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Thai Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Kitchen on the northwest corner of Alameda and Corrales Roads

Thai Kitchen on the northwest corner of Alameda and Corrales Roads

There is no good meat that their stupid cooks do not spoil with the sauce they make. They mix with all their stews a certain paste made of rotten prawns…which has such a pungent smell that it nauseates anyone not accustomed to it.”  No, that’s not a review published by a disgruntled diner on Urbanspoon or Yelp.  Nor is it Gil describing a chile dish to which liberal amounts of cumin were added.  This scathing indictment was written in 1688 by Gervaise, a Catholic missionary from France.  It was his tactless way of describing a Siamese meal at a diplomatic function he attended.

Much has changed since Gervaise disparaged and insulted the cuisine of what is today Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power.  Gervaise, who would probably attribute the failure to conquer Thailand to the food, was probably not the first and he certainly wasn’t the only person to have criticized Thai food, but few have expressed it with such derision.

My friends Bill Resnik and Bruce

My friends Bill Resnik and Sr. Plata enjoying the last of their beverages after an excellent meal

Gervaise would no doubt be very surprised to discover how popular Thai food has become in the three centuries since his unsavory encounter.  Thai food ranked sixth in a recent survey designed to gauge the popularity of international foods across the world.  What’s most amazing about its popularity is that before the 1960s, Thai food wasn’t widely available outside Thailand’s borders.  That changed during the Vietnamese War when a large number of foreigners came to Thailand and were exposed to Thai food and culture. 

To accommodate pockets of Thai immigrants to America missing their beloved cuisine, small Thai restaurants began opening up in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.   By the early 1900s, there were more than 200 Thai restaurants in Los Angeles alone.   When my Kim and I moved back to New Mexico in 1995, we could count on one hand all the Thai restaurants in Albuquerque.  Today the Duke City boasts of some 23 restaurants serving Thai cuisine.  Among the elder statesmen, established in 1995, is Siam Cafe which, going into its second decade, remains one of the city’s most popular Thai restaurants.

Tod Mun Plar (Fish Cakes)

Tod Mun Plar (Fish Cakes)

May, 2014, saw the launch of Thai Kitchen on the northwest corner of the Alameda and Corrales intersection. The opening of a new Thai restaurant is reason enough for celebration, but even more so when the new Thai restaurant is the younger sibling of Siam Cafe, progenitor of some of the most enticing fragrances in town.   Thai cuisine aficionados will recognize the familiar smiling face of Art, the long-time host at Siam Cafe.  While his sister continues to own and operate Siam Cafe, Art is bringing the family operation to the burgeoning west side.

The Thai Kitchen is located at the former site of the Saffron Tiger Express, a popular Indian fast casual restaurant.  The most striking exterior feature of the Thai Kitchen is the steeple-shaped letter “A” on the word “Thai.”  It’s very representative of Thai architecture.  The restaurant’s interior may be the most beautiful of any Thai restaurant in town, a melange of soft, bright colors and dark masculine woods.  A statue of Buddha is poised on the capacious bar facing the seating area, a mix of booths and tables with good spacing.

Pork Satay

Pork Satay

Thai Kitchen’s menu is replete with many of the same items featured at Siam Cafe.  Alas, Art and his staff apparently don’t watch the Big Bang Theory because the menu doesn’t include mee krob, the favorite Thai dish of wunderkind Sheldon Cooper.   Because of the Big Bang Theory’s popularity, mee krob has become one of the most heavily requested items at Thai restaurants.  So has another Sheldon favorite, chicken satay with extra peanut sauce which can be found on the Thai Kitchen’s menu.

30 May 2014: You won’t lament the absence of mee krob for very long because there’s so much else to enjoy.  Start with Tod Mun Plar, one of the most popular appetizers in Thailand.  A deep-fried fishcake (tilapia) mixed with curry paste and fresh herbs, it’s served with a sweet-tangy cucumber salad, a surprisingly effective foil for the strong flavors of the thinly pounded fishcake. Tod mun plar seems to be an acquired taste among many diners. Though it’s among my favorite Thai appetizers, very few of my dining companions enjoy it so I end up being “stuck” with finishing it all (choruses of “awwww” here).

