China Luck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

China Luck Chinese Restaurant
China Luck Chinese Restaurant

You can’t accuse Americanized Chinese food of being subtle.  Brash, gaudy and maybe even over-the-top, but never subtle. In fact, the flavor profile of Americanized Chinese food is generally so gunked up with MSG, sugar, salt and vinegar that by comparison, authentic Chinese food may come across to unacculturated diners as comparatively bland or boring. 

When Daniel Wilcox recommended a visit to China Luck, my initial inclination was to dismiss the restaurant as yet another in the pathetic pantheon of Albuquerque’s Americanized Chinese restaurants.  That dismissal was based on previous visits to both the now defunct China Luck restaurant in Rio Rancho and the also now defunct China Luck in Albuquerque’s Montano Plaza Shopping Center.  Both epitomized the type of Americanized Chinese restaurants my discerning friend Bill Resnik refers to as having “copycat menus full of candied, fried and breaded mystery meats that all taste the same.”

Still, Daniel’s recommendation was so animated and thoughtful that it remained in the back of my mind.  The facts that he lived in South Korea for two years, shares my opinion (and disdain) of buffets and craves an authentic experience when he visits Asian restaurants gave his recommendation tremendous credence with me.  His eloquence in describing his meal at China Luck flowed with such passion that he inspired me to try almost every dish he recommended and to use his words below to describe those dishes we had.

Chicken wings and legs at China Luck
Chicken wings and legs at China Luck

China Luck is owned by Taiwan-born Megan Yeh who moved to Albuquerque from Michigan in the mid 90s with her husband who’s been a chef for more than two decades and now manages the kitchen at China Luck.  The youthful and energetic Megan flits from table to table with the energy of a hummingbird.  She is an effusive presence, checking in on all her guests with regularity.  Obviously very proud of her restaurant and its cuisine, she willingly shares her encyclopedic knowledge of authentic Chinese cuisine with one and all. 

She will also admit that her previous instantiations of China Luck were Americanized by design.  Both previous locations featured a low-cost buffet replete with the popular sweet-and-sour entrees so many Americans enjoy.   At the newest and sole remaining China Luck on San Pedro, there is no buffet.   Similar to Budai Gourmet Chinese,  China Luck  has a “not-so-secret” Chinese menu that is the antithesis of Americanized Chinese food.    It delighted and amused me when our server cautioned us that unlike the “American menu,” the entrees on the Chinese menu are prepared to order, aren’t pre-made and therefor would take a bit longer.  

Xiaolongbao, a terrific pork dumpling
Xiaolongbao, a terrific pork dumpling

Now, the standard menu does feature all the de rigueur offerings you’ll find at most Duke City Chinese restaurants.  It’s what most diners expect and the reason they visit.  It’s largely why China Luck was lauded in 2007 by Chinese Restaurant News which annually recognizes the 100 best Chinese restaurants in the United States. Considering there are over 46,700 Chinese restaurants in the United States (that’s more than there are McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s combined), any Chinese restaurant singled out by Chinese Restaurant News is worth noting. Readers of Albuquerque The Magazine certainly took note; they selected China Luck as Albuquerque’s very best Chinese restaurant in 2007.

Both from the outside and in, China Luck is relatively stark in its design.  A singular statue of Buddha stands on a corner as if to oversee the restaurant and its patrons.  Aside from Buddha and a few Chinese accoutrements, the restaurant could almost pass for that of many other shopping center restaurants of any genre.  That is if the aromas emanating from the kitchen at other shopping center restaurants are the familiar bouquet of Chinese food.  Standard booths and tables provide seating which is both functional and comfortable.  

Lettuce Wraps
Lettuce Wraps

There are no surprises on the appetizer menu–at least in terms of something new.  The surprise is in how good the appetizers are prepared.  Take the fried chicken wings, for example.  These are not salt and pepper chicken wings or sweet and sour chicken wings, both of which fall into the “not subtle” category I described to start this review. Served six to an order are lightly coated, deep-fried chicken wings and legs the color of spun gold.  They crunch when you bite into them even as flavorful juices flow lightly from the moist, delicious meat.  This is the type of fried chicken you might expect served with ranch or blue cheese dressing although neither is needed.

