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

Jambo Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Growing up in the 60s–the dark ages before the Internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes and google, then spelled “googol” represented an very large number (currently being approached by America’s budget deficit)–even precocious children like me derived most of our knowledge of Africa from National Geographic magazines and Tarzan movies. We thought Africa was one large monolithic country comprised solely of stark, expansive deserts or lush, mysterious jungles. Africa’s indigenous people, we believed, had to compete for food with lions, tigers and hyenas, oh my. Though Africa was called “the Dark Continent,” it was truly our knowledge which was in the dark, obfuscated by stereotypes and misconceptions.

A rare sight--For once Jambo Cafe isn't pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up--even though it was well after 2PM)

A rare sight–For once Jambo Cafe isn’t pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up–even though it was well after 2PM)

The 1966 debut of Star Trek helped eliminate some of those stereotypes with the introduction of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, a stunning black woman from the United States of Africa who spoke Swahili.  By the time Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered in 1967, I had learned enough about Africa to know that save for in zoos, you couldn’t find a tiger in the entire continent.  In the intervening years since the naivete of my youth, I’ve also learned that Africa is comprised of 53 very distinct and autonomous nations and even more unique cultures.  While jungles and desserts are indeed  a significant part of the African landscape, so too are mountains that hug the clouds and grassy flatlands called savannas.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef Ahmed Obo

The vast diversity of Africa extends to its cuisine, which–similar to American cuisines–takes on regional personalities reflective of an area’s culture, history and ingredients. Swahili cuisine, for example, is a lusty and vibrant confluence of local ingredients and spices ameliorated by the ideas and ingredients brought over by foreign settlers.  One of the epicenters of Swahili cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.  Lamu is where chef Ahmed Obo began the unique journey that would ultimately lead him to Santa Fe where he would launch one of the most talked about restaurants in a city in which the conversation usually turns to great restaurants.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Since its launch in August, 2009, perhaps no restaurant in Santa Fe has garnered as much acclaim as Jambo Cafe. In its inaugural year, Jambo Cafe earned “Best of Santa Fe” honors for “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Ethnic Restaurant” from the Santa Fe Reporter. Within six months of launching, Jambo’s intoxicating elixirs earned “Best Savory Soup” and “Best Soup” overall in Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl which benefits The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank. One year later, Jambo repeated its “Best Soup” win and added “Best Vegetarian Soup.” The traveling trophy emblematic of Jambo’s super soup has a prominent place by the front window while framed certificates for each win festoon the walls

Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains served with pineapple curry dipping sauce.

“Jambo” translates from Swahili to a shortened, more informal, “touristy” version of “hello.” All social interactions in Swahili are usually prefaced by a greeting, but not in the perfunctory manner of American greetings. Swahili greetings tend to be more respectful and formal than American greetings. It’s therefore quite surprising to be greeted in such an effusive and informal manner when you walk into Jambo Cafe. It’s a genuine friendliness, imparting a warmth that’s increasingly rare in stodgy Santa Fe. The friendliness extends from adjoining tables, some populated by retro-clad hipsters who seem to have found the home at Jambo they couldn’t find in one of the stuffy, high-end, high-brow Santa Fe restaurants.  Conversations across neighboring tables make for a fun and interesting vibe.

Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw

The ochre colored walls are adorned with framed photographs and paintings of Africa: the shaggy maned lion in all its glory, the elegant and elongated giraffe, elephants frolicking in the Serengeti Plain, native youth at play and more. Batiks hug the ceiling tiles. The restaurant, a tenant of a nondescript strip mall, is long and narrow with tables in personal space proximity to one another.  Even though the restaurant expanded in 2012 and doubled its seating capacity, queues of diners waiting to be seated can exceed an hour over dinner.   The personal space proximity makes it easier to get to know your neighbors, some of whom have an intimate knowledge of the menu and can tell you what’s good and what’s…well, everything is good and that’s a starting point.

    Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

While many of us would willingly admit a complete ignorance of African food, the menu’s African and Caribbean dishes might inspire a little deja vu and it’s not necessarily because you may have read or heard about just how great the food is. The starters–stuffed phyllo, hummus plate, coconut shrimp, jerk chicken wings and cinnamon-dusted plantains–(or variations thereof) appear on menus at other restaurants. The familiarity extends onto the salads, entrees and desserts, none of which sound especially exotic or altogether strange or different.

