Nio Szechuan Asian Kitchen on Montgomery Just East of Louisiana

Several years ago Mike Muller, my friend and former colleague at Intel was sent to Chengdu, the capital of the providence of Szechuan in Southwest China.  It was an assignment I would have loved.  Unfortunately I could barely spell the name of the enterprise asset management application Mike would be training our Chinese counterparts how to use.  From an application and business knowledge perspective, Mike was the perfect man for the job.  From the perspective of culinary culture, Intel should have sent me.  Our counterparts may not have learned much about the asset management tool, but we would have had a great time feasting on the incendiary delights for which the Szechuan region is famous.

Mike is “bizarro Gil,” my polar opposite when it comes to dining.  He’s absolutely brilliant, hilariously funny and a great family man, but to him adventurous dining would be using honey mustard on his chicken nuggets instead of barbecue sauce.  Mike often joked about creating a blog in which he would publish reviews of all his favorite chain restaurants:  Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Mimi’s and the like.  He nearly broke my heart when he told me about a trip to Santa Fe which culminated in a meal at Chili’s instead of one of the wonderful restaurants for which the City Different is known.  You could almost hear Mike’s stomach roil when I would describe some of the meals that define my gastronomic tendencies.

The Dining Room

During Mike’s ten-day trip to Chengdu, most of his meals were at the American hotel in which he stayed…not that he minded too much.  That hotel, he told me, prepared excellent burgers and steaks.  In his defense, when Mike did wander out, the streets of Chengdu weren’t especially Chamber of Commerce worthy.  As might be expected for a city of twenty-million souls, traffic congestion and air and water pollution were rampant.  Local street markets and merchants weren’t necessarily sanitary and the bill of fare was comparable for weirdness with the array of aliens bellying up to a dive bar in the original Star Wars movie.

It goes without saying that the street market displays of the menageries of edible delights with all their mystery and intrigue would have been in my wheelhouse. Szechuan cuisine is an answered prayer for those of us who long ago wearied of sweet and sour everything. In the 1988 comedy Beetlejuice, a new homeowner and urban sophisticate who pursues a more rural life, asks “I can’t believe we’re eating Cantonese. Is there no Szechuan up here?”  Despite my love of some Cantonese cuisine, it’s Szechuan cuisine that better sates my soul.

Chicken Creamy Corn Soup

Because the province of Sichuan has such high humidity and is prone to rainy and overcast days, its residents have long enjoyed punishing, mouth-numbing spicy food. It’s thought that spicy food helps draw out excess moisture and cools the body. Two ingredients in particular are complicit in creating the tingling sensations of Szechuan cuisine: native Sichuan peppercorns, which also have a citrusy buzz; and chili peppers, which were brought over to China by Portuguese traders from South America in the 17th century.  In combination, these two pungent ingredients are not only a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine, they lend themselves to another export increasing in popularity across the spacious skies: spicy hot pot.

Szechuan’s cuisine is much more diverse than its “hot-and-spicy” reputation suggests. Sure, there are dishes that hiss and spit with chili and Sichuan pepper, but there are also more “tame” flavors: mild, fruity chilis;  the placating melody of sweet and sour; and the irresistible complexity of “garlic paste” dishes. Many Szechuan dishes aren’t spicy at all.  Still, it’s largely because of its hot, spicy flavors that in recent years, Szechuan cuisine has exploded worldwide.  Best of all, for purists and masochists like me, classic Szechuan dishes such as kung pao chicken and dan dan noodles are no longer “dumbed down” for Cantonese or Western palates, but served up in all their fiery, lip-tingling glory.

Chicken Wings

When we learned of the February, 2022 launch of Nio Szechuan on Montgomery just east of Louisiana, we (or at least the volcano-eater in our family) hoped the emphasis of this restaurant would be on the hot and spicy cuisine for which the Sichuan province is known.  My hopes were bolstered upon discovering Nio Szechuan is owned and operated by the partnership group that owns Chengdu Taste in Las Vegas.  Chengdu Taste was named one of the “18 Essential Chinese Restaurants in Las Vegas” by Eater.  It’s got four star ratings on both Yelp and TravelAdvisor.

Nio Szechuan is ensconced in the timeworn Louisiana Plaza Shopping Center that houses Yeller Sub. Colorful photos of tempting menu items adorn the front windows.  Nio Szechuan’s interior is immaculate and mostly white, perhaps a cooling effect meant to stave off heat.  The menu is segmented into thirteen categories:  Appetizers, Soup, Noodle Soup, Vegetable, Pork, Chicken, Beef, Seafood, Lo Mein, Fried Noodle, Fried Rice, Chef’s Specials and Dessert.  It’s a pleasure to peruse…even better to order and enjoy.

Half a Roast Duck

Our server did his best to try convincing us to order the hot and sour soup, but my elotes enamored bride wanted the chicken creamy corn soup.   We expected a smallish bowl of soup as most Chinese restaurants serve.  Instead, a swimming pool-sized bowl of opaque amber elixir was delivered delivered to our table.  It wasn’t quite as replete with the named ingredients as we would have liked, but with a little doctoring the following day, it  was much better.  Yeah, you shouldn’t ever have to doctor any restaurant offering, but we tend to do it quite  bit courtesy of the Dr. Jekyll in me.

An icon of a piquant pepper signifies menu items considered hot and spicy.  Only two items on the appetizer menu have that designation.  My Kim didn’t want to risk scalding her tongue with either of them.  Instead we enjoyed an order of (five) fried chicken wings.  The wings are meaty and salty with a thick (but not overly so) coating.  No accompanying sauce was provided.  None was needed.  When you’ve had your fill of left wing and right wing nonsense, Nio Szechuan’s fried chicken wings will make you forget politics.

