In “My Fair Ernest T. Bass,” one of the most hilarious episodes ever of the 1960s television classic, The Andy Griffith Show, Sheriff Andy Taylor tried to pass off Ernest T., the bumpkinly, rock-throwing, havoc-wreaking hillbilly as a cultured gentleman. By teaching him manners, Andy hoped Ernest T. would find a girl and learn to behave in polite society. The expectations Andy had for the slovenly Ernest T. were an example of the Pygmalian Effect, a phenomenon positing that the greater the expectations placed upon people, the better they will perform. It’s a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Could this phenomenon have been in play when Albuquerque city councilor Ray Garduño (no relation) and other civic leaders came up with a new name for an old neighborhood? For years, a section of Southeast Albuquerque stretching roughly from the state fairgrounds area to Kirtland Air Force Base, had been commonly referred to as the “War Zone,” a derogatory sobriquet it earned because of high crime rates at the time. In recognition of the area’s cultural diversity and neighborhood partnerships designed to further the area as a cultural and social hub, the group agreed upon the name the “International District.”
The International District is replete with specialty grocery stores and restaurants of various ethnicities. It is a veritable melting pot, a microcosm of the multi-cultural Duke City in a few blocks. The International District represents more than just cultural diversity. It represents people who took back their neighborhoods, a citizenry who lives and works in an area they are proud to call home. The International District has also become a respected dining destination. Aficionados of ethnic cuisine have come to recognize that few areas in the city offer as much culinary diversity.
Even if the Pygmalion Effect isn’t at play in the resurgence of this once shunned area, the phenomenon is most definitely in effect when my friend Barbara Trembath recommends a restaurant to me, particularly an Asian restaurant. I have come to expect that the restaurants she recommends to me will be fantastic A world-traveler who has visited Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Burma, Barbara is one of the most savvy diners in the city. She’s a voracious reader and culinary student, currently learning all she can about Chinese cooking (the “real kind” she says half-kiddingly). Her immediate goal is to be able to recreate the original Kung Pao.
When Barbara recommends a restaurant, it behooves others to listen…then to rush over to her anointed choice before it’s overwhelmed by dining traffic. Shortly after she discovered the Asian Grill on the fringes of the International District, she let me know in no uncertain terms that this new restaurant is “great,” a rousing endorsement from the usually reserved fellow foodie. She told me the Vietnamese interpretations of other Southeast Asian dishes are “prepared, in some cases, better than original versions” she’s found in her extensive travels and in having lived in San Francisco for years.
The Asian Grill is located in a strip mall Off Gibson Boulevard whose anchor tenants include the fabulous 99 Banh Oriental Supermarket, a veritable treasure trove of Asian produce, kitchenware, seafood and groceries. Launched shortly before the end of the year 2010, the Asian Grill is owned and operated by Nang Thai (who introduces himself as Thai) and his family. Thai was born in Vietnam, spent much of his youth in Malaysia and has been in America since 1985. He’s a graduate of Sandia High School and former Intel employee with an impressive high-tech pedigree that includes his own start-up endeavor.
Although owning and operating a restaurant is new to him, Thai’s travels as a sailor throughout Asian ports-of-call have exposed him to a myriad of cuisines. He’s a naturally inquisitive guy who asked a lot of questions at restaurants he frequented during his travels, gleaning as much knowledge as he could about cooking techniques and ingredients. He obviously learned well. The Asian Grill showcases a myriad of dishes emanating from or inspired by dishes in Vietnam, China, Korea, Thailand and Singapore, sometimes in combinations that might surprise you.
The east-facing restaurant is bathed in morning and midday sun, but because it’s such a commodious space, it may take a while to warm up. That was the case during our inaugural visit on a very cold early January day. Walls, painted in muted colors are relatively stark with little to distract you from studying the menu. You’ll also study the slate board near the entrance on which the best-selling items are scrawled. Cognizant of the business intelligence trending so prevalent in the corporate high-tech world that has been part of his life for decades, Thai keeps track of how often each dish is ordered.
The menu features an impressive array of dishes, several of which are depicted in enticing color snapshots within the menu. Chef’s Specials are listed even before appetizers. The Asian Grill even has a section dedicated entirely to its Chow Fun dishes. Barbara told me “Thai really gets Chow Fun,” giving that menu section her highest endorsement. Vietnamese inspired rice dishes, noodle soup (pho) and vermicelli dishes are also available as are several vegetarian entrees. Weekday lunch specials are available Monday through Friday.
Although the menu only lists seven appetizers, you’ll be hard-pressed to decide which one (or two or three) to order. Starters include such de rigueur offerings as egg rolls and fried won tons, but also unique selections as Malay Street Grilled Skewers. Throughout city streets in Thailand and Indonesia, street vendors purvey these grilled and skewered “meat Popsicles” flavored with herbs and spices. Despite the name of this starter, Asian Grill’s rendition dispenses with the skewers, but otherwise these meaty morsels resemble satay. Similarities with satay also include the peanut influence with finely crushed peanuts generously heaped upon the meat pieces. The accompanying sauce, however, was neither a conventional sweet cucumber sauce or crunchy peanut sauce; it is more akin to a fish-sweet and sour-sauce with a flavor profile that includes finely balanced hints of piquancy, sweetness, savoriness and tanginess.
Barbara’s highest recommendation was for the Phuket Chowfun, sizzling Thai-style noodles with ground peanuts, a dish she admired for its unique fusion qualities. This dish showcases tangles of wide Chinese rice noodles stir-fried with white and green onions, broccoli florets and other vegetables. The dish is available with pork, beef or chicken. Barbara advises squeezing lemon onto the dish which has the effect of providing a surprisingly fun and tasty contrast to what is a well balanced combination of sweet and savory flavors. This is definitely one of the very best Chow Fun dishes we’ve had in the Duke City.
Vietnamese vermicelli noodle dishes are a healthful and tasty way to enjoy another well-balanced combination of flavors. This entree is layered with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled carrots, grilled pork and chopped egg rolls, all topped with finely crushed peanuts The star of the dish is the grilled pork which is imbued with the unique smoky, sweet flavor imparted by the grill. You’ll want to saturate this dish with the Asian Grill’s fish sauce, a pungent, sweet, savory and piquant sauce.
There are many delicious reasons to visit Albuquerque’s reborn International District. The Asian Grill is one of them, a tremendous entrant to a burgeoning, welcoming culinary scene in a neighborhood everyone should visit.
5303 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork and Egg Roll, Phuket Chowfun, Malay Street Skewers