Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico
In my old haunt of Boston, television commercials proclaimed Wednesdays as Prince spaghetti day. They depicted spry youngsters dashing home excitedly for their weekly repast of pasta products made by the Prince Spaghetti company. In Albuquerque, Thursdays were–until April 25th, 2008–green curry day at Thai Cuisine. Thursday was the day of the week in which patrons could excitedly look forward to the restaurant’s Thai cuisine lunch buffet offering incomparable green curry among other incomparably delicious attractions.
On that ignominious April day, Thai Cuisine stopped serving their daily buffet, citing food wastage as a concern. Thai Cuisine’s buffet was reminiscent of a baseball team’s pitching rotation, meaning some of the restaurant’s best entrees took turns on the menu’s rotation, usually a week apart between appearances. Regular visitors knew specifically on what day of the week they could visit Thai cuisine for their favorite entree. Buffet-goers mourned the “perceived” diminished portions while regulars who appreciate routine lamented the change.
Savvy diners who enjoy the adventure and thrill of ordering from the menu know that it can still be “green curry day” on Thursday…or any other day of the week they’d like. Moreover, they know they can order, sight unseen and aroma not presently experienced, any of a number of traditional Thai treasures whose common denominator is lively flavors. They know that the menu has about one hundred items in well organized and well described categories: appetizer, Thai soup, Thai Noodle Soup, Yen-Ta-Foh Soup, Thai Stir-Fried Noodles, Thai Salad, Thai Stir-Fried Rice, Thai Stir-Fried Dishes, Thai Curry, Thai Steamed Noodle with Curry Sauce, Teriyaki Plates, Combination Plates, Side Dishes, Desserts and Lunch Specials.
Though the buffet may be gone, lunchtime portion sizes will still leave you so full you risk falling asleep at your job…unless you’re smart enough to ask for a doggie bag (in which case you might have enough left over for the following day’s lunch.) The lunch specials, offered Monday through Friday from 11AM through 3PM, are served with lemon grass soup, rice, dessert tapioca, two Thai egg rolls, fruit and one of your choice from among twelve entrees including the aforementioned, much loved green curry. It’s a lot of food and it’s all very good.
When it first launched, Thai Cuisine was known solely as “Teriyaki Queen,” a name which may have confused diners because teriyaki is a Japanese cuisine technique (not a Thai specialty) in which foods are grilled or broiled in a sweet soy sauce marinade. Sure, the menu does include teriyaki dishes (chicken, pork, beef, vegetables), but you don’t see the menu until you’re comfortably seated. It was largely through word of mouth that the Teriyaki Queen quickly gained a reputation as a surprisingly good Thai restaurant.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that such wonderful Thai food could be prepared in such a small restaurant. For several years, the Teriyaki Queen was ensconced in cramped quarters within the Montano Shopping Center on Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side. In 2002, the Subway restaurant next door finally vacated its premises and allowed Thai Cuisine to expand and provide a full-service sit-down menu, expanding its offerings significantly and cementing itself as a real player among the Duke City’s Thai restaurants.
Thai Cuisine has been owned since its inception by Tavee and Sagol Yaparwong, a husband and wife team who also own the Thai Cafe restaurant in Santa Fe. In 2010, they launched a second instantiation of Thai Cuisine, this location situated in Nob Hill. Whether Thai Cuisine I or Thai Cuisine II or even the subtitled “Teriyaki Queen,” one commonality is exciting flavors, hardy portions, excellent service and great value. Alas, Sam Chanthvong, the beauteous and effusive hostess who made everyone feel welcome, no longer works at Thai Cuisine, having served her faithful customers for the last time on August 4th, 2011. She will be much missed.
Yet another constant over the years has been the exquisite deliciousness of the green curry in coconut milk with bamboo shoots, zucchini, lime leaves and fresh basil. As with all great Thai entrees, the flavor profile is a balance of complementary and contrasting taste sensations in perfect proportion for optimum flavor–sweet, savory, piquant and just slightly tangy. At “Thai hot” the curry’s piquancy will bring tears to your eyes, sweat to your brows and a smile to your face. Available with your choice of chicken, pork or beef, the meat choices offer a textural contrast to the bamboo shoots. There is no better, more pungently pleasant green curry in Albuquerque! In fact, most Thai restaurants misrepresent green curry, preparing it like a creamy, sugary dessert.
