Despite my (then) near eidetic memory and a sesquipedalian lexicon, it was my bumpkinly naivete my friends in Boston found most surprising (and amusing) about me. By having absorbed Encyclopedia Britannica (before the internet and Wikipedia were a twinkle in Al Gore’s eyes), I had as much or more “book knowledge” about Boston as any of them did, but became wide-eyed and mesmerized at seeing all those sights and cultures which heretofore existed for me only on the printed page. My friends delighted in introducing me to things you’d just never see in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico.
They also did their best to shock me (though for sheer shock and Wes Craven movie fear-inducing value, nothing was as shocking as the catch-as-catch-can driving style of Bostonians). By taking me to Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone,” a name given to the red light district (which no encyclopedia could have prepared me for), they sought to tear down the enceinte built up by my conservative Catholic upbringing. It certainly did shock and awe me. Not at all as shocking as my friends would have enjoyed were the cuisines of the world to which they introduced me. Rather than shock me, they whetted my appetite to experience even more.
If the aroma of fermenting kimchi (which has been known to blind Americans at 100 paces) didn’t faze me much, my friends should have expected that visiting a Chinese barbecue house in Boston’s Chinatown wouldn’t either. Little did they know that seeing flocks of golden-skinned ducks–fully denuded with their heads intact–hanging on the windows, was fairly tame compared to the matanzas in which I had participated virtually all my life. Next to the ducks were shining metal tubs of suckling pig, barbecued tripe, homemade sausages and racks of ribs. It conjured up fond memories of collecting the blood of a freshly slaughtered hog for morsillas, a wonderful blood sausage none of my Massachusetts friends would have been able to stomach.
Chinese barbecue was one of those delicacies about which I knew absolutely nothing. To me barbecue was synonymous with grilling meats on charcoal briquettes then slathering on a sweet tomato-based sauce. At the time (1977) there were no barbecue restaurants in Taos county and the only “barbecue” you could find was a barbecue sandwich at Lotaburger. You also couldn’t find Chinese food in Taos county so the very first time I tried it in Lexington, it was a life-altering revelation. I would probably have been mad at my parents for having deprived me of such deliciousness had it not dawned on me that they had never had Chinese food themselves.
To my nescient mind, restaurants serving basic Americanized Chinese food–sweet and sour everything, egg rolls, chop suey, chow mein and the like–were pantheons of culinary greatness. Then I discovered Chinatown’s dumpling houses and Chinese barbecue restaurants. If the foods at your run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants were mouth-watering, the culinary offerings at those serving dumplings and barbecue evoked foodgasms, the euphoric sensation experienced by taste buds and olfactory senses upon tasting incredibly delicious food (think Paula Deen eating butter).
Among barbecue purists, one of the most sought after properties of smoked meats is the “smoke ring,” a blushing pink discoloration of meat immediately below the surface crust. A good smoke ring is as prominent in Chinese barbecue as it is in American barbecue. It signifies the meats are prepared “low and slow”–slowly smoked in low heat to render those meats moist and tender (in the interest of full disclosure, the smoke ring in Chinese barbecue is often the result of food coloring). Chinese barbecue (char siu) is actually very popular throughout Asia. Instead of on a smoker, Chinese barbecue utilizes a technique in which strips of marinated meat on forked skewers are roasted in an oven or open fire.
Since leaving the Boston area in 1979, the prospects of the perfection on a plate that is authentic Chinese barbecue have been dim and fleeting. Only in London and San Francisco have we since experienced anything approximating one of the transformative foods of my youth. When fellow IT professional Chris Reddington raved about an Albuquerque restaurant specializing in Chinese barbecue, my first inclination was one of skepticism–even though the name on the marquee does indeed include “Bar-B-Q.” Moreover, the menu he gave me includes a section of “Bar-B-Q Chef’s Specials,” including BBQ Chicken, BBQ Pork, BBQ Duck (whole or half) and crispy pork.
The Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine restaurant is, at its heart and essence, a Thai restaurant, but it does indeed include the aforementioned selection of Chinese barbecue specialties. Sengdao is named for the husband (Seng) and wife (Dao) couple who own and operate the restaurant which is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on San Mateo a few blocks north of Gibson and next door to Acapulco Tacos & Burritos. Previous occupants of the restaurant include Thai Ginger and a number of other restaurants, none of which were long-lived at the location.
