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Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Mekong Ramen House just north of Candelaria on San Mateo

In a 2009 movie entitled Ramen Girl, Abby, a wayward American girl unacculturated to life in Tokyo witnesses the radiant smiles on the faces of diners as they eat ramen and receives an epiphany that her life’s calling is to become a ramen chef. Over time she persuades a ramen restaurant’s temperamental Japanese chef to mentor her. Initially he assigns her to perform the most menial and degrading tasks, but she perseveres and eventually convinces her tyrannical mentor of her sincerity and he teaches her how to make ramen. Alas, it’s ramen with no soul until she also learns that ramen must be prepared from the heart and not from her head.

Ramen with soul? Ramen chefs? Ramen prepared from the heart? That just doesn’t describe the ramen experience for most Americans. In the fruited plain, ramen is typically thought of as “budget” food, something to fill your belly when your bank account is empty. Few foods offer as much bang for the buck as the ubiquitous low-brow meal most often associated with the college student demographic. Fittingly, in Japan ramen is often called “gakusei ryori” which translates to “student cuisine.” It’s not just students and budget-conscious diners, however, who love ramen.

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The colorful interior of the Mekong Ramen House

Ramen is beloved worldwide to the tune of 95 billion servings in 2011.  That’s enough ramen to feed 260 million people for an entire year. Invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods, the original “Top Ramen” noodles with which most of us are familiar, rakes in some 3.2 billion dollars a year.  Throw in competing ramen clones made in other countries and you have an estimated world market of ten billion per year.  That’s a lot of noodles. 

When first introduced in Japan, ramen was considered a luxury item and was six times more expensive than homemade noodles found in Japanese grocery stores.  Ramen made its ways across the Pacific in 1972 and was marketed as “Oodles of Noodles” throughout the East Coast  The following year saw the introduction of “Nissin Cup Noodles” in the familiar and convenient Styrofoam cups.  Before long, hundreds of knock-offs flooded the market.

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Tom Yum Soup

How important is ramen in the Japanese culture? In a poll  conducted by the Fuji Research Institute, instant ramen was named by Japanese respondents as the greatest “made in Japan” invention of the 20th century, edging out karaoke, headphone stereos, TV game players and compact disks.  Attribute its popularity in part to economics.  It’s been estimated that a person can live off ramen for an entire year at a cost of under $150, approximately three-percent of what Americans spend a year on food.

It’s not solely the inexpensive instant ramen that has captured the hearts and imaginations of connoisseurs throughout the world.   The gourmet ramen craze has dispelled the stereotype that ramen is cheap food reserved exclusively for broke college students and that it’s always served in Styrofoam packages.  Gourmet ramen is an epicurean experience showcasing deeply soulful (there’s that term: soul) ramen dishes such as Tonkotsu soup with roasted Kurobuta pork for which the bones have simmered for hours, if not days.  This ramen is fresh and handmade, not instant or dry.   The quality is telling.

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Beef Stick

When fellow gastronome Chris Reddington told us about Mekong Ramen House on the northwest intersection of San Mateo and Candelaria, we entertained faint hopes that the Duke City had finally graduated in culinary sophistication to have its own gourmet ramen house.   I say “faint” because the name “Mekong” has no affiliation with Japan.  The Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, meanders from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all nations with some ramen tradition.

Although ramen is prominent on the menu (and it’s made on the premises), the Mekong Ramen House is not a traditional gourmet ramen house.  Instead, the restaurant offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience which showcases cuisine from several Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as well as from Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region which sits just across the Mekong River from Laos.  The chef is from Laos, home in my opinion to one of the world’s most under-appreciated cuisines.  Perhaps because of the restaurant’s “newness,” we found the cuisine relatively unspoiled by the over-the-top Americanized sauces which lean heavily toward cloying sweetness.  The food is refreshingly authentic, clean and untainted.

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Cucumber Ramen Salad

Ensconced in a nondescript shopping center, the Mekong Ramen House is tastefully arrayed in walls of many colors festooned with attractive wall hangings.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Although English is a second language to the wait staff, service is unfailingly polite, prompt and attentive.  The menu is priced comparably to most Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City and while offering the cuisine of several Southeast Asian nations, is not an especially ambitious menu, listing only 41 items.  A limited menu does not limited flavors make.