Another appetizer not to be missed are the pot stickers, also served six to an order.  I’ll let Daniel describe these: “The pot stickers were made from scratch, down to the wrappers. Plump to almost bursting, they were steamed to perfection then lightly fried on just one side without excess oil.  The pot stickers were accompanied by a perfectly matched soy sauce-based dipping sauce.  I lived in South Korea for two years and had some good mandu (Korean pot stickers), but not many (if any) that were better than these.”  Alas, those pot stickers are no longer on the menu, replaced by another version of Chinese dumplings called Xiaolongbao.  Served steamed in bamboo baskets, xiaolongbao don’t resemble other Chinese dumplings, as the skin is gathered and pinched at the top instead of folded in half.  They are also unique in that in addition to the traditional pork filling, a tiny amount of aspic is folded into the dumpling.  The aspic melts when steamed, allowing the filling to stay moist and flavorful.

Scallion pancake

In culinary lexicon, a “lettuce sandwich” has always been a cultural metaphor representing something mundane, boring, unappealing, weak or unattractive.  That changed in 1993 when Paul Fleming launched P.F. Chang’s in Scottsdale, Arizona and made lettuce sandwiches sexy.  More precisely, he made lettuce wraps one of the most popular appetizers offered in Chinese and fusion restaurants throughout the fruited plain.  China Luck’s lettuce wraps are pretty standard stuff–very finely minced chicken, scallions, garlic, minced mushrooms, crunchy rice noodles and possibly other ingredients with several large leaves of Romaine lettuce.  Unlike P.F. Chang’s version, China Luck doesn’t offer a cloying Hoisin-based dipping sauce.  Your taste buds will focus on the sandwich-marriage of crisp lettuce and the flavorful minced amalgam that has won over so many American diners. 

Still another appetizer prepared extremely well is the scallion pancake, a twelve-inch-pizza-sized starter formed from hard dough rolled out in such a manner that it creates a series of layers similar to Greek phyllo without the flakiness and delicateness.   In between those layers, a sheen of oil (or perhaps clarified butter) is applied and scallions are spread in between.  After the scallion pancake is rolled into a flat disc, it is fried in butter or oil until completely cooked  and crisp on the outside.  The scallion pancake is served with a fairly simple dipping sauce in which even more scallions swim.

Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot
Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot

The “crowning part of the meal,” as Daniel describes it is the Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot, a restaurant specialty very popular among Chinese patrons.  It’s a dish you probably won’t find anywhere else in Albuquerque.  It’s a dish I’ve had twice at China Luck, a rarity in that I rarely order the same thing twice.  I’ll let Daniel take it from here.

It arrived sizzling in a small, wooden-handled pot. I quickly realized the dish is not for the casual eater; the chicken pieces were definitely NOT boneless; the small pieces of meat had small to medium bones still attached. From my time in Asia, I knew this was a good sign of an authentic dish. My first bite brought surprise to my eyes.  What I thought was a wood mushroom of some kind was in fact a thinly sliced shard of ginger. Expecting my taste buds to be overwhelmed, I was pleasantly surprised to meet some of the most delectable flavor combinations I’ve ever encountered. The Chinese basil, the ginger, the meat and the sauce, each with a unique strong flavor, combined in a new and wonderful gastronomic symphony balanced in perfect tone and meter.  The only possible improvement I can imagine would be a few more basil leaves. Though the ginger was surprisingly bountiful, that effect was perfect. I had been apprehensive at the pending chore of picking each small bone from the chicken pieces, but even that task contributed wonderfully to the experience; we were forced to indulge in this version of heaven slowly and carefully, which gave our taste buds proper time to experience the new, unique flavors. Consequently, though the dish took a long time to eat I wouldn¹t have shortened that experience for anything.”

Orange Peel Chicken
Orange Peel Chicken

Frankly there’s not much more I can add as Daniel’s experience was mirrored by my own.  The Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot is indeed a surprising entree, one of several surprises Megan assured me are available on the not-so-secret Chinese menu.  She added that although the entree is primarily ordered by Chinese diners, it has become increasingly popular among other diners. 

