Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

 The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.

For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful.  We  seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others.  We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives.  Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity.  We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.

That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos.  In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself.  For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business.  Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.


Affable proprietor Rob Carson at the counter where you place your order

You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking  (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.”  Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins.  Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable.  It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles.  It’s basically harmless.

Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King!  You can’t have it your way.” variety.   This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right.  Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.”  Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.

The Taos

Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe.  It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service.  Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.

The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009.  Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service.  In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in.  He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit.  If my first few visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye With a Side Order of Chips and Fresh Fruit

In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (just west of Jefferson).  The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods.  An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so.  At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers. 

As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home.  At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door.  As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.”  Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell.  Even if Rob doesn’t bring the bell back, the service remains great and the service as crazy as ever.


The Oak Tree Combo Sandwich

For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service.  Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server (maybe even Janet, Rob’s pulchritudinous fiance as of August, 2015) who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them.  When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson.  Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.”  It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.

The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted.  Meat products come from Boar’s Head.  Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone.  Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.


Beer-battered “Black and Tan” onion rings, some of the very best in Albuquerque

5 July 2011: If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it.  That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be.  It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.

5 July 2011: During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy.  The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors.  This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries.  It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home.  Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.”  Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers.  Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.

Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings.  The beer-battered black and tan onion rings are among the two  best in the city (the others being from Flamez Burgers & More).  These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked.  Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve. 

Janet's Bacon Green Chili Burger

Janet’s Bacon Green Chili Burger

10 May 2013: Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich.  One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location.   This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll.  The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together.  It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite. 

13 June 2013:  On the day of my second visit to the Alameda location, it did my heart good to see more cars parked in front of the Oak Tree Cafe than there were in front of Panera Bread, a chain restaurant five miles away which also serves sandwiches.  It goes to show Duke City Diners can be a discerning lot that recognizes the superiority of locally owned and operated restaurants and home-grown touches such as the Oak Tree Cafe’s green chile Ranch dressing which accompanies the fried green beans.   While no dressing is necessary for these perfectly breaded, perfectly fried green beans, a little piquancy and roasted flavor goes a long way.

The Father Paul Sandwich, "Heaven In A Sandwich": USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette

The Father Paul Sandwich, “Heaven In A Sandwich”

13 June 2013: The best new green chile cheeseburger I’ve had in 2013 is the quaintly named Janet’s Bacon Green Chili (SIC) Burger, a burger so good the Oak Tree Cafe can get away with the Texas-like spelling of New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  The burger is named for the delightful Janet, Rob’s fiance and a partner in the restaurant.   All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef from Nelson’s Meat Market formed on the premises daily and served on a fresh bakery bun.  The Janet invites you to “Cowgirl It Up” (a phrase meaning stop being a sissy) with this half-pound behemoth topped with pecan-smoked bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, New Mexico green chile, red onions, lettuce and tomatoes.  The green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough bite to let you know it’s there.  The beef is moist and perfectly prepared at about medium.  The bacon is terrific as is the cheese.  It’s a burger which goes very well with the onion rings.

13 June 2013: If you’ve ever wondered what “heaven in a sandwich” tastes like, try the Father Paul Sandwich, named for a Catholic priest friend of Rob Carson.  Although Father Paul is now in Florida, this sandwich is a terrific legacy to leave behind.  The sandwich is constructed on a baguette which is ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) with USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes.  The deli mustard pulls no punches, enlivening the sandwich with an eye-watering flavor that complements the tender as butter roast beef.  If you’ve discerned a predilection for ordering roast beef sandwiches, it’s simply because The Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best roast beef in Albuquerque.

Mike's Chicken Sandwich: Six-ounce chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese, honey mustard, topped with lettuce and tomatoes

Mike’s Chicken Sandwich

18 June 2013: While turkey is often blamed for post-meal Thanksgiving lethargy, chicken actually has more of the serotonin-boosting tryptophan than turkey does.  Perhaps that’s why most chicken sandwiches bore me to the point of sleepiness.  In the spirit that the Oak Tree Cafe can do no wrong, I didn’t put up much resistance when Janet recommended Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, a six-ounce grilled chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese and honey mustard topped with lettuce and tomatoes.  This is what all chicken sandwiches should aspire to. The chicken (no breading) is grilled to perfection, but what makes this sandwich special is the combination of smoky-piquant bacon, slightly incendiary Pepperjack cheese and the honey mustard.  This is a multi-napkin affair, a very juicy and delicious chicken sandwich that won’t leave you sleepy after consuming it.

