Yen Ching – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Have a yen for Chinese or Korean cuisine? Can your appetite be sated only by the nasal-clearing, smoldering heat of Szechwan style cooking? Are the cravings that consume you affixed on succulent sushi and eye-watering wasabi. If all four of these options sound good but you can’t make up your mind, there’s only one dining destination that–under one roof–can satisfy your appetite for all these palate-pleasing Asian cuisines. Yen Ching, a popular Northeast Heights restaurant named for a city in Northern China, specializes in Chinese, Korean and Szechwan cuisine and has an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese sushi bar to boot.

Yen Ching is a veteran in Albuquerque’s cramped competition for Chinese food customers, launching nearly 20 years ago in the venerable Trade Winds hotel on Central Avenue. Years later, Kathy Chao and her husband Joe moved their restaurant to the Montgomery Crossing shopping center on the southeast corner of the Montgomery and Wyoming intersection, a location in which business has thrived. Long-timers might remember a second Yen Ching on Fourth Street. That restaurant didn’t last long after the Chaos sold it.

Like many Chinese restaurants in the city, Yen Ching features an AYCE Chinese buffet for lunch and like most, this one is hardly memorable. It includes all the fried, heavily breaded and “candied” items that typify a Chinese buffet in America where trough-diving buffet goers strive to get more than their money’s worth. Not surprisingly, ordering off the menu is a much better way to go. Not only do your entrees reach your table piping hot instead of Sterno hot, they’re much tastier.

An asterisk (*) denotes menu items considered spicy. Most Szechwan-style entrees derive their heat from a distinctly aromatic pepper that is applied copiously on many Yen Ching entrees. Despite the generous use of Szechwan pepper, the degree of heat is easily manageable to native New Mexicans. The Ta Chen Chicken, featuring all white meat chicken with hot spices is more piquant than the chicken you might find inside a flauta, but not by much.

Served on a fiery wok, Yen Ching’s bulgogi is surprisingly good with a barbecue marinade that isn’t quite as sweet as you’ll find at many Korean restaurants. While for the most part tender, we’ve also encountered some of that annoyingly gristly matter that typifies lower cuts of beef.

Yen Ching’s AYCE sushi is a bargain at just shy of $20 per person for dinner (just a bit more than the price of two spider rolls) and includes many nigiri (a piece of fish on a bed of rice) and maki (roll style) sushi favorites. From among the former, you can’t go wrong with unagi, a fresh water eel said to have stamina-giving properties. The unagi is drizzled with a sweet teriyaki sauce and is absolutely delicious.

Among the roll-style sushi, the spider (soft shell crab) and calamari rolls are in an upper class. Both feature lightly battered (tempura) fish (well, crab and calamari respectively) served warm and drizzled lightly with teriyaki sauce. There’s something comforting about the delicate crunch of tempura enrobed in a rice bed.

Yen Ching’s television commercials are punctuated by an annoying, nasally-sounding jingle calling for “Yen Ching tonight.” At least it’s not turning off the clientele which continues to frequent this long-time favorite.

Yen Ching
4410 Wyoming, N.E. #N
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2006
COST: $$

Yen Ching on Urbanspoon

Cafe Lalibela – Tempe, Arizona

One of the first things that caught my attention during a 2006 visit to Cafe Lalibela were beautiful, brightly painted depictions of revered Christian events such as Christ carrying the yew hewn cross to Calvary. The art shouldn’t have surprised me. Ethiopia’s (especially the city of Lalibela’s) historical ties to Christianity span several centuries. Lalibela, the city for which the restaurant is named, is one of modern Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a center of pilgrimage for much of the country.

With a population of very nearly 100% Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, Lalibela is renown worldwide for its monolithic churches built during the reign of 13th century monarch Saint Lalibela for whom the city is named. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the monolithic churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Saint Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Cafe Lalibela serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, garnering several accolades (including Best Vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix by New Times magazine) for its unique cuisine. For me, it was more important that my vegan friend and colleague Karen enjoyed her introduction to Ethiopian food. By meal’s end she was making plans to scour the internet for the recipes and spices that made her inaugural Ethiopian epicurean experience memorable.

Traditional Ethiopian cuisine consists of Injera and wat. Injera (pronounced in-jeer-ah) is a thin, crepe like bread with a very subtle sourdough-like taste. Made from teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia, it has a very unique spongy texture. Ethiopian meals are eaten by tearing off a piece of injera with your hands (an experience that may remind you of tearing fabric) then scooping up some wat with it (very similarly to how native New Mexicans use tortillas). Wat (pronounced what) is a stew like sauce, which can be made from vegetables or meat or both.

Cafe Lalibela recommends that each serving consist of a combination of three items, typically one non-vegetarian dish and two vegetarian dishes (although you can create your own combination). For the convenience and edification of diners inexperienced with Ethiopian food, the menu includes several individual platters as well as suggested combinations for parties of three. A glossary of general terms will also introduce you to menu items you may never before have seen.

Ethiopian food isn’t starchy or heavy and the portions at Cafe Lalibela aren’t particularly prodigious, but you’ll walk away fully sated, albeit eager for a future visit during which you’ll undoubtedly want to try something else…if you can tear yourself away from ordering the favorite that captivated you during previous visits.

