When John Lucas, Elizabeth Eisner Reding and Mike Reding, three trusted gastronomes who frequent this blog, heartily recommended I try Best Lee’s, my initial reaction was, “they’ve got to be kidding.” Our sole visit to Best Lee’s in Rio Rancho exemplified the mediocrity and boring “sameness” that plagues many of New Mexico’s Chinese restaurants–a homogeneity my discerning friend Bill Resnik refers to as “copycat menus full of candied, fried and breaded mystery meats that all taste the same.”
It’s a good thing Chinese Restaurant News (CRN) doesn’t read my blog. CRN, a highly respected monthly trade publication serving the more than 43,100 Chinese restaurants across America, selected Best Lee’s as one of America’s best Chinese restaurants for 2008. In fact, during the “year of the mouse,” Best Lee’s earned distinction as one the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the categories of “Top 100 Local Favorites” and “Top 100 Overall Excellence.” The latter is the publication’s highest honor.
The “Local Favorites” award is presented to restaurants which have “proven their success over many years and through difficult circumstances.” Such honorees must also “maintain an important community presence and have a significant and devoted customer base.” The award for “Overall Excellence” is accorded to restaurants with the highest overall score in all areas (food, decor, atmosphere, service, cleanliness and presentation and value). Awards are based on “mystery diner” evaluations and public votes.”
Interestingly one of the selection criterion used by CRN to assess nominated restaurants is that 50 percent of the menu items must be “related to Chinese cuisine.” Note that the criterion says nothing about authenticity and tradition. Most Chinese restaurants in America would be disqualified from this prestigious competition if required to serve an entirely authentic, wholly traditional Chinese menu. Chinese restaurants across the fruited plain have made “faux” Chinese entrees ubiquitous–and that’s the way American’s like them.
Among the faux items on the menus at many Chinese restaurants are the pu-pu platter, a cutesy appetizer first served as a gimmick at Trader Vic’s, an Americanized Polynesian restaurant. Chop suey and chow mein, two Chinese-American dishes were invented during the California Gold Rush to feed large number of miners cheaply. The fortune cookie was invented in Los Angeles and remains a strange concept in China.
In fact, much of what passes as Chinese cuisine in Chinese restaurants throughout the western world would appall a traditional Chinese gourmet. In addition to the aforementioned dishes, some of America’s favorite sweet and sour concoctions are sometimes made with such Western ameliorants as barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, cooking sherry and other non-traditional ingredients. Other ingredients which would stupefy a traditionalist include canned fruit (including fruit cocktail) and vegetables, as well as monosodium glutamate (MSG), an addictive additive.
It wasn’t its lack of commitment to authenticity that turned us off Best Lee’s. It was the lack of deliciousness in the appetizers and entrees we had that prompted my less than favorable review. Still, the fact that trusted readers raved about Best Lee’s made me wonder if I could have been entirely mistaken in my initial assessment of Best Lee’s or whether we visited during an anomalous “off-night” courtesy of Murphy’s Law.
Best Lee’s certainly didn’t have an off-night when we visited in April, 2009. In fact we were so impressed that we visited again two days later. These visits were not to the Rio Rancho restaurant, however, but to its second instantiation. This one is in Albuquerque just a block north of Paseo del Norte and Wyoming. It’s the restaurant recommended to me.
The Albuquerque version of Best Lee’s is ensconced in a modern shopping center, an amalgamation of niche retail stores in an area experiencing considerable urban infill. Its signage is suffixed with “Gourmet Asian Food,” a claim the Rio Rancho restaurant doesn’t make. The restaurant’s interior includes many of the stereotypical trappings of the modern Chinese restaurant which is much more reserved than its older predecessors.
This Best Lee’s has something the Rio Rancho rendition doesn’t have–a “Chinese uncle.” At least that’s what the bespectacled waiter with the perpetual impish smile calls himself. A peripatetic presence, Chinese uncle visits every table, spicing his recommendations with his own version of Confucius-like wisdom. With an ambassadorial flair, he also lavishes compliments on his guests (I think calling me “nice mustache man” is a compliment) and seems especially adept at entertaining children (of all ages).
The menu includes a 200 percent guarantee that “we don’t use MSG” and a 100 percent guarantee that “we use vegetable oil.” That menu is a veritable compendium of Chinese and Americanized Chinese favorites as well as more than a perfunctory smattering of other Asian (mostly Thai) favorites.
