“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 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 unrecognizably 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, addition 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 is located in the bustling downtown area right next to the long-established Skip Maisel’s on Central Avenue. It sits in the space previously occupied by the Teriyaki Kitchen.
You’ll walk past an expansive seating area to get to the counter where you’ll place your order from a large-print menu over a window to the kitchen. 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 the most expensive entrees being south of ten dollars.
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 vegetable pancakes and kimchee to be delivered to your table. 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.
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 next time we visit. The kimchee, a dish of fermented cabbage and other vegetables, doesn’t have the eye-watering piquancy of kimchee we’ve had elsewhere, but it’ll tantalize your taste buds with its spiciness and personality.
With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees on the day of our inaugural visit, only a steaming bowl of soup could take the chill out. Fortunately Asian Pear had two options available–wonton soup and ramen. Unlike some wonton soup found in the Duke City, the wontons in this version are stuffed with chicken and are half-moon shaped (like dumplings). Replete with scallions, this wonton soup has a pleasant and not-too-salty flavor, but more importantly on a cold day, it’s got warming properties needed to brave the weather.
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.
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.
In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Asian Pear a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Jeon (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.
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.
NOTE: This is the 900th review published on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog.
8101 San Pedro Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Kalbi, Bibimbap, Kimchee, Vegetable Pancake, Fried Rice