8 July 2013: It’s entirely conceivable that if the 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche were to be rewritten for the new millennium, quiche would be replaced on the title by tortilla wraps or maybe quesadillas.  It’s practically an XY chromosome expectation that real men order behemoth sandwiches overstuffed with ingredients.  Real men certainly wouldn’t order a tortilla wrap with raspberry sauce of all things.  That is unless real men are really comfortable in their own skin or who don’t want to miss out on a terrific tortilla wrap constructed with superb ingredients.  The Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap is bursting with roasted turkey breast, cream cheese, New Mexico green chile, spring mix, tomatoes and raspberry chipotle sauce wrapped in a tortilla.  The combination of green chile and raspberry chipotle gives the wrap a piquant personality with a sweet kick.  The turkey, and there’s plenty of it, is terrific, the antithesis of the boring turkey.  Real men would love this sandwich…if only they would try it.

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap: Turkey Breast, Cream Cheese, New Mexico Green Chile, Spring Mix, Tomatoes, Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap

Contemporary culinary culture is so competitive (forgive the alliteration) that a purveyor of sandwiches can’t just slap some meats and cheeses on bread and expect to stay in business for long.  The very best restaurateurs are constantly reinventing their menus, looking for exciting new options with which to entice their diners.  Since the Oak Tree Cafe moved into its commodious new digs, the opportunities for tinkering with an already outstanding menu have been more readily available.  A number of new burgers (including an excellent blue cheese burger) show up in the menu of daily specials.  The most successful among them will hopefully make it onto the everyday menu

27 March 2014: Call it audacious if you will, but the Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area.  Yes, better than the fish and chips at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill and the Two Fools Tavern.  Rob Carson and his crew didn’t just decide one day to start serving fish and chips then immediately started doing so.  They worked on the batter for two months (going through boatloads of fish) before considering it worthy of the guests they value so much.  It’s a light and crispy beer batter that sheathes two large pieces of tender and flaky haddock.  The light batter allows for excellent penetration by malt vinegar and pairs well with the superb tartar sauce with which the fish are served.  The fish is delicate and delicious and because it’s virtually grease-free, you can eat it with your hands.  The fries have a twice-fried texture and also absorb malt vinegar well.  An accompanying coleslaw is crisp, fresh and delicious.

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

28 August 2015:  My friend Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, books time with a “personal shopper” at Macy’s when she flies into Chicago.  I can one-up her by having my very own personal sandwich advisor every time I visit the Oak Tree.  Not only are reservations not required to book this service, anyone can avail themselves of getting great sandwich advice every time you visit.  All you’ve got to do is ask Janet for a recommendation.  She’ll ask some questions to discern your tastes and desires before recommending your next favorite sandwich at the Oak Tree.  

My Kim is eternally grateful to Janet for recommending the Don Juan (which isn’t named for the legendary libertine, but for John who conceptualized it).   The Don Juan (ham, pepperoni, melted Provolone cheese, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red onion, artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette) is a concordant masterpiece of ingredients which work so very well together.  The Balsamic vinegar and artichokes are a very nice touch, lending a tangy contrast to otherwise savory ingredients.  The baguette is the perfect canvas, lending the properties of chewiness and staff-of-life deliciousness to the meats and cheeses.

The Don Juan

13 November 2015: Most sandwich restaurants tend to have a turkey sandwich and invariably it lives up to its name, turkey being a term used to describe something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful.  The Oak Tree Cafe’s version of a turkey sandwich is the antithesis of every boring turkey sandwich out there, second in my estimation only to the turkey sandwich at the legendary Smokehouse.  The canvas for this terrific turkey is toasted sourdough bread topped with green chile, melted Monterey Jack, homemade guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes.  The turkey breast is moist and delicious, a natural complement to the other ingredients and a perfect foil for the incendiary green chile and rich, buttery guacamole.

13 November 2015: In her terrific tome American Sandwich, my friend Becky Mercuri explains that the origin of the Reuben sandwich is hotly contested with at least three sources claiming to be its progenitor.  None of those sources credit the sandwich as being named for Baroque painting genius Peter Paul Rubens, but an argument could easily be made for his cause.  That’s especially true if you consider his preference for plus- or real-sized women, the genesis for the term Rubenesque meaning plump or voluptuous. Those terms could apply to the sandwich as well, especially its homonym, the Rueben sandwich.  The Oak Tree’s rendition is a triple-decker beauty constructed of housemade lean corned beef (cooked in Guinness which imparts a dark, rich, complex flavor); tart and tangy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing on a beautiful light rye.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s very best!