Appetizers include steamed or pan-fried homemade pork or vegetable dumplings. These half-moon shaped dumplings are much larger than most dumplings, in part because they are engorged with a generous amount of well-seasoned sausage. At eight to an order, this appetizer almost ensures you’ll be taking left-overs home with you. The dumplings are served with a light semi-sweet and slightly tangy sauce (not that you really need it) with soy sauce as its base and other complementary ingredients such as green onion, chili and ginger.
Interestingly, Best Lee’s offers an appetizer portion red curry tofu soup, something we haven’t seen at any Thai restaurant in Albuquerque. It’s an excellent soup, served steaming hot and brimming with flavor. Coconut-infused with the rich, fresh flavor of aromatic red curry, it is the type of comfort food soup whose flavor increases exponentially as the temperature outside drops. The vegetables swimming in the bowl are fresh and delicious while the tofu inherits the flavor of the rich amalgam. If the soup is this good, it’s likely other Thai offerings are, too.
Another Thai appetizer sure to please is satay, available in beef or chicken. These little skewers of thinly sliced meat are perhaps the most popular street food in Thailand, but you’ll also find them in high-end restaurants. The beef is marinated in an amalgam of complementary ingredients intended to give it a balance of sweet, savory and rich flavors. The satay is served with a bowl of peanut sauce, a version that is not nearly as cloying as served at many Thai restaurants.
Appetizers are apportioned for sharing and even when split between two, the portions are prodigious and you risk filling up before your main entrees are delivered to your table. It’s a risk worth taking because the appetizers are delicious and the take-home portions reheat wonderfully. In fact, reheating some things just seems to bring out even more of its flavor richness.
I’ve never quite understood the concept of crispy, pan-fried noodles; more specifically why you would eat something that’s only going to reconstitute when you add a sauce to it. My Kim loves them–as much in their crispy state as when they’re soft and “noodley,’ but to my obviously unacculturated taste buds, the crispy noodles are reminiscent of Durkee’s french fried onion strings (which midwesterners add to green bean casseroles).
Best Lee’s pan-fried noodles can be made with your choice of shrimp, chicken or mixed vegetables with the “chef’s delicious sauce.” The ever-accommodating kitchen staff will tailor this dish to your tastes, such as making it with a brown mango sauce and excluding or adding more of any vegetable you desire. The taste combination of mango sauce and red onions, by the way, is surprisingly delicious.
Plating at Best Lee’s is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks. Their taste buds will follow suit, confirming what their eyes are telling them.
It may be hard to tell through all the steam just how esthetically appealing the dish pictured above is. It’s scallops and beef Shanghai style from the chef’s special section of the menu. Large sea scallops with flank steak and assorted vegetables in a brown sauce are served on a sizzling plate. Even had my camera been able to penetrate that veil of steam, a photo wouldn’t do justice to this entree.
The scallops are indeed large. They’re also sweet and delicious. The flank steak is not as tough and chewy as this particular cut of beef tends to be and while you’d never call it tender, you certainly won’t need the jaws of a boxer to masticate it. Now, many Chinese dishes are prepared with a “brown sauce” but that term is rather vague because there is no standard way to prepare it. Best Lee’s version seems to have its basis in beef broth, but also hints of brown sugar, garlic and other ingredients. Whatever its composition, it’s a worthy sauce.
During our inaugural visit Chinese uncle paraded by our table to show us an artfully appealing fish on a platter destined for a table in a different section of the restaurant. Showcasing that dish had his desired effect–we were back in two days to try it.
There are, in fact, several steamed or crispy fish entrees on the menu: yellow fish, red snapper or rex sole. Chinese uncle confided that the rex sole was the best of the three. Quite often when the wait staff effusively pushes an entree, it’s because that entree is the most expensive or the entree closest to an expiring shelf life, but when Chinese uncle recommends something, he speaks with conviction.
Rex sole is a member of the flounder family. In fact, this small fish (normally under two pounds) is considered one of the tastiest fish in the flounder family with a sweet, delicate white flesh. It is a flat fish with both eyes on the same side of its head. The fillets from the bottom side of the sole tend to be thinner and white-fleshed while fillets from the top side are thicker and darker (grayish).
Instead of having to extricate the delicate white flesh from between the sole’s quill-like bones (a delicate operation requiring surgeon-like precision), several chunky fillets are served atop the flat fish’s carcass. The fillets are lightly breaded and served with either a ginger scallion sauce or a “chef’s special sauce.” The latter is reminiscent of the type of Vietnamese fish sauce sold in Asian grocery stores. It is more sweet than tangy with the consistency of a light syrup, but it complements the fish very well.
