China Best – Albuquerque, New Mexico
In the United States Navy and Coast Guard, no one is as revered, respected or admired as a sailor promoted within the enlisted naval ranks to Chief Petty Officer. The “Chief” is expected to be a source of sagacity, a paragon of good will, an authority on personnel relations and the undisputed technical expert. In the Navy, if you want to get something done, everyone knows to ask the Chief.
Sailors in the three Chief Petty Officer ranks are accorded distinctive privileges such as a separate lounge, sleeping area and galley (kitchen for you landlubbers) on board large naval vessels. These areas reserved for Chiefs are known as the “goat locker” and by tradition all other personnel–up to and including the commanding officer–must request permission to enter the goat locker.
If someone is invited to dine in the Chief’s Mess (a military dining room, for you civilians), it is customary to eat everything on the plate, regardless of what condiments may be added by members of the Mess to “enhance” the dining experience. From the late 1800s to the early 1960s, the United States Navy, in respect and recognition of the senior position of the Chief Petty Officer provided durable, hand-glazed and hand-stenciled personal dinnerware made specifically for the goat locker.
Having served on joint service operations during my Air Force career, I often marveled at the respect commanded by Chief Petty Officers. There are many reasons Chiefs are considered the “backbone of the Navy” and are sought out by senior and junior personnel alike for their breadth of experience and knowledge. Chiefs are the “E. F. Hutton” of the armed forces; when they speak, people listen.
When Walt Pomrenke, a retired Chief, told me about a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque that serves “some of the best Chinese this side of Hong Kong,” it behooved me to pay rapt attention. During his distinguished career, Walt crossed the Pacific several times and spent quite a bit of time in Hong Kong. He knows Chinese food very well. Heck, he knows food period! When he served on small frigates and destroyers in which a Chief’s galley wasn’t available and the quality of food was found lacking, he knew to add kimchi, about which he says “nothing worked better at making something edible.”
Walt fondly recalls serving on a large destroyer tender (a ship designed to provide maintenance support to a flotilla of destroyers or other small warships) with enough Chiefs to warrant their own galley and chefs. Lobster tail was served every Friday and tenderloin roasts were featured fare on Saturday. Upon returning to the ship in the wee hours of the night, the Chiefs would whip up omelets or other delicacies out of whatever they could scrape together. He gained about twenty-pounds on that ship, an experience somewhat mirroring my own when I was stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base outside of Boston the year it earned a Hennessy Award for excellence in food services.
The restaurant Chief Pomrenke (Chiefs are Chiefs even after they’ve retired from active service) recommended is called China Best and it’s ensconced in a nondescript shopping center off Golf Course just south of Paseo Del Norte. Though the restaurant looks brand new, it’s been serving the far northwest since 2006, specializing in Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese cuisine. China Best purports to prepare its food in the traditional ways prepared by chefs with more than 13 years experience cooking authentic Chinese cuisine.
When I asked the Chief what it was about China Best that earned comparisons to the Chinese food he experienced in Hong Kong and throughout the Far East, he quickly rattled off several things. First, he said, “China Best serves Chow Mei Fun, a staple at the street stalls in Hong Kong,” explaining that “most Chinese restaurants have their version of Singapore Chow Mei Fun made with varying amounts of curry, but it’s rare to see the everyday version.” True foodies would rather feast at a street stall than at a four-star restaurant.
He also praised the lengths to which China Best will go to accommodate guests, explaining that his sister is allergic to soy (which might otherwise place all Chinese restaurants off limits), but China Best “goes out of its way to ensure all dishes made with white sauce were in fact soy-free.” With rousing endorsements like those coupled with the fact that they were made by a savvy Chief, I had to visit the restaurant he said serves some of the best Chinese food this side of Hong Kong.
Your first impressions of China Best will be of an immaculate restaurant, the antithesis of so many Chinese restaurants which seem to earn a preponderance of the bane of any restaurant’s existence, the dreaded “red sticker” from the Department of Health. The frontage of this north-facing restaurant is smudge-free reflective glass. The restaurant’s interior is similarly spic and span. Clear photographs of menu items are proudly displayed above the entrance to the kitchen as well as on the plastic menus.
China Best is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Lunch specials have as many as thirty combinations from which to choose, all served with an egg roll and white or pork-fried rice. The menu is a veritable compendium of Chinese food with a smattering of street stall type food interspersed among the popular Americanized Chinese favorites. The menu is sectioned off into several categories: appetizers, soup, fried rice, chow mein or chop suey, lo mein, chow mai fun, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, sweet & sour, curry, egg foo young, mixed vegetables, vegetable dishes, moo shu, chef’s specialties, diet specials and combination plates.