Spicy Fried Chicken

My Kim jumped almost immediately to the Chef’s Specials in search of roast duck.  Available in half- and full-sized, the roast duck is deliciously unadorned.  Great roast duck doesn’t need to be wrapped up in pancakes. Nor are hoisin or plum sauce needed.  Crispy skin gives way to tender, juicy meat with a slight hint of smoke and plenty of flavor.   Tender, succulent duck is accompanied by a subtle sauce that ameliorates the duck’s inherent flavors; the sauce doesn’t obfuscate any of those flavors.  Few things in the world are as satisfying as roast duck, gloriously crispy and golden…a true melt-in-your-mouth treasure.

When hosting the Travel Channel show Man v. Food, television personality Adam Richman quipped “A good spicy challenge strikes a balance between flavor and fear.”  Although Richman probably doesn’t enjoy spicy food for the sake of spice alone, the premise of the show was for him to take on culinary competitions.  Mammoth monstrosities such as a seven-pound burrito didn’t elicit fear as much as spicy food did.   He would have enjoyed (not feared) Nio Szechuan’s spicy fried chicken, a fiery blend of thinly breaded poultry, potent peppers and chili oil.  This is an absolutely delicious dish, everything I expected from a Szechuan restaurant practicing traditional culinary arts that optimize flavors. 

Nio Szechuan may be the closest some of us will get to Chengdu in the Chinese province from which some of the best and most incendiary cuisine in the world emanates.  It’s comforting to know it’s there when we crave and need it.

Nio Szechuan
7200 Montgomery Blvd N.E. #F-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-0165
Website
LATEST VISIT: 13 March 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Chicken Creamy Corn Soup, Chicken Wings, Half a Roast Duck, Spicy Fried Chicken
REVIEW #1261

By Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly six million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on more than 1,200 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

10 thoughts on “Nio Szechuan – Albuquerque, New Mexico”
  1. Just wanted to second Tim’s thanks! I’ve been searching every city I go to for good La Zi Ji like I found in Philly and have even been working on my own recipe for it for years now. Turns out Spicy Memory closed down a couple years ago now, so even if I made it back to Philly it’s just not there anymore. I even Facebook messaged them to see if they’d share the recipe, but never heard back.

    A place opened up near my house called ************* and theirs is good, but very hit-or-miss and inconsistent. But Nio Szechuan was just right!! They definitely hit the nail on the head and now it’s going to be a struggle not to go back daily – haha!

    1. As good as Philadelphia? That’s a pretty high endorsement I’ll have to go visit soon – –Nio Not a Szechuan!

  2. While at Educause 2017 in Philadelphia, Sean stumbled across a little Chinese restaurant (it was late in the evening) called Spicy Memory. They had a dish very similar to the Spicy Fried Chicken that Sean has been on a mission to find locally since. Sean ate there 3 more times and Thomas and I joined him at least once, if not twice.

    Thanks to your March 13th review of Nio Szechuan, we decided to have a reunion and went today for lunch. I believe it is safe to say our search is over for a dish comparable to what we ate in Philly. Don’t worry, we all had our share of Philly Cheesesteaks, but Spicy Memory will always be the highlight of that trip.

  3. My wife and I went to Neo for lunch last week, based on this review. The food was really good, even as leftovers. I had Szechuan beef, which had a decent amount of heat. Wife had beef chow fun, which was savory instead of spicy, and she really enjoyed it.
    What stood out in both of our dishes was the freshness of the vegetables.
    By the way, this isn’t the only Szechuan restaurant in the city. Szechwan Chinese Restaurant, on Juan Tabo south of Indian School, is okay though not quite up to the standard of Neo, and definitely not up to the same heat level.

  4. I believe I ate at that same exact restaurant that Randy did. I remember most of the meal was very good.But, there were a few items I could not identify, nor the people from Chengdu I was with, so I skipped. What was interesting is my Chengdu hosts expected me to have problems with the spiciness (heat) of the food. They watch my first bit in wry anticipation that it would be to hot… only to be disappoint in my casual reaction. They didn’t know that New Mexican food can be very hot and spicy as well. I did not have the fortitude to try food from the street vendors… sanitation and I could not tell if it was dog they had hanging to cook. As for American chain restaurants I could not even think of KFC for fear it would be KFR. They were very proud of the just open Starbucks too. I told them I can’t drink Starbucks swill in the good ol’ USA so no way was I going to try the PRC variant.
    One thing though … Beer is pretty much always safe to drink… I remember that was the tip I got from Pete Rabino … skip the water and just drink beer.
    The people I met were all very nice and curious about westerners… they kept telling our interpreter that my sister and I were ‘very robust’ … my sister finally asked Kali, our interpreter, if that meant we are fat… LOL
    Also, do not let Gil fool you… there was one chain restaurant in Portland he always wanted to go to … Jack in the Box for the Ultimate Cheese Burger. I remember one time a guy came in and order the Ultimate Cheese Burger with no cheese… WTH?

    Gil this looks like a good place to try. Let me know if you are game to meet for lunch or dinner. I would enjoy seeing Bruce and Bill too.

  5. My most memorable food dish in Chengdu is the grilled river fish in hot sauce. It was a catfish that had been broiled in the oven (his whiskers were almost singed off) then placed in the hot sauce. Start eating by pulling the skin back down the backbone exposing the pure white flesh and get to work with your chopsticks. Be sure to dip it in the very spicy sauce.

    1. Unlike you and Mike, I Don’t Even Have Any Good Skills. You Know, Like Nunchuck Skills, Bow Hunting Skills, Computer Hacking Skills. Intel Only Sends Employees to Chengdu Who Have Great Skills!

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