a great alternative to the confounding, long, thin strands is the pappardelle noodle, a ribbon pasta easy to work with.  M’Tucci’s Pappardelle con Salsiccia, a ribbon pasta with sausage is an exemplar on how well this noodle works, both from a functional as well as an esthetic perspective.  This dish showcases the Haas made Italian sausage, a medium coarse blend flavored with fennel.  My Kim says it’s of Chicago quality, a huge compliment.  A delicate sauce imbued with braised kale and Pecorino lend more than personality to this winner of an entree.

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia) - Haas made Italian sausage, braised kale, pappardelle pasta, pecorino

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia)

5 October 2013: During our inaugural visit, the lunch menu included an aptly named sandwich called the AL-BQ Italian Beef, Chef Haas’s interpretation of the Italian beef sandwich held sacred throughout Chicago.  The sandwich is named partially for Al’s #1 Beef in the Windy City and of course, for Albuquerque.  The thinly shredded roasted beef, giardinera and Italian beef au jus  on an Italian hoagie roll make it Chicago while green chile makes it Albuquerque.   Frankly, we enjoyed the AL-BQ Italian Beef more than we did the sacrosanct Italian beef sandwich at Al’s #1 (although Al’s does pack quite a bit more beef into its sandwiches).  So do a number of transplants from the City of Big Shoulders.  For additional authenticity, ask for your sandwich to be served “wet” (as in immersed in the au jus).  It’ll render your sandwich falling apart moist, but that’s why forks were invented. The sandwich is no longer on the menu.

10 October 2013: In recent years, Albuquerque has experienced not only a pizza resolution, but an evolution of its pizzas. Almost every purveyor of the pie now offers a pizza or two sans tomato sauce and we’re all the better for it. Of the six pizzas offered at M’Tucci’s, only two of them are made with tomato sauce. The Alla Campagna starts with a beauteous golden brown crust topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta and Balsamic glaze. The crust is a little thicker than some Neapolitan-style pizzas, especially the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is thick, soft and chewy. It’s also delicious with the flavor of freshly baked bread. The Alla Campagna’s ingredients provide wonderful taste contrasts which not only make it an interesting pizza, but a delicious one.

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Alla Campagna: goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta, balsamic glaze

23 August 2016: Had anyone other than founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Bruce Schor declared the eggplant Parmesan at M’Tucci’s “better than Joe’s” (as in Joe’s Pasta House), I would have considered that either heresy or hokum.  Bruce loves the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s.  Moreover, he’s a native New Yorker who really knows his eggplant Parmesan, so his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.  It took me two days to make my way to M’Tucci to sample what is indeed a fantastic eggplant Parmesan.   This magnificent dish, available for both lunch and dinner, features two thick eggplant medallions topped with marinara sauce and house-fresh mozzarella.  You can easily puncture the light and crispy breading with a spoon, but there’s nothing mushy about the interior of this dish, just a silky smooth, delicious eggplant. The sauce is redolent of tart and juicy fresh tomatoes, a perfect foil for the melted mozzarella. Now is M’Tucci’s eggplant Parmesan better–or as good as–the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s Pasta House? That’s a decision you, my dear readers, will have to make yourselves. Both are head and shoulders above any other in Albuquerque, but for me it would take a side-by-side comparison to decide.

23 August 2016: The eggplant is served a terrific Cacio E Pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.”  Al dente pasta may look like spaghetti sans marinara, but in reality those long, stringy noodles are tossed in olive oil then impregnated with melted Pecorino and cracked pepper.  The cracked pepper lends a pleasant assertiveness while the Pecorino adds a nutty tang. More like spaghetti without marinara than like a minimalist mac and cheese, it’s a delicious dish no matter how you describe it.

Eggplant Parmesan

Ever since our friends Tom and Ellyn Hamilton brought us two bags of freshly picked mushrooms, we’ve been cooking with the fleshy fungi, expanding our repertoire and exploring the vast possibilities of cooking with sumptuous shrooms.  From cream of mushroom soup to beef Stroganoff, we’re planning on running the gamut as to what can be done with mushrooms: grilling, stuffing, breading, frying, roasting, braising and sauteing.  A recent visit to Torinos @ Home has inspired us to try concocting Porcini Ravioli ourselves.  Similarly, our visit to M’Tucci’s in August, 2016 gave us yet another mushroom dish we can try preparing ourselves (though it’s unlikely we’ll match Chef Hass’s high standards.)

27 August 2016: The Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini (wild mushrooms, scallions, roasted chicken, Parmesan, Parmesan Porcini cream sauce, ribbon pasta) is a magnificent dish with the mushrooms shining so well, the roasted chicken is almost redundant.  Hearty, nutty and earthy, the Porcini cream sauce is everything a strongly flavored mushroom sauce should be.  The pappardelle noodles, large, flat and broad noodles, are perfectly prepared–neither al dente nor near mushy as pappardelle tend to be if not prepared correctly.  The roasted chicken would normally have been the star of most dishes.  Here it’s just a complementary ingredient, a delicious foil.

Cacio E Pepe

27 August 2016: Pappardelle noodles played an integral role in the special of the day, a magnificent dish so good it should make it to the standard menu.  Picture three four-ounce heritage pork and lamb meatballs served over pappardelle ribbon noodles tossed in a tomato Agre Dolce (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) sauce.  The dish is garnished with freshly shaved Parmesan.  Our first bite of the meatballs challenged us to discern their composition.  With notes similar to five spice powder, we finally had to ask our server to find out.  It turns out the meatballs are made with nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic and sundry other spices.  The meatballs were extraordinary with just enough filler to bind them, but mostly meat.  The tomato Agre Dolce sauce was superb, punctuated with mint and Balsamic vinegar to help give the sauce their bitter-sweet flavor profile.

According to the M’Tucci’s Facebook page, an ancient proverb once declared that if four or more desserts gather in one place, at one time, you will have the power to change the world. Whether or not that proverb rings with truth, one thing is for certain: desserts at this fantastic new Italian restaurant are fantastic. M’Tucci’s inaugural pastry chef was Eric Moshier who was named America’s best new chef in 2000 by Food& Wine. Moshier has moved on, but the restaurant’s dessert offerings are still among the very best in Albuquerque.

Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs

5 October 2013: Desserts aren’t only spectacular, they’re inventive–some of the Duke City’s most  unique and uniquely delicious pastries.  The most inventive might be the Twinkie L’Italia which Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.”  Fantasy is right!  This is a terrific dessert.  So is the Cannoli Di Sicilia (crispy cannoli shell, sweet ricotta filling, chocolate chips) with tantalizing citrus notes. 

10 October 2013: Another transformative dessert is the Crostada De Limone, a lip-pursing lemon tart as artistic and beautiful to ogle as it is to eat.  It’s one of few lemon tarts in the Duke City that’s actually made well in that it doesn’t reek of artificial ingredients and flavors.   The lemon is actually allowed to taste like lemon, not artificial in the least.  It’s the type of lemon dessert you might find in Florida. 

Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini

27 August 2016: Of all Italian desserts, panna cotta may be the most delicate.  While Italians tend to think nothing should sully its purity, American pastry chefs like to partner it with everything from fresh fruits to fresh fruit sauces.   M’Tucci’s Torta De Panna Cotta is an interesting variation on an Italian standard.  In Italy, a torta is normally a pie consisting of a filling (sometimes even vegetables) enclosed in thin dough and baked in an oven.   M’Tucci’s torta is a chocolate Genoese cake topped with strawberry-rhubarb Jam with a single pine nut bark wedge leaning on the chocolatey creation.  Delicious as we found the cake, we enjoyed the single pine nut bark most.  The pine nuts are redolent with the roasted flavor of good piñon, intensely–sweet with a subtle hint of pine.

The restaurant’s coffee is made by Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain.  The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque.  It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”

Torta De Panna Cotta

You can never have too many good, must less truly outstanding Italian restaurants in town.  M’Tucci’s Kitchina falls into the latter category.  With a formula that includes great food and great fun,  M’Tucci’s Kitchina has the right stuff needed to succeed in a tough market.

M’Tucci’s Kitchina
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2016
1st VISIT: 5 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Twinkie L’Italia, Chocolate Cannoli, Borlotti White Bean Soup, Fauxpaccio de Barbabietola Arrostite, Pan Seared Duck Breast, AL-BQ Italian Beef, Alla Campagna Pizza, Crostada de Limone, Seafood Risotto, Pappardelle con Salsiccia, Eggplant Parmesan, Cacio E Pepe, Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini, Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs, Golden Beet Salad, Torta De Panna Cotta

M'Tucci's Kitchina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Torinos’ @ Home – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Torinos @ Home in the Journal Center

I love Italian food but that’s too generic a term for what’s available now:
you have to narrow it down to Tuscan, Sicilian, and so on.”
~ Lee Child, Author

“You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend; you want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.” That tried and proven sports adage applies in every walk-of-life. Indeed, if you’re the person who has to succeed a beloved living legend, you’ll invariably hear about the gigantic shoes you have to fill. Your every move will be scrutinized and your every failure magnified until you prove yourself worthy of breathing the same rarefied air as the icon you’re replacing. It’s not a challenge the faint-hearted should attempt and it will test the mettle of even the most accomplished.

Confident people have another perspective on following a legend. They relish the challenge of living up to exceedingly high standards and fully expect to succeed. There’s no exit strategy for them…unless it’s to move on to a loftier challenge. They revel in the scrutiny, seeing it as another opportunity to prove themselves. Confident people aren’t reluctant to chart a different course, to do things just a bit differently than their predecessors. They’re risk-takers with an intrinsic believe that it is possible to improve on perfection.

The bright, sunny dining room

So just how to you balance the need for respectful deference to your predecessor with the desire to stamp your own imprint on success? Daniel and Jenna John are doing it the right way. In February, 2016, they purchased Torinos @ Home, one of New Mexico’s most revered and highly acclaimed restaurants. In doing so, they succeeded Maxime and Daniela Bouneou, two of the most beloved and highly respected restaurateurs in the state. Rather than rebranding an established and highly successful restaurant, Daniel and Jenna decided to keep the name Torinos’ @ Home and to continue showcasing the Northern Italian cuisine inspired with French and Spanish influences.

Where the new owners will make Torinos @ Home truly their own is in bringing more local ingredients and indeed, Torinos’ has established local partnerships with several local farms, wineries and breweries. The couple also plans to incorporate new items into the menu and introduce wine happy hour events. One significant “attitudinal” difference is Daniel’s concession that Torinos @ Home offers a “fine dining experience with a casual atmosphere.” Maxime would not—even on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—declare Torinos’ to be a fine-dining restaurant.

Torinos’ lounge

Stepping into Torinos’ @ Home still felt like coming back home even though we weren’t greeted effusively by Daniela. Also gone is the little store in which Italian goodies—such as Maxime’s olive oil, biscotti, chocolate croissants, homemade jams and a veritable treasure trove of other exciting and interesting items—were once proffered. In its place is a welcoming lounge where you can indulge in your favorite Italian coffee. For my Kim, the most noticeable absence (aside from the Bouneous) was her favorite lavender scented soaps in the ladies room.

Other, more important, facets of a Torinos’ dining experience remain unchanged. Service is still first-rate with attentive servers tending to your every need, such as delivering and later replenishing a colander of olive and Italian bread. The accompanying olive oil is resplendent with the herbaceous freshness of a complementary blend of herbs swimming in the decanter. where they are joined by thin ancho chiles. You’ll also want to save a couple slices for dredging up whatever may be left over of the sauce you select for your entree…and you’ll definitely want to purchase a decanter of this olive oil before you leave. It’s world class stuff!

Bread

The menu remains comfortably familiar with many of our favorite dishes still available. Dishes we had not previously sampled are interspersed among the familiar favorites. The Antipasti menu includes both a cheese board and an antipasto platter as well as five other inviting starters. Six salads, several of them Torinos’ standards, beckon. A section of the menu is dedicated to Pasta and Risotto, two of life’s enduring pleasures. Two (beef cheek manicotti and squid ink pasta) of the ten dishes on this section were showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Because diners can’t live on pasta and risotto alone, other sections of the menu are devoted to offerings from the Sea and from the Farm. You can add such favorites as homemade sausage, prosciutto and sweet potato fries to any dish. Then there’s the desserts, as decadent and enticing as ever.

