“Careful Father, this stuff will melt your beads.”
~Lt Colonel Henry Blake, MASH 4077
Just as Hogan’s Heroes helped establish the perception many Americans (at least of my generation) had about German food, the television show MASH was the first introduction many of us had to Korean food. Set in South Korea during the Korean War, the series centered around a group of resilient doctors, nurses and support staff in an isolated hospital compound which saw more than its share of wounded. Not only did each half hour episode depict–sometimes rather graphically–the horrors of war, it painted a rather poignant and entirely accurate picture of sacrifice and hardship.
Some of the sacrifice and hardship came at the hands of the kitchen staff which concocted some of the most unsavory fare conceivable (imagine a restaurant today serving creamed turnips, spam lamb and cream of weenie soup). Indigenous cuisine was apparently even worse because no matter how bad chow hall food was, the MASH team didn’t walk down to the nearby village for a meal of Korean food. And, as the quote above illustrates, when they did partake of Korean food, the impression given was that it was almost lethally piquant.
Compared to the cuisines of other East Asian nations, the rise in the popularity of Korean food across the fruited plain was painfully slow. In fact, only in recent years have Korean restaurants become a thriving part of the American culinary mainstream. According to seriouseats.com, much of this is attributable to the insular nature of Korean restaurants which, by design, initially catered to other Koreans, not to the teeming masses. The unwillingness of Koreans to compromise on authenticity can be contrasted to the pandering to American tastes by other East Asian cultures who have dumbed down their dishes to appeal to the masses. Can you say Pad Thai or General Tso’s chicken or even sushi?
Korean food may be the least Americanized of East Asian cuisines meaning that within Korean restaurants you won’t find any one dish that you won’t recognize as being dumbed down for American tastes (as Pad Thai has been at Thai restaurants across the fruited plain). That means purists curious about traditional Korean cuisine can still find it easily and as relatively unspoiled as if served in Seoul. Indisputably the most popular Korean dish among American diners is bulgogi, the marinated and grilled beef dish to which diners often refer as Korean barbecue. Today it’s possible to find bulgogi served at non-Korean restaurants where it is discernibly more Americanized.
Albuquerque has been blessed with the presence of at least one Korean restaurant for nearly four decades. Chris and Kye Lovato started it all with the long defunct Fu Shou House which they operated in the Kirtland Air Force Base area until 1993. That year the Lovatos moved to the Scottsdale Village Shopping Center where they reopened as Fu Yuang. Over the past four decades, there have been (and still are) other Korean restaurants operating in the Duke City, but in terms of sheer numbers, Korean restaurants in Albuquerque pale compared to restaurants from other East Asian nations.
The January 12th, 2015, launch of Asian Pear, did little to impact the disparity in the number of Korean restaurants compared to the surprisingly high number of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in the Duke City. Unlike many of them, however, but the Asian Pear concept appears a promising candidate for expansion (wishful thinking here). The restaurant’s marquee is underscored by “fresh and healthy Korean BBQ and Japanese food,” but it would not be inaccurate to add “inexpensive” and “delicious.” Asian Pear’s first home was located in the bustling downtown area right next to the long-established Skip Maisel’s on Central Avenue. In 2018, Asian Pear moved relocated to a strip mall on San Pedro just north of Paseo Del Norte.
Despite its relatively small digs and just a few tables (mostly two tops), Asian Pear has a warm, homey look and feel to it. A large-print menu is positioned to the right of the counter where you place your order. Just in front of you is a rather open kitchen where you can see dishes being prepared. The menu is segmented into plate entrees, bowl entrees, bento boxes and sides, but daily specials shouldn’t be overlooked. Plate and bowl entrees are served with your choice of steamed rice, fried rice or chap-chae (Korean-style glass noodles) as well as vegetable sides. Bento boxes also include steamed rice, tempura (shrimp, carrot and onion), bean sprouts and two pot stickers. The low, low prices will have you doing a double-take with only one item north of ten dollars as of this writing.
