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.
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.
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.
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 Tastein Las Vegas. Chengdu Taste was named one of the “18 Essential Chinese Restaurantsin 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.
13 March 2022: 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.
13 March 2022: 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.
13 March 2022: 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. It’s so good, my Kim may never order anything else from Nio’s menu.
13 March 2022: 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.
29 July 2022: Wontons are a quintessential Chinese dish that roughly translates to “swallowing a cloud.” You wouldn’t exactly agree with that definition if you order wontons at many Albuquerque restaurants where wontons are hardly “swallowable.” Instead, what’s delivered to your table are deep-fried, shriveled, golden-brown shells with a filling that wouldn’t sate an avian appetite. Even dipping them into the accompanying soy or plum sauce doesn’t reconstitute them. They can be as dry as Albuquerque’s monsoon seasons of late. If you want the very best in wontons, you’ve got to order steamed wontons.
“Wait a second,” you might be asking “aren’t you describing dumplings?” Good catch. Wontons are a type of dumpling–just like calzones, empanadas, fritters and hot pockets according to Wikipedia. Grrr! There are several things that distinguish wontons from other dumplings as we associate them being served in Asian restaurants. The main difference is that wontons have to have some filling (puny though it may be) while dumplings can be empty. When my friend Bill Resnik (who wanted to celebrate his 83rd birthday at Nio) recommended we order the spicy chili shrimp pork wonton appetizer, my mind immediately raced to unsatisfactory images of desiccated, fried to within an inch of their lives wontons. Had they not been perhaps the best wontons I’ve ever had, Bill might not have lived to 84.
Six juicy, chewy, uneven squares of minced pork folded into a thin sheet of dough arrived in a glorious sauce. That sauce was resplendent–richly colorful and pleasing to the eye. It was replete with elements of sweet, savory, garlicky, and spicier than any hellish elixir Satan might prepare. More importantly, it greeted us with an umami bomb, that deep, rich, meaty and earthy flavor unique to some foods. Both Bill and I immediately recalled “pot roast broth.” Our server assured us there was no pork or beef broth anywhere. Maybe then we were flashing back to the 60s. At any regard, these wontons were absolutely outstanding. You might not want them as fiendishly piquant as we enjoyed them, but even at a wimpier level of heat, they’re the best wontons in New Mexico.
22 July 2022: If you liked the translation of “wonton,” you’ll love the translation from Chinese of Fuqi Feipian. On a menu, it reads something like “spicy cold beef,” but its literal translation is “husband and wife lung slices.” Okay, so the literal name is somewhat unappetizing, but Nio’s spicy cold beef is superb. Since I’ve already got you thinking twice about ordering this dish, you probably don’t want to read that the cold beef (actually about room temperature) includes tripe, the slightly rubbery (despite a lengthy preparation time) stomach lining.
As an advocate and practitioner of “nose to tail” dining (thanks, in part, to being a New Mexican who grew up eating menudo), tripe not only doesn’t bother me, I love it! Especially when it’s swimming in a mouth-numbing sauce made from chili oil, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, sesame seeds and perhaps a whisper of sugar. Neither Bill nor I would consider the sauce “mouth-numbing” but it did provide an endorphin rush characteristic of incendiary peppercorns and chili oil. As usual, we ordered it at the “pain is a flavor” level of piquancy. It would be criminal to order any food so hot that you can’t taste anything else. Thankfully both Bill and I are blessed with asbestos-lined mouths that preserve us while still allowing us to taste the nuances and subtleties of everything we eat. Both the cold beef and tripe are fabulous, each morsel an adventure in eye-watering, tongue-scalding deliciousness.
22 July 2022: One of the most frequently ordered delicacies in Szechuan restaurants is shredded pork (Szechuan-style; doesn’t that seem redundant?). What makes it Szechuan style is the generous amount of Szechuan pickled chile (very similar to Thai bird peppers), garlic, ginger, spring onions, shredded carrots and more (maybe wood-ear mushrooms). The complex flavors of this classic Szechuan stir-fry dish has everything you could possibly want: silky tender pork, soft yet crunchy veggies, and an amazingly complex garlicky, piquant sauce that will bring sweat to your brow and happiness to your heart. Bill assures me the shredded chicken dish is nearly as good.
22 July 2022: My dear friend Ming Lee was a born-and-bred Singaporean. Every time he saw Singapore noodles on a menu he would remind me there is no such thing as Singapore noodles. “We have far too many noodles in Singapore to single any one type of noodle or noodle preparation style as Singaporean,” he would declare. Not that he didn’t like Singapore noodles. Singapore noodles are actually a Cantonese creation, a very popular dish at Cantonese restaurants and food stalls in Hong Kong. What makes them unique (and uniquely delicious) is curry powder, not necessarily an ingredient associated with Chinese cuisine. Whatever their origin, Singapore-style curry rice noodles are delicious. Tangles of vermicelli noodles; crisp, fresh vegetables, tender pork and oh, that pungent, delicious curry. It’s one of my favorite dishes at any Asian restaurant.