20 August 2016: Turophiles everywhere will delight in Torinos’ cheese board, literally a paddle-sized wooden board strewn from top to bottom with cheeses: biaco sardo (sheep’s milk), pichin (raw cow’s milk), Aged Montegrappa (cow’s milk), Nocetto Di Cabra (goat’s milk) and Gorgonzola Picante (cow’s milk) as well as Nicoise olives and walnuts. As with all good cheese boards, the cheeses run the taste gamut—from mild to sharp with degrees of variation in between. Cheeses should be eaten from mildest to strongest so you don’t miss the nuance of a mild cheese after eating a stinging, astringent blue. Because the olfactory senses contribute so much to a cheese-tasting experience, you should always imbibe the aroma of your cheeses before eating them. There is only one thing wrong with the Torinos’ cheese plate. Understandably, what’s missing is more cheese—as in large wheels or blocks of the stuff.

Cheese Board

We’d be hard-pressed to name a favorite cheese from among the five. We loved the bianco sardo and the way its creamy mouthfeel contrasted with its firm, dry texture. We could have eaten an entire wheel of the Pichin, an earthy, acidic, semi-firm cheese. Montegrappa, probably the most expensive cheese on the board, is dense and crumbly with a subdued flavor that nonetheless leaves a lactic aftertaste. Predictably, the Nocetta di Cabra, a creamy, tart cheese was my Kim’s favorite while mine was the Gorgonzola Picante, a veiny blue cheese with piquant notes. Make sure you ask for a side of the positively addictive Cipolline onions (saucer-shaped Italian pearl onions with a uniquely sweet and mild flavor), a nice foil for the cheeses.

20 August 2016: If Risotto Fruit Di Mare had been on the Torinos @ Home menu when the Maxime performed his magic in the kitchen, we must have missed it.  More likely it’s one of the new items on the menu introduced by Chef John.  Don’t dare miss it!  The arrival of the dish (al dente Arborio rice with shrimp, little neck clams, calamari, mussels, clam juice and star anise) is preceded by an aroma one normally encounters only at Vietnamese restaurants.  It’s the inimitable, alluring aroma of star anise, an aroma that permeates each grain of rice with its subtle licorice-like flavor.  The risotto with its very clean, very fresh flavors and the slight and subtle undertones of anise, is a perfect complement to the fresh, almost off-the-boat flavors of the seafood.  Several years ago, I lamented the scarcity of good risotto in New Mexico.  Since then a number of restaurants have risen to the challenge and now serve very good to outstanding risotto dishes.  Mark Torinos’ as one of the latter.

Risotto Fruit Di Mare

During my inaugural visit to Torinos’ @ Home way back in 2009, the menu showcased a “ravioli of the day” special. It was a novel concept which introduced Santa Fe diners to the infinite possibilities of ravioli, an Italian dumpling composed of sundry fillings sealed between two layers of thin pasta dough. For those of us who once believed ravioli came from a can labeled Chef Boyardee, Torinos’ ravioli was a godsend. Thinking back on our naiveté, we’re now inclined to share the perspective of Canadian novelist Doug Coupland who put it so aptly: “I know it’s not cat food, but what exactly is it that they put inside of tinned ravioli?”

20 August 2016: The ravioli of the day concept may not have been long-lived, but it certainly had an enduring effect on diners. The challenge for my Kim was whether to have the roasted beet ravioli (beets, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses stuffed in a ravioli, topped with golden raisins, walnuts, poppy seeds and more Parmesan cheese drizzled in light butter sauce) or the Porcini Ravioli (white truffle, porcini mushrooms, cream and Parmesan cheese), a vegetarian offering.  It was a very good choice.  Earthy, rich-flavored porcini mushrooms impart a pungent, woodsy flavor to the ravioli.  The white truffle lends similar qualities.  If you love full-flavored fungi, this is the dish for you.

Porcini Ravioli

While diners throughout New Mexico believed only Maxime and Daniela were synonymous with Torinos @ Home, Daniel and Jenna John have, in short order, proven worthy successors.  Torinos @ Home remains in good hands! 

Note: You can read my previous review of Torinos @ Home here.

Torinos’ @ Home
7600 Jefferson Street, Suite 21
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-4491
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Porcini Ravioli, Risotto Fruit Di Mare, Cheese Board

Torinos' @ Home Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pop Fizz – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pop Fizz on the National Hispanic Cultural Center

The geriatrically advanced among us who grew up during the golden age (1950s through the 1970s) of the “jingle” were constantly bombarded with earworm-inducing singing commercials, those catchy and memorable short tunes used to convey advertising slogans.  We couldn’t help but sing along, often to the annoyance of our parents.  When, for example, the Garduño family visited the big city (Taos), the kids would belt out the familiar jingle “Let’s all go to A&W.  Food’s more fun at A&W. Have a mug of root beer, or maybe two or three.”  Our dissonant din rarely persuaded our parents to take us to A&W.  More often than not, we were ferried back to Peñasco for a home-cooked meal.

Researchers suggest that women may be even more susceptible to earworms than men.  That research was borne out when I suggested to my Kim that we visit Pop Fizz for lunch.  Instead of asking what kind of food Pop Fizz serves as she usually does when I suggest a heretofore untried restaurant, she began singing “plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.”  That jingle, as we seasoned citizens all recognize, once touted the heartburn healing properties of Alka Seltzer, an effervescent antacid still in use today.

The colorful ambiance of a delightful eatery

The name “Pop Fizz” obviously has nothing to do with effervescence or with Alka Seltzer.  The “Pop” portion of the name is short for “Popsicle” while “Fizz” represents the sound made when you open the carbonated beverages available on the premises.  Learning the reason for the name did nothing to mitigate my Kim’s singing of the jingle (now I know how my parents felt), but our inaugural visit went a long way toward helping us understand just why Pop Fizz has become such a phenomenon. 

Some of my more entrepreneurial readers probably never heard about Pop Fizz until it was featured in Inc ., a monthly American publication focused on growing companies.  Inc. doesn’t focus solely on Fortune 500 companies. It’s got a soft spot for the backbone of American business, the traditional mom-and-pop operation such as Pop Fizz, a humble homegrown, family owned and operated gem which has been winning over savvy Duke City diners since day one.

