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. as a cultured gentleman. By teaching him manners, Andy hoped Ernest T., a bumpkinly, rock-throwing, havoc-wreaking hillbilly, 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 Pygmalion 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 gained 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 Barbara Trembath recommends a restaurant, particularly an Asian restaurant. I’ve 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 was one of the most savvy diners in the city (sadly she has since relocated to Boston). 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.
2 January 2011: Although the menu only lists a handful of starters, 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, is 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.
21 September 2015: In his terrific tome Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, author Andrew Coe insisted that “the egg roll was likely invented in New York sometime in the early 1930s.” Other sources contend that egg rolls date back to ancient China and were long ago proliferated across Asia. Whatever their history, egg rolls have long been a popular snack or starter. The egg rolls at Asia Grill are more similar to Thai egg rolls than they are to Chinese egg rolls. Golden cigar-shaped cylinders filled with pork, taro and carrots served with a fish sauce wholly unlike the sweet plum sauce served in Chinese restaurants. Served two per order, they’re a good introduction to Asia Grill.
2 January 2011: 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.
2 January 2011: 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.
21 September 2015: A survey of American taste preferences when dining at Asian restaurants would probably be heavily skewed toward sweet and sour probably followed by piquant. That might explain why eclectic Asian menus such as the one at Asian Grill have such a limited number of curry dishes whose flavor profile is decidedly pungent. Found in the “Chefs Specials” section of the menu, the Asian Grill’s curry is available with your choice of pork, chicken or tofu over stir-fried vegetables with rice on the side. It’s an hardy curry whose heat (courtesy of incendiary bird peppers) will sneak up on you. What won’t sneak up on anyone is the flavor, a strong, pungent, addictively delicious curry. It’s not nearly as sweet as Thai curries with their profusion of coconut milk.
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: 21 September 2015
1st VISIT: 2 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork and Egg Roll, Phuket Chowfun, Malay Street Skewers, Egg Rolls, Curry
7 thoughts on “Asian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)”
I loved this restaurant because they used fresh veggies, had great spices and sauces. They were reasonable and service was excellent. Food was not over cooked. Loved their Won Ton soup! Now I find that they are closed and there is no news as to where they may have moved to and I am so sad. My daughter came from New York where she can get the best food but she loved to go there when she came back to NM.
Please tell me they have another name or have moved to a spot more deserving of their skill!! Don’t tell me they just stopped doing what they did so well!! That would be a crime!
Marie, I’m sorry to say Asian Grill is closed. In fact, it appears to have closed in 2019 so we can’t even blame Covid for its closure. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information on the whereabouts of Nang Thai, the amiable owner of Asian Grill. I’ll continue to ask around and will let you know if I hear anything.
Captain Tuttle, any ideas?
I didn’t realize they had closed. I hadn’t been there since last summer or so. Sad news indeed. It fell off the regular rotation, but that’s just because lunch started becoming a rush thing, and usually involved bringing something from home, or going to the mobile kitchen (that’s food truck to you BOTVOLR) that parks next to where I work.
I do wish the owner’s well, and hope to hear from them soon…
I have visited the Asian Grill several times at lunch. They are very accommodating. I like spicy food and they were happy to adjust the heat to my liking. The food and service has always been excellent. It is a great addition to the SE area. I highly recommend it.
I love Asian Grill. Since I now work near KAFB, I’ve gone here quite a few times. I usually end up getting the vermicelli noodles with grilled pork because it is so good. A dining companion had the Mongolian Beef the last time we went and it looked good, and he kept complaining is was too hot for him — which tells me it would be perfect for me (and Gil). So I will try that next time.
BTW, we had our company Christmans, er, I mean Holiday, Party there this past year. Do not, I repeat do not, have any large gathering here. While the food and service are delicious, they don’t know how to handle a large gathering. We tried to make it as easy as possible on them by having everyone fill out an order card and take it with them, even though we provided all the orders a week in advance. There were still “issues”. Let’s just say some people were just getting served when the party was concluded. Others opted to take it in a to go container so they wouldn’t have to use vacation just to have lunch…
The people who got to eat enjoyed their food, but…
I should probably mention that the group was 85 people (they shut the restaurant down for us), so I suppose a FOG dinner or something smaller may not be too big an issue.
Also on a positive side, they offered to take $100 off the bill because of all the issues. We told them it wasn’t necessary, as they did try their best to accommodate us.
Asian Grill is as good as any Asian food gets in these here parts. The Lemongrass Chicken is my fave here. Jane’s, too. Unbelievably good spicing — tart and piquant at the same time.
Hats off to my friend Barbara for promoting this place.
I need to give a big shout out to my friend Debie C. as well as fellow gastronomic enthusiasts Mike and Debbie H. for recommending this place to me. I wish I’d been the first to find this little gem , but they got there first.
Regardless, it makes for a fun day…a little shopping at 99 Banh ( a more earthy experience than Ta Lin ) and a little chow fun and Vietnamese iced coffee with friends.
Burma was a little accident. I do not recommend accidentally winding up in a poppy field on the Thai border. I am pretty sure the guys with the big guns were not happy we’d gone down the wrong path, too.