Such is my dilemma. I find it ever so difficult to tear myself away from one of my favorite Ethiopian specialties, shorba, a soup made from lentils, carrots, potatoes, onions and vegetable stock. Shorba is reminiscent of the best vegetable soup you’ve ever had, but with an entirely different flavor as the vegetables seem to share, rather than compete for, your attention. The broth is hearty and absolutely delicious.

Another favorite is the Yebeg Alicha Sega Wat, a mild lamb stew made from tender lamb cubes simmered in kibae (a clarified, spiced butter), onion, herbs and tumeric (a musky, peppery spice often used in curry). It is every bit as flavorful (albeit wholly different) than the mutton stew popularized in New Mexico by Navajos.

Diners should note that traditional Ethiopian etiquette disapproves of licking fingers while eating (even though it may be tempting to do so!).

Cafe Lalibela
849 W. University Drive
Tempe, AZ
(480) 829-1939

LATEST VISIT: 16 February 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Yebeg Alicha Sega Wat, Shorba, Ingera

Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine

Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine in Chandler, Arizona

Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine in Chandler, Arizona

Ultra-chic owner, captivating chef and hostess extraordinaire Justina Duong has the perfect personality to run a successful, cutting edge restaurant. Effusive, charming and gracious, she makes you feel at home in the restaurant she launched in late 2002 and has become as much a draw as any of the wonderful cuisine she offers.

Named for a pedaled, three-wheeled, hooded passenger vehicle, Cyclo became in a scant few months, the hottest Vietnamese restaurant in the Phoenix area and the very best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve discovered outside of Albuquerque. It’s easily the best restaurant of any kind I’ve tried in Chandler, a shameless denizen of corporate chains.

Aside from the siren Justina, what makes Cyclo so extraordinary is a menu in which the cuisine of Vietnam isn’t so much presented as it is celebrated. Cyclo isn’t so much high end as it is high energy. It’s a dining experience to be savored as your taste buds become a erogenous zones for explosive tastes that awaken, arouse and energize.

Both the New York Times and Gourmet magazine have taken notice and it goes without saying that Cyclo has garnered every local periodical’s “best Vietnamese” award. During my own first visit, I had the unique honor and privilege of inaugurating two friends to their first experience with Vietnamese food. They trusted me enough to order our entire meal. Fortunately, neither the appetizers, entrees or desserts disappointed in the least. In 2006, I also introduced a vegan friend to the joys of Vietnamese food and Cyclo was more than up for the challenge.

Amazing appetizers range from sublimely wonderful to absolutely magnificent and one of the good things about taking a friend to Cyclo is that you’ll more quickly sample all of them. Picking a favorite is akin to selecting your favorite star in the night sky. The beef Capriccio (thinly sliced, near raw beef with Vietnamese coriander, pineapple and sesame crisps) is perhaps the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The spicy garlic chicken wings put their Buffalo counterparts to shame. The tamarind glazed pork short ribs with Thai basil, egg rolls with red leaf and mint are phenomenal. Even normally pedestrian fresh spring rolls with grilled pork and shrimp are elevated to extraordinary heights.

If pressed to recommend just one appetizer, it would have to be Cyclo’s green beans, long and tender beans with a crisp snap to them when you bite down. These are no ordinary beans, however. They are laden with garlic, chili, soy sauce and pepper to imbue them with invigorating, tongue tingling tastes and an olfactory arousing bouquet. You might want their smoky aftertaste to linger long after you’ve finished these verdant vegetables.

Cyclo’s entree options present a pantheon of perfectly prepared, wonderfully memorable Vietnamese classics. The mixed grill featuring grilled marinated pork chop, beef, shrimp and a fried egg over fluffy, broken rice exemplifies how this dish should be served. Not uncommon in Vietnamese restaurants, mixed grill is generally good, but Cyclo’s anise blessed version is extraordinary…so much so that I’ve had it three times.

Fortunately in dining with friends, I’ve had the opportunity to sample other entrees (such as the aptly named Hong Kong beef chow fun with scallions, sprouts and soy). In each case, I purposely selected appetizers, entrees and desserts to display the versatility and distinctiveness of Vietnamese cuisine. In true testament to my success in picking the right entrees (or more likely, Cyclo’s incomparable kitchen), not a single morsel has ever remained.

For dessert, your options are equally superb. In season, the fresh mango and black sticky rice is the quintessential Vietnamese/Thai dessert with the sweet, tart freshness of fruit and the sweet, savory taste of rice drenched with even sweeter coconut milk. It’s phenomenal. During two visits, I’ve also had a small dish of French inspired jasmine creme brulee which was undoubtedly the best creme brulee I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

Cyclo is one of the very best reasons to sojourn to Phoenix and I would probably pedal a cyclo 400 miles plus to get there.

1919 W. Chandler Blvd,
Chandler, AZ
(480) 963-4490
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Grilled Pork & Sausage rice vermicelli, Hong Kong Beef Chow Fun, Spicy Garlic Chicken Wings, Egg Rolls, Spring Rolls,