No sooner had we been seated and our beverage order taken than our server brought us a delightful amuse-bouche, a bowl of Tom Yum soup.  If you’re used to Tum Yum soups being served in tureens big enough for a small family with shards of lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms bobbing to the surface, you’ll wonder where those elements went.  Mekong’s version is as “murky” as a light chicken noodle soup with only scallions floating to the top.  Though the aforementioned ingredients aren’t in evidence to the eye, they are pleasantly discernible to the taste buds.  This Tum Yum is simple and delicious, not lip-pursing as too many Americanized versions are made.

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Pad Ramen Noodle

One of the ways in which ramen is showcased on the menu is in a crispy appetizer.  The cucumber ramen salad (sliced cucumbers topped with crispy ramen noodles and served with a sweet chili sauce) highlights the diversity of ramen in ways most college students probably haven’t explored.  My Kim frequently orders dehydrated noodles and delights in their squiggly qualities coming to life when introduced to sauces.  She enjoyed the crispy ramen, too.  This is a relatively simple salad emboldened by a sweet-tangy-piquant chili sauce.

Another simple appetizer popular in street-side stands throughout Laos is the beef stick, Lao style grilled beef skewers served with chili lime sauce.  Their portability make them an ideal street food snack while their simplicity and deliciousness will make them a popular draw to the Ramen Noodle House.  Three perfectly grilled skewers of tender, delicious beef are served with a gunpowder strong chili lime sauce.  The piquancy of the sauce means you’ll likely perform “touch and go” maneuvers with your beef stick instead of dipping or scooping.

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Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

The menu offers a number of pad (stir-fry) dishes, two made with ramen noodles, one with Udon noodles and one with a simple rice noodle.  The Pad Ramen Noodle (ramen noodles, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and green onions) dish is perhaps the most simple, but it’s a dish which very well demonstrates stir-fry executed by a wok master.  Available with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu or shrimp, this dish emphasizes the tangle of noodles and their harmonious interplay with other ingredients.

There are a number of Lao dishes interspersed throughout the menu, but there’s also a page dedicated solely to the cuisine of Laos.  Alas, there are only six items on that page, but they include some of the Lao dishes with whom acculturated Americans are familiar: Laab, beef Jerky, Lao sausage and Lao papaya.  The menu also includes a Lao grilled chicken served with sticky rice and Mekong chili tomatoes sauce.  The grilled chicken–a leg, a breast and a thigh–is dissimilar to the way grilled chicken is prepared in Mexico in that it’s not infused with charcoal flavor.  Though there is a pleasant smokiness, the grilling influence penetrates deeply and it’s delicious.  The accompanying sticky rice is served in a cute little wicker basket that retains heat.

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Mangoes with sticky rice

Our preferred way of enjoying sticky rice is with mangoes, the quintessential Thai and Lao dessert.  Few desserts of any nation are as wonderful as mangoes with sticky rice, especially when the mangoes are in season.  In-season means their flesh is a sweet and intensely tropical with a fragrant aroma and a fibrous texture around the pit.  The intensity of mangoes in-season marries oh so well with the sticky rice which swims with rich, sweet coconut milk. 

If you survived on ramen noodles during your collegiate days, the Mekong Ramen House will introduce you to ramen in ways of which you may not have conceived, all of them delicious.  It will also introduce you to some of the best Thai and Lao cuisine you’ll find in the Duke City.

Mekong Ramen House
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2326
LATEST VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon

Tara Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Tara Thai Cuisine on Wyoming just south of Menaul

The Internet is replete with personality assessments. Some–such as a personality assessment based on your choice of pizza toppings–are created by psychologists ostensibly intent on obtaining scientifically valid results, but many others are intended solely for fun and have no real validity.  In the latter category, most assessments can easily be manipulated to achieve the results you want.  As you’re responding to questions, an inevitable conclusion becomes transparent.  You can usually tell by the way you’re answering those questions what the results will be.  On the other hand, some personality assessments are baffling.  While you may think you’re manipulating the results, the subsequent assessment winds up contrary to your responses.

One such assessment purports to tell you which “Big Bang Theory” character you are–to expose the inner geek or super hot neighbor inside all of us.   For readers who may not be familiar with The Big Bang Theory, TV.com describes it as “a sitcom that shows what happens when hyper-intelligent roommates/physicists Sheldon and Leonard meet Penny, a beautiful woman moving in next door–and realize they know next to nothing about life outside of the lab. Rounding out the crew are the smarmy Wolowitz, who thinks he’s as sexy as he is brainy, and Koothrappali, who suffers from an inability to speak in the presence of a woman.”