From the Southeast Asia Style section of the menu comes one of the most popular entrees entrees served in Thai restaurants throughout America. Pad Thai is actually one of Thailand’s national dishes and similar to satay, is equally at home as a street food or served in a nice restaurant.
Best Lee’s version of this stir-fried rice noodle dish is fairly standard and hints of tangy fish sauce and tamarind, piquant chili peppers and other complementary flavors. It is garnished with crushed peanuts and served with lime which you’re free to squeeze onto the dish.
Not at all standard are the chocolate covered fortune cookies, a delightful twist we’ve seen at only one other Albuquerque Chinese restaurant. The chocolate actually gives the light, delicate cookie some substance (and many would argue, taste). It’s a nice treat to end a meal.
Best Lee’s is one of the better Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque and confirms something I state in my FAQs page–that diners should take a “caveat emptor” approach to any restaurant review written by any critic (even me). I was wrong about Best Lee’s (at least the one in Albuquerque) and am big enough (by about two pounds after two vey good meals at the restaurant) to admit it.
Best Lee’s Authentic Gourmet Asian Restaurant
7900 Carmel Avenue, Suite F
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2009
1ST VISIT: 10 April 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: House Pan Fried Noodles, Scallops & Beef Shanghai Style, Steamed Pork Dumplings, Satay, Pad Thai, Crispy Fried Fish, Chocolate Fortune Cookies
18 thoughts on “Best Lee’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)”
I don’t know how long Best Lee’s has been gone & forgotten but it is definitely gone.
My significant other and I decided to give Best Lee’s another try. Big mistake. The food is nowhere like what it used to be and we will never darken their door again.
I am pretty sure this once wonderful establishment has changed ownership since the initial review. The food quality has gone downhill considerably. Also on 01/03/17, KRQE ran a piece on TV, also on their website, how this restaurant was hanging meat on grocery carts outside in the sun in back of their establishment. Apparently this was a frequent occurrence.
Unbelievable the health inspectors didn’t RED sticker them on the spot, but there you have it. Several of us from work had occasionally eaten here, but no more!
We hadn’t been to Best Lee’s for quite some time. We went there for lunch today and were profoundly disappointed. The first thing we noted was that the menus have completely changed. So has the food, and not for the better.
The wonton soup broth had little flavor and the wontons were heavy, almost mushy. Previously the broth had wonderful flavor and the wontons were light and delicious. The fried rice also had little flavor and almost nothing but rice in it — one pea and a tiny cube of carrot. Previously it had wonderful flavor and many more vegetables in it. This time there wasn’t a hint of egg. The ginger glazed chicken and sesame chicken were flavorful but the accompanying vegetables were essentially raw.
We asked our server if Best Lee’s had changed hands, and she said it had. Though I’m not really sure she understood the question. Communicating with her was very difficult.
Too bad we really liked this restaurant and are sorry to see it go down hill. So it’s off to Budai next time we want good Chinese food in mortgage heights.
My significant other and I went to Best Lee’s for Chinese New Year’s (Jan 23, 2012). The food and the dancers were exceptional. But the service was atrocious. The Chinese Uncle was no where to be seen and would not have tolerated this inattenion by the staff. Has he gone by the wayside?
A friend and I tried Best Lee’s for dinner last night. What a disappointment! We were met by an unfriendly waitstaff and unpleasant service. Our dumplings were greasy and lacked seasoning. The brown rice served with my entree was desperately overcooked (it was both mushy AND crunchy). Our entrees, while attractive to look at, also lacked any real distinctive flavour. To be fair, mine seemed to at least be fresh – however, my friend commented that some of the vegetables in her soup tasted old. With all the rave reviews from months past, but nothing recent, I have to wonder if the original owners/management are gone. At any rate, I don’t think we’ll be back.
We are so used to horrible “American Restaurant Chinese” places that we delayed going to the Paseo Best Lee’s until last night and took the Child Bride’s friend, the Italian Lady. I have no particular axe to grind about the American version of Chinese food as it was for the most part invented by Chinese cooks using available American ingredients just as “American Restaurant Italian” was invented by Italian immigrants. Most though is just horrible. I was further brazed for disappointment as arriving at about 7:00 Friday night there were very few customers. Even worse I was looking for the world famous Chinese Uncle. Inquiring we found that he is gone-the explanation as to whether he is in China or California was very vague.
I ordered the Scallops and Beef Shanghai; Child Bride had the Happy Family; the Italian Lady ordered Wok Grilled garlic Shrimp and we shared an order of Dim Sum. All were wonderful though the waiter hinted that I would find the Scallops and Beef Shanghai will not exist in Shanghai when we go there in a few months. The ingredients were very high quality and (from Child Brides experience running a Chinese restaurant long ago) very expensive. Someone there really knows how to cook. I am suspicious of the Italian Lady though. She is a great Italian cook but does not hate Olive Garden. She even eats there on purpose at times.
