Thai Heritage & Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Who among us hasn’t learned at least one thing about Thai culinary heritage from The Big Bang Theory? In a 2011 episode, for example, we learned that according to Thai tradition the last morsel of food, the greng jie, goes to the most important person in the room. At least that’s what Sheldon tells Penny when she reaches for the last remaining dumpling. Thanking everyone for the honor, she devours the dumpling. Sheldon’s retort: “I’ve seen pictures of your mother. Keep eating.” Some of us learned that Thai food is meant to be eaten with forks not chop sticks though in Thailand, they don’t put the fork in their mouth. It’s simply a tool to put the food on a spoon which then goes into the mouth.
We also learned that Sheldon, the quirky wunderkind with an obsessive compulsive tendencies orders mee krob and chicken satay with extra peanut sauce on Mondays. Every Monday! As an adventurous diner with polygamous culinary tendencies, the concept of ordering the same meal repeatedly is galling. When expressing my intolerance towards monogamous (monotonous?) diners to my Kim, she quickly knocked me off my high-horse, reminding me that whenever we dine at a Thai restaurant I almost always order a curry dish. Whether it be Penang curry, Masuman curry, yellow curry pumpkin curry, curry with catfish or Kristen Currie (if she was on the menu), it’s invariably a curry dish our server ferries to our table. Kim suggested my next curry meal should come with crow.
In truth, curry is a dish to which I graduated after having explored the myriad of other Thai food options. While Thai restaurant menus are replete with zesty, spicy, flavorful dishes, curry dishes are the pinnacle of deliciousness. Curry is Thai food self-actualized, Thai food as good as it possibly can be–complex, bold, pungent and aromatic. Curry satisfies my need for balance and order with sweet, savory and piquant notes in perfect proportion. It’s layered with comforting richness and soul-warming flavor. So why deprive myself?
My Kim also chided me for calling some aspects of Thai cuisine across the fruited plain “Americanized,” recalling that she’s never heard me complain about the portion size of my curry being too small. Americans–me included–tend to like prodigious portion sizes which, in the land of the brave, are easily twice or thrice the portion size served in Thailand. She urged me to remember a wise Thai aphorism: “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.” Grrr, I hate that she’s always right, but she is my conscience and my buffer.
During our inaugural visit to the first instantiation of Thai Heritage in 2016 it took only a brief perusal of the menu to recognize that Thai Heritage may be the Albuquerque restaurant in which my every order might not be curry-centric. In the appetizer section alone, there were a number of dishes heretofore not seen on Duke City Thai restaurant menus. The genesis of these appetizers is the Issan Province in northeast Thailand. Issan dishes are characterized by incendiary chilies, pungent fish sauces, lip-pursing sour bites and flavorful sauces.
Sadly, Thai Heritage was short-lived at its Montgomery location. In 2018, it reopened on Central Avenue in the Nob Hill district east of The University of New Mexico between Solano Drive and Aliso Drive. Signage is a bit confusing. Scrawled just above the entrance to the restaurant are the words “Thai Vegan.” The doors below signage for “Thai Heritage” are locked. Chef Onuma Thongthip explained the restaurant is now named “Thai Heritage & Vegan.” Indeed, portions of the menu are strictly vegan.
Issan dishes are still strewn throughout the menu including two salad dishes Thai food aficionados will recognize: larb (chopped chicken, mint, basil and red onions dressed with lime juice and ground red chilies) and papaya salad (shredded papaya mixed with garlic, lime juice, chilies, tomatoes and ground peanuts). It’s certainly a menu that deserves serious exploration. Your explorations will reveal several dishes—such as orange chicken and pineapple fried rice–more closely associated with Chinese restaurants than with Thai eateries. You’ll find that noodle dishes outnumber rice dishes by a wide margin. You’ll delight in seeing eight desserts on the menu, more than at just about any other Thai restaurant in town. Alas, there are only four curry dishes including a tempting pumpkin curry. Nonetheless, this is a menu in which even those of us who’ve tried everything (or think we have) will find something new.
Owner-chef Onuma prepares every meal to order which means you’ll experience fresh Thai flavors at their alluringly aromatic best. As the name implies, Thai Heritage celebrates authentic Thai recipes handed down over generations. The gracious chef, a smiling, peripatetic presence strives to give her guests the experience of the fundamental Thai tastes in every meal you order, the harmonious combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy. If you’ve ever lamented the over-emphasis of near cloying Thai food in the city’s Thai restaurants, the promise of balanced flavors should excite you.