Ginger Peanut Butternut Squash Soup

The difference between Jambo’s cuisine and that of other restaurants is in Jambo’s inspired melding of flavor and ingredient combinations–combinations which dance on your taste buds with seasonings and spices that eke out every bit of addictive deliciousness possible while perfuming the air with intoxicating aromas. There are few dishes and even fewer restaurants which truly surprise me with “knock your socks off” flavors. Jambo is among the few.

Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup

Your adventure in truly sensual dining starts with beverage selection while perusing the menu. Forget the usual suspects (even if they do include Hansen’s Soda, the ubiquitous and delicious Santa Fe favorite) and indulge in something out of the ordinary–something extraordinary. Try the mango ginger lemonade, a triumvirate of flavors that purse your lips with an invigorating tanginess. You’ll be smacking your lips in grateful appreciation, especially on sweltering summer days. Maybe even better is the Jamaican hibiscus iced tea with its elements of earthy fruitiness and noticeable lack of the acerbic aftertaste often found on tea.

Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew: with basmati coconut rice.

Appetizers & Soups

19 March 2011: Some diners consider appetizers foreplay for the taste buds, a preamble to the main course and a fairly reliable barometer of the restaurant’s culinary prowess. Great appetizers will whet your appetite for more. Phenomenal appetizers will leave you happy if your meal consisted of nothing more. That’s the way we felt about the cinnamon-dusted plantains served with a pineapple curry dipping sauce. The texture of the plantains is perfect–more firm than bananas and not as firm as potatoes, perhaps resultant from being sauteed. The cinnamon is akin to a blessing, sweet and gentle, while the pineapple curry dipping sauce is a perfect foil, a contrast that draws out other qualities in the plantains. The sauce is terrific, a melding of African curry and succulent, sweet pineapples. African curry is rich and complex, wholly different from Thai or Indian curries.

Jerk Chicken Wings

Jerk Chicken Wings

07 January 2012: One of Jambo’s most interesting appetizers naturally brings comparisons to a similar appetizer, one found a continent away in Southeast Asia.  When we saw coconut peanut chicken kebabs on the starter menu, it brought to mind satay, the popular Thai and Malaysian starter.  Similar to satay, Jambo’s coconut peanut chicken kebabs feature skewered strips of chicken served with a peanut sauce.  While satay is marinated in Thai curry with the peanut sauce used in a complementary fashion, Jambo’s kebabs are covered in the coconut-peanut sauce, a savory sauce that tastes like a grown-up version of the sometimes cloying Thai peanut sauce.  Served with the kebabs is a curry coleslaw, a terrific variation on conventional coleslaw.  It’s an idea whose time has come. 

Coconut Shrimp with Lime-Mango Sauce

03 January 2013Jerk wings tend to fall into two camps: wings slathered with a Scotch Bonnet pepper based sauce so piquant it’s been used in Guantanamo as an instrument of “interrogation” and wings so insipid, they cause somnolence.  At Jambo, the Jerk Chicken Wings are meaty wings infused with a beguiling Caribbean inspired spice mix in perfect proportion to a mild smokiness.   Jambo’s chicken wings will tease your taste buds with piquancy and they’ll please your palate with flavor. 

25 April 2015: Because fried shrimp harkens me back to the rare “fine-dining” experiences at The Sizzler during my unenlightened childhood, my preference has always been for boiled shrimp. My eyes typically grouse over any menu featuring fried shrimp, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s classic debate zinger “Jambo is no Sizzler.” You’ve got to believe Chef Ahmed knows a thing or two about frying shrimp. Besides, wild tiger shrimp are a mild (less briny and “fishy) shrimp that pairs well with a variety of sauces. Jambo butterflies the jumbo shrimp, encrusts it in a crispy coconut batter and fries it to a golden sheen. The shrimp is paired with a lime-mango sauce which imparts a tanginess that complements the sweetness of the batter and the savory qualities of the shrimp. This is shrimp the way my eight year-old self wishes he’d had. 

Combination Plate: Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti.

