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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

Category: Asian, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese
  • Axel says:

    Holy space balls. When I saw this review, my heart stopped. There’s a Ramen House in Albuquerque? Oh my god, WHERE?!? (some of you may recall, that I mentioned that I used to live in Hawaii. Ramen is considered a staple food there, and the various cultures have found amazing things they can do with the noodles. Since moving to ABQ, I haven’t had ramen at all.)
    And then I read the review, and now I realize that it’s even better than I thought it’d be. If it wasn’t 11pm when I was reading it, I’d literally jump in my car and hunt this place down.

    I must admit though, having gone to the FOG dinner meet, I can now visualize Kim having fun with dehydrated noodles and sauces, and find it to be absolutely funny/adorable.

    March 2, 2014 at 12:18 AM
    • Axel says:

      Addendum:
      Less than 24 hours after writing up my previous comment, I went to Mekong. While it wasn’t what I was expecting, in other ways it was just as good.
      Let me clarify: when someplace calls itself a “Ramen House”, I would expect to be able to make a bowl of ramen how I’d like it (broth, toppings, etc.). Mekong isn’t like that. What they do do is use ramen in ways you clearly aren’t used to, while still being the delicious light noodle you know and love. They have 8 items that have ramen in them, including the dessert dish (for those interested, its fresh fruits and fried and/or dehydrated ramen noodles served with a chocolate dipping sauce.).

      Speaking of desserts, they have some pretty standard fare that is delicious regardless. I would have gotten the mango with sticky rice (one of my family’s personal favorites), but when I went, I decided to try the fried bananas, because I had decided to invite my mother here, and she loves fried bananas. They are absolutely delicious, and unlike other versions, these are wrapped in rice paper (i think, the menu calls it wonton) and lightly fried. THe rice paper gives it a lovely crunch and isn’t high on grease.

      All in all, I’d say another lovely restaurant that I’d not have gone to if I hadn’t seen it on this blog. Thanks Gil!

      March 2, 2014 at 7:25 PM
      • Axel says:

        Addendum Part 2:
        For those of you looking for their hours, their sign currently says 11AM-8PM Monday through Thursday, 11AM-8:30PM Friday, 12PM-8:30PM on Saturday, and 12PM-6PM on Sunday.

        I bring it up because I couldn’t find their hours online myself.

        March 2, 2014 at 7:29 PM
      • Clayton says:

        Ta Lin market has a genuine style Ramen house inside. There you can choose and mold your ramen dish to what you want.

        April 28, 2014 at 4:48 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    When we were in Japan last September (at the very beginning of typhoon season-we only got in two) we stayed at the Dotonbori Hotel in Osaka. I had never really thought about Ramen except as the cheap student noodles but the hotel gave a midnight course in Preparing Ramen and we even made some. We didn’t actually make the noodles themselves though there is a Ramen Museum in Osaka where you can do it. I came away wiyh much more respect for the dish. We didn’t get to the museum but I am sure that it is more fascinating than the Potato Museum in PEI. Now we need to get by the Mekong Ramen House.

    March 2, 2014 at 8:46 PM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Gentlemen

      Santa Fe actually had a ramen house the type of which Axel describes. Unfortunately Shibumi Ramenya moved to Seattle of all places. Although we didn’t get to sample their reputedly sublime Tonkotsu Soup with Roasted Kurobuta Pork (bones simmered for days), uber chef Jennifer James did and enjoyed it very much.

      Talin Market’s Ramen Bar also offers the Tonkatsu in both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque locations, however, as of two weeks ago, there was a major renovation going on in the Duke City’s Ramen Bar so we didn’t get to indulge. Let’s make it a point to meet there when renovations are complete. That Tonkatsu beckons.

      Gil

      March 2, 2014 at 9:01 PM
      • Jim Millington says:

        Sounds great. I love Ramen and dead Pig so it has to be a great combination.

        March 3, 2014 at 9:50 AM
  • Edward Sung says:

    As Axel said, the “Ramen House” might be a little bit misleading if you’re expecting traditional Japanese ramen, as I did, but I guess the “Mekong” should be a tip off that it’ll be something different!

    H and I ordered what looked to be more of a conventional bowl of ramen, and unfortunately we were somewhat let down. The pork broth just didn’t have the richness of what I like in a ramen broth, but didn’t have the depth of a good pho either. It was pleasant and had some nice bright flavor from the fresh ingredients, but I had my mouth set for ramen so it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

    We did really enjoy the skewered chicken and beef, with the accompanying sauces. Very tender meat with terrific grilled flavor, and the sauces were perfect.

    I would definitely come back for more, but will try the other non-soup ramen dishes next time. I think they should push the whole unconventional ramen idea even further — maybe do the mango sticky rice with ramen instead of rice?

    March 3, 2014 at 12:45 PM
    • Axel says:

      You know, I’d try that. You’d have to make sure the noodles still have the sweet tast of the sticky rice. It’d be a challenge converting from the clumpy-ness of the rice (often my favorite part of the dish), but it’s possible.

      Anyone know of any sort of sweet noodles, of any sort? I’m curious how feasible the idea would be. But it’s possible, since you can turn other carbohydrates and even beans into sweet treats.

      March 6, 2014 at 10:44 AM
      • Gil Garduno says:

        The noodle kugel dish at Nosh Jewish Delicatessen & Bakery is dessert sweet and some of the noodle dishes at the Asian Noodle Bar are also rendered very sweet by the use of a sweet chili sauce. There are a number of sweet Asian noodle recipes on the internet, but as at the Asian Noodle Bar, it’s a sweet chili sauce that makes them sweet.

        March 6, 2014 at 2:25 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    The New York Times had an interesting review of Ramen Shops in NYC. It can be very varied. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/05/dining/ramens-big-splash.html

    March 6, 2014 at 3:30 PM
  • rpl says:

    I’m not quite sure why this Asian restaurant is being categorized as Lao. Many Lao proprietors own Thai restaurants in town. Even the Japanese restaurant Mr. Tokyo, was at one time (maybe still), owned by a Lao couple. It is true that there are a few Lao dishes on the menu here, but many are authentically Thai just as well. Laab and Papaya salad are commonly served at Thai restaurants in town (stylistic differences exist, but are not delineated in the review). For example, true Lao laab is more likely to feature pork blood and offal, and Lao Papaya salad is frequently more incendiary.

    Ramen is certainly not a traditional Lao dish and mangoes with sticky rice are available universally at Thai restaurants in town, etc.

    June 12, 2014 at 9:38 AM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Hello Ross

      On my database, I categorized Mekong Ramen House not as a Lao restaurant, but as an “Asian” restaurant serving Thai, Vietnamese and Lao cuisine. It displays on the blog as “Category: Asian, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese.”

      Gil

      June 12, 2014 at 11:11 AM
  • rpl says:

    It is the display of the category “Lao” that bothers me. Most American Thai restaurants, including those in Albuquerque, feature a number of Thai dishes with Lao roots. Given the history of the Mekong region, this is understandable and expected. It does not earn other restaurants credit for being “Lao”. Nor does Lao ownership seem to count for anything. It seems gratuitous here to me.

    June 16, 2014 at 10:18 AM

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