Balance. The Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region have a word for it: “hózhó.” The word embodies the idea of striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order. Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.
Balance. America’s favorite everyman philosopher Homer J. Simpson might define it as “a donut in each hand.” Obviously politicians discussing the budget should definite it as something unachievable, an ephemeral concept, a meaningless and baseless promise uttered simply to mollify their constituency. The dictionary might define it as a state of equilibrium.
Balance. The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.
Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced. In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary. In Thai red curry, for example, the ingredients are a red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour), covering four of five basic tastes. Striking the optimum balance between these tastes is an art, some might say magic.
The most skillful of Thai cooks rely far less on precise measurements to arrive at the exacting levels and quantities of each ingredient used to craft that balance. Instead, they tend to rely on years of experience and taste to achieve the optimal balance in ingredients that results in utter deliciousness. We didn’t have the opportunity to check, but it’s a good bet you won’t find measuring cups in Diana Nguyen’s kitchen in Albuquerque’s Lotus Cafe–and if you do find them, they’re probably decorative.
Diana is the owner of one of the Duke City’s best (the best according to Sneaky Sunday.com) Thai restaurants. Ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Osuna just west of San Mateo, it’s not situated in a well-trafficked area which could account for its relatively low profile among casual Thai cuisine fans. Among true aficionados–those who discern and appreciate the balance of flavors in a great Thai entree–however, it is very well known.
Diana is originally from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Interestingly, the Lotus Cafe doesn’t showcase the wonderful foods of Laos, but features several Chinese and Korean dishes along with a compendium of Thai dishes.
Despite being the country’s most common flower, the lotus for which Diana’s cafe is named plays an integral part in Thai life where it is not only prevalent in literature, but is associated with heavenly beings. Buddhists use the lotus in paying homage to the image of Buddha and Brahman goddesses are generally portrayed with lotus blooms in their hands. The Lotus Cafe has two altars to Buddha, one beneath the fish tank in which marine life busily swims. Food offerings to Buddha are visible on both altars.
Being diminutive in size has a definite advantage for the Lotus Cafe–the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen are confined to a smaller space. The entire restaurant is an olfactory arousing denizen of flavors and aromas wafting out of the kitchen with the irresistible appeal of a siren’s call. The traditional Navajo prayer “Walk In Beauty” seems remarkably appropriate for this Thai restaurant. To step into the Lotus Cafe is to walk among beauty, a restaurant with beguiling art on the walls. It’s an immaculate milieu in which to enjoy a well-paced meal.
Even the large refrigerator that separates diners from the kitchen is more than functional. Its shelves are meticulous with canned beverages (including durian and coconut drinks) lined up in orderly formation like Air Force cadets. Atop the refrigerator, you’ll find gleaming silver tureens, a clay sculpture of elephants frolicking in the mud and silk lotus blossoms, all arranged in a decorative and meticulous manner. Dare I say, even the functional arrangements are balanced.
Service is attentive without being obtrusive–“in the moment” when you need something in the manner of excellent service providers everywhere. If you’re uncertain as to what to order, they will gladly make suggestions without being pushy about it. Our waitress, for example, noticing our dilemma in selecting from among the twenty or so appetizers, recommended the grilled mushroom appetizer, a starter we may or may not have seen at other Thai restaurants, but strangely had not considered ordering
Our adventure in balance began with three skewers, each impaling four organic char-broiled mushroom caps inheriting a golden sheen from an oyster sauce. Served with ground peanuts in a sweet and sour sauce, the mushrooms were an absolute delight! The fleshy fungi were perfectly prepared, as light and delicate as any we’ve had while retaining a just picked freshness. The oyster sauce imbued them with a subtle sweetness wholly different than the sweetness attained by dipping each mushroom into the piquant sweet and sour sauce. Balance is achieved!
Six chicken wings marinated in Thai herbs and deep-fried to a crispy golden hue also achieved a nice balance of flavors. The wings are enrobed in a light, slightly sweet batter that seals in the chicken’s inherent juiciness. The Lotus chicken sauce is the color of honey, but it packs a piquant potency. You can have Buffalo wings if you want them. I’ll take these any day.
The menu is divided into thirteen sections, but rather than experiencing triskaidekaphobia, thirteen will be your lucky number: appetizers, Thai Tom Yum Soup, Thai Pho, Thai Yum Salad, Thai Curry, Thai Fried Rice, Thai Stir-Fried Noodles, Fish Lover, Chinese Dishes, Korean Dishes, Beverages and Desserts. There are several items heretofore unseen in Albuquerque Thai restaurants.
For me, the true test of a Thai restaurant is how well they prepare curry dishes. Unfortunately too many of the Duke City’s Thai restaurants tend to “Americanize” their curry dishes by making them almost cloying in their sweetness. Though they may heat things up a bit with Thai chilis, the overwhelming flavor of many Thai curries tends to be sweetness.
As with many Americans, particularly machismo fanatical New Mexican men, my preference for curry is with plenty of piquancy. Lotus Cafe will accommodate the thrill-seekers among us whose palates are accustomed to the burning sensation of chili enhanced curry dishes. That being said, to distill curry so that it emphasizes one flavor sensation, particularly the heat of chili, is to dumb it down, to strip if of the layers of flavor, not to mention culture, history and balance. Preparing a curry that focuses too much on heat is to obfuscate the glorious complexity curry has to offer.
The Lotus Cafe did an excellent job in striking the balance I like in my curry. My green curry catfish dish showcased my precious piquancy while retaining the luxurious richness of coconut milk, the lip-puckering kiss of lime juice, the floral aroma of green peppers and so forth. The catfish had no batter therefore absorbing the flavors of the curry while retaining the moistness of a well-prepared fish. Served with jasmine rice, this is a curry dish to be savored slowly though it will leave a lasting impact on your taste buds.
The Korean section of the menu includes eight dishes starting with Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea. Bulgogi is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi. It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food. They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots. Though not a Thai dish, we were surprised at how balanced in flavors the Lotus Cafe prepares “Korean barbecue.”
When it comes to dessert, some of my chef friends tend to downplay just how formidable and delicious Thai desserts can be. That’s probably because most traditional Thai desserts are relatively simple. An example of simple ingredients melding together to form a sublime explosion of flavors is Lotus Cafe’s Sticky Rice with Coconut Ice Cream. The sticky rice is purplish, the result of boiling black rice with sticky rice for hours. Unlike some sticky rice which can be sticky and even mushy, this has a nutty, crunchy texture that makes it a pleasure to eat. The hot rice is a wonderful contrast to the cold ice cream, melting it into a creamy custard-like consistency. This is a dessert we’ll be back for.
Plating at the Lotus Cafe is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, appearance and yes, balance. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know
Lotus Cafe is the perfect restaurant when you need a little balance in your life.
5554 Osuna Road, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream, Green Curry Catfish, Bulgogi, Grilled Mushrooms, Thai Chicken Wings