Despite a somewhat garish exterior, Sengdao is one of the most attractive Thai restaurants in the Duke City. Rhapsodically cascading rivulets of water from small fountains provide a soothing melody while you dine. Thai screens and room dividers give the illusion of privacy even though tables are mere feet apart. Tables and seats are sheathed under white linen. At the front of the restaurant are two areas showcasing traditional Thai triangle pillow seating, versatile and attractive pieces used for hundreds of years for sitting, sleeping and decoration.
The menu is hardly a compendium of Thai and Chinese items, but it was hard to look beyond the Chinese barbecue items anyway. Only a handful of appetizers are available as are Lao and Thai versions of papaya salads and four soups. Noodle and rice dishes, curries, vegetarian dishes and Chinese entrees round out the menu. Seng runs the front of the house and is as friendly and helpful as can be. Shortly after you place your order, a bowl of shrimp flavored chips are brought to your table. In terms of appearance and texture, they resemble Styrofoam packing peanuts, but they really do pack a shrimp flavor. It’s a nice introduction to the restaurant–and maybe not the only complimentary item you’ll be presented.
Sengdao is one of a small handful of Thai restaurants offering both a Lao and a Thai version of papaya salad. There are some similarities. The Lao version is made with green papaya, tomato, anchovy, chili, lime and fish sauce. The Thai version is made with green papaya, tomato, dried shrimp, lime, peanuts, fish-sauce and sugar. Anchovy, not just an ingredient on pizza, is one of the reasons we opted for the Lao offering. By itself green papaya is surprisingly bland, but in combination with other ingredients, it can be very refreshing. The contrast of lime and fish sauce with anchovy is especially flavorful. We found it interesting that the papaya salad was served with three pork rinds (chicharrones, according to Seng) which reconstitute nicely with a bit of the lime and fish sauce.
Sengdao’s fried rice (chicken, pork or beef with egg, onion, celery, peas, carrots and sauce) is fairly standard stuff, maybe not seasoned or salted as assertively as at some Chinese restaurants. As with most rice dishes, it’s quite good with any remaining sauces you may leave on your plate. The fried rice is garnished prettily with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, both of which are fresh, delicious and healthful.
Okay, let’s dispense with the preliminaries. The main event, the piece de resistance and reason for our visit was Chinese barbecue. In 2011, a readers’ poll compiled by CNN Go rated Chinese barbecue pork one of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. Sengdao’s rendidtion didn’t quite take us to a higher place (Boston), but it is better char siu than we’ve had anywhere in New Mexico, a wonderfully roasted Chinese barbecue pork on par with bacon for sheer decadent pleasure. The pork is succulent, tender, lean and moist impregnated with a light, spicy sweetness and just a hint of caramelization around the pinkish crust. The sauce is sweet, but not cloying as sweet and sour sauce tends to be.
The green curry (chicken, eggplant, bell pepper, bamboo shoots, basil and coconut milk) is an exotic alternative to the barbecue pork, with ingredients coalescing to provide a balanced taste sensation of sweet, savory, creamy, piquant and salty tastes. As with all great curries, it has a floral scent that entices diners. Two aspects render this green curry different from green curry served at other Thai restaurants in Albuquerque. The first is the conservative use of coconut milk which allows the curry to shine without being dessert sweet. The second is the thinness of the broth. All the ingredients are fresh and delicious. The eggplant is firm and fresh while the bamboo shoots are perfectly prepared.
Before we could order (or even study the menu for options), Seng brought us a tapioca and coconut milk dessert. The tapioca were shaped like greenish gummy worms swimming in a slightly frothy coconut milk bath. Though the dessert was warm, interestingly it included two ice cubes, perhaps to help mold the tapioca. It’s a very good dessert, one you start off eating with a spoon but finish by drinking.
My friends in Massachusetts might find it shocking that New Mexico’s largest city has only one restaurant proud enough of its Chinese barbecue to include it on the marquee. They might also find it surprising to find that Sengdao actually does the term “Chinese barbecue” proud.
Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine
834 San Mateo, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 1