Tod Mun Plar (Fish Cakes)

Green Curry with Beef

22 August 2014: Shelton Cooper’s beloved chicken satay with extra peanut sauce is on the Thai Kitchen.  After a marinade in Thai spices and coconut cream, thinly-sliced chicken breasts are grilled on wooden skewers in a shish kebab fashion.  Four skewers of golden-hued chicken “Popsicles” are served with a traditional Thai peanut dipping sauce and a cucumber salad.  The contrast between the pungent, smoky satay and the sweet peanut sauce provides a nice balance of flavor though you should exercise restraint with the peanut sauce as too much will make the satay dessert sweet.  The cucumber salad is even sweeter. For better results, try the satay sans sauce.

30 May 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Butcher & Bee in Charleston, South Carolina, this avowed Dagwood clone eschewed  a sandwich in favor of larb at one of the highest rated sandwich shops in America. Made well, Larb, the very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, is better than almost anything.  Larb is essentially a meat dish, most often made with minced or ground beef, pork or chicken with healthful elements of a salad.  The Thai Kitchen’s larb is made with grilled chopped chicken, mint, cilantro, Thai chiles, greens, lime juice and fish sauce.  It’s a very refreshing salad with qualities that’ll make your mouth tingle with appreciation.

Massaman Curry

Massaman Curry

30 May 2014: During my inaugural visit to any Thai restaurant it doesn’t matter what the acknowledged specialty of the house is, I’m going to order a curry dish. Thai curry offers some of the most olfactory-arousing fragrances of any dish.   Prepared well, its flavors deliver on the promises made by the fragrances which precede it.  Thai Kitchen’s green curry certainly delivers on its aromatic promises, but not as much on the renowned Thai heat.  At “Thai hot” as I ordered it, the curry should have been the overpowering taste sensation.  Instead, the green curry delivered on yet another promise of Thai cuisine–that of balance.  With a harmony of flavors, the green curry was sweet, sour, spicy, salty and pungent, not in equal measures, but with good balance.  It’s a very good green curry. 

22 August 2014: The one curry which tends to appeal even to avowed curry haters is Massaman curry which, unless otherwise requested, is milder than other curries.  It’s also sweeter thanks to the influx of coconut milk, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar.  Xenophobes might be interested to know that one spelling of this curry is derived from an ancient form of the word “Muslim” and in fact, this dish is often referred to as “Muslim curry” in some areas.  It was indeed Muslim traders who brought the spices used in the dish from India and the Middle East to the southern portion of modern day Thailand.  Thai Kitchen’s version includes potatoes, tomatoes and your choice of pork, chicken, beef, tofu or vegetables.  The fragrance emanating from a bowl of Massaman curry is equal to the tongue-titillating flavors of this excellent elixir.

Larb

Larb

30 May 2014: In four visits to Thai Kitchen, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver has become so besotted by the spicy jungle noodle dish that he has yet to order any other entree.  It’s a dish as exotic as its name and even more delicious: flat noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and your choice of chicken, beef or pork infused with Thai spices which impart sweet, savory and piquant taste sensations.  The noodles are absolutely perfectly prepared and the vegetables are al dente and fresh. As with the aforementioned green curry, “hot” was discernible, but at this Thai restaurant, pain is not a flavor.

Tod Mun Plar (Fish Cakes)

Spicy Jungle Noodle

Gervaise would probably have found a myriad of things not to like about the Thai Kitchen (you can’t please some people), but most Duke City diners will thoroughly enjoy the Thai Kitchen, especially if they also love Siam Cafe.