I still prefer Budhai but it is much like comparing apples and oranges-both can be great.
1st visit per curiousity about how a place could survive with rather negative experiences of others.
I use the old stand-by of Sweet n Sour Pork as my initial try-out of a place…if ya can’t do that right, what’s to come? LOL
My server greeted me hospitably as I entered which put me on guard wondering what kind of a ploy was this, given others “negative” experiences. As I munched on the complimentary and lightly sweetened(?) cucumber slices while reading the menu, she followed-up within a few moments to ask lest I had a beverage in mind. Alas, she also checked on my progress twice while I munched down my SnSP…I really appreciate settings where the sauce is served on the side so Y’all don’t end up with mushy balls especially when dining solo. The tender pork was sized right per my personal preference, i.e. where you are not tempted to half-it, and was presented nicely and colorfully ‘peppered’…albeit I’m spoiled (and not to take away from the just sweet enough sauce) for a few chunks of pineapple being ‘needed’…LOL
If there existed a recognized certifier of “Sensitive G-I systems”, I’m sure I’d be certified…i.e. “bad things” hit me in under two hours!! I’m happy to report even 22 hours later, I’m symptom free!!!
I’d suggest that Best Lee’s subdued ambiance is great for washing away the hustle n bustle of the work-a-day world. It is not just a hole-in-the-wall place with glaring neon lighting overheard as so many places have. On the other hand, it does not effuse the panache as the often maligned Trader Vic’s of olde days did nor the raining thunderstorms at Le Masque(?) at The Rio in Vegas…for that ‘Especial Occassion’, but Y’all can tell that from Best Lee’s affordable…and thus much appreciatied…. prices for the Everyday Man (or Woman) Experience…IMHO.
I’ll venture again for a more exotic menu experience.
We have been there 3 times. The best Chinese in ABQ that we have had. Chopstix close 2nd. Best is the house special steak. The food is freshly prepared with quality ingredients. No goopy fatening sauses here. Sweet dishes are NOT overly sweet. Wait staff talked to us many times. Owner talks and sings to us.
Amanda, Do you own a rival chinese restaurant? Did you eat at a different restaurant?
We love Best Lee’s and will drive from Nob Hill to go there. Chopstix is also a fantastic restaurant.
I have tried Best Lees a few times and got sick both times. This was just another American-Chinese restaurant. There is nothing authentic about there food, loaded with sugar and deep fried. I can’t wait until someone serves decent Chinese food in Albuquerque. I usually find myself waiting to go to one of the bigger cities to really enjoy something worth eating. I had a waitress who wore a ton of makeup with big fake lashes with an attitude, geez not going back.
Not that impressed with this place, got a bit creeped out by “Chinese Uncle”…he seems like a caricature. Clearly catering to American palates because of their rather expansive menu. I prefer places that specialize in a type of cuisine and not just cook as many things they can make money on.
First time tonight. We had Pad Thai, House Special Birdnest, Lo Mein, Spring rolls. We were quite pleased. Very high quality prepared with care food.
My friends and I love this restaurant. My husband, who hates Chinese food, loves it! You obviously don’y like good Chinese food. Most of Albuquerque disagrees with you!
After reading your review of the RR instantiation, the review of the NE heights version of Best Lees restored my faith that our taste buds were roughly on the same page. As you found, Never mess with the Chinese Uncle, and give them a try on Chinese New Year. Quite an experience.
I made two visits to Best Lee’s in Albuquerque. Although the food is delicious, the service during both visits was awful. Once my food arrived, I was ignored and had to make repeated attempts to get my server’s attention for a refill of my drink. On my second visit, I never got my appetizer but was charged for it when the bill came. It took some work on my end to straighten out the problem.
I was wondering what you would think of this place, Gil. This is walking distance to my house and I have really enjoyed the dishes I’ve tried there. I remember a seafood basket that was excellent with a lot of lobster.
Oh, and Chinese Uncle said I was a gentleman for opening the front door for a woman to go through.
I’m blessed to live right across Paseo from this lovely restaurant and I have to admit, my Chinese uncle cooks for me at least once a week and I’ve never been disappointed. I recommend Best Lee’s to all my friends and family. It truely is the “best” in northeast Albuquerque.
Thanks for visiting Best Lee’s, Gil … we knew you’d like it!