If the notion of a fennel butternut squash soup makes you deliriously weepy, Jambo has a version you’ve got to try. Typically the aromatic, licorice-like flavor of fennel is a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of butternut squash, but the fennel is just one of so many exotic touches on this soup that it’s a challenge to discern its presence. Seriously, you could probably have substituted dandelion for fennel and you wouldn’t be able to discern the dandelion. That’s how well all the spices and seasonings meld together. This soup is truly an amalgam of individual flavors coalescing into a singular, more delicious whole. It’s got the typical comforting soup qualities of creaminess and deliciousness, but it’s so wonderfully well-blended that the fennel seemed rather left out, not that we cared. Okay, now that I’ve beaten up that point, once we got past trying to discern the fennel, we luxuriated in just how great yet another Jambo soup is.

19 March 2011: The soup of the day during our inaugural visit was the best of the best, Jambo’s 2011 Souper Bowl award winning curried black bean and sweet potato soup. In several years of serving as a judge at Albuquerque’s Souper Bowl competition, only a handful of soups even approach the complexity and depth of flavors of this intoxicating elixir. This is a soul-warming soup which will lift your spirits and re-kindle your love of soup. The curry provides an exquisitely spicy touch that marries oh so well with the sweet potatoes. The soup is served hot, the way soup should always be served.

    Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

One Skewer of Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs and One Skewer of Coconut-Peanut Chicken Kebabs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

7 January 2012: If there’s one thing our visits to Jambo have taught us is that soup is a must with every meal.  Even if its ninety-five degrees outdoors, these magical elixirs are so good they’d draw a smile from the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame.  The soup of the day during our second visit was a ginger peanut butternut squash soup, the very best I’ve ever had.  Too many chefs seem to accentuate or even heighten the sweetness of butternut squash, sometimes resulting in a dessert-sweet soup.  At Jambo, the natural sweetness of the butternut squash is melded with the invigorating freshness of ginger and the savoriness of peanuts to create a sweet-savory-piquant soup you’ll want a vat of.  The soup is served with wedges of pita.  You’ll also find pita within the soup where it’s toasted and cut into delightful bite-size pieces. 

7 January 2012: Sometimes the differences between a soup and a stew are barely discernible.  By definition, a soup is any combination of meat, fruit, vegetables and/or fish cooked in liquid while a stew is a dish containing meat, vegetables and a thick soup-like broth made from a combination of the stewing liquid and the natural juices of the food being served.  Jambo’s Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew is most assuredly a stew though it has soup-like qualities and might remind you of Jambo’s wondrous soups.  It’s a thick amalgam of perfectly spiced and sinfully rich ingredients as comforting and delicious as any soup or stew you’ll ever have.  It’s served with perfectly prepared basmati rice.

Grilled jerk organic chicken


19 March 2011: To maximize your adventure in flavor, you’ll want Jambo’s combination plate which is brimming with chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti. The curry, stew and lentils are trisected by coconut rice in the shape of the letter Y. The chicken curry and goat stew are studies in the efficacy of rich, complex sauces. The goat stew is an amalgam of potatoes and carrots in a sauce of equal pronouncements of sweet and piquant. The goat meat itself is plentiful, including tiny bones. The chicken curry, which includes sauteed spinach, is not nearly as intense as the curry, but maybe even more flavorful. Coconut lentils, an East African staple, will make a believer of any lentil loathers out there. The roti, a warm bread vaguely reminiscent of Indian naan, is perfectly made. We used it in much the way New Mexicans use tortillas to scoop up chile and beans. Interestingly, while the menu calls roti “African flat bread,” it’s also a staple of Malaysian restaurants.

19 March 2011: The accommodating staff has a “customer is always right” latitude in allowing substitutions.  For example, my Kim wanted the grilled jerk organic chicken entree, but wanted the sides which come with the grilled marinated beef kabobs.  The sides would be a pomegranate red onion sauce over a green bean and mixed green salad with saffron new potatoes.  The pomegranate and red onion sauce is phenomenal, a melding of sweet, tart fruitiness and caramelized pickled red onions.  It’s one of those rare salad dressings you might be tempted to lick off the plate to make sure you don’t miss any.  The mixed greens are at the height of freshness.  The jerk chicken is redolent with a sweet-spicy smokiness reflective of the assertive spiciness of jerk seasoning.  A light crust seals in moistness and flavor.  This is one of the very best jerk chicken plates I’ve ever had! 


Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna

7 January 2012: The grilled marinated beef kabobs served with the aforementioned pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans are par excellence, as good (albeit quite different) as kebabs you’ll find at most Middle Eastern restaurants.  Two skewers of slightly bigger than bite-sized beef prepared at about medium well are served crisscrossed style over the other items on a beautifully appointed plate.  The beef is tender and delicious and if you’re concerned about the sweet pomegranate sauce having a sweet and sour effect on the beef, you need not be.  The pomegranate red onion sauce actually complements the beef very well.  In fact, you might find yourself wondering how that sauce would go with your favorite steak. 

