Thai Spice – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Spice on Paseo Del Norte

“Thai food ain’t about simplicity.
It’s about the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish.
Like a complex musical chord it’s got to have a smooth surface
but it doesn’t matter what’s happening underneath.
Simplicity isn’t the dictum here, at all.
Some westerners think it’s a jumble of flavors,
but to a Thai what’s important, it’s the complexity they delight in.”
~
Chef David Thompson

Complexity of flavors, disparate elements, a jumble of flavors…these are the expectations diners have come to expect from Thai restaurants. The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.  Overemphasizing any of these fundamental tastes, particularly “sweet” and a Thai restaurant risks its cuisine being labeled “Americanized.” 

A bright, capacious interior

For a cuisine to be considered “Americanized” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Generations of Americans have grown up enjoying American Chinese foods developed by Americans of Chinese descent.  Such familiar offerings as chop suey, crab Rangoon, pepper steak, fried wontons, sesame chicken and even the ubiquitous fortune cookie are beloved by Americans, few of whom ever question their “authenticity.”  Similarly, Americans have long embraced Italian-American cuisine,  As with Chinese food, Italian American dishes such as garlic bread, shrimp scampi and even marinara sauce are based heavily on the culinary traditions of the mother land, but they were “invented” here.

So why shouldn’t Americans enjoy dishes that may not be perceived as “authentic” as those dishes are prepared in the “old country?”  How many of us would even know how these foods are prepared in the old country?  These are the questions I asked myself during my inaugural visit to Thai Spice.  My focus was perhaps more on discerning the “balance of flavors” than it was in enjoying one of the dishes set forth before me.  Did the fact that this offending dishes had–at least to my palate–overemphasized a fundamental taste, make it a bad dish or have I become an insufferable food snob? 

Egg Rolls

These were matters I had to discuss with my good friend and like-minded food enthusiast Bill Resnik who joined me on my second visit one day later.  Bill, too, had visited Thai Spice previously and like me, he thought the food was generally good, but overemphasized sweet at the expense of balance.  Together we would determine if those previous visits were anomalies or if it even mattered.  Besides, Bill reasoned, prik nam pla (a traditional Thai sauce made from chilis and fish sauce) can fix anything. 

Looking around the restaurant, it certainly didn’t seem to matter to the throngs of diners seated and those queued up for a seat to become available. Thai Spice is evidently a very popular restaurant, a fact borne out not only by lunch crowds but by mostly fawning reviews on Yelp and Zomato.  One Yelp commentator even indicated “the food here tastes just like it does over there (in Thailand).  Further, the restaurant’s general manager  told the Albuquerque Journal that “It’s called Thai Spice for a reason–it’s spicier than other Thai restaurants.”    Bill and I can handle (and would welcome) a slight overemphasis on spiciness, but sweet we can’t abide.

Spring Rolls

Thai Spice opened its doors in May, 2015.  It’s located in the Villa de Paseo retail center on  the northwest intersection of Paseo Del Norte and Wyoming, occupying a space which previously housed a short-lived gyros restaurant.  It’s a very attractive space appointed with decorative touches as well as wall-mounted flat screen televisions.  Attractiveness applies even to the straws served with your beverage.  Inserted into the mouth of the straw is a flower shaped from the top of the straw itself.  Enterprising engineer that he is, my friend Bill spent ten minutes reverse-engineering that flower.

7 January 2016: As regular readers of this blog know, all of my very favorite Thai dishes are curry dishes.  To say I love curry is an understatement.  In fact, even my favorite meteorologist shares that name–as in KRQE’s pulchritudinous Kristen Currie who clears my bleary eyes every weekday morning.  It pains me, therefore, that my introduction to Thai Spice was in the form of the most inordinately cloying curry.  The Pra Ram, described on the menu as “simmered with red curry, spinach, peanuts and vegetables” is nearly dessert sweet, akin to a sweet peanut soup.  Even the bitterness of the spinach didn’t put a dent on the sweetness and the vegetables promised on the menu description were nonexistent.  Because my server didn’t ask about my preferred level of heat, I assumed the Pra Ram would have some level of piquancy.  Sadly it did not.  Worse, this dish could have formed the basis for a lasting opinion of this restaurant.

Pra Ram

7 January 2016: Egg rolls are somewhat anomalous at Thai Spice.  Most Thai egg rolls we’ve had at other Thai restaurants aren’t much thicker than a cigar.  In appearance, these are similar to Chinese egg rolls–thick and plump.  That’s where the similarity to Chinese egg rolls (which have become the most boring egg rolls among all Asian restaurants which serve them) ends.  These golden hued beauties are engorged with silver noodles, ground pork and vegetables (mostly cabbage).  You don’t have to charter an expedition to locate pork; it’s plentiful in each egg roll.  They’re delicious and are served in quantities of four per order.  The accompanying sauce is a fairly typical sweet plum sauce that lends little to the egg rolls.