Thai Kitchen
1071 Corrales Road, N.W., Suite 23
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-0059
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2014
1st VISIT: 30 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Noodle Jungle, Tod Mun Plar, Green Curry, Larb, Massaman Curry, Pork Satay

Thai Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Basil Leaf on Eubank just south of Constitution

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed Popemobiles
through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East,
eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?
Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew,
the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?
I know what I want. I want it all.  I want to try everything once.”
- Anthony Bourdain

Genesis 11 recounts a time when the entire world had a common language and dwelt as one people.  Alas, hubris overtook the generations of survivors of the great flood who decided, with great unity of purpose, to build a city named Babel with a tower that would reach to heaven itself.  God immediately knew this “stairway to heaven” was essentially a self-aggrandizing monument to the people themselves, calling attention to their own abilities and achievements instead of giving glory to God.  Consequently, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not understand one another.  He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the Earth. 

Some Biblical scholars believe this event marks the point in history when God divided the Earth into separate continents.  Whether or not you believe this Old Testament account, there’s no denying some good would ultimately came from such a division of humanity.  That may be especially true from a culinary perspective.  It stands to reason that a common language and proximal dwelling would limit the diversity of culinary thought and opportunities.  Conversely, the more the population spread out across the wide expanse of climatic and topographical variation, the more diverse the culinary opportunities.

The front dining room at Basil Leaf

Why then, in an increasingly connected and informed world, do so many people limit their culinary opportunities and refuse to deviate from their culinary comfort zones?  It’s a matter long pondered by many of us who look upon Anthony Bourdain’s aforementioned sagacity as a marching order–those of us who want it all, who want to try everything at least once.  Culinary bon vivants see the diversity of dining as an adventure, an experience to be cherished and repeated.  It’s because we have this sense of adventure that we love the diversity proffered by such  restaurants as the Basil Leaf on Eubank.  

Heck without the culinary diversity resultant from topographical and climatic variety around the world we might not even have basil itself. Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs in the world, a richly aromatic, slightly spicy ameliorant to many of the best dishes proffered at all Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.  Also known as “hairy basil” and by its Thai name of “horapa”, it’s used in salads, soups, curries and as a garnish.  The aroma of Thai basil is stronger and sweeter than its Italian counterpart and it has a peppery flavor slightly reminiscent of star anise. It’s no wonder so many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants across the country are named for this diverse and revered herb.

Vietnamese Crepe with Pork

The Basil Leaf occupies one of those seemingly cursed restaurant locations in Albuquerque, a venue which has seen a number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants give it the old college try before succumbing to both economic malaise and absence of culinary adventurers.  Perhaps the Basil Leaf  has the familial pedigree to succeed where others have failed.  Family members include Tony Trinh who owns and operates Relish, one of the Duke City’s most popular sandwich shops.  Other family members own and operate Pacific Rim, the only Vietnamese restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The menu at Basil Leaf isn’t quite the voluminous compendium you’ll find at other Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. The menu is segmented by related fare: appetizers, beef noodle soup (pho), rice dishes, stir-fried noodles, vermicelli, kid’s menu and beverages.  Unless you’ve got a predetermined notion what you’re in the mood for you’ll spend some time perusing the menu.  It’s a terrific menu promising a culinary adventure in every bite.

The very best clay pot rice dish in Albuquerque

For some reason, the Vietnamese crepe is listed as an appetizer.  Whether deliberate or an anomaly, you’ll marvel at the size of this golden-hued (courtesy of tumeric) beauty.  Resembling a well-engorged egg omelet, the half-moon shaped crepe takes up half the plate.  The other half is covered by fresh, crisp vegetables: a shredded carrot and daikon salad, whole leaf lettuce and sprigs of basil.  It’s much like the vegetable accompaniment for pho.  The Vietnamese crepe, made from coconut milk and rice flour, is stuffed with savory ingredients: bean sprouts, white onions and green onions and is served with fish sauce and your choice of tofu, shrimp, pork or chicken.  Though the crepe itself has a slightly sweet flavor, it’s rare that Vietnamese crepes are stuffed with sweet fillings or toppings.  Pan-fried so they’re just slightly crispy, the crepes have a mild flavor profile for which the tangy, acidic, slightly piquant fish sauce is a perfect foil.  At Basil Leaf, the Vietnamese crepe is an appetizer built for two, especially if you have any expectation of enjoying an entree, too. 

