“Grrr! What’s wrong with those Vietnamese?” That’s not a bad bowl of pho prompting a xenophobic rant on my part. Those were the words of my friend Huu Vu when I told him a new Vietnamese restaurant by the name Hakata Asian Grill had opened up on Albuquerque’s west side. A proud native of Vietnam, Huu wasn’t upset at the launch of another restaurant showcasing the cuisine of his homeland. He was unhappy about the name.
Hakata Asian Cuisine & Grill is the third restaurant featuring Vietnamese food to open in the seven month period which ended in April, 2011. That’s great news for all adventurous Duke City Diners, and you would certainly think my pho fanatic friend would be ecstatic. The problem, Huu pointed out is that if you’re looking for Vietnamese cuisine, you might never visit the Asian Grill, Kim Long Asian Cuisine or now Hakata Asian Cuisine & Grill. The first two hint of fusion cuisine (certainly not Vietnamese) while Hakata is most assuredly a Japanese name.
In truth, both the Asian Grill and Kim Long Asian Cuisine serve more than Vietnamese food…but just barely. The predominant cuisine showcased at both is Vietnamese. You can count the number of “other” Asian dishes on one hand. Hakata, on the other hand, has an entire page dedicated to Yakitori, a Japanese grilling technique showcasing skewers of marinated beef, seafood, poultry, lamb and vegetables. Another seven pages are dedicated to Vietnamese cuisine.
So, why name a restaurant Hakata when only one of seven menu pages actually serves food from the port city in western Japan? It turns out one of the owners lived in Hakata for a time. Hakata is one of Japan’s renown “Yakitori towns.” Locals love the fragrance of charcoal grilled, moist, delicious Yakitori. You’ll love that fragrance, too. It envelops you from the moment you walk in to the charming restaurant.
Hakata Asian Cuisine & Grill is located in an edifice which initially housed a Burger King restaurant and which has since been the home of everything from a mariscos restaurant to a Burritos Alinstante. It is situated just north of the Cottonwood Mall on a sprawling shopping center complex which resembles a ghost town. If very good food is a predictor of future success, Hakata should break the long string of failed restaurants in the immediate area.
You have to look closely to find any vestiges of Burger King nor of any of its successors within the restaurant’s interior. Hakata bespeaks of subdued Japanese elegance. Walls are relatively stark and seating is more functional than it is stylish. The cynosure of this much metamorphosed restaurant is the modest grill in which a grill master deftly plies his trade in much the manner of a sushi chef performing feats of prestidigitation with knives. The main difference is the scintillating aromas of sizzling meats and vegetables.
The yakitori menu is a veritable cornucopia of seasoned meats, seafood and vegetables, eighteen items in all. Featured vegetables include asparagus, okra, Enoki mushrooms, green beans, green onions and sweet corn. Meat skewers include chicken (meatball, wings, breast, spicy wings), beef, lamb, pork and juicy pork belly. On the seafood arena, you’ll find shrimp, scallop, salmon and squid. The commonality is perfect grilling, succulent seasoning and the intoxicating arena of meats, seafood and vegetables infused with the flavor of smoldering charcoal.
It’s that charcoal-infused flavor that elevates Hakata’s yakitori to some of, if not the best I’ve had in New Mexico. If your standard for yakitori is the Terikayi Chicken Bowl chain, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. The sweet corn is brushed lightly with teriyaki sauce which enhances the sweetness of the corn, each kernel of which is grilled to perfection. The lamb is as good as you’ll find at many Mediterranean restaurants which specialize in grilled lamb. You can easily imagine yourself eating it between pita. The pork is juicy and delicious with nary a hint of annoying sinew. Solely by virtue of Hakata’s yakitori, my friend Huu should forgive the restaurant’s nomen faux pas.
Most Vietnamese restaurants offer a version of Gỏi cuốn, which is often translated to either fresh roll, spring roll or summer roll. Hakata is the first restaurant I’ve seen which offers both a spring roll and a summer roll and prepares them in distinctly different ways. Though both are served at room temperature and crafted from translucent rice paper wraps, herbs and rice, the spring rolls are engorged with cold shrimp while the summer rolls are stuffed with crispy grilled pork. Hakata’s summer rolls are a wonderful revelation, as delicious as any Gỏi cuốn (by any name) in Albuquerque. Served two per order with a terrific peanut sauce, these rolls are a must-have.
The definitive Vietnamese food for my friend Huu is pho, the classic quick meal in Vietnam. Served in bowls the size of small swimming pools, pho is crafted with fresh rice noodles and topped with your choice of beef slices (rare steak, well-done flank, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef-ball) and crowned with chopped green onion, cilantro leaves and sliced onion. Hakata has a nice selection of beef and chicken noodle soups including some made with seafood (shrimp, squid, imitation crab or fish cake). My early favorite is the Sate Beef Noodle Soup, a lemongrass beef noodle soup made with herbs and spices designed to bring out a spicy flavor and an absolutely intoxicating fragrance. It is redolent with crushed red chile flakes and garlic as well as the unmistakable lemon-minty aroma of lemongrass.
Regular readers of my blog are probably tired of my lamenting the absence of great Southern-style catfish in New Mexico. Only in Vietnamese restaurants is my yen for catfish sated. Some Vietnamese restaurants prepare catfish so well it could make a Southerner pine for home. Hakata’s rendition of crispy whole catfish is among the best in Albuquerque. In fact it’s better than some catfish I’ve had in Mississippi, America’s catfish capital. Alas, “whole” catfish doesn’t seem to translate to “head included” as pictured below. Nonetheless, this is one succulent catfish. It’s fleshy and moist with a subtle flavor profile. At Hakata, the crispy catfish is served with a ginger sauce on the side. This ginger sauce is wholly unlike the Day-Glo colored sauce often used on catfish in other Duke City Vietnamese restaurants. In fact, it’s little more than fish sauce with a week’s worth of ginger. Perhaps out of habit, my druthers would have been for Tabasco sauce or nothing at all.
As many Japanese restaurants do, Hakata offers sake, the rice wine with such a versatile flavor profile. Dessert options include green tea ice cream, a Japanese dessert favorite made from matcha, a specific tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. The green tea ice cream is served with a conical wafer. Better is a dessert of tapioca and mangoes though out of season, mangoes don’t have the refreshing sweetness and juiciness characteristic of this Asian fruit favorite.
Hakata is a little bit of Japan and a lot of Vietnam. It’s also a lot of flavors coalescing with inviting aromas on dishes sure to become diner pleasing favorites–even if my friend Huu doesn’t like the restaurant’s name.
Hakata Asian Cuisine & Grill
10131 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 April 2011
1st VISIT: 27 April 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Sate Beef Noodle Soup, Fresh Summer Rolls, Sweet Corn Skewers, Chicken Skewers, Beef Skewers