“And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
~Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
Very few of us can identify with the profundity of Khalil Gibran’s immortal poem “On Joy and Sorrow” as well as Hue-Chan Karels, owner of the Santa Fe restaurant that is reimagining Asian cuisine. Outwardly the beautiful entrepreneur is as buoyant and joyful as can be. In fact, what might be her restaurant’s “mission statement” reflects that joy: “We are joy makers who believe in the magic of culinary experiences. Our passion is to create and curate inspired, original, unforgettable gatherings for the joyful celebration of human connection wherever they can be imagined.” Before she became a joy maker, however, she had to surmount deep sorrows that carved into her being.
Hue-Chan was nine years old when she and her family fled Vietnam. Carrying only a small shoulder bag with $500, personal documents and negatives of family photos, the displaced family was sent to Guam then Camp Pendleton, California before relocating to Michigan. From a child’s perspective, the family’s plight was a mix of excitement and trepidation. War-ravaged Vietnam was the only home she had ever known and she didn’t speak or understand English. She had to grow up quickly taking care of her brothers, doing the laundry and standing in line for food.
At age 27, Hue-Chan created a company called Viet-link, a consulting, foreign trade business to help rebuild Vietnam, a challenge exacerbated because the nascent government didn’t have the legal or fiscal systems in place to help her help them. It was a harrowing challenge that sapped her time and energy. She spent the next twenty years as a project manager where she consulted on FDA regulatory compliance. In 2007, Hue-Chan left the corporate world to start an artisan cookie business in Washington, D.C. Within 2.5 years, this grew into Open Kitchen’s unique, multi-purpose concept. Essentially she created spaces where entrepreneurial culinary entrepreneurs–from bakers to caterers– could rent a beautiful kitchen space.
In 2014, Hue-Chan and her husband closed Open Kitchen in Washington and moved to Santa Fe where she reimagined the concept altogether. Her goal has always been to find new and creative ways to build and connect community through the celebration of great food. To that end, she defines Open Kitchen as a “unique culinary concept that celebrates the kitchen as the center of sensory pleasure, healthy living, community, learning and creativity. In the Spring of 2023, she acquired a space in the Santa Fe Village Mall a block south of the Santa Fe Plaza. The space includes three private rooms in which dinners are hosted and cooking classes are held. That space is the home of Alkemē, the hottest ticket in town.
Executive Chef and General Manager Erica Tai is the medium through which Hue-Chan’s vision for unique menu showcasing Pan-ethnic cuisine is realized. Erica’s background in Pan-ethnic cuisine makes her superbly qualified to interpret that vision. Her talent makes her THE best person to do so. Originally from Taiwan and of Taiwanese-Korean descent, she lived in Hawaii before relocating to New Mexico. In 2020 she achieved a Registered Dietitian License and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Nutrition at the University of New Mexico. During my brief conversation with the perpetually smiling chef, she told me of her affection for Elsa and Fang, the genial proprietors of Albuquerque’s Budai Gourmet Chinese restaurant. Erica considers them family and calls their restaurant fare “authentic and wonderful.”
The Alkemē dining area is a relatively small space with good spacing for intimate meals among friends. I was fortunate enough to experience Alkemē with like-minded friends from Tulsa whose October, 2023 visit wasn’t timed so they could experience the balloon fiesta, but so they could visit the Land of Enchantment’s spectacular restaurants. On the evening prior to our visit, the scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters-Jamison visited Alkemē. She called the experience “One of the best meals being served anywhere last night.”
When you’ve reached Alkemē, you’ll notice that the restaurant’s name is subtitled “Heritage Cuisine Reimagined.” Alkemē’s website defines that concept as “Similar to the “Farm-to-Table” movement that recognizes knowing where your food comes from, Alkemē’s “Culture-to-Table” concept celebrates the culinary heritage rooted in the food we eat. Alkemē’s vision is to honor culinary roots by bringing to life ancestral recipes, stories, and memories of flavors combined with an innovative approach. If you love Asian cuisine and are motivated by the exploration of reimagined flavors, those words are enticing.
Alkemē is a beautiful space with bright, sunny colors on both the wall and hanging overhead in the form of paper lanterns. Round mirrors on one wall and framed artwork on another reflect the restaurant’s airy feel and somehow make the Liliputian space seem even larger. Visit the restroom and you’ll espy conical shaped hats named non la which are used to shield workers from heat or rain. Also hanging on the wall is a beautiful traditional Vietnamese silk shirt, the type of which Hue-Chan wears so glamorously.