Alas, the best laid plans of gastronomes often go astray.  After consuming the entire crepe, my plan was to sample a few bites of my entree then take the rest home for my Kim to enjoy.  The Sizzling Clay Pot Rice dish had other ideas.  It would ensnare me with its preternatural deliciousness and it wouldn’t let me go until nary a grain of rice remained on the clay pot.  This is a dish which earns its name.  It remained almost too hot to eat even after the Vietnamese crepe was a memory  As you eat, the clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce of your choice of meat or tofu to caramelize and waft invitingly for the duration of your meal.  For this reason, clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish.  Aside from rice, this dish contains broccoli, Vietnamese sausage, mushrooms, cashews, cilantro and green onion along with your choice of pork, tofu, shrimp, beef, chicken or a combination thereof.  To the pork goes my highest recommendation.  It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a sweet-savory-tangy marinade that renders the pork’s edges a reddish hue.  Only the Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot at China Luck is in the rarefied company of this fabulous hot pot dish.

Basil Leaf is the type of restaurant good enough to convert even the nay-sayers who rarely stray outside their culinary comfort zones.  Moreover, it’s the type of restaurant culinarily adventurous diners love best for its authenticity and oh, those basil-enhanced taste explosions.

Basil Leaf
1225 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-2594
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vietnamese Crepe, Clay Pot Rice

Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon

O’Niell’s Irish Pub – Albuquerque, New Mexico

O’Niell’s Irish Pub on Juan Tabo

Despite several efforts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make it more user-friendly, the Food Pyramid has never been that easy to understand.  Could confusion be one of the reasons 63.1% of American adults are either overweight or obese?  Based on that alarming percentage, you’d think the pyramidal nutritional guide has chocolate as its base topped with pizza, burgers and cheesecake tapering to a whipped cream covered point.

Perhaps to alleviate confusion, in June, 2011, the USDA replaced the ubiquitous food pyramid with a graphic depiction of a plate which (ostensibly) should make it easier for us to determine if we’re balancing our meals nutritionally. Hopefully the size of the plates at the typical family home aren’t platter-sized (or that the pie-wedge shaped components of the plate–fruits, grains, vegetables and proteins–won’t have a subliminal effect).

The capacious dining room and bar at O’Niell’s Irish Pub

The Food Pyramid is not a uniquely American way of depicting nutrition.  Throughout the world there are many ways used to present nutritional recommendations graphically (the Japanese use a spinning top model) even though the basics of nutrition have remained fairly static over time and across borders–with a few country specific differences based on local diet.  In Japan, for example, a glass of tea forms the axis of the top.

Another commonality among most food pyramids is confusion.  It seems no matter what governments throughout the world do to clarify nutritional recommendations, the more confusion arises–primarily because graphics alone don’t tell the whole story.  The most simple and straight-forward food pyramid to be found on the internet is the jocular stereotype-based Irish Food Pyramid.  At its base are potatoes topped by meat then whiskey, ales, stouts and lagers.  “Everything else” occupies the top of the pyramid.

O’Niell’s Irish Pub is festooned with Celtic art

If stereotypes have at least some basis in truth, this stereotype is embraced by my Irish colleagues who retire to their favorite pub for a pint (or six) after every hard (or easy) work week.  You’ll find them sporting the Irish food pyramid on tee-shirts and jumpers (sweaters) and doing their best to adhere to its nutritional recommendations–often to the point of over-achievement (especially on the ales, stouts and lagers).