Native New Mexicans who can consume capsaicin-laden chile by the bushel might bow in respect to the gunpowder strong Thai peppers prevalent on many dishes. As such, it might be advisable to order one heat level below what you’re used to–unless you’ve got masochistic tendencies or an asbestos-lined tongue in which case the “Thai hot” might suit you best. Even the restaurant’s “medium” curries are hot, but brimming with incendiary flavors and exciting deliciousness.
No restaurant in Albuquerque honors the traditional preparation of Mussaman curry better than Thai Cuisine. It honors it by not preparing it like a cloying dessert. A pungent, piquant curry with earthy potatoes and onions studded with roasted peanuts should never taste like a sweet, creamy pudding; that’s what dessert is for. Thai Cuisine’s rendition is spiced to your level of piquancy and sweetened only lightly with coconut milk. Spoon this mild medley over the perfectly prepared rice and you will get an idea what balanced flavors, not sweet intensity, can do.
Thai Cuisine’s spicy fried rice is a revelation in rich, piquant, salty, tangy and pungent flavors. It’s also one of the very best fried rice dishes in Albuquerque. This unique rendition of stir-fried rice is made with Thai chili, garlic, egg, basil, lime leaves, onion and it’s topped with a fried egg (or two if you’re my friend Bill Resnik). The fried egg runs over the rice, imparting its rich yoke over the circular mound and leaving in its wake a surprising flavor enhancement. Though spicy fried rice is on the lunch specials menu, it’s not available with a fried egg during lunch.
Another specialty of the house at Thai Cuisine are the egg rolls, some of the very best in the city. The egg rolls are strictly vegetarian–mixed vegetables wrapped in an egg roll skin and fried to a golden sheen. They’re served with a sweet peanut sauce which provides a nice foil to the crunchy savoriness of the egg rolls. Alternatively, you can have fresh spring rolls with steamed shrimp and fresh vegetables wrapped with fresh rice paper. The spring rolls are almost translucent, a sort of sheer, edible curtain hiding delicious treasures within. Although the spring rolls are about six-inches long, only one shrimp is domiciled within its rice paper walls and it’s a small shrimp at that. The sweet and sour sauce (strong emphasis on sweet) is more apropos for the egg rolls. A strong peanut sauce would suit the spring rolls much better.
Olympic diver Greg Louganis once called peanut butter “the breakfast of champions.” I have a feeling the multi-time gold medal athlete would go peanutty for Thai Cuisine’s Thai Steamed Noodles with Curry Sauce, a peanut lover’s dream. A bowl large enough to feed two is brimming with thin coils of rice vermicelli noodles swimming in a sweet and tangy peanut curry sauce garnered with fresh vegetables and your choice of chicken, tofu, pork or beef. To offset the sweetness of this dish, order it either hot or Thai hot…seriously. You’ll appreciate the heat offset. The texture of crushed peanuts coupled with the smooth heat of the soupy dish welcomes you with every bite.
For aficionados of curry who don’t necessarily want something too incendiary, Panang curry generally fits the bill. This orange-hued curry cooked in coconut milk and flavored with kaffir leaves is generally milder, richer and thicker than most Thai curries. Kaffir leaves can be either a boon or a bane to Panang curry–too many leaves impart a perfumy flavor and masks the other spices. The chef at Thai Cuisine uses the optimum amount and it comes across with just a hint of distinct tanginess that gives Panang curry its signature flavor.
Another steamed noodle entree also made with rice vermicelli noodles showcases the immense flavor of green curry. This dish is garnished with vegetables and is also available with chicken, tofu, beef or pork. The vermicelli noodles are perfectly tasty tangles of delicate rice noodles you don’t necessarily slurp up as you would spaghetti, but they are very good. If most of your experiences with curry involve rice, you might be surprised at just how well noodles work with curry…especially if it’s Thai Cuisine’s impeccable green curry.
Most Thai restaurants offer sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and fresh, ripe mango in season. Out of season, the best restaurants will advise you not to order this dessert when the mangoes aren’t perfectly ripe. That’s advice one and all should heed. When in season, mangoes with sweet sticky rice make a refreshing dessert contrasting the sweet tanginess of mangoes and the near cloying flavor of coconut with the neutral to sweet flavor of sticky rice. The very best mangoes and sticky rice dish I’ve ever had was at Thai Cuisine.
Best–that’s a word I’ve used a lot in this tribute–and fittingly so. Thai Cuisine is one of Albuquerque’s very best Thai restaurants.
Thai Cuisine I
6200 Coors, N.W. Suite E-3
LATEST VISIT: 11 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 29
BEST BET: Green Curry, Mangoes and Sticky Rice, Mussamman Curry, Egg Rolls, Laab Gai