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Tara Thai’s dining room

Answering semi-honestly so as to derive semi-valid results, it turns out the Big Bang Theory character with which I most identify is Sheldon Cooper (at least according to this personality assessment), whom the assessment synopsizes as being “a wunderkind for longer than you can remember” and “always the smartest person in the room” although “you have a hard time connecting with people sometimes,” not that it matters because “you’ll be the leader of a new race of cyborg-humans soon enough.”  Bazinga!

While some of these character traits may–to a greater extent than I care to admit–accurately profile me, before taking the assessment, I would have said Sheldon is the Big Bang Theory character with whom I least identify.  That’s most readily apparent in the way we approach dining.  Possessing personality traits consistent with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Sheldon’s food schedule is practically set in stone.  It’s monotonous and monogamous.  On Mondays, it’s always mee krob and chicken satay with extra peanut sauce from Siam Palace.  On Tuesdays, it’s the Cheesecake Factory’s barbecue bacon cheese burger with cheese on the side while the Thursday staple is pizza with sausage, mushrooms and light olives from Giacomo’s.  Can you imagine how boring a food blog based on Sheldon’s dining preferences would be?

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Gyoza with sweet chili sauce

As a gastronome whose culinary leanings are wholly antithetical to those of Sheldon Cooper, I actually felt a twinge of sympathy for the erudite one when we first stepped into Tara Thai Cuisine and imbibed the magical aromas emanating from the kitchen.  Despite an IQ which can’t accurately be measured by standard tests and an eidetic memory the envy of anyone experiencing advancing geriatric progression, Sheldon’s quirkiness would not allow him to try some of the alluring offerings on the Tara Thai menu.  Worse, that menu doesn’t include mee krob, his favorite entree and no one, not even Sheldon. can live on chicken satay with extra peanut sauce alone.

Tara Thai is the type of restaurant which most makes me happy to be a gastronome. It’s got most of the Thai standards aficionados love and it’s got exciting dishes, including fabulous seasonal specials, heretofore not found in the Duke City. The Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin accorded it a rare four-star rating, likening it to a “red giant of a fiery star” among the Duke City’s pantheon of very good to excellent Thai restaurants. Fiery is an apt descriptor for many of Tara Thai’s dishes which are prepared to your exacting degree of heat preference.  

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Chicken Satay with peanut curry sauce and cucumber salad

Located within the sprawling Wyoming Mall and immediately next door to the Cool Water Fusion restaurant, Tara Thai’s motto and mission statement are to “excite the senses.” Prepared well, few of the world’s cuisines have the ability to excite the senses, particularly the sense of taste, more than Thai cuisine. Although widely known for its spiciness, balance, variety and detail are essential to Thai cooking. The best Thai restaurants are adept at balancing the five fundamental tastes–spicy, sweet, savory, sour and (optionally) bitter—within a meal, and often within an individual dish. Tara Thai is such a restaurant.

Although Thai food can be very filling, it’s such a palate exciting cuisine to eat that you’ll want to sample at least two appetizers. Make one of them gyoza, an Asian dumpling commonly known as a “potsticker” or “dumpling” in America. Although most widely associated with Japanese cuisine, gyoza actually originated in China, but are common throughout Asia. At Tara Thai, the gyoza appear to be steamed then pan-grilled, my favorite method for preparing these delightful pockets. Tara Thai’s gyoza are engorged with chicken and mixed vegetables then served with a sweet chili dipping sauce. This eight-piece starter is artfully plated, but the true artistry is in their deliciousness.

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Asian Pumpkin Red Curry with Chicken

Somehow the “Big Bang Theory” personality assessment surmised that Sheldon Cooper and I are compatible–at least in terms of our common affinity for chicken satay with extra peanut sauce. The persnickety physicist would love Tara Thai’s chicken satay, five chicken skewers marinated in yellow curry served with a peanut curry sauce and cucumber salad. With a savory-sweet flavor profile, the peanut curry sauce is magnificent as is the cucumber salad, but the chicken is the star. It’s fresh, moist and imbued with the sweet-savory-pungent flavors of a superb yellow curry.