There is also a historical basis for the stereotyped Irish food pyramid, particularly at its base which is occupied by the potato.  Potatoes didn’t arrive in Ireland until the second half of the 16th century, but it quickly ascended to the main food crop of the poor–primarily because great yields could be cultivated in a small acreage.  Sustenance for the gentry and nobility included beef, obtained from herds of cattle raised on the verdant Irish fields.

The Outdoor Patio at ONiell’s

The Irish pub concept has caught on like wildfire throughout America.  It, too, is a concept based on stereotypes which some Europeans have denounced as “the McDonald’s of the pub trade” courtesy of “their pseudo-Irish names, tacky green paint and super-cooled Guiness.”  Not surprisingly, the Irish pub template also includes fun, the free flow of pint after pint and of course, Irish food.

The Seanathair (old Irish word for grandfather) of Irish pubs in Albuquerque is O’Niell’s Irish Pub which first launched in 1994 and was immediately embraced by the Nob Hill community.  Alas, after nearly a decade on the north side of Central Avenue, O’Niell’s lost its lease and was forced to closed.  Three years later–in 2006–O’Niell’s found a new home on Central just a few blocks and across the street from its original home.  Its rebirth was welcomed with the enthusiasm of a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Crispy Corned Beef and Cabbage Egg Rolls

A second instantiation of O’Niell’s opened in 2010 on Juan Tabo.  It’s a sprawling complex almost as large as the Defined Fitness Gym nearby (and from the outside, it even resembles a gym).  The Juan Tabo restaurant includes a large dog-friendly patio where a backdrop of shrubbery and young trees helps make it one of the more attractive patios in the Duke City.  It’s easy to forget you’re only a few feet away from the bustling Juan Tabo traffic.

The interior is also quite attractive with a long mirrored bar as its cynosure.  The intricate interlacing patterns of Celtic art can be seen throughout the restaurant, a sophisticated tribute to one of the great civilizations in world history.  One wall is dedicated to supporting the community art program with a monthly artists rotation.  Seating is more functional than it is esthetic.

Lamb Stew, part of the quintessential Irish meal

The formula for O’Niell’s popularity is “good food, honest drink.”  Honest drink is described on the restaurant’s Web site as “the perfect pint and the perfect pour, all delivered with perfect service.”  Good food means “top quality versions of the lunches, dinners and appetizers that you know and love, fun alternatives, and some classic Celtic favorites.”  Sounds good to me!

It wouldn’t be New Mexico if the starters section of the menu of a restaurant–any restaurant maybe with the exception of Asian eateries–didn’t have salsa and chips.  O’Niell’s offers what the state legislature may someday consider New Mexico’s official state appetizer.  Land of Enchantment inspired starters also include chile con queso, a black bean quesadilla, chile cheese fries and O’Nachos.  If you’re wondering if this is a misplaced paragraph intended for a review of a New Mexican restaurant, read on.

Sirloin and Boxty

6 June 2011: St. Patrick must have been part Chinese, too with a little Swiss thrown in for good measure. O’Niell’s also offers a very Irish twist on an Asian favorite in crispy corned beef and cabbage egg rolls.  Julienne carrots, red and green cabbage and corn beef and Swiss cheese are stuffed into egg roll skins then deep-fried.  They are sliced diagonally and served six pieces per order along with three sauces redolent with personality–a honey Dijon sauce, horseradish and hot mustard.

Along with the duck confit egg rolls at Zinc, these are some of the Duke City’s most unique and delicious egg rolls, a terrific and unexpected surprise that showcases the versatility and possibilities of egg rolls (if only the city’s Chinese restaurants figured this out).  It’s a given that the thinly-sliced corned beef would go so well with the cabbage, but the egg roll wrappers and deep-frying bring out unexpected qualities.  Each of the dipping sauces complement the egg rolls beautifully and none, not even the hot mustard, will water your eyes.