No longer on the Chinese menu, but something the chef will prepare for you if all the ingredients are available is the Chicken Meatball Casserole.  The Chicken Meatball Casserole is a fabulous dish, a wonderful find.  Served in a ceramic hot pot is a bowlful of vegetables and huge meatballs in a delicious sweet, savory and slightly piquant sauce.  The vegetables–red and green pepper, Thai bird peppers, white and green onions, ginger, Chinese basil and more–are fresh and delicious, prepared to the optimum of flavor.  The broth’s aroma is enticing, like a flavorful siren’s call.  A very generous number of delicious meatballs takes best advantage of that broth.  As with the Chicken with Chinese basil in hot pot, this dish exemplifies just why Chinese buffets are often disastrous.  Chinese food is meant to be served immediately after it’s prepared, not to be left sitting under a heat lamp.  China Luck’s entrees arrive at your table steaming hot and fresh, the way Chinese food should be served.

Chicken Meatball Casserole
Chicken Meatball Casserole

If the term “secret menu” conjures images of foods prepared from ingredients you wouldn’t ever consider eating, fear not.  Some of those dishes are prepared from the most common of American ingredients.  They’re just prepared the Chinese way.  One of those items is the deep-fried chicken with salt and pepper.  The chicken, mostly white meat, is tender and delicious, many orders of magnitude better than the Colonel’s secret recipe could create.  Salt and pepper are the only condiments used.  The light, delicate crust sticks to the chicken.  Bite into a bite-sized morsel and wisps of steam will escape.  The chicken is served with deep-fried basil, as light and airy as gossamer.

One of the other pleasant surprises not from the Chinese menu is an Orange Peel Chicken entree that isn’t cloying enough to decay teeth on the spot as you’ll find at some Chinese restaurants.  If you don’t want “dessert chicken,” this is one you’ll appreciate.  The orange flavored sauce is subtle, but not boring.  It is punctuated with flecks of ginger and garlic as well as the incendiary dried Thai peppers that enliven the dish with heat.  The chicken is mostly white meat and it’s only lightly breaded so you’re tasting chicken and not some crispy, crunchy breading.  This rendition of Orange Peel Chicken is neither too spicy, too sweet or too tangy; it’s a harmonious blend of flavors you’ll appreciate if you’re tired of orange marmalade chicken.

Deep-fried chicken with salt and pepper; served with fried basil

Another surprise is the fried rice which China Luck steams before frying. It’s a little secret that seems to make for perfect fried rice every time. This fried rice isn’t clumpy or gummy. In fact, you can probably pick up and taste each grain of rice individually and it will retain the flavors of the fried rice. Now, it’s not the most flavorful fried rice we’ve ever had, but it absorbs the flavors of any sauce you may add to it. Perhaps that’s a recognition that rice is the supporting cast and other dishes are the starring attraction.

You will want to save room for dessert because China Luck offers one of the most refreshing and delicious desserts this side of Beijing.  It’s a mango custard resplendent in freshness and flavor.  As with other items at China Luck, it’s not sweetened for American tastes, but that allows the natural mango flavors to shine.  With the texture of jello, each spoonful is to be savored slowly and appreciated fully.  It is a fabulous dessert.

Mango Custard at China Luck
Mango Custard at China Luck

Daniel told me if he was to rate China Luck using my scale, it would warrant a rating of 20 at least.  Considering he didn’t steer me wrong in food choices, I’m inclined to agree. This is a very good–and very authentic–Chinese restaurant, one which doesn’t need the over-the-top effusiveness of the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese template.

China Luck Chinese Restaurant
7900 San Pedro Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 822-0525
Web Site
1st VISIT: 25 July 2009
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot, Pork Dumplings, Orange Peel Beef, Mango Custard, Chicken Meatball Casserole, Deep Fried Chicken With Salt and Pepper,

China Luck Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

8 thoughts on “China Luck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Review and Comments really out of date. As of a couple of years ago, China Luck no longer owned by Megan Yeh. A recent visit would be nice.

    1. With about 1,500 unique restaurants across the Duke City, it’s nigh impossible to keep up will ownership changes, closures, relocations, etc. Of the more than 1,100 reviews on Gil’s Thrilling…, more than half are probably out-of-date. That’s why every review comes with a caveat emptor. Any restaurant review is a “snapshot in time”–my experiences at the time of a particular visit.

      Telling me a review is out-of-date isn’t the most constructive feedback. It would be much more helpful if you gave me a compelling reason to return. So, China Luck is under new ownership. Is it better? Why or why not? What foods do you recommend?

