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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
1st VISIT: 25 July 2009
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
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,