Boxty Reuben

6 June 2011: O’Niell’s Web site calls lamb “the core of the quintessential Irish meal.”  One of the ways in which lamb is commonly served is as a thick and hearty stew.  If you’ve ever visited Ireland in the winter you’ll understand why.  O’Niell’s lamb stew is very much reminiscent of the lamb stew you’ll find at many a Dublin pub.  Succulent lamb as tender as carne adovada, is served with vegetables and potatoes (of course) and is seasoned with a hint of rosemary and thyme.  It’s a thick stew with lamb chunks a plenty, a true comfort food stew.  It’s also quite delicious.

6 June 2011: If lamb is the core of the quintessential Irish meal, the boxty is the true test of Irish womanhood.  An old Irish rhyme declares, “Boxty on the griddle, boxty on the pan; if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man.”  Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake whose Irish name actually translates to “poor house bread.” At O’Niell’s, the boxy is made with scallions and is flattened like a pancake.  It’s worthy accompaniment to a six-ounce, 100 percent USDA choice sirloin steak served with a Guinness demi-glace and vegetable du jour.  The sirloin is prepared to your exacting specifications and is quite good, however, the petite cut is hardly man-sized.

Bangers and Mash

9 August 2014:  You’ve got to respect a restaurant with a section on the menu dedicated solely to Reubens.  Never mind that there are only three of them on the menu, the fact that they’re singled out is big news.  Morgain Davidson, a long-time friend of this blog, turned me on to the Boxty Reuben, a knife-and-fork Reuben sandwich which replaces the traditional rye with two boxty.  The rest of the Reuben is pretty standard: grilled corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.  Only the ingredients are standard.  The flavors are superb!  The corned beef is nicely seasoned and the sauerkraut offers a nice pickling punch, but it’s the boxty we most appreciated.  The scallion-potato boxy make for a great rye substitute even if you can’t pick up this sandwich as you would a traditional Reuben.

6 June 2011: Another traditional Irish favorite done well at O’Niell’s is Bangers and Mash, two char-grilled Irish sausages served on mashed red potatoes and smothered in a rich demi-glace made with Guinness stout, mushrooms and caramelized onions.  This is humble cuisine elevated to an art form thanks largely to the demi-glace.  Its gravy-like consistency and the marriage of fleshy mushrooms and caramelized onions covers the potatoes and sausage like an Indian blanket.

Irish Cuban with Waffle Fries

9 August 2014:  It’s often said that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Irish.  At O’Niell’s, even the Cuban is Irish.  The Cuban sandwich, that is.  Described on the menu as “Cuban-inspired, but decidedly Irish,” it’s a “flavor-packed mix of corned beef, pulled pork, coleslaw, spicy Southwest aioli, hot mustard and Swiss all topped with grilled pickles.”  As with all multi-ingredient sandwiches, the sum is greater than all its parts, but some of those parts stand out very well.  The grilled pickles are assertive, the way pickles should be.  The corned beef fit in as if it belonged on the Cuban sandwich.  This sandwich pairs well with waffle fries.

16 June 2011: The dessert menu includes O’Niell’s take on a United Kingdom favorite known as spotted dick.  Called “Irish Delight” on the menu, it’s a different bread pudding every season.  Alas, it’s one of the more cloying bread pudding offerings we’ve had in the Duke City, a tooth-decaying sweet treat.  Perhaps some cold vanilla ice cream would have cut the sweetness a bit.

Irish Delight: O’Niell’s take on favorite with a funny name-Spotted Dick, an Irish bread pudding.

Founder Rob O’Niell lives by the edict “No Sniveling,” an approach to life to which more of us should subscribe.  There’s not much to snivel about at O’Niell’s Irish Pub, a fun place to dine even if you’re not Irish.

O’Niell’s Irish Pub
3301 Juan Tabo Blvd. NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)-293-1122
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 09 August 2014
1st VISIT: 16 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bangers and Mash, Sirloin and Boxty, Lamb Stew, Crispy Corned Beef and Cabbage Egg Rolls, Irish Delight, Boxty Reuben, Irish Cuban

O'Niell's Pub on Urbanspoon