  2. I love this place. Close to my office, and the food is consistently good. The lunch waiter is the best in the city…no joke. Consistently good service every single time.
    The owner was nice enough today to (literally) give me her lunch. My boss and I walked in about 2:15ish for a late lunch and the owners were sitting down for their own meals. They had the most incredible looking hot pots on the table…with crab, shrimp, scallops, quail eggs, kimchi, and vegetables & tofu. I told the owner that I’d love to have that for lunch, and she said that it would be on the menu the next week. I said OK and sat down. She then walked over her own lunch and said “You are in here all of the time. I think you’ll like this.” She also gave me some of her special green vegetables.
    Boy, was she right! Absolutely wonderful.

    Highest recommendation.

  3. I’ve been to China Luck three times since this review came out. The first time I had the Chicken with Chinese Basil hot pot, and it was fabulous. I also had the mango custard and enjoyed it. My second trip was with friends, and I got to try five different entrees. One was the orange peel chicken. I’m not sure why a previous commenter had a tasteless experience, but I found it to be very good and flavorful. The eggplant dish was also very good. I’ve never had it before, but I liked the boba milk tea. The black tapioca was cooked correctly; the tea was fresh brewed. I’ve made and consumed a lot of tapioca pudding, but the black tapioca had a sweet, molasses-like flavor.

    On my third visit I had the Wonton soup and chicken meatball hot pot. The soup was very fresh — assorted vegetables, chicken, shrimp and Wontons. The liquid in the soup had a very mild flavor (more like the liquid left after poaching a chicken breast than the broth from cooking a whole chicken). The chicken meatball hot pot was my favorite dish so far. Very tasty! My only disappointment was that they had run out of boba.

    Thanks Gil for letting me know about this place. I’ve been following your reviews for a long time and have gotten to eat at some wonderful locally-owned restaurants.

  4. I’m sorry but this place was a HUGE disappointment. We took our out-of-town in-laws there last week and were frankly embarrassed. Yes, the service was great but the food was completely tasteless. I ordered the orange chicken and it had no flavor at all, even the white rice had more flavor. How does Chinese food not have flavor??? We all had to use soy sauce to taste anything. We won’t be going back.

  5. My children and I have been to China Luck twice. Both times we ordered the orange peel chicken and loved it. However, I was not really impressed with the customer service. In my opinion it needs improvement.

  6. I have eaten at this locale before and never been disappointed. However after reading Gil’s review…. I absolutely HAD to try the Chicken with Chinese Basil in a Hot Pot.

    The review nailed it, this is an awesome dish, indeed. The waitress made sure to inform me, this dish has bones, understood? I told her I had read the review of this dish and understood that. She brought me extra napkins, so apparently part of the wonder of this dish is to be allowed use your fingers to remove the small bones you encounter as you eat.

    As Gil said in the review: Chew slowly and thoroughly. Savor every bite, a truly wonderful experience.

    I am also contemplating the Squid with Chinese Basil in a Hot Pot on a return visit. I’ve often enjoyed squid dishes and there can’t be the same worry over the bones with squid.

    Interestingly, when I was finished with about half (I brought the other half home with me) the waitress also told me her family doesn’t eat the ginger in the dish, just uses it for seasoning. But her grandmother DOES eat the ginger. She didn’t want to say “ginger is good for old/older people” but that’s the impression I got from her.

    So you can eat the ginger, or not, either way, and enjoy an authentic Chinese dish.

    Lastly, Gil’s reviews of the appetizers overlooked the Chicken Lettuce Wraps. These are fantastic, served with fresh crisp whole green leaf lettuce, finely diced chicken and spices with a sauce to spoon over before you wrap them up. Be prepared to need extra napkins with this dish as well, but well worth the adventure.

    My guest and I contemplated just making a meal out of Chicken Lettuce Wraps one day, that’s how good they are…

  7. I absolutely agree with how great this place is. We actually ate there last night.

    You should DEFINITELY try their Wonton Soup! Let’s just say that it isn’t your run-of-the-mill wonton soup with just one wonton, broth, and chives.

    I am never let down by the fresh vegetables that still have life in them, lighter sauces with flavors and not just preservatives, and impeccable customer service that this China Luck always provides.

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