17 December 2016: Since first experiencing the transcendent papaya salad at An Hy Quan, Albuquerque’s premier Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, we’ve craved the deeply satisfying balance of flavors in that dish. We often wondered if those flavors translated well to the frying process. Leave it to Thai Heritage to answer that deeply existential question for us. Yes, the menu does include a Fried Papaya Salad. Fried very lightly, a passel of shredded papaya is indeed infused with the flavors we love in its fresh counterpart—piquancy from Thai chilies, pungency from fish sauce, sweetness from sugar, savory notes from garlic and sour notes from lime juice. Sprinkled with finely crushed peanuts and garnished with sliced tomatoes and green beans, it’s a very enjoyable starter.
12 April 2019: Curry cravings can be assuaged early at Thai Heritage with an order of the restaurant’s fabulous steamed curry dumplings (six crescent-shaped vegetarian dumplings in a green curry sauce). It’s an idea whose time has come. Not only can you luxuriate in the rich, deeply satisfying and nuanced flavor of green curry, you’re spared the monotony of any sort of dipping sauce. Pay close attention to the complex flavors of the curry and you’ll agree there’s more flavor there than you’d find in five dipping sauces. The dumplings are light and delicate though you’ll certainly want more than six.
17 December 2016: In small part because my Kim got tired of me referring to Pad Thai, her favorite Thai dish, as “Pad Boring,” she tends to order more adventurously…and perhaps because she got tired of me proclaiming my love for it, she never orders curry. Ordering more adventurously doesn’t mean departing too far from noodles though it may mean ordering something that bites back. Spicy Noodles are a safe—and surprising (considering her heat level preference for green chile borders on “wimpy”) choice. This dish (stir-fried flat noodle with basil, bell peppers, onion, carrots and pork) is actually quite good though the incorrigible mad scientist in me wonders what it would be like smothered in curry.
12 April 2019: This is usually the portion of my review in which I wax poetic about the latest curry dish to enrapt me…and by now you’re probably thinking “enough with the curry.” After a long and careful deliberation aided by my Kim’s encouragement, I ordered a non-curry dish (and it didn’t kill me to do so). Thai Heritage’s rendition of spicy eggplant (eggplant, onion, garlic, sweet basil and bell peppers with pork and chili paste) is a superb dish even though it’s not nearly as “spicy” as its name would imply. The melange of perfectly steamed al dente vegetables render your protein choice (pork or chicken) unnecessary. That’s especially true of the tender, soft-fleshed sweet-savory flavors of the eggplant. It’s eggplant for people who think they don’t like eggplant. Consider it disloyalty to my beloved curry if you will, but this is a dish you’ll find on my table again.
17 December 2016: With eight dessert options available, you’d think picking one would be a challenge. Not so! Whenever mangoes with sweet sticky rice are on the menu, it’s soon at our table. We’re at the very tail end of mango season so mangoes aren’t at their peak of sweetness, but even a “semi-sweet” mango is delicious. Besides, the sweet sticky rice goes so well with mangoes that are just a bit on the green, tart side. Mangoes and sticky rice are one of the things we miss most about summer.
17 December 2016: Picking two desserts wasn’t much more of a challenge than picking just one. That’s because the dessert menu includes roti. Described on the menu as a Thai-style pancake, it’s more akin to a circular flatbread. Roti is enjoyed everywhere from India to Malaysia. The roti at Thai Heritage is wholly unlike any roti we’ve ever had. Instead of resembling (to some extent) Indian naan, it resembled—both texturally and in terms of flavor—a very think puff pastry drizzled with chocolate. While enjoyable, it’s certainly not what we expected.
It really is hard to “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.” When restaurants such as Thai Heritage prepare it so well, you’ll want to eat sizable portions. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this October addition to the Duke City dining scene is that it got me to order something other than curry…and I loved it.
Thai Heritage Restaurant
3804 Central Avenue, S.E., Suite B.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2019
1st VISIT: 17 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Roti, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Grand Tempura, Fried Papaya Salad, Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup, Spicy Noodles, Spicy Eggplant, Green Curry Dumplings