8 January 2016: Even better than the egg rolls are the spring rolls.  Served two per order, each is as thick as a missile and stuffed with rice noodles, shrimp or chicken, basil and vegetables.  The vegetable to shrimp ratio skews heavily toward the vegetables, but it’s not something you’ll mind because the fresh basil’s invigorating presence seems to enliven all other components.  The spring rolls are served with a cloying peanut sauce nearly as sweet as the Pra Ram.  Fortunately, a condiment caddy on the table has a squeeze bottle of Sriracha sauce (like my friend Niko Harada, I like Sriracha on my Sriracha).   Then there’s the prik nam pla with its lime and chili bursts of flavor.  Both are highly preferable to the peanut sauce though if you don’t have an asbestos-lined-tongue, you’re advised to go easy.

Shrimp Salad

8 January 2016: The Thai Spice salad menu lists eight different salads, ranging from the traditional larb to a seasonal mango salad.  With both my visits transpiring in January, the mango salad wasn’t available, but it’s hard to call the shrimp salad a consolation prize.  This salad is constructed with green onions, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, chili and cilantro on a bed of lettuce.  An ingredient not listed is sugar yet it makes its presence felt (although not nearly to the degree it does on the Pra Ram).  The ingredients on this salad are fresh, invigorating and complementary.  Better still, the salad showcases the balance of flavors that is the hallmark of Thai cuisine.

8 January 2016: Four items, all fish-based, festoon the seafood menu.  Each item seems to emphasize a different flavor profile.  One fish dish is made with curry (with hopefully more balance than the Pra Ram) and another with a sweet and sour sauce.  Bill’s choice was the hot and spicy fish filet which he requested be prepared “New Mexico hot” instead of “Thai hot.”  This dish is sauteed with onions, basil, mushrooms, lime leaf, carrots and bell peppers in a piquant chili sauce.   As is often the case in Thai restaurants, one highlight is the freshness and aesthetic presentation of the vegetables which are prepared a tad under al dente.  Both vegetables and fish inherit the heat and flavor profile of the chili sauce without compromising their own inherent flavors.  This is a very enjoyable dish!

Spicy Fish Filet

8 January 2016: The spicy ginger fish (fried fish sauteed with onions, ginger, mushrooms, bell peppers and carrots in a spicy chili sauce) has a rather similar flavor profile and balance of flavors, the differentiating element being ginger.  The coupling of spicy chile sauce and fresh ginger is one of life’s most delicious combinations and because of that pairing, this dish shines.  The fish are light and flaky though just slightly elastic, generally a sign it’s been slightly overcooked.  Still, this is a dish we’d order again…and again.

In retrospect, had I not visited Thai Spice a second time my judgement would have been too rash and limited on too small a sample size.  Only one dish out of the six sampled lacked balance and overemphasized one flavor.  That one dish won’t cross my lips again though I suspect it’s probably a dish other diners enjoy.  The moral of the story is not to judge a restaurant after only one visit and based on solely one dish.

Spicy Ginger Fish

There aren’t many Thai restaurants in the far Northeast Heights.  Thai Spice has cornered the market, but it would probably have done so even with several competitors.  It’s a very solid restaurant that provides excellent value, hearty portions and friendly service.

Thai Spice
7441 Paseo Del Norte, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1521
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2016
1st VISIT: 7 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Ginger Fish, Spicy Fish Filet, Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls,

Thai Spice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Loving Vegan Closed Its Doors on Friday, November 13th, Two Days After My Inaugural and Only Visit

My adovada adoring amigo Ruben likened the irony to an episode of Seinfeld.  Two weeks into his experiment with an ostensibly healthier vegan diet, he was craving sushi and needed his sushi-specific pangs of hunger sated.  No sooner had we finished a very satisfying sushi soiree at Albuquerque’s only vegan sushi restaurant than our waitress apprised us the restaurant would be closing for good two days later.  “Serenity now,” we cried, mimicking Frank Costanza when faced with a stressful situation.  It just didn’t seem fair that we would make such a delicious discovery only to have plans for future meals dashed. 

Loving Vegan gave it the “old college try,” initially launching in June, 2012 on Coors Blvd before relocating in November, 2013 to a much more heavily trafficked Nob Hill location.  In its relatively short life, Loving Vegan garnered a loyal following and a very prestigious honor.  Within a year of opening, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) named Loving Vegan the “top restaurant for vegan sushi” in the United States and Canada.  The citation from PETA read: “Loving Vegan earned our top prize because it truly proves that any food can be made deliciously and healthfully without animal products. Cheers and congratulations to Loving Vegan — this number-one award is well deserved!”