Sonoran Hot Dog with what is left of Agua Fresca de Sandia (Watermelon Fresh Water)

Day one transpired on a balmy summer day in 2013 when brothers Lorenzo and Carlos Alvarez and their father Rafael launched their own version of relief, in this case relief from hot, sunny summer days in the Duke City.  Relief came in the form of homemade paletas (popsicles) made from all-natural, real fruits and cream as well as organic cane sugar (absolutely no high fructose corn syrup).  Also available were popular Mexican favorites such as aguas frescas, ice cream and a delicious innovation they called ice cream tacos. Duke City denizens clamoring for relief converged upon the Lilliputian storefront on Bridge Boulevard. 

The Alvarado family didn’t let grass grow under their feet before relocating their operation to the National Hispanic Cultural Center not quite two years later.  Their new digs are more capacious and include an uncovered patio with picnic tables.  With more spacious accommodations and an expansive industrial kitchen, the family has also been able to expand their menu, now offering a number of savory dishes such as Frito pie, several hot sandwiches and even a Sonoran hot dog.

Frito Pie

4 September 2015: The Sonoran hot dog has been referred to as the “quintessential food of Tucson.”  While it has achieved cult status throughout Arizona, it has only recently begun making significant inroads in the Land of Enchantment.  There are even more versions of this savory, smoky treat than it has ingredients.  The version at Pop Fizz is constructed from an all-beef hot dog, avocado, onion, chipotle mayo, cheese, bacon and salsa verde nestled in a bolillo bun.  It’s as delicious as it is messy with spillage guaranteed.  The bolillo bun is pillowy soft and slightly sweet, a nice complement to the smokiness of the hot dog and the piquancy of the salsa verde.

16 August 2016: In her song Infinity, pop sensation Mariah Carey intoned the lyrics “Boy, you actin’ so corny like Fritos.”  On far too many Frito pies, the corn-infused flavor of Fritos corn chips is lost neath a mountain of lettuce and avalanche of chopped tomatoes.  Unfortunately, the chile is also often obfuscated by a salad’s worth of lettuce and tomatoes.  Upon seeing the Frito Pie at Pop Fizz for the first time my first inclination was “oh no, not another Fritos salad.”  Then the chile kicked in.  Finally, a Frito Pie in which the chile actually has a bite, an endorphin-laden, tongue-tingling, taste bud pleasing bite.  Chile, not lettuce and tomato, is the prevalent flavor…but it’s not solely piquant.  It’s a delicious, rich red chile.  The Fritos provide a salty counterbalance and crunchy textural foil to the shredded beef.  This top-tier Frito pie evinces the kitchen skills of ice cream makers who can actually cook, too.

Mint Chip Ice Cream Taco

5 September 2015: Tacos are an excellent accompaniment to the Sonoran hot dog, but not the savory, meat-filled tacos of which you might be thinking.  Ice cream tacos, a Pop Fizz specialty are the perfect sweet contrast to the savory-smokiness of the hot dog.  The taco “shell” is a thin waffle shaped very much like a taco.  It is stuffed with dense, sweet, delicious ice cream and topped with chocolate.  We can vouch for the deliciousness of the mint chip, pecan and chocolate ice cream tacos.  The ice cream isn’t soft, creamy and custard-like, but dense and full-bodied.  The mint chip is especially addictive. 

In August, 2016, Spoon University, the self-proclaimed “everyday food resource for our generation, on a mission to make food make sense” set off on a course to identify the 50 best ice cream desserts in every state,” one from each state in the fruited plain.  The Land of Enchantment’s representative was the aforementioned ice cream taco.  Spoon University waxed poetic about this ice cream: “We all scream for this ice cream. You can find this bad boy in Albuquerque, NM, and you can choose from several flavors such as cinnamon churro, cookies and cream, and strawberry.”

Paleta de Pina Y Habanero (Pineapple and Habanero)

5 September 2015: While it’s often advised that in Mexico one should not drink the water, you’re also well advised to partake of as many paletas as you can.  Paletas are premium frozen delicacies made with real fruit and cream.  Typically proffered by street vendors with pushcarts, paletas offer a refreshing respite from sweltering summer days, but they’re wonderful any time of year.  Paletas are available in an amazing range of flavors including such exotic offering as pina and Habanero (pineapple and Habanero), a paleta that packs a punch.  It’s got more piquancy than the chile at far too many New Mexican restaurants, but it’s even more delicious than it is piquant. 

While Pop Fizz may have started as a neighborhood eatery, it’s garnered a reputation that far exceeds its South Valley home.  Savvy diners trek from far and wide to partake of cold treats that will warm your heart.

Pop Fizz
1701 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 695-1180
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2016
1st VISIT: 4 September 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $
BEST BET: Paleta de Pina Y Habanero, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Sonoran Hot Dog, Mint Chip Taco, Pecan Taco, Chocolate Taco, Watermelon Paleta, Raspberry Paleta, Frito Pie

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Slice Parlor – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Slice Parlor on Montgomery Just East of Eubank

British soul superstar Adele recently revealed to fans in Los Angeles “I can’t eat pizza anymore guys, how bad is that?”  She then proceeded to answer her own question about how bad it is: “It’s worse than Romeo And Juliet! If only Shakespeare was alive, he could write about it!”  So what would cause an admitted pizza fanatic give up pizza?  After having vocal surgery in 2011, she’s been advised to protect her voice and as Adele explained “because it’s got cooked tomatoes on it which are bad for your throat and give you acid reflux. How bad is that, that I can’t eat pizza, can you get over that?”

As a lifelong Catholic lacking the self-restraint to abstain from pizza for even the duration of Lent (that’s forty days for all you secularists), Adele’s perseverance prompted a bit of introspection.  Just what would it take for me to give up pizza?  Hmm, perhaps intense torture–such as being forced to watch an hour of The View–would do it.  Nah, as a guy motivated more by the carrot than by the stick, pizza would have to be replaced by something even better, if only it existed.  As with most Americans, pizza sauce runs through my veins and my blood type is P (for pizza) Positive.