22 July 2022: Would you believe China (not Idaho or Ireland) is the world’s largest producer of potatoes, generating more than 22-percent of the globe’s potatoes? You wouldn’t know that by studying the menus at many Chinese restaurants. I would have missed the one potato-based dish on Nio’s menu. Fortunately, Bill has the eyes of an eagle (and if that eagle ever finds him…). That one potato dish is stir-fried potato shreds, a dish found only in the most authentic Szechuan restaurants. To ensure the potato shreds are thin and uniform, you’d better julienne them with a mandolin slicer. Szechuan peppercorn oil makes these potatoes as piquant as fried potatoes with New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile. These potato shreds are outstanding! It’s interesting that in China, potatoes are considered a vegetable, not a starch. You’re likely to see potatoes served with rice, two starches in one plate.
26 July 2023: Perhaps the one dish on Nio’s Szechuan menu that’s most antithetical to the heat and spice that pervades most of the menu is cheese wontons, a dish most Chinese restaurants call Crab Rangoon. This is a dish that has always mystified both Bill and me. At most Chinese restaurants in which we’ve ordered Crab Rangoon, it could almost pass for cheesecake stuffed into a wonton wrapper. The truth is Crab Rangoon is not a Chinese dish. It was invented in New York in the late 19th Century. Crab Rangoon consists of cream cheese and almost impossible to discern bits of imitation crab stuffed into a wonton wrapper then deep-fried. It’s served with a syrupy, neon, sweet and sour (sour is also difficult to discern) dipping sauce.
I could have given my Kim a history lesson on the infrequency in which cheese (and other dairy products) have been used in Asia, but the truth is I’m always curious about the strange dish featuring cream cheese stuffed into wonton wrappers. As expected, this appetizer (six to an order) is cheesecake sweet. My Kim loved it–even more when dipping it into the syrupy sauce. For me, the only consolation is that Nio didn’t call it Crab Rangoon which spared me the nearly impossible task of looking for and finding imitation crab.
26 July 2023: Unlike Crab Rangoon and is crab-less cousin cheese wontons, fried rice was definitely invented in China. While most of us tend to believe fried rice is an inexact science (just some rice thrown together with small bits of vegetables and meats) the truth is there are standards and rules that govern how fried rice is prepared (not that they’re strictly followed by American Chinese restaurants). Fried rice is believed to have been “invented” in the city of Yangzhou in the eastern Jiangsu province of China. According to Kenny Ng, a much better qualified culinary historian than me:, “an emphasis on balance and harmony with an almost artful reverence for the poetry of food is centered in Yangzhou.” He says there’s even a “standard rubric for a proper fried rice down to recommended colors of ingredients kissed through the wok—including shrimp, scallops, chicken, Chinese ham, sea cucumber, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and peas.”
We didn’t count the number of green peas in the BBQ fried rice we enjoyed at Nio. I’m not that pretentious or standards-driven. Instead of focusing on those standards, we focused on enjoying the fried rice as served. It’s a very good fried rice though it could have used a bit more BBQ pork. An order of fried rice can feed a family. This fried rice isn’t prone to overly clumping. That’s one of the reasons long-grain rice is used for fried rice. As with all great fried rice dishes, the fried rice was likely made from “old” rice. The best fried rice is made from rice that was previously prepared, maybe the white rice that accompanies most Chinese dishes.
26 July 2023: Dining practices of Mongolian horsemen may actually have been responsible for the creation of Chinese hot pot cooking. Legend has it that the Mongols used their helmets as vessels to simmer broth over open fires and cooked chunks of meat in that broth. Their shields they were used as a sort of frying pan to sear meat. Though the Chinese resisted Mongol hordes, they incorporated this style of eating it, modifying it over time to suit particular ingredients and tastes in each region. Restaurants such as Zu Hot Pot on Juan Tabo celebrate this distinct style of cooking.
At other Chinese restaurants, hot pot means something entirely differently than the wonderfully experiential, do-it-yourself social style proffered at Zu. At Nio, for example, the “Chef’s Special” menu lists three hot pot dishes. Though they’re large enough for a family, my Kim isn’t a big fan of curry while curry is one of my favorite meals in the universe. Nio’s curry hot pot is brimming with cauliflower, bell pepper, onions, carrots and beef. What it isn’t brimming with is the inimitable flavors of Chinese curry. Sadly, the curry seemed watered down. It lacked both the pungent aroma and mild burn of well-prepared curry. Still, it’s the only dish I’ve had at Nio that doesn’t burst with palate-pleasing qualities.
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.
7200 Montgomery Blvd N.E. #F-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2023
1st VISIT: 13 March 2022
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Chicken Creamy Corn Soup, Chicken Wings, Half a Roast Duck, Spicy Fried Chicken, Spicy Cold Beef, Spicy Chili Shrimp Pork Dumplings, Shredded Pork (Szechuan Style), Stir-Fried Potato Shreds, Singapore-Style Curry Rice Noodle, Curry Hot Pot, Cheese Wontons, Pork Fried Rice