Crab Rangoon is a popular American Chinese starter and party favorite. It’s a deep-fried dumpling stuffed with a combination of cream cheese, lightly flaked crab meat (usually imitation or canned crab), scallions and garlic. These dumplings are fashioned into a four-sided star shape. Most Chinese restaurants, it seems, prepare Crab Rangoon to be almost dessert-sweet and China Best is no exception. That’s almost criminal considering these dumplings are engorged with ingredients and are perfectly deep-fried. Not even hot mustard can assuage the cloying nature of what should be a savory starter.
Fortunately the dumplings are excellent, an exemplary rendition of a culinary art form China has been perfecting for centuries. Available pan-fried or steamed (they come eight to an order so get four pan-fried and four steamed), these crescent-shaped potsticker-style dumplings are super-sized and engorged with perfectly seasoned pork as savory as the Crab Rangoon is sweet. A little bit of chili enlivened soy sauce adds to the flavor profile of some of the very best dumplings in the Duke City.
According to our waitress, the most popular entree at the restaurant is the “Dragon & Phoenix,”a very interesting name for a dish considering the traditional significance of what the dragon and phoenix represent. In China, the dragon and phoenix are symbolic of auspiciousness, the quality of strongly indicating success. The dragon is a symbol of the ruler while the phoenix is an embodiment of his mate. Images of the dragon and phoenix are associated with the court and represent imperial nobility and authority.
At China Best, Dragon & Phoenix is an entree of lightly breaded shrimp and chicken served with broccoli and sliced mangoes under a light sweet and piquant sauce. The shrimp is excellent with a nice snap when you bite into it. The chicken is mostly white meat and it, too, is of very high quality. With a bit more piquancy to cut the cloying, syrupy sauce, this would be an excellent dish. Ask for extra punch on this entree if you like the flavor combination of sweet and piquant.
The Hunan shrimp is made with a light black bean sauce and it, too, is more sweet than it is piquant. The shrimp are excellent–fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. The produce–all vegetables (onion, bell pepper, broccoli, water chestnuts) are perfectly prepared (crispy without being al dente), the epitome of freshness and of very high quality. There is absolutely no disputing the high quality of produce and ingredients.
As readers of this blog know, I’m not a fan of Americanized (sweet and sour) sauces and while China Best does them much better than almost every restaurant in the Duke City, there’s much, much more to life than sweet and sour. There is, for example, Singapore Chow Mai Fun, a spicy blend of curry, pork, shrimp, green and white onions and tangles of very thin noodles. This is the staple of the outdoor food stalls, the street food Chief Pomrenke praises so highly. It’s easy to understand why. This is a delicious entree and its name fits. It is a fun noodle dish indeed.
This entree is asterisked with an icon of a red hot chili pepper signifying it is hot and spicy. Though that heat barely fazed this fire-eater, it watered my Kim’s eyes. That heat, coupled with the distinctly smooth, exotic flavor of the fresh herbs and spices which make up Singapore curry make this one of the very best Singapore noodle dishes in town. The chef’s skillful preparation and mastery of the wok are in evidence as all ingredients are perfectly prepared. The vegetables are fresh and crispy as is the shrimp.
Another fun entree is China Best’s beef chow mein with vegetables, a stir-fried noodle entree showcasing the fun versatility of crispy noodles. The crispy noodles are fashioned into a bowl with the other ingredients nestled within its bounteous confines. Served steaming hot, the steam and the gravy-like sauce reconstitutes the noodles. They may start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and let the steam do its work, and they reacquire the soft noodle texture typical in soups and noodle dishes. White onions and snow peas provide a sweet and savory balance while the beef and sweet-savory sauce lend a nice flavor profile.
China Best has a number of lunch specials all served with white rice or pork-fried rice and soup or egg roll. Family plates for two, four and six are available at reasonable prices. Chef’s Specials feature Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan dishes all served with white rice. The menu even lists five “diet food chef specials,” all low calorie gems prepared with no salt, oil or corn starch and served with steamed sauce (brown, oyster, garlic or white) on the side.
In future visits to China Best, I’ll follow Chief Pomrenke’s recommendations more closely and not succumb to the temptations of the attractively photographed entrees splayed on the menu. The high ingredient quality and the Chief’s recommendation warrant future visits to uncover new culinary adventures at China Best.
8201 Golf Course Road, Suite B2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2010
1st VISIT: 28 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Hunan Shrimp, Dumplings, Singapore Chow Mai Fun