With his propensity for repetition, Sheldon would not enjoy Tara Thai’s fall specials, a five item menu so enticing even the non-OCD among us will be hard-pressed to decide which to have. How, for example, can you pick from among Asian pumpkin red curry with chicken and duck curry? The answer, of course, is to order one today and return for the other tomorrow. The Asian pumpkin red curry with chicken is superb, an amalgam of hearty Asian pumpkin chunks, white meat chicken, red chili paste curry in coconut milk with bamboo shoots, bell pepper and fresh Thai basil. This is Thai comfort food at its finest, especially if you order it at least “hot.” It quickly became my favorite Thai dish in Albuquerque. That will probably last until my next visit when I order the duck curry.

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Spicy Fried Rice

If you love fiery heat (as most New Mexicans do), Tara Thai will make you very happy. You can even find heat in the five-item fried rice menu. The spicy fried rice (fresh garlic, chili, onion, bell pepper and Thai basil with your choice of chicken, beef or pork) lives up to its name without detracting in the least from the other components in this dish. The fresh garlic and Thai basil, in particular, stand out. The rice itself is fluffy and perfectly prepared.

Tara Thai’s “pad” menu is as exciting as any you’ll find in New Mexico. Pad, a Thai term which describes stir-fry, is a specialty of the house with ten items on the “wok” menu. Pad Pet is the choice for heat lovers, not for the faint of heart. Though you can request it be prepared at “mild” or “medium” levels of heat, you’re still going to feel the burn. It’s a good burn, a delicious burn. The heat comes from sautéed red chili paste on a stir-fry dish which includes baby corn, mushroom, onion, bamboo shoot, garlic and Thai basil. Feel the heat and love it with this dish!

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Pad Pet

Tara Thai is the type of restaurant which could easily become a habit. In that respect, I envy Sheldon Cooper who could visit every Monday and not think twice about it. From the moment you walk in and imbibe the magnificent aromas from the kitchen to the moment you leave, completely contented and full, you’re in for a great dining experience in one of the best Thai restaurants in the Southwest.

Tara Thai
2010 Wyoming Blvd, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-2278
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 1 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gyoza, Chicken Satay, Asian Pumpkin Red Curry with Chicken, Pad Pet, Spicy Fried Rice


View Tara Thai Cuisine on LetsDineLocal.com »

Tara Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Krung Thai – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Krung Thai Restaurant on Menaul just west of Wyoming

Krung Thai Restaurant on Menaul just west of Wyoming

At 75 years of age, Grandma remains as energetic and feisty as ever though she’s quite unhappy that her well-intentioned and loving family have made her take Saturdays off. She’d just as soon work six days a week at the Krung Thai Restaurant on Menaul. Grandma’s not only an accomplished cook, she’s got several treasured family recipes locked in her vault of a memory. One of those recipes is for some of the very best Lao sausage in the Duke City.

Launched on New Year’s Eve in 2003, Krung Thai translates to “Thai City,” but the restaurant’s menu extends well beyond Thai cuisine. You’ll find Vietnamese and Chinese entrees, too, and you already know about the Lao sausage. Krung Thai is a family owned and operated gem resplendent with traditional Thai decor. The first thing you see when you walk into the restaurant is Suvannamaccha, a mermaid princess. Rivulets of water cascade down her body in a calming cadence. The bright orange-red colored walls are festooned with wall tapestries of ornately attired elephants, the national symbol of Thailand and a symbol of good luck.

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Mermaid waterfall at Krung Thai entrance

A number of restaurants have held court at Krung Thai’s comfortable confines, diminutive digs which might accommodate fifty guests if the fire marshals aren’t watching. Seating is in personal space proximity. To optimists that means being able to see and inhale the aromas of the dishes destined for your neighbor’s tables. Those olfactory-arousing aromas may just trigger involuntary salivation. Dishes are presented exquisitely, an aspect of Thai culture for which great pride is taken.

The menu includes all the Thai standards with which Duke City diners have fallen in love as well as some items (such as a sauteed frog legs appetizer) not commonly found in the city. Entrees are segmented on the menu into Thai curry dishes, house specialties, stir-fried entrees and rice and noodle dishes. One of the restaurant’s best experiential aspects is being able to mix and match among cultures–a Lao appetizer, Vietnamese entree and Thai dessert, for example.

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Lao Sausage, housemade on the premises

The sole Lao appetizer, of course, is Grandma’s Lao sausage which she makes on the premises. The sausage has a coarse texture, but a very delicate flavor that requires no saucy amelioration. Flecks of chili pepper flakes, scallions and lemongrass decorate the pork sausage which is sliced into bite-sized pieces. Grandma’s rendition of wondrous Lao sausage shows she’s not slowing down in the least.