One other pleasant aspect of dining at Asian Pear is the eagerness of the staff to have you sample more than what you order. It’s an approach which will introduce you to items you’ll probably order the next time you visit. Shortly after you’re seated, expect complimentary Korean vegetable pancakes (cake flour and vegetables dipped in a spicy sauce) and kimchi to be delivered to your table. Insofar as your entries, the accommodating and friendly staff is even receptive to substitutions, a “have it your way” attitude with which some restaurateurs just won’t be bothered. You’ll be more than pleasantly surprised at how eager to please the Asian Pear staff is.
15 December 2015: The vegetable pancake is imbued with three of my favorite food characteristics: freshness, flavor and free. Though relatively small in portion (they are free, after all), they’re addictively good. That’s the point. We’re sure to order the full-sized version during future visits. The kimchi, a dish of fermented cabbage, pungent garlic and other vegetables, doesn’t have the eye-watering piquancy of kimchi we’ve had elsewhere, but it’ll tantalize your taste buds with its spiciness and personality. With its light, crunchy and refreshing qualities, the cabbage-based kimchi is sure to please, too.
8 October 2019: With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees on the day of my inaugural visit with my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver, only a steaming bowl of soup could take the chill out. At the time Asian Pear offered some of the very best wonton noodle soup in town, a piping hot elixir brimming with plump wontons. Wonton noodle soup is no longer on the menu, but an even better option is. That would be Korean Style Ramen Noodle Soup with your choice of tofu, pork, chicken or beef. Julienne carrots lend a crispy contrast to the silky smooth, slide-down-your-throat noodles. Tiny strips of pork swim in a lavish, well-seasoned broth with just a hint of heat where you’ll also find a perfectly prepared half a hard-boiled egg.
15 December 2015: Over the years, my very favorite Korean entree has become bibimbap which is not only fun to say, but fun to eat. Bibimbap, which translates from Korean to mixed rice,” is a savory Korean dish which usually incorporates rice, pickled vegetables, sauces, and in some cases, meats and eggs. The rendition at Asian Pear includes a sizable portion of smoky, sweet-savory meat (your choice of pork, beef or chicken) that contrasts nicely with the various pickled vegetables (namul) and the mildly piquant spicy chili paste. Stir vigorously and you’ve got a wonderful melange of deliciousness.
15 December 2015: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” is as enamored of kalbi (sometimes spelled galbi) as I am of bibimbap. Kalbi, which translates to “ribs” is a Korean barbecue dish centered around cooking marinated beef short ribs until the outside is crisp and caramelized and the inside is tender and juicy. With ten ribs on the plate, Asian Pear’s portion size is generous though my carnivorous friend would have appreciated even more of this delicious meat candy.
8 October 2019: At first browse, Asian Pear’s vegetable and kimchi pancakes are simplicity itself, but there’s much more to these crispy, chewy, salty, spice orbs than all-purpose flour and vegetables or kimchi. Shards of pungent-piquant kimchi are embedded in the orange-rust colored kimchi pancake which is served with a spicy sauce you probably won’t even touch. Instead, you might want to hold on to some of the complementary kimchi and use it as a topping for the pancakes. Either way, these are a must-have.
In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Asian Pear a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Vegetable Pancake as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. A year before, a USA Today feature called “50 States: 50 Best Restaurants” used Yelp algorithms to determine that the very best restaurant in the Land of Enchantment was Asian Pear.
While we certainly enjoyed every morsel of every item we sampled at Asian Pear, what blew us away most is the exemplary customer service…and we’re not the only ones to praise the amazing aim to please attitude among the staff. Every Yelp review for Asian Pear is effusive in its praise for the service. Asian Pear hasn’t done much to advertise its presence on Central Avenue, but gushing word-of-mouth praise from its guests has made this little treasure on Route 66 a great food, great value, great service destination.
8101 San Pedro Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2019
1st VISIT: 15 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Kalbi, Bibimbap, Kimchee, Vegetable Pancake, Fried Rice