House Calzone

In June, 2011, Duke City pizza aficionados celebrated the launch of yet another purveyor of our favorite pie.  Purporting to make “the finest and most authentic New York style pizza in Albuquerque,” Slice Pizza set up shop on Central Avenue in the heart of Nob Hill.  Aptly named, Slice’s slices are about the size of personal-sized pizzas at other pizzerias.  Full pies come in two sizes–eighteen-inches and twenty-four inches, virtually guaranteeing you’ll be taking half a pie or more home.  The menu showcases the versatility of pizza which is no longer just canvas for tomato sauce.  Slice also offers pesto pizza and “white” pizza (whole-milk mozzarella and dollops of ricotta cheese), both sans tomato sauce.  Gluten-free and vegetarian pies are also available.

Five years after launching its flagship Nob Hill parlor, Slice took its talents to the Northeast Heights, opening a second location on heavily trafficked Montgomery Boulevard.  Situated in a converted post office, the new slice of pizza heaven can accommodate some 100 diners if you include its commodious patio.  Diners who enjoy adult beverages with their pizza will appreciate the two-dozen beers on tap as well as a nice wine list.  They’ll also appreciate that Slice’s next door neighbor is slated to be another instantiation of the Marble Taproom.  As we don’t indulge in adult beverages when we’re driving, we got our jollies watching the wait staff jauntily traverse from table to table, their pace equaling that of the speed walkers at the Olympics.

Veggie Blanco (One Slice Cut in Half)

Our introduction to a slice from Slice was in the form of a Veggie Blanco (white pizza with garlic and feta) not something we normally order (my Kim actually asked me to order a regular Blanco (white pizza with fresh garlic and Italian sausage) but my attention was focused on an Olympic event on television).  Even cut in half vertically, each half of the slice is approximately the size of a slice at other pizzerias.  The sparsity of the feta made us pine for the sausage we could have been enjoying had my mind been on pizza and not on the beach volleyball event.

Not solely a pizza parlor, Slice also offers three calzone options including a “build your own.”  To the house calzone (homemade dough with fresh ricotta, premium mozzarella and Italian sausage), we added Canadian bacon and black olives–as well as quite a bit of saltiness.  Unlike many calzones which are roughly the size of a flattened football, Slice’s version is somewhat thinner, not as puffed up.  It’s roughly the size of half a standard (16″) pizza and nearly as thick as a Chicago-style pie.   The sauce, which contains Parmesan cheese (a dairy-free option is also available), is rather thin and a bit on the bland side.  We were able to finish only two of the four slices, leaving two for dinner.  These calzones will make your calzones (Spanish for underpants) feel more than a bit tighter.

Calzone Slice

My Kim didn’t get much argument from me that the best item on the Slice menu is the gelato from Van Rixel Brothers. That could be said about almost every restaurant in which Van Rixel gelato is offered.  What’s so great about this gelato?  Aside from having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream, texturally it’s also much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally (the Van Rixel Brothers are Albuquerque-based), not shipped from afar. Two winning flavors are Venezuelan passion fruit and mango and smoked sea salt and honey caramel.  If only their portion size was equal to that calzone.

Now with two locations to serve Albuquerque, Slice Parlor serves slices as big as a half moon and pies the size of Jupiter.  Give Adele a month without pizza and she’d probably consume a whole pie.

Slice Parlor
9904 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 363-7261
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Venezuelan Passion Fruit and Mango Gelato, Smoked Sea Salt and Honey Caramel Gelato, House Calzone

Slice Parlor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Petra Restaurant & Times Square Deli Mart – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Petra Restaurant and Times Square Deli Mart in Albuquerque

As the clock approaches midnight every year on December 31st, the eyes of the world are focused on a single geodesic sphere some twelve-feet in diameter and weighing nearly six tons.  Covered with nearly 3,000 Waterford Crystal triangles, that sphere descends slowly down a flagpole at precisely twelve o’clock, signaling the transition to a new year.  The event is witnessed by more than a billion people across the world, including more than one million who crowd the area to bid a collective adieu to the year just completed and to express hope and joy for the upcoming year.  This event takes place in Midtown Manhattan’s fabled Times Square, oft called the “crossroads of the world.” 

Contrast the bustling energy and modernity of Time Square with the sedate tranquility of the ancient city of Petra in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan. Inhabited from 312 BC through the 1980s, Petra, a vast, unique city, carved into sheer red rock face, is most often spoken of in historical terms and indeed, much history has transpired in Petra. Petra served as a center of trade between Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean though today it is more often recognized for its cameo role in major movie productions such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen than for being a United Nations World Heritage Site.

The capacious dining room

You might not know it, but in Suite C on the southwest intersection of Central Avenue and Yale Boulevard in Albuquerque, Times Square converges with Petra. No, not in the fashion of some bizarre inter-dimensional Twilight Zone or X-Files plot twist. This convergence is in the merger of restaurant concepts. The Times Square Deli Mart, a combination deli and convenience store which has operated in Albuquerque since 2007, was acquired by a delightful Palestinian family who added a Middle Eastern menu to an already bustling deli and sandwich menu. The deli portion of the complex is on the northwest corner of the capacious store, but the aroma emanating from that corner permeates its every square inch…and it’s a great aroma, the melding of spices, meats and cheeses. It’s an aroma familiar to anyone who’s lived on the east coast. It’s the aroma of a New York City deli.

Step through the front door and you’ll cast a quick glance at aisles of convenience goods, refrigerators stocked with assorted libations and behind a long counter, racks of cigarettes, but with the draw of a siren’s sweet song, you’ll be lured toward the deli area where the aforementioned meats and cheeses are lined up behind a deli case. Above the deli case is a menu listing sandwiches constructed from those meats and cheeses. It’s a carnivore and turophile paradise. Alas, during our inaugural visit since the ownership transition, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and I were easy prey for an enthusiastic counterman hawking the daily special, a gyros sandwich served with a side salad and fries (at a ridiculously low price).

Gyros with French Fries and Salad

Nestled within the cozy confines of a warm pita bread are slices of the lamb-beef amalgam shaved thinly from a cone-shaped spit and served with lettuce, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce. Though better gyros can be found a couple of blocks away at Gyros Mediterranean, for the daily special price, this was a filling and mostly satisfying sandwich. Rather than more meat, however, our preference would have been for meat with more juiciness (meat on a spit should practically be sweating moistness). If the accompanying salad (lettuce, tomatoes, feta cheese, pepperoncini) has any dressing, it’s applied so lightly that we couldn’t discern it. Fortunately a generous sprinkling of feta and the squeeze of two pepperoncini onto the salad made up for no or weak dressing. The fries are strictly out-of-a-bag quality.