Fried chicken wings are another popular appetizer, one we frequently order at Vietnamese and Thai restaurants because they’re generally prepared so much better than at American restaurants. The fried chicken wings at Krung Thai are large and meaty with a coarse breading. Bite into the crispy exterior and you’ll be rewarded with moist, tender and delicious chicken. You won’t need the sweet-tangy sauce accompanying the chicken wings.

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Fried Chicken Wings

Thailand’s close geographical proximity to Vietnam has meant a culinary interchange over the generations that has resulted in cooks from both cultures being proficient in both cuisines. If the Vietnamese noodle bowl is any indication, you certainly need not fear ordering Vietnamese dishes at Krung Thai. Served in a swimming pool-sized bowl, this is a terrific dish redolent with freshness. A tangle of translucent rice noodles shares space with lettuce, cilantro, butterflied shrimp, pork skin, grilled pork, egg rolls, crushed peanuts and fish sauce. It’s a melange of flavors and textures you’ll enjoy.

Thai dishes are among the most diverse in the world, incorporating at least four elements into the flavor profile of each dish: salty, sweet, sour and piquant. Most Thai dishes are not considered fully satisfying unless they combine all four tastes. Thai curry dishes are exemplars of this diversity of flavors in one dish. So, too, are Thai soups. In her 2006 review for the Alibi, the fabulous critic Jenn Wohletz called Krung Thai’s Tom Kha the “best tureen of coconut-lemongrass soup I’ve ever eaten.”

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Vietnamese Noodle Bowl with Pork Skin, Shrimp, Crushed Peanuts, Lettuce, Pork, Egg Rolls and Fish Sauce

Tom Kha is an intensely aromatic and flavorful soup renowned for its rich and complex coconut-imbued broth and melange of flavors and seasonings. It arrives at your table in a silver tureen with a soup ladle for apportioning it (as if you could ever share any of this bounty). This aromatic elixir is redolent with the addictive aromas and flavors of lemongrass, galangal, Kaffir lime leaves, straw mushrooms, white onion and strips of tender white meat chicken. The creamy sweetness of the coconut is punctuated by the peppery pungency of the galangal, the tartness of whole Kaffir leaves and the citrus qualities of the lemongrass. It’s an absolutely delicious, heart-warming soup that will delight you.

Sharing a meal is so integral to the Thai culture that Thai people don’t exchange “how are you” greetings. Instead, they ask “have you eaten yet?” I should have been born Thai. Dispense with the small talk and pass the curry. There are few curries as satisfying as the Massamun Curry, a rich, satisfying dish that is Muslim in origin. Strips of chicken are simmered in a sweet curry paste along with potatoes, onions, bay leaves and crushed peanuts. It’s one of the sweetest of Thai curries, but you can have it served at your preferred level of heat (Thai hot for me). It’s a delicious dish.

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Tom Kha, an outstanding Thai soup

While some critics decry Pad Thai as perhaps the most Americanized of all Thai dishes, the dish is one of the most historically significant of all Thai dishes–even though it’s only been around some seventy years or so. It’s true that all too often Pad Thai served in American restaurants is little more than a pile of noodles plated in a puddle of oil with cloying underpinnings. Made well, Pad Thai’s deliciousness reveals itself in bursts of savory and tart notes. Krung Thai’s rendition is a good one. The tangle of noodles, crushed peanuts, tamarind paste and chicken meld into a composite of ingredients which go so well together.

Sticky rice is a staple in parts of Thailand and forms the basis for one of the best, most popular desserts you’ll find at any Thai restaurant. The marriage of sweet coconut sticky rice and perfectly ripe mangoes is akin to harmony, melody and rhythm in music. When they work well together, they transport you to a better place. The very best mangoes with sticky rice we’ve found in Albuquerque is served at Thai Cuisine. Krung Thai’s version isn’t far behind.

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Mangoes with sticky rice

As long as Grandma is helping out at Krung Thai, it will remain one of the most authentic Thai restaurants in the Duke City.

Krung Thai
7923 Menaul Blvd NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 292-9319
LATEST VISIT: 4 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
BEST BET: Lao Sausage, Fried Chicken Wings, Tom Kha, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Vietnamese Noodle Bowl

Krung Thai on Urbanspoon