When John Lucas, Elizabeth Eisner Reding and Mike Reding, three trusted gastronomes who frequent this blog, heartily recommended I try Best Lee’s, my initial reaction was, “they’ve got to be kidding.” Our sole visit to Best Lee’s in Rio Rancho exemplified the mediocrity and boring “sameness” that plagues many of New Mexico’s Chinese restaurants–a homogeneity my discerning friend Bill Resnik refers to as “copycat menus full of candied, fried and breaded mystery meats that all taste the same.”
It’s a good thing Chinese Restaurant News (CRN) doesn’t read my blog. CRN, a highly respected monthly trade publication serving the more than 43,100 Chinese restaurants across America, selected Best Lee’s as one of America’s best Chinese restaurants for 2008. In fact, during the “year of the mouse,” Best Lee’s earned distinction as one the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the categories of “Top 100 Local Favorites” and “Top 100 Overall Excellence.” The latter is the publication’s highest honor.
The “Local Favorites” award is presented to restaurants which have “proven their success over many years and through difficult circumstances.” Such honorees must also “maintain an important community presence and have a significant and devoted customer base.” The award for “Overall Excellence” is accorded to restaurants with the highest overall score in all areas (food, decor, atmosphere, service, cleanliness and presentation and value). Awards are based on “mystery diner” evaluations and public votes.”
Interestingly one of the selection criterion used by CRN to assess nominated restaurants is that 50 percent of the menu items must be “related to Chinese cuisine.” Note that the criterion says nothing about authenticity and tradition. Most Chinese restaurants in America would be disqualified from this prestigious competition if required to serve an entirely authentic, wholly traditional Chinese menu. Chinese restaurants across the fruited plain have made “faux” Chinese entrees ubiquitous–and that’s the way American’s like them.
Among the faux items on the menus at many Chinese restaurants are the pu-pu platter, a cutesy appetizer first served as a gimmick at Trader Vic’s, an Americanized Polynesian restaurant. Chop suey and chow mein, two Chinese-American dishes were invented during the California Gold Rush to feed large number of miners cheaply. The fortune cookie was invented in Los Angeles and remains a strange concept in China.
In fact, much of what passes as Chinese cuisine in Chinese restaurants throughout the western world would appall a traditional Chinese gourmet. In addition to the aforementioned dishes, some of America’s favorite sweet and sour concoctions are sometimes made with such Western ameliorants as barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, cooking sherry and other non-traditional ingredients. Other ingredients which would stupefy a traditionalist include canned fruit (including fruit cocktail) and vegetables, as well as monosodium glutamate (MSG), an addictive additive.
It wasn’t its lack of commitment to authenticity that turned us off Best Lee’s. It was the lack of deliciousness in the appetizers and entrees we had that prompted my less than favorable review. Still, the fact that trusted readers raved about Best Lee’s made me wonder if I could have been entirely mistaken in my initial assessment of Best Lee’s or whether we visited during an anomalous “off-night” courtesy of Murphy’s Law.
Best Lee’s certainly didn’t have an off-night when we visited in April, 2009. In fact we were so impressed that we visited again two days later. These visits were not to the Rio Rancho restaurant, however, but to its second instantiation. This one is in Albuquerque just a block north of Paseo del Norte and Wyoming. It’s the restaurant recommended to me.
The Albuquerque version of Best Lee’s is ensconced in a modern shopping center, an amalgamation of niche retail stores in an area experiencing considerable urban infill. Its signage is suffixed with “Gourmet Asian Food,” a claim the Rio Rancho restaurant doesn’t make. The restaurant’s interior includes many of the stereotypical trappings of the modern Chinese restaurant which is much more reserved than its older predecessors.
This Best Lee’s has something the Rio Rancho rendition doesn’t have–a “Chinese uncle.” At least that’s what the bespectacled waiter with the perpetual impish smile calls himself. A peripatetic presence, Chinese uncle visits every table, spicing his recommendations with his own version of Confucius-like wisdom. With an ambassadorial flair, he also lavishes compliments on his guests (I think calling me “nice mustache man” is a compliment) and seems especially adept at entertaining children (of all ages).
The menu includes a 200 percent guarantee that “we don’t use MSG” and a 100 percent guarantee that “we use vegetable oil.” That menu is a veritable compendium of Chinese and Americanized Chinese favorites as well as more than a perfunctory smattering of other Asian (mostly Thai) favorites.
Appetizers include steamed or pan-fried homemade pork or vegetable dumplings. These half-moon shaped dumplings are much larger than most dumplings, in part because they are engorged with a generous amount of well-seasoned sausage. At eight to an order, this appetizer almost ensures you’ll be taking left-overs home with you. The dumplings are served with a light semi-sweet and slightly tangy sauce (not that you really need it) with soy sauce as its base and other complementary ingredients such as green onion, chili and ginger.
Interestingly, Best Lee’s offers an appetizer portion red curry tofu soup, something we haven’t seen at any Thai restaurant in Albuquerque. It’s an excellent soup, served steaming hot and brimming with flavor. Coconut-infused with the rich, fresh flavor of aromatic red curry, it is the type of comfort food soup whose flavor increases exponentially as the temperature outside drops. The vegetables swimming in the bowl are fresh and delicious while the tofu inherits the flavor of the rich amalgam. If the soup is this good, it’s likely other Thai offerings are, too.