The same smooth-talking counterman who sold us on the gyros told us the restaurant’s most popular sandwich is the Philly Cheesesteak about which he gushed effusively. Available in six- and ten-inch sizes, this Philly features thinly sliced roast beef grilled in butter sauce with seasoned and sautéed onions and green peppers under a blanket of melted American cheese. While good, it made us long for the melodic percussion of Steve Garcia chopping meat, onions, green peppers and green chile on the grill at Philly’s N Fries. That’s Albuquerque’s very best Philly and it’s probably unfair to compare it with any other. Similar to the gyros, the roast beef lacked juiciness nor did it acquire any from the sautéed onions and peppers. A different cheese would also have improved the sandwich; the melted American cheese resembled that processed cheese used on nachos served in ballparks.

Philly Cheesesteak

The menu lists a phalanx of New York style specialty sandwiches, cold sandwiches, subs and even vegetarian sandwiches as well as a Lobo Burger special. NYC deli cold cuts (roast beef, oven-roasted turkey, pastrami, corned beef and six others) are available to take home by the half-pound as is cheese (American, Swiss, Provolone, Muenster, Pepper Jack, Colby Jack). Desserts include NYC Italian cannolis, homemade rice pudding, NYC cheesecake, homemade baklava and homemade cookies. A breakfast menu includes a long-time Albuquerque favorite called the “Twin Towers,” double egg, double bacon, double sausage, double ham, double cheese, (can you say double bypass) onions and peppers on a ten-inch toasted sub roll.

The Petra Restaurant & Times Square Deli Mart may be as close to New York City as most of us get a chance to frequent. That’s reason enough to visit. So are the dozens of sandwich options and now, Middle Eastern deliciousness.

Petra Restaurant & Times Square Deli Mart
2132 Central Avenue, S.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-0809
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT:
10 August 2016
1st VISIT:
8 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 16
COST: $
BEST BET:  

Times Square Deli Mart Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Budai Gourmet Chinese – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque’s Far North Shopping Center

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

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

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

Pineapple slush and organic flowering tea

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

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

Boiled chive pork dumplings

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

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

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

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

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

Beef stew in clay pot

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

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

Tea Leaves Smoked Duck (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

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

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

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

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

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

Three cup catfish

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

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

Dong Bo Pork (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

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

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

Beef Tongue

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables

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

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

Taiwanese Pork Chop Served with Mustard Greens and Fried Rice

Taiwanese Pork Chop

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

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

The Uniquely Named Lion’s Head (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

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

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

Curry Shrimp

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

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

Pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup

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

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

An appetizer of thinly-sliced beef

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

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

Spicy Beef Tendon

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

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

Taro root and chicken stew

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

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

Five spice and honey lacquered ribs

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

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

Five Flavors Mussels

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

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

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

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

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

Singapore Rice Noodle

Singapore Rice Noodle

31 October 2015: For years, American restaurants seemed to shun the long, narrow razor clam, an aversion likely triggered by the worm-like creature in the shell.  Asian restaurants, meanwhile, showcased them in diverse and delicious ways.  Resembling an old-fashioned straight razor, these mollusks may not be the most appealing in appearance, but their deliciousness outweighs any ill-founded prejudice.  When Elsa is effusive about any menu item (as well she should be when her genius chef husband prepares it), you’ve got to try it.  She raves about the stir-fried razor clams.  So will you!  A generous bowl of razor clams are served in a brown “gravy” with basil leaves, minced garlic, green onions and sheer magic.  These magnificent mollusks are absolutely addictive, so good you’ll be tempted to order a second portion.

31 October 2015: If ever a dish earned its name, it’s Chow Fun, a stir-fried dish made with a broad rice noodle.  For my Kim, few things are as much fun as showing me her adroitness with noodles, knowing anything longer than a rigatoni noodle confounds and endangers me (as in accidentally stabbing myself while trying to wrap the noodles around a fork).  Chow Fun noodles can be longer than six-inches.  In the hands of a stir-fried master, they can be quite wonderful.  Budai prepares a version that includes chicken, onions, cabbage and chili.  Though this dish has an oleaginous texture, Budai’s version is the antithesis of greasy and oily.  That, too, evinces the chef’s deft touch and experience.  This is the best chow fun dish in Albuquerque.

Chow Fun Noodles with Chicken

31 October 2015: What’s the best way to respond to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) denouncement of bacon as a cancer-causing scourge?  If you’re tired of alarmist bureaucrats telling you what to do, you’ll thumb your nose and fry a rasher or two of bacon for your next breakfast.  My way of showing rebellion was by ordering the pork belly bacon with spicy onion dish at Budai.  Not even the hypocrites at the WHO would be able to resist this bounteous bowl of sheer deliciousness.  The pork belly bacon combines the richness of pork belly with the smokiness of bacon, the best of two qualities.  The onions inherit their spiciness from chili and jalapeños, stir-fried to a delightful consistency.  Elsa suggested coupling this dish with rice, a good idea if you want the dish to go just a little further…or if you can’t handle the intense piquancy.

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

Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions

7 August 2016: In 2008, restaurateur extraordinaire Tom Hamilton invited us to dine at his fabulous restaurant, the Hamilton Chophouse then a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango. By the terminus of an exceptional meal, our high regard for the Chophouse was surpassed only by our esteem for its affable owner with whom we’ve remained friends. Tom Hamilton is an exemplar of class and integrity, one of the most devoted family men I’ve ever met. Though we’d seen him beam with pride when waxing poetic about Ellyn, the lovely love of his life and their delightful daughter Haley, we met them for the first time at Budai, one of Tom’s favorite restaurants in Albuquerque. Fortunately Elsa sat us at Budai’s most capacious table because the table’s Lazy Susan, roughly the size of a hot air balloon, was nearly overflowing with all the appetizers and entrees we shared and  beautifully photographed by the talented Haley.