3 January 2014: Jambo is no slouch when it comes to seafood.  The special of the day during a January, 2014 visit was a sesame encrusted albacore tuna over crab basmati rice and julienned vegetables topped with a spicy coconut peanut sauce.  The creamy white flesh of albacore, a true “white meat tuna” is less oily than other types of tuna and has a delicate flakiness.  It also has a slightly more “fishy” flavor than some tunas.  Perhaps that’s why the spicy coconut-peanut sauce works so well.  It doesn’t mask the natural flavors of the tuna; it accentuates them much in the way mint jelly complements lamb chops. The crab basmati rice is perfectly prepared with a delightful texture and ability to sop up the coconut-peanut sauce.

Mango cobbler a la mode

It’s become almost passé for restaurant menu items to read like an impossibly good novel only for the highlight of those items to actually be reading the mouth-watering descriptions. Not so at Jambo. When the special-of-the-day is described as “papaya marinated moonfish served over butternut squash brown rice, sautéed garlic asparagus and topped with a smoked paprika coconut spice,” the eating is better than the reading. Moonfish, a widely underutilized and carefully harvested Hawaiian fish is–despite an oily flesh–very rich and flavorful. Chefs love its versatility, but none we’ve had is prepared in quite the way Jambo prepares it. You may want to bathe in the smoked paprika coconut sauce which blends seemingly disparate flavor profiles into a harmonious composite.

Jambo will make diners of all persuasions very happy.  The menu is replete with vegetarian friendly dishes.  Chef Obo is a proponent of the locavore movement, striving to procure locally grown organic food as much as possible.  The cafe’s lamb is raised in Abiquiu, the organic feta cheese comes from Tucumcari and other ingredients such as organic mixed greens and free-range chicken are from local sources.

Key Lime Pie with Chocolate-Almond Crust and Coconut-Cardamom Flan


19 March 2011: Apple, peach and blackberry cobblers are a staple of the deep South where cobbler is often served with barbecue, but rarely will you see mango cobbler a la mode with barbecue (or anything else).  If Jambo’s rendition is any indication, mango should be a fixture on cobbler recipes.  Its sweet juiciness is perfect atop and beneath a crumbly crust topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In season, mangoes are even more juicy and sweet so this is a dessert that will be even better in the summer. 

3 January 2013: Save for the baklava, the desserts at Jambo are made on the premises.  It’s no surprise that desserts are very much worthy of the appetizers, soups and entrees.  The desserts start off as familiar, but are given unique touches that make them even better.  Take for example the restaurant’s flan.  Flan, a baked custard often served with a caramel (or even better, cajeta) sauce is almost de rigueur in New Mexican restaurants.  At Jambo, the flan is imbued with cardamom, a fragrant and delicious spice.  Then there’s the Jamaican rum pecan pie with just enough Jamaican rum to be noticeable.


Top: Cardamom Flan
Bottom: Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie

The popularity of Jambo means during peak times, you may have to wait to be seated, but the deliciousness of the food makes the wait worth it. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this tiny cafe one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.

2010 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 473-1269
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2015
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 4
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains, Curried Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup, Grilled Organic Jerk Chicken, Combination Plate (Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti) Mango Cobbler a la mode, Cardamom Flan, Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie, Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna, Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Moonfish

Jambo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Los Potrillos – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Potrillos, my favorite Mexican restaurant in New Mexico

Faced with a situation that renders us incredulous, many of us might yammer incoherently, complain vociferously or maybe even utter colorful epithets.  Such moments, it seems, are best expressed with succinct precision, a rare skill mastered by a select few wordsmiths from which eloquence flows regardless of situation–polymaths such as Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man.”

Flummoxed at the discovery of a Chili’s restaurant a mere five miles from the Mexican border, I might have ranted and raved about another inferior chain restaurant and its parody of Mexican food. With nary a hint of contempt, Bourdain instead compared the spread of Chili’s restaurants across America to herpes.  How utterly brilliant and wholly appropriate was that?