Another Thai appetizer sure to please is satay, available in beef or chicken. These little skewers of thinly sliced meat are perhaps the most popular street food in Thailand, but you’ll also find them in high-end restaurants. The beef is marinated in an amalgam of complementary ingredients intended to give it a balance of sweet, savory and rich flavors. The satay is served with a bowl of peanut sauce, a version that is not nearly as cloying as served at many Thai restaurants.
Appetizers are apportioned for sharing and even when split between two, the portions are prodigious and you risk filling up before your main entrees are delivered to your table. It’s a risk worth taking because the appetizers are delicious and the take-home portions reheat wonderfully. In fact, reheating some things just seems to bring out even more of its flavor richness.
I’ve never quite understood the concept of crispy, pan-fried noodles; more specifically why you would eat something that’s only going to reconstitute when you add a sauce to it. My Kim loves them–as much in their crispy state as when they’re soft and “noodley,’ but to my obviously unacculturated taste buds, the crispy noodles are reminiscent of Durkee’s french fried onion strings (which midwesterners add to green bean casseroles).
Best Lee’s pan-fried noodles can be made with your choice of shrimp, chicken or mixed vegetables with the “chef’s delicious sauce.” The ever-accommodating kitchen staff will tailor this dish to your tastes, such as making it with a brown mango sauce and excluding or adding more of any vegetable you desire. The taste combination of mango sauce and red onions, by the way, is surprisingly delicious.
Plating at Best Lee’s is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks. Their taste buds will follow suit, confirming what their eyes are telling them.
It may be hard to tell through all the steam just how esthetically appealing the dish pictured above is. It’s scallops and beef Shanghai style from the chef’s special section of the menu. Large sea scallops with flank steak and assorted vegetables in a brown sauce are served on a sizzling plate. Even had my camera been able to penetrate that veil of steam, a photo wouldn’t do justice to this entree.
The scallops are indeed large. They’re also sweet and delicious. The flank steak is not as tough and chewy as this particular cut of beef tends to be and while you’d never call it tender, you certainly won’t need the jaws of a boxer to masticate it. Now, many Chinese dishes are prepared with a “brown sauce” but that term is rather vague because there is no standard way to prepare it. Best Lee’s version seems to have its basis in beef broth, but also hints of brown sugar, garlic and other ingredients. Whatever its composition, it’s a worthy sauce.
During our inaugural visit Chinese uncle paraded by our table to show us an artfully appealing fish on a platter destined for a table in a different section of the restaurant. Showcasing that dish had his desired effect–we were back in two days to try it.
There are, in fact, several steamed or crispy fish entrees on the menu: yellow fish, red snapper or rex sole. Chinese uncle confided that the rex sole was the best of the three. Quite often when the wait staff effusively pushes an entree, it’s because that entree is the most expensive or the entree closest to an expiring shelf life, but when Chinese uncle recommends something, he speaks with conviction.
Rex sole is a member of the flounder family. In fact, this small fish (normally under two pounds) is considered one of the tastiest fish in the flounder family with a sweet, delicate white flesh. It is a flat fish with both eyes on the same side of its head. The fillets from the bottom side of the sole tend to be thinner and white-fleshed while fillets from the top side are thicker and darker (grayish).
Instead of having to extricate the delicate white flesh from between the sole’s quill-like bones (a delicate operation requiring surgeon-like precision), several chunky fillets are served atop the flat fish’s carcass. The fillets are lightly breaded and served with either a ginger scallion sauce or a “chef’s special sauce.” The latter is reminiscent of the type of Vietnamese fish sauce sold in Asian grocery stores. It is more sweet than tangy with the consistency of a light syrup, but it complements the fish very well.
From the Southeast Asia Style section of the menu comes one of the most popular entrees entrees served in Thai restaurants throughout America. Pad Thai is actually one of Thailand’s national dishes and similar to satay, is equally at home as a street food or served in a nice restaurant.
Best Lee’s version of this stir-fried rice noodle dish is fairly standard and hints of tangy fish sauce and tamarind, piquant chili peppers and other complementary flavors. It is garnished with crushed peanuts and served with lime which you’re free to squeeze onto the dish.
Not at all standard are the chocolate covered fortune cookies, a delightful twist we’ve seen at only one other Albuquerque Chinese restaurant. The chocolate actually gives the light, delicate cookie some substance (and many would argue, taste). It’s a nice treat to end a meal.
Best Lee’s is one of the better Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque and confirms something I state in my FAQs page–that diners should take a “caveat emptor” approach to any restaurant review written by any critic (even me). I was wrong about Best Lee’s (at least the one in Albuquerque) and am big enough (by about two pounds after two vey good meals at the restaurant) to admit it.
Best Lee’s Authentic Gourmet Asian Restaurant
7900 Carmel Avenue, Suite F
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2009
1ST VISIT: 10 April 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: House Pan Fried Noodles, Scallops & Beef Shanghai Style, Steamed Pork Dumplings, Satay, Pad Thai, Crispy Fried Fish, Chocolate Fortune Cookies