Interior of Loving Vegan

Despite being a relative newcomer competing against vegan restaurants in such population centers as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Ontario (Canada) and Baltimore, to veteran observers of the Duke City dining scene, it  came as no surprise that Loving Vegan would be accorded such an honor. After all, it was founded by Kathy Punya, one of Albuquerque’s most active restaurant impresarios.  Among Kathy’s other eateries are a number of Sushi King restaurants throughout the Duke City as well as one in Rio Rancho.  Kathy Punya knows sushi! 

Kathy also knows restaurants.  After all vestiges of Loving Vegan have been cleared out, one of her other restaurants, Soul and Vine, a downtown fine-dining gem will be moving in.  Parking in Nob Hill is probably only slightly better than in the downtown district, but Nob Hill may be more heavily trafficked in the evening hours than is the downtown area, especially by the dining demographic.

In 2013 PETA named Loving Vegan the best Vegan Sushi Restaurant in America

Ruben and I were pleasantly surprised at the diversity and depth of the Loving Vegan menu.  Not only did the menu list a tremendous variety of sushi (nigiri, sashimi, rolls, hand rolls and chef’s specials) options, a separate  menu showcased Bento boxes, rice dishes, pan-fried noodles, noodle soups, Chinese stir-fried dishes and chef specials.  The chef specials included Pad Thai and three curry dishes including a vegan duck curry dish that beckoned me to try it.  Loving Vegan’s menu was as ambitious and inviting as any menu in any of Albuquerque’s many Asian restaurants. 

As we discovered, diners didn’t need to be of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion to enjoy a meal at Loving Vegan.  If we hadn’t known better, in fact, we would have sworn there was little discernible difference between some of the vegan sushi we enjoyed and sushi at traditional “fishy” sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City and that’s not just the horseradish-heavy wasabi talking.  Before finding out about the restaurant’s impending closure, it pleased Ruben to no end that despite his new healthful dietetic lifestyle, he’d be able to continue enjoying sushi.

Miso soup

By no stretch of the imagination is miso soup veganThe basis for this traditional Japanese favorite is dashi, a fish-based (fermented bonito or skipjack tuna fish shavings) broth and a salty fermented soybean paste.  A vegan-friendly version can be made fairly easily by substituting vegetable stock for the dashi.  Loving Vegan’s rendition has the pungent, salty qualities of traditional miso soup and had it been served hot instead of lukewarm, it would have been even more enjoyable. 

We initially wondered if the sheer number of ingredients on each sushi roll was a deliberate attempt at “masking” the flavor of the vegan ingredients, but it dawned on us that most American sushi rolls also tend to constructed from a preponderance of ingredients.  The vegan spicy tuna crunch roll was an exception in that the sole listed ingredients were vegan spicy tuna and cucumber inside with tempura flakes and sweet sauce on top.  Frankly, we didn’t spend much time trying to discern the nuanced differences between vegan tuna and its “regular” sushi counterpart.  That’s more indicative of our genuine appreciation for its deliciousness than any perceived lack of scientific curiosity.  This was a very good roll.

Left: Loving Vegan Roll; Right: Vegan Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll

We also disposed of the Loving Vegan Roll (green chili tempura, avocado, cucumber, vegan lobster inside; deep fried with spicy mayo, sriracha, and sweet sauce on top) rather quickly.  It wasn’t until we had wiped it out that we asked ourselves about the flavor of the vegan lobster.  Neither of us discerned, either texturally or flavor-wise, any lobster-like flavor.  We did, however, note that the “green chili” wasn’t especially reminiscent of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile.  Any heat we gleaned from this roll had its genesis in the wasabi and sriracha.  Still in all, we enjoyed the Loving Vegan Roll very much. 

Framed and captioned photographs on the walls proved very enticing–true food porn, none more alluring than the grilled portobello (SIC) roll (a unagi roll with cucumber, salmon and sweet sauce on top).  “Mock” unagi was nearly as good as its eel-based counterpart thanks largely to a generous application of the sweet “eel sauce.”   If the rapidity with which we dispensed of this roll is any indication, we enjoyed it thoroughly…and as with our previous vegan sushi conquests, we didn’t spend much time trying to determine its composition though I now surmise roasted eggplant may have been the basis for mock unagi.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

Albuquerque apparently didn’t love Loving Vegan enough to keep it operating, but Ruben and I certainly wish it would have survived the test of time.  With sushi this good, a vegan lifestyle might be even be more than palatable. It just might be delicious.

Loving Vegan
3409 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Thai Tip – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Tip on Wyoming just north of Constitution

Although short in stature, gregarious Tippewan “Tip” Sherrod, for whom Thai Tip is named, is as dynamic and passionate a restaurateur as you’ll meet in Albuquerque. If she’s not inundated with hungry patrons, she might take time out to recount her background as a midwife in her native Thailand as she extols the healthy qualities of Thai food. While she takes your order she might just tell you about the curative and healthful properties of your particular choice.