Mexican Vaquero Art Festoons the Walls at Los Potrillos

Indicating that chain restaurants are “the real enemy, the thing to be feared, marginalized and kept at a distance at all costs,” he wondered aloud why anyone would eat institutionalized franchise food when the real thing is available nearby.  Bourdain, a cultural assimilator, would love Los Potrillos, an unabashedly authentic Mexican restaurant which serves the food Mexican citizens eat everyday, not the pretentious touristy stuff or worse, the pseudo Mexican food proffered at Chili’s and restaurants of that ilk.

That authenticity may be one of the reasons Los Potrillos became one of Santa Fe’s most popular Mexican restaurants within months of opening in 2006. Today it’s no longer just transplanted Mexicans who frequent this colorful dining establishment situated in what was once a Pizza Hut (another chain Bourdain undoubtedly disdains).

Three Salsas and Chips at Los Potrillos

Los Potrillos celebrates the horse, or more specifically the “potrillo,” which translates from Spanish to a “colt” or more precisely, a young horse of less than twelve months of age.  The restaurant’s back wall is festooned with a colorful mural depicting several handsome horses including a noble Mexican charro horse with rider astride. The back of each wooden chair features a colt with head reared back as if in the throes of bucking off an unwanted rider. Cacti indigenous to Mexico lends to the thematic ambiance which also includes burlap curtains and sundry charro clothing and accessories. On the walls hang horseshoes, charro sombreros and other Mexican accoutrements, but you won’t find the multi-hued, touristy blankets.

Los Potrillos is owned by Gustavo and Jose Tapia who owned Pepe’s Tacos next door for years before converting the space to Tapia’s Used Cars. The Los Potrillos menu speaks volumes about what the Tapia’s promise for your dining experience: “Not just an ordinary Mexican meal…the means of tasting how delicious our beloved Mexico is.”

Quesadilla synchronizada

Fabulous quesadillas at Los Potrillos

Mexico is not only delicious. It is a festive country in which life is celebrated and sometimes loudly. The sole complaint we have about this fabulous restaurant is the cacophonous din of excessively loud music competing with stridently blaring televisions. When the restaurant is packed (which is quite often) carrying on a conversation at normal voice is a challenge.

19 January 2015: The menu is replete with lively choices, many of them heart-healthy and many quite the opposite. Mariscos (Mexican seafood) occupies more than a page of the menu which features the varied cuisines of several regions of Mexico. You’ll be hard-pressed to narrow your choice of fare; it all sounds absolutely delicious.  A magnificent mariscos starter not to be missed is the tostadas de ceviche which are available in appetizer or entree (three per order) portions.  A thin layer of mayonnaise atop a thick, crispy tostada canvas is crowned with citrus cooked fish, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and avocado.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While you’re contemplating what to order, the amiable wait staff will bring to your table a salsa trio–salsa de arbol, chipotle salsa and a guacamole and sour cream salsa–that serves as a precursor of just how good the rest of your meal will be. The chipotle salsa, in particular, has fruity, smoky qualities that will enrapt your taste buds. The salsa de arbol is the most piquant of the three, a few levels below habanero.  The guacamole and sour cream salsa is watery which means you’ll have to dip the chips into the salsa instead of scooping it up.  Each of these salsas has a taste unique unto itself, but all are complementary.

5 March 2007: Appetizer options abound–such as the Quesadilla Sincronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). This is one of the very best quesadillas you’ll find anywhere: ham, chorizo, bacon, onion, bell pepper, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeno and the requisite queso to “synchronize” the entire concoction together.  While not exactly a heart-healthy appetizer option, this quesadilla is absolutely delicious, an excellent way to begin what portends to be an excellent dining experience all the way around.  Bite into the jalapeno and you’ll need the cheese to quell the fire on your tongue.

Molcajete Al Pastor

19 January 2015: One of the more popular items on the menu (which includes entrees and appetizers you won’t find anywhere else) is the molcajete al pastor. Most restaurants don’t use real molcajetes (bowls fashioned from volcanic pumice) which are painstaking to “cure” or make usable for everyday use, but Los Potrillos does. Somehow serving marinated pork in a molcajete really seems to improve the taste and to keep the entree hot through the duration of your meal.  Los Potrillo’s Molcajete al Pastor is a vast improvement over the tacos al pastor on which this popular dish is based–and even those once served at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina which we had thought to be the best we’d ever had.

