Banana leaves, although completely inedible, are used for slow, moist cooking of tough meats as well as for quicker steaming, baking or grilling of delicate ingredients such as chicken and fish. Used while still fresh and green, they lend a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and also imbue foods with a delicious herbal flavor.
While Southeast Asian nations have used banana leaves in food preparation for generations, only recently have innovative American chefs begun to explore their infinite possibilities. It’s no wonder there are so many Asian restaurants named for this utilitarian, albeit inedible food ameliorant.
Rio Rancho’s Banana Leaf restaurant opened in January, 2005 to some popular acclaim. Bringing you the culinary cuisine of Southeast Asia kitchens to your table, it features Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese items on a diverse, multi-page menu. What it doesn’t feature is any items prepared with the item for which it is named (bummer).
Owned and operated by a Vietnamese family which also operates restaurants in Roswell, New Mexico as well as in California, it is another sign that the “city of vision” has arrived with a flourish.
Complementary wonton chips are brought to your table while you peruse a menu that will have you hard-pressed to select from among many delicious sounding options. The slightly salty chips are great when dipped into the restaurant’s piquant sauce. Good appetizer options abound.
The imperial rolls (crispy fried Vietnamese egg rolls) with ground pork and shrimp are an excellent start and served with a plum sauce that’s emboldened with chilies that made the sauce sweet, tangy and piquant.
The peanut dipping sauce accompanying the chicken satay, is not as cloying as offered at many Thai restaurants and it’s got more chile than most. Still, you won’t want to cover up the wonderfully marinated chicken skewers which are redolent with the intoxicating aroma of yellow curry.
The Banana Leaf’s chicken wrap features minced chicken, black mushroom, scallion, onion, basil leaf, silver noodle, chopped peanuts and sesame seeds served with iceberg lettuce. It’s as good, if not better than the wraps at the Americanized Chinese dynasty, P.F. Chang’s.
If you’re a fan of Vietnamese style spring rolls, the misnamed “cool and crisp salad rolls” feature lettuce, mint, cucumber, bean sprout, vermicelli and shrimp wrapped in rice paper. They’re not quite as good as you’ll find at May Hong, but when ameliorated with that peanut sauce, are a taste treat.
Among the entrees, it’s always difficult to pass up curry, but the Tama Cod Fillet, a grilled Alaskan cod, is a great alternative. Two half-inch fish slabs are decorated with cilantro, scallion and onion in a tamarind chile sauce. There is no “fishy” taste in the cod which is of surprisingly high quality.
When you can’t pass up curry (as is usually the case for me), the Thai yellow curry is a welcome departure from curry which is sometimes served nearly dessert sweet at some Thai restaurants. Although coconut milk figures into this curry, it’s in subtle quantities that don’t overwhelm the curry.
Served with either fried rice or standard white rice, this curry dish is constructed with potato, bell pepper, onion, carrot and sweet basil. Portion sizes are enormous so you’ll definitely have left-overs for dinner. If anything, curry tastes even better when reheated. It must have something to do with its complex flavors permeating the other ingredients even more than when first prepared.
The Vietnamese Beef Vermicelli salad with a chile vinaigrette is a refreshing mix of contrasting and complementary ingredients: lettuce, mint, cucumber, bean sprout, egg rolls and vermicelli. Served in a huge bowl, it is an excellent entree when you’re in the mood for something filling and delicious that’s also relatively healthy.
Banana Leaf doesn’t serve the de rigueur Thai dessert of mangoes with sticky rice, but it does serve several other alternatives that might make you forget what is probably your favorite Thai post-prandial offering.
One of the more popular dessert choices and one not seen in many Thai restaurants in New Mexico provides a variety of tastes. At first glance, this dessert (pictured at right) looks like donut holes you might find at Dunkin Donuts covered in powdered sugar and honey, but one bite will tell you this is something else entirely.
Inside the donut-hole like exterior are nuggets of sweet corn and coconut and the topping drizzled atop isn’t honey, but a caramel sauce. Despite appearances, it’s not especially sweet, but it is quite good.
It’s uncommon for a single restaurant to be categorized as the best Chinese, best Thai and best Vietnamese restaurant in town, but Banana Leaf probably holds that distinction. It’s a restaurant with many surprises, but what doesn’t ever come as a surprise are the unfailingly fresh ingredients in every menu item, the impeccable service and the variety of a menu which treats you to a taste of Asia.
355 Rio Rancho, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Tama Cod Fillet, Imperial Rolls