30 April 2005: The Thom Kha Kai (a traditional Thai soup based on coconut milk with the sweet scented spicing that comes from lemon grass and galganal, (a root similar to ginger), for example, is good for high-blood pressure. It’s also good for a hearty appetite. Served in a large tureen, you’ll ladle onto a bowl such ingredients as broken lime leaves, coriander, chili peppers, mushrooms and lime juice. The tanginess of the lime juice and the sweet, rich creaminess of the coconut milk are in perfect proportions to make for an aromatic and delectable soup. Tip’s version is among the very best in town and best of all, it’s prepared to order.

Spring Rolls and Thai Iced Coffee

30 April 2005: Tip is adamant about fresh food and doesn’t believe in pre- or re-heating. I don’t recall Tip’s explanation for what ailment Massaman (spelled mas su maan on the menu) curry can alleviate, but it certainly cured my hunger. Massaman curry is a Thai Muslim curry with flavors reminiscent of some sweeter Indian curries. It requires gentle, slow cooking and melds such ingredients as red curry, coconut milk, potatoes, onions and roasted peanuts. The aroma of a truly great Massaman curry is intoxicating while the flavors captivate your taste buds with contrasts of sweet and savory notes. At Thai Tip, the Massaman is a great one.

You can specify the degree of “heat” you want on many of your entrees. The intrepid diner might opt for “New Mexico hot” while those with asbestos-lined taste buds might opt for “Thai hot” which didn’t faze me during our inaugural visit (though during my second visit, the “New Mexico” hot brought healing tears of joy (at least that’s all I’ll admit to) to my eyes). Further confirmation of Tip’s “heart healthy” attitude is shown in the way she shapes the rice which accompanies your entrees–like a Valentine’s Day heart.

Pineapple Curry

You might notice that there was a span of more than ten years in between my first and second visits to Thai Tip. In no way should that be construed as my not having liked this extremely popular Thai restaurant. While we thoroughly enjoyed our inaugural experience, it’s not open for lunch on Saturdays when errands occasionally bring us to this part of town. During the interim between visits, friends and colleagues certainly let me know a second visit was long overdue.

30 April 2005: A nice introduction to Tip’s style is the assorted Thai appetizers menu item which includes two egg rolls, two chicken satay skewers, two fried dumpling pot stickers stuffed with chicken and vegetables, and two deep-fried wontons stuffed with ground pork and mixed with a touch of black pepper and potato. This appetizer menagerie is served with a mild peanut sauce and Tip’s own egg roll sauce which is a cloying, syrupy sauce with peanuts. My preference would have been for a more traditional cucumber sauce or for more chili (at least New Mexico hot) to have been added to either of the sauces.

1 September 2015: For a more singularly focused appetizer, you can’t beat Thai Tip’s spring rolls, two translucent rice wraps engorged with shredded lettuce, noodles, grated carrots, julienne cucumbers and shrimp. They’re roughly the size of a baby’s arm, so large that a woman in a nearby table couldn’t eat her entree after having filled up on the spring rolls. Served with a sweet-piquant (mostly sweet) sauce, these spring rolls aren’t just large in terms of size, they’re imbued with strong notes of freshness and flavor.

1 September 2015: During a recent deliberation on the qualities of Pad Thai (a dish I find mundane, but which he loves), my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott admitted he’s only experienced transcendent Pad Thai once and it was at Thai Tip. Much as I love and respect my friend, not even his sage recommendation was enough to get me to order Pad Thai…especially when there’s pineapple curry (red curry, shrimp, bell peppers coconut milk and pineapple) on the menu. If you’re worried about the combination of coconut milk and pineapple rendering this dish cloying, you need not be, especially if you order the dish New Mexico hot. And it’s not that the chili obfuscates the inherent sweetness of other ingredients or that it numbs you (remember, in the Land of Enchantment, pain is a flavor), the heat serves as a balancing agent between sweet and savory ingredients. This is an excellent curry!

Even fire-eaters will need something to cool their blistered tongues after consuming an inferno-hot entree at Thai Tip. Thai iced coffee (sweetened imported coffee over crushed ice mixed with half and half) does the trick nicely. Not only that, it’s a delicious, hearty coffee for those of us who like our coffee as strong as our chile.

Thai Tip is far too good a restaurant for ten years to elapse between visits. With an improved employment proximity to this terrific Thai restaurant, look for me to make up for lost time.

Thai Tip
1512 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-7447

LATEST VISIT: 1 September 2015
1st VISIT: 30 April 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Thom Kha Soup; Massaman Curry, Pineapple Curry, Spring Rolls, Thai Iced Coffee

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