This dish is comprised of chopped pork and pineapple marinated with a special chef’s sauce and cooked over onions over a sizzling grill then served on a hot molcajete. Fresh homemade tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) and a pineapple pico de gallo salsas finish this fabulous dish. The pico is one of the two best (the other is at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill) we’ve had in New Mexico.  Fiery jalapeños balance the sweet-tangy chopped pineapple nicely.

Costillas Pancho Villa

Parillada at Los Potrillos

Among the mariscos entrees are several fish fillets inventively stuffed with various items. The Niño Envuelto (which translates from Spanish as “wrapped infant”), for example, is a fish fillet stuffed with white and yellow cheese, ham, shrimp and bacon. Despite its saltiness, this entree is delicious, particularly if you’re always begging for more bacon.

The Niño Envuelto is accompanied by rice and Mexican fries (superior by far over their French counterpart). Other entrees come with some of the best Ranchero Beans you’ll find anywhere.  The menu also  features several variations on parrillada (items prepared on a grill) for two. Grilled options include mariscos, meat or both–a Mexican surf and turf.

Chile Rellenos en Nogada

14 July 2007: One of the interesting parrillada entrees is called Costillas Pancho Villa. The starring attraction on this entree are perfectly prepared, fall-off-the bone tender ribs which don’t lose any of their inherent moistness on the grill. They practically ooze flavor and are marinated only in seasonings. It would be blasphemous to add barbecue or picante sauce to these babies.  With food enough to feed Pancho Villa’s army, this parrillada plate also includes a highly seasoned and thoroughly delicious chorizo, the very best nopalitos I’ve ever had and eight quesadillas.

The nopalitos, made from the young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, have a delightfully tart (without pursing your lips) flavor. Spoon them into a flour or corn tortilla then add chorizo and costillas and you’ve got some of the very best tacos in town.  Fear not if you’re concerned about being “stung” by a prickly cactus quill; quills are extricated carefully and completely fro the cactus pads before they’re prepared.

Carne Asada Tampiquena

Arrachera (skirt steak) Mi General

19 January 2015: Mexican history recounts that in 1821, Catholic nuns from Pueblo created a dish to honor a visit from a revolutionary general who helped Mexico win its independence from Spain.  That dish, chile rellenos en nogada, were the color of the Mexican flag: a green poblano pepper, a white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.  The version prepared at Los Potrillos doesn’t subscribe to the original recipe, omitting the vibrant red pomegranate seeds which usually serve as a garnish which just happens to taste great in combination with the sauce and chile.

Despite the variance in recipes, Los Potrillos’ Chiles en Ahogada are rich, creamy and sinfully delicious, one of the best entrees we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. It’s so wonderfully non-traditional that we’ll have it again and again (and again and…). It is also the favorite dish of my friend Skip Munoz, a man of tremendous courage and fortitude who has managed to duplicate this dish at home.

Cabrito, the very best I've ever had

Cabrito, among the very best I’ve ever had

3 May 2009: One commonality among many of the entrees at Los Potrillos is that, almost invariably, we leave remarking to ourselves how one dish or another was “among the best we’ve ever had.”  That goes for the cabrito, tender young goat meat marinated and sautéed in peanut and almond sauce, served with charros, beans and fresh, garlicky guacamole.  The sauce is absolutely beguiling.  I surmise it includes a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo chiles which are redolent with bright flavors, combining spiciness, tanginess, smokiness and warmth.   At any regard, it imparts a fabulous flavor to the tender cabrito.

3 May 2009: Dessert options include the quintessential Mexican post-prandial sweet treat, tres leches cake. It’s a vast understatement to call the Los Potrillos version moist because this beauty positively oozes with the cloying richness of three types of milk.  Several refreshing aguas frescas are available to quench your thirst. The horchata is terrific as is the sandia (watermelon)!

Pastel Tres Leches

Pastel Tres Leches

My initial impression of Los Potrillos is that it would compete with Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul as the very best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  After my second visit, I reconsidered that assessment and concluded that it might be the very best Mexican restaurant in Northern New Mexico–better than Los Equipales and even better than El Norteño. It’s a restaurant about which Anthony Bourdain could not utter a disparaging word. He would thoroughly enjoy the taste of real Mexico in the City Different.

Los Potrillos
1947 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-0550
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Nino Envuelto, Molcajete Al Pastor, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Parrillada Costillas Panco Villa, Chiles en Ahogada, Cabrito

Los Potrillos on Urbanspoon

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