7 August 2016: Haley, it turns out, spent a summer studying in Taiwan where she developed a fondness for scallion pancakes.  Budai’s version is reminiscent of those she enjoyed so much at the island nation formerly known as Formosa.  At Budai, a scallion pancake is roughly the diameter of a personal-pizza.  Scallion Pancakes are formed from hard dough rolled out in such a manner that it creates a series of layers similar to Greek phyllo without the flakiness and delicateness. In between those layers, a sheen of oil (or perhaps clarified butter) is applied and scallions are spread in between. After the scallion pancake is rolled into a flat disc, it is fried in butter or oil until completely cooked and crisp on the outside.  These golden orbs are superb!

Scallion Pancake (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016:  Bon Appetit describes soup dumplings (not pictured) as falling “in the category of “delicious things we love to order when we’re out, but would never even dream of making at home.”  A mainstay of dim sum menus, these steamed buns are an intricate dish whose Houdini-like preparation baffles non-chefs.  Within each plump dumpling is nestled a little pork meatball surrounded by a delightful meaty broth.  How the broth gets in there is a mystery, the answer to which you can find online, but one foodies prefer not to contemplate as we’d rather be enjoying these tender pouches of porcine perfection with the liquid surprise.

7 August 2016: An episode of Friends in which Joey Tribbiani urinated on Monica’s jellyfish sting contributed to an inaccurate myth about jellyfish, the sting of which should be treated only with vinegar.  Another myth is that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Don’t ever tell Chef Hsia or anyone at our table that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Not only that, they’re delicious…or at least the way they’re prepared at Budai whose Jellyfish Salad  is magnificent.  You’ll never give it a second thought that you’re eating jellyfish whose texture and flavor are palate pleasing as are the melange of ingredients (well-cooked jellyfish with celery, cilantro, rice cooking wine, white pepper powder and scallions) with which the jellyfish is prepared and served.  Few dishes have surprised me as much as this one did.

Jellyfish Salad (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Regular readers have been subjected to my incessant whining about Americanized Chinese food and especially anything sweet and sour (typically described as “candied”).  When Elsa recommended sweet and sour flounder we momentarily wondered if had forgotten who we are.  She then explained that Shanghai style sweet and sour is very different and far superior.  True enough.  Instead of the cloying reddish sauce served at just about every other Chinese restaurant in town, Budai’s Shanghai style sweet and sour sauce is far more balanced with no one flavor component (sweet, savory, tangy, piquant) overwhelming the other.  The flounder is delicate, flaky and absolutely delicious.

7 August 2016:  As is often the case when ordering a number of dishes at Budai, you probably won’t achieve consensus in deciding which is the best or favorite.  One dish came close.  That would be the pork belly with bamboo.  In this novel-length review you’ve already read about the Dong Bo Pork, the half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish with which I fell in love during my first visit to Budai.  Picture smaller pieces of unctuous pork belly served in a rich, luxurious sauce with shredded bamboo (similar to  the bamboo served with green curry at Thai restaurants).  I was the sole hold-out who preferred the Dong Bo Pork whose combination of gelatinous fat and crispy bacon appeals to some primitive manly instinct.

Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Though we rarely order from the regular menu, we’ll forever make an exception for the Black Pepper Lamb, a wok-fried dish with a piquant bite (courtesy of incendiary Thai bird peppers) served over crispy cellophane noodles.  If you’ve ever lamented the gaminess of lamb, this is the lamb dish for diners who don’t like (or think they don’t like) lamb.  The lamb is moist and glistening from the fiery influence of chili oils.  Despite the heat, this is a very balanced dish with several tastes.  Had it not been for the Shanghai-style sweet and sour flounder, this would have been my favorite dish.

7 August 2016:  Thematically this review been a reflection on the pleasures of dining with friends peppered with my feeble attempts at describing dishes so good mere words don’t do them justice.  Dining with the Hamiltons ranks up there with Friends of Gil outings for the sheer delectation of dining with great people who share a passion for wonderful food.

Pork Belly with Bamboo (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

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

BUDAI GOURMET CHINESE
6300 San Mateo, N.E., Suite H-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-7898
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 31 August 2010
LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dong Bo Pork, Sugar Vinegar Short Ribs, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Orange Peel Beef, Hollow Heart, Taiwanese Pork Chops, Beef Tongue, Curry Shrimp, Lion’s Head, Three Cup Catfish, Pig’s Feet with Mung Bean Noodle Soup, Spicy Tendon, Taro Root and Chicken Stew, Crispy Duck with Taro Paste, Lamb Stew, Honey and Five Spice Lacquered Ribs, Five Flavors Mussels, Shanghai Ribs, Crispy Orange Peel Scallops, Singapore Rice Noodles, Razor Clams with Basil, Chow Fun with Chicken, Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions, Jellyfish Salad, Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder, Pepper Lamb, Pork Belly with Bamboo, Scallion Pancake,

Budai Gourmet Chinese Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rude Boy Cookies – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Rude Boy For Wonderful Cookies and Ice Cream in Albuquerque

Sometimes me thinks ‘what is a friend.’
And then me say
“Friend is someone to share the last cookie with.”
~The Cookie Monster

With whom would you share your last cookie?  For me the answer is easy.  I’d share my last cookie with my friend Darren, the delightful younger brother of Dazzling Deanell.  During Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick‘s most recent 39th birthday celebration, there were party favors galore on every table including biscochitos from Celina’s Biscochitos (review upcoming).  While all eyes were turned to the dance floor where Larry gaovtted with a lovely lady, someone stealthily sneaked all the biscochitos at our table onto Darren’s plate and even under his hat.  Darren denied culpability, but the trail of crumbs to his plate may have given him away. 

Who can blame anyone for wanting more cookies?  A 2015 article on The Daily Mail reported that the average American adult consumes some 19,000 cookies (roughly one cookie every day from age of 18 to 70) in their lifetime with chocolate chip being the favorite.  This staggering figure does not account for all the cookies consumed in childhood.  More than twenty-percent of respondents to a cookie poll indicated they consume upwards of ten cookies a week.  The most interesting revelation is that 31 per cent of millennials say they love cookies more than alcohol.  Why do we love cookies so much?  78 percent declare cookies can definitely make them feel happy or content, while 61 percent believe a good cookie gives them a sense of comfort, and 33 percent say cookies can calm and relax them.