Triple Decker Reuben

The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 November 2015
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings, Fried Green Beans, The Father Paul Sandwich, Janet’s Green Chili Burger, Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap, Apple Coleslaw, Fish & Chips, The Don Juan, The Pauley, Triple Decker Reuben 

Oak Tree Cafe on Urbanspoon

Budai Gourmet Chinese – Albuquerque, New Mexico

 Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque's Far North Shopping Center

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

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 (Fatty Pork Stewed For Eight Hours)

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” entree

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

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.

6300 San Mateo, N.E., Suite H-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-7898
Web Site
1st VISIT: 31 August 2010
LATEST VISIT: 31 October 2015
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

Budai on Urbanspoon

Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Tammy Mollai

Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve!  In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love.  Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought. 

The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind.  Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible show

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show

While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant.  If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family. 

Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first.  The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room.  The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style.  All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion.  Some eighteen items make up the “bocaditos” section of the menu.  Described as “Latin Street Food, served as it’s prepared,” bocaditos are appetizers  prepared in the inevitable Chef Elvis manner.  There are only six Platos Principales or main courses, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.

The redesigned interior of Pasion Latin Fusion

The redesigned interior of Pasion Latin Fusion

Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of  Elvis  and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors.  The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant.  Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house.  If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.

Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina.  Get the picture?

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna | Coconut | Habanero | Passion Fruit Sorbet

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated.  It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening.  Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.

The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.

Duck Taquitos Green and Yellow Chile | Pickled Vegetables | Mexican Cotija Cheese

Duck Taquitos

Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.

29 March 2014: Bocaditos (appetizers) are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the bocaditos.  Three per person is what our server advised.  One of those bocaditos should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips.  In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself.  The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess.  It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips.  Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.

Quesadilla Cubano Braised Pulled Pork | Shaved Ham | Swiss Cheese | Dill Pickle | Grain Mustard

Quesadilla Cubano

29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips.  The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut.  The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche.  Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients.  This is genius!

29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos.  Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however.   Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype.  They’re, in fact, sensational!  There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese.  If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.

Caribbean Chicken Adobo Rub | White Rice | Mashed Ripe Plantain | Bacon

Caribbean Chicken Adobo Rub

29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches.  Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé  as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based.  At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla.  Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” 

22 October 2015: For many New Mexicans the term “chicharron” conjures images of deep-fried cubes of crispy pork cracklings.  We enjoy them in much the way other people eat popcorn.  In parts of Texas and Mexico, chicharrones are more akin to menudo or strips of wiggly, squiggly pork tripe.  Only in Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas had we previously seen chicharrones fashioned from seafood (mariscos).  Leave it to Elvis to introduce Albuquerque to this uniquely delicious entree.  The combination of crispy mixed seafood (African white fish and calamari), pickled vegetables and small mango cubes is a winner, elevated to rarefied air with a habanero tartar sauce so good and so bold and assertive, you may just ask for a second ramekin.

Chicharron de Mariscos

29 March 2014: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, the very best I’ve ever had.  Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken.  In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch.  Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor.  This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs.  The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.

Pasión Platano Cake Banana Custard Cake| Cinnamon and Vanilla | Passion Fruit Mousse

Pasión Platano Cake

18 September 2011: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet and savory goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.

18 September 2011: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number eight on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding.

Pastel De Queso: Goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel

29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse.  It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite.  The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks.  Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana.  If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is.  There’s a taste adventure in every bite.  

Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion.  That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and  unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years.  It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine.

Azteca Bread Pudding Con Cajeta: with a hint of red chile and a milk caramel sauce

Restaurant critics realize that their influence only goes so far in their own hometowns.  For years, critics from the Albuquerque Journal, Alibi, Local IQ, Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings and of course, Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have been raving about how great Pasion Latin Cuisine is.  Over the years, Pasion has earned accolades and honors galore: “Top 5 Chefs of Albuquerque”, “Best Fusion Restaurant”, “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Kid Friendly Restaurant.”  Despite all these honors and accolades, Duke City diners haven’t been beating down the doors as they should for a restaurant of this caliber.   Robert Irvine’s visit will hopefully bring in new visitors.  After one visit, they’ll certainly be back.

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7880
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 October 2015
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

Pasion Latin Fusion on Urbanspoon

1 2 3 55