According to the trade magazine Chinese Restaurant News, as of January, 2007, there were 43,139 Chinese restaurants in the United States. That’s three times the number of McDonalds franchise units and more than the total number of McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s in America combined. More than 80 percent are family-owned with nation-wide chains such as Panda Express and PF Chang’s accounting for only five percent of all Chinese restaurants across the fruited plain. Raking in nearly $17 billion in annual sales, Chinese restaurants are nearly on a profitability par with the behemoth burger chain, too.
Until recent years, many (if not most) Chinese restaurants specialized in inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffets, most of dubitable quality. Today, buffets are the bailiwick of behemoth supermarket-sized Chinese restaurants, some of which can accommodate hundreds of hungry patrons. Chinese buffet restaurants remain very popular, perhaps as much because of economic considerations as for their prolific portions. Prodigious portions do not, however, transformative meals make. Few, if any, people who frequent Chinese buffets will admit to visiting because the food is so good it’s memorable.
Urbanspoon shows there are nearly 100 Chinese restaurants (or Asian fusion restaurants featuring Chinese food) in the Duke City. Only a handful of them offer all-you-can-eat buffets and those which do provide a stunning assortment of Americanized and authentic Chinese favorites (as well as the ever-amusing Chinese buffet standard of chocolate pudding). During peak hours, the only thing with more variety than the silver trays brimming with multi-colored foods are the parking lots which must certainly be the envy of restaurants which don’t offer buffets.
Take, for example, the Chin Shan Chinese Restaurant on Albuquerque’s West Side. On the day of my inaugural visit, we counted a total of nine diners over the course of an hour. A mile and a half away, the parking lot at the Hong Kong Buffet was nearly full. Why the disparity? The Duke City dining public, it seems, prefers large quantities and a wide variety of inexpensive food available with minimal waiting instead of very good food prepared to order and which arrives at your table hot and fresh.
Chin Shan has been serving Albuquerque’s far northwest quadrant since the summer of 2012 in the location whose most successful previous tenant was the much-missed Blue Cactus Grill. It’s on the opposite corner of the strip mall which also houses Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria. Though new to Albuquerque, Chin Shan is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment. The original Chin Shan was a Los Alamos staple for years before being sold and renamed.
The word Chin Shan means “beautiful mountain” in Chinese which is most fitting considering the spectacular view of the Sandias from its east-facing windows. The interior is accented in the color of sandia (watermelon), too. Chin Shan is large enough to accommodate large groups, but has an intimate feel. The restaurant is open seven days a week and offers dining-in and take-out as well as party trays for your own events.
The menu may not be a compendium of everything which comprises Chinese cuisine, but it’s a formidable menu categorized into soups, appetizers, vegetables, pork, duck, chicken, baby bok choy, baked soy bean, beef, seafood, clay pot, lo mein, Udon noodle, house noodle, fried rice and specialties. A luncheon menu is served Monday through Sunday with chicken, pork and beef combos served with soup (egg drop or hot and sour), egg roll and egg-fried rice. It’s a relatively large menu with just enough sweet-and-sour entrees to appease American tastes inclined to enjoy candied meats.
There are only ten items on Chin Shan’s appetizer menu, most of them fairly standard. If the crab cheese wontons are any indication, the kitchen knows what it’s doing. Unlike so many Chinese restaurants which offer these deep-fried dumplings, usually under the name Crab Rangoon, these are not dessert sweet. Each of the eight four-sided star-shaped wontons are stuffed with a combination of cream cheese, crab meat (probably imitation), scallions and garlic. These wontons are terrific, far too good to be dipped into the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce. Ask the very accommodating wait staff for chili sauce (the one which resembles tobacco spit) which complements the wontons very well.
From among three entrees shared with friends, the one which stood out most is the Shrimp with XO Sauce…and no, “XO” does not stand for kisses and hugs. XO sauce is a spicy seafood sauce made of roughly chopped dried seafoods, and subsequently cooked with chili peppers, onions, and garlic. XO sauce imparts deep, rich, smoky and piquant qualities onto food. It’s applied at just the right amount on shrimp which are fresh and have a crisp snap to them. This dish is served with red and green peppers and onions, all fresh and crisp. This is a delicious dish, much better than you’ll find on any buffet line.
Another very enjoyable entree is Chin Shan’s crispy chicken which can be made to your preferred level of piquancy. Unlike some chicken dishes in other Chinese restaurants, this dish is made with all white meat which is sheathed in a reddish piquant-sweet sauce. One of the chicken’s nicest features is that it is indeed crispy, but not so crispy that you won’t enjoy the moist, tender chicken. It’s also not overly sweet, but melds well with the heat-generating properties of the sauce. The crispy chicken is served on a bed of lettuce with a side of white rice.
The sweet-piquant sauce used on the Crispy beef is dissimilar to the sauce used on the crispy chicken. It’s a bit sweeter and not quite as fiery, but it’s not cloying as most sweet-and-sour sauces tend to be. The crispy beef is a treat. Each tendril of beef is caramelized to the extent that the exterior is crispy while the interior retains moistness. You might even get the sensation of eating candied carne seca. My friend Sr. Plata who loves this dish tells me it’s not often available at Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque.
SECOND VISIT – 24 JULY 2013: In days of yore, the method of ordering a meal at Chinese restaurants was as simple as choosing one item from Column A, two items from Column B, and so forth. Alas, the Chinese menu system has become somewhat anachronistic. Today, instead of the “one from Column A, one from Column B” system, many non-buffet Chinese restaurants offer combination meals, especially for lunch. Among the attractions of the combination meal is that they’re inexpensive and they’re filling. At Chin Shan, the lunch combinations include fried rice, an egg roll and your choice of hot and sour or egg drop soup.
Hot and sour soup is a crap shoot, often neither hot nor sour unless you doctor it with vinegar and chili. The hot and sour soup at Chin Shan is very much on the viscous side–very heavily thickened. It’s not quite as hot or as sour as I like, but it’s served hot as in steaming. That makes it a good soup in my book. Size-wise, the egg rolls are more akin to Thai or Vietnamese egg rolls, not the bulging, overfilled Chinese egg rolls. They’re good, but hardly memorable. You might not remember the rice either.
The orange chicken, bite-sized, lightly battered and fried chicken breast and thigh meat is about what you might expect for a dish of Chinese origin which has been very much Americanized. The orange-flavored sauce is on the sweet size with not nearly as much chili as diners might want. It’s not overly sweet, but could stand for a bit of piquancy. The curry chicken is also lacking in punch, but is greatly improved by a bit of chili sauce.
Chin Shan is one of the best Chinese restaurants on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side, but it has the misfortune of being in fairly close proximity to a behemoth buffet restaurant. If very good food, great service and reasonable prices stand for anything any more, Chin Shan should do well. Visit once and you’ll probably visit again.
Chin Shan Chinese Restaurant
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite F.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 July 2013
1st VISIT: 30 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Shrimp with XO Sauce, Crispy Chicken, Crispy Beef, Crab Cheese Wonton, Orange Chicken, Hot and Sour Soup