One of the most welcoming sights in town

If indeed millennials prefer cookies to alcohol, Rude Boy Cookies on the fringes of the University of New Mexico should be a goldmine.  Instead of keg parties, perhaps cookie parties could become the norm at frat and sorority houses.  Instead of sneaking flasks, students and faculty alike could more brazenly eat cookies.   Binge cookie consumption could replace binge drinking.  Perhaps some enterprise collegiate could even figure out how to make “cookie pong” more sanitary and prevent cookies from breaking apart when they’re bounced.

Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, the appellation “Rude Boy” doesn’t have a thing to do with the male millennial attitude.  Instead the name rude boy speaks to founding owner Mike Silva having played in ska and reggae bands for years.  Rude boy is a street slang term which originated in Jamaica back in the 60s.  The term describes youth who are dedicated members of the ska scene  More recently a song titled “Rude Boy” by the Barbadian artist Rihanna spent several weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 list.  Unfortunately the song’s rather ribald lyrics prevent me from sharing them on this PG blog.

A view to where the magic happens

Located on Harvard Drive next door to the Brickyard Dive, Rude Boy Cookies does project an ambiance which pays tribute to the ska movement of the ’50s and ’60s.  The dulcet tones of ska and reggae music help set the mood for a cookie consumption experience you won’t soon forget.  Rude Boy Cookies launched in July, 2014 and within eighteen months was New Mexico’s sole representative on FlipKey’s (a TripAdvisor vacation rental site) list of “Best Local Bakeries Worth Traveling For.”  Being singled out as the “best local bakery” in the Land of Enchantment was quite a coup for the nascent cookie shop.

Few things in life are as welcoming as the aroma of freshly baked cookies just out of the oven.  Rude Boy Cookies is a welcome milieu.  Step in and your eyes will fixate pretty quickly on the glass case under which some fourteen different cookies will command your attention.  Selections include gluten-free and vegan cookies as well as monthly specials such as the aptly named “Freshman 15” (crafted with a loaded bar, peanut butter, a chocolate chip cookie, cinnamon marshmallow fluff, pretzels, M&Ms, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and rainbow sprinkles.   A few of these and the freshmen fifteen (the amount of weight gained during a student’s first year at college) could easily turn into a sophomore sixty.

Cookies Galore

In addition to cookies, Rude Boy boasts of Albuquerque’s only milk bar.  Yes, a milk bar.  On-tap milk choices include mighty mighty milk (whole milk) checkerboard chocolate (chocolate whole milk), two-percent milk, skim milk, almond milk (for my friend John Colangelo) and soy milk.  Jazz up your milk with one or more syrups locally-produced bottled exclusively for Rude Boy by Joliesse Chocolates.  Naturally-flavored syrup shot flavors include banana, cappuccino, mint, peanut butter, raspberry, salted butter caramel, strawberry and vanilla bean.  Aside from burgers and fries, there may be no more beloved and comforting a food combination than milk and cookies.

Seating at Rude Boy is somewhat limited.  Get there early and head straight for the small table with a view to the kitchen in which cookie baking magic transpires daily.  Watching the perpetually in-motion whirring mixer is mesmerizing though your eyes might also train on the large tray of M&Ms in all their multi-hued glory.  In addition to a handful of small tables, the bakery offers seating on bar stools and on a comfortable lounge area.  Though only 1,200 square-feet in size, Rude Boy’s aromas and flavors are gargantuan.

Ice Cream Sandwich: Oatmeal Toffee Cookie Top, Chocolate Cookie Bottom with Chocolate Ice Cream

In addition to the cavalcade of cookies, Rude Boy offers a variety of Creamland ice cream flavors.  Creamland, a New Mexico tradition with which many of us grew up, continues to make great ice cream for generations of New Mexicans.  Rude Boy invites you to sample cookies warmed a la mode with a scoop of ice cream, or better yet to try a decadent cookie ice cream sandwich.  Several years ago while visiting San Diego, we ran across the Baked Bear,  a restaurant specializing in “customized” ice cream sandwiches.  Several (though not as many as offered at Rude Boy) cookie flavors were available.

 My inaugural Rude Boy experience was a chocoholic’s dream: an oatmeal toffee cookie top, chocolate cookie bottom with chocolate ice cream in the middle.  If do-overs were possible, both top and bottom would be chocolate.  The oatmeal-toffee cookie should be eaten on its own so that proper reverence and appreciation can be payed to this masterpiece.  My grandma Andreita made the best oatmeal cookies I’ve ever had in my 39 years on this planet.  Unfortunately she took the recipe with her.  The one ingredient that’s a certainty in her recipe was love, an ingredient you can taste also in Rude Boy Cookies.

Cinnamon Roll Cookie

Among the inventive cookie collection under glass is one fittingly called a cinnamon roll cookie.  Essentially it’s a thick and fluffy cinnamon cookie topped with cream cheese icing and a sprinkle of cinnamon.  It’s best served warm.  Though a bit too sweet for me, it’s a cookie nearly as sweet as my Kim who enjoyed it immensely.  She notes that it’s far more cinnamony than many cinnamon rolls served around the Duke City and that it does indeed taste like a cinnamon roll.  Now if only Rude Boy could create a cookie which tastes like the fabulous and famous Frontier roll. 

Pensive contemplation is a good idea in deciding what cookie and ice cream combinations go well together.  Some pairings don’t work as well as others.  Take for example an ice cream sandwich constructed with a chocolate cookie on top and a mint-chocolate cookie in the bottom with pistachio ice cream in the middle.  Minty freshness is the foremost flavor of this sandwich.  That’s entirely too bad because the pistachio ice cream, a lighter, more delicate flavor is quite delicious.  This ice cream sandwich is better “deconstructed” meaning you should eat the mint-chocolate cookie first, the chocolate cookie second and the now melted pistachio ice cream last.

Ice Cream Sandwich: Chocolate Cookie Top, Mint Chocolate Cookie Bottom, Pistachio Ice Cream

My friend Darren might not be able to sneak away with all the cookies under the display case, but if he could it’s a good bet that if he could, he’d want to share them.  These are cookies meant to be shared with friends and family.

Rude Boy Cookies
115 Harvard, S.E., #7
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-2235
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 August 2016
1st VISIT: 29 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Ice Cream Sandwich, Double Chocolate Cookie, Oatmeal Toffee Cookie, Cinnamon Roll Cookie

Rude Boy Cookies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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