The menu apprises diners that “Chef-Owner Hue-Chan Karels and Executive Chef Erica Tai are reinterpreting heirloom recipes from their culinary roots of Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Hawaii’s Pacific Rim to create dishes that are innovative yet steeped in tradition and culture.” There are actually three dining menus–an a la carte menu and three tasting menus, each offering five items. Our foursome ordered two of the three tasting menus and one a la carte item. Splitting dishes four ways doesn’t guarantee any one single diner will get a full impression from one or two bites, but when four of us discussed those bites, we achieved something of a consensus about what we liked and why.
“Candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize. That’s what you get with Cracker Jacks“–That’s what consumers in the 1960s heard on television commercials for the caramel covered popcorn Americans have been enjoying for more than 120 years. Some culinary historians actually consider it the “first junk food.” Others will tell you it’s as American as hot dogs and baseball…and in fact, Cracker Jacks has a long association with baseball. The song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” implores “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.” Because Cracker Jacks are such an integral part of Americana, we don’t often consider they may be enjoyed by consumers in other countries.
Alkemē’s five spice Cracker Jack popcorn is Cracker Jacks reenvisioned. Instead of caramel the consistency of lacquer, the popcorn is seasoned with five spice powder. In the west it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods. Chinese postulate that each of the five taste sensations corresponds to one of nature’s five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Those elements are believed to exist in five spice powder. You’ll believe you can taste every one of those elements in Alkemē’s unique Cracker Jacks.
Sure they look like those biodegradable packing peanuts and even resemble them texturally, but prawn-flavored chips are hardly something with which you’d like to ship a package. Prawn chips are made by mixing prawns, tapioca flour and water. The mixture is rolled out, steamed, and sliced. To achieve maximum crispiness, raw chips are usually sun-dried before frying. This eliminates the moisture. Frankly, the chips themselves aren’t nearly as flavorful as oversalted, fatty American snacks.
That’s why Alkemē serves prawn-flavored chips with a trio sauce flight. The three sauces are a gochujang aioli, dill aioli and peanut sauce. Each sauce is terrific! Gochujang is is a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented red chili paste condiment that lends pungency to foods in which it is used. It’s a staple of Korean cooking and increasingly one of my favorite sauces. The peanut-hoisin sauce will remind you of the peanut sauce commonly offered at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Alkemē’s version has got a bit more punch and made the prawn-flavored chips livelier. The dill aioli makes a perfect dipping sauce for virtually every food. Its garlicky, lemony and pronounced dill flavors impart a bit of magic to every dish. Alkemē should bottle and sell these fantastic sauces!
Wikipedia tells us “Dumplings may be any of a wide variety of dishes, both sweet and salty, in several different cuisines. They are either made from balls of dough or are small bits of food put into pastry, dough, batter, or leaves.” By this definition, Wikipedia has come up with a surprising list of dumplings. This list includes some real surprises. Add Alkemē’s dumpling to the list of dumplings that stretch that definition. In hundreds of visits to Vietnamese restaurants across the fruited plain, I’ve never experienced any dumpling presented like the Vietnamese Grilled Naked Shrimp Dumplings with Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce). If there’s any dough, pastry, batter or leaves enveloping the shrimp, it was lost on me. Maybe that’s where the “naked” part comes in.
As a grilled shrimp go, this one was probably very good. “Probably” is the operative word here because the shrimp (also an oxymoron) was so small that once it was cut into four pieces, we didn’t have much to go on. It was easy to immediately discern the grilled flavors, but where was the “dumpling” part. Maybe (by Wikipedia’s definition) it became a dumpling if we wrapped the accompanying greens around the shrimp. The nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) was charactristically salty, sweet, and tangy with hints of umami. For my taste it could have inherited a bit more pungency from the fish sauce from which it was made. If anything, this dish proved a tasting menu split four ways may not be enough for true discernment and appreciation of a dish.
Several years ago, American “mainlanders” fell hook, line and sinker for poke, a Hawaiian dish of beautifully composed and expertly sliced cubes of marinated sushi grade fish tossed over rice and topped with Asian-inspired sauces. Some of us may think we’ve had every variation of poke there is then Alkemē inverts the poke, rendering a beautiful composed bowl into a beautiful reimagined dish reminiscent of “monkey balls.” The Hawaiian Off-The-Hook Poke in puri puri is tuna enrobed in a delicate batter. Atop the orb is puri puri sauce, a spicy and flavorful condiment that originated not in Asia, but in Angola. As with other dishes on the tasting menu, a four way split isn’t the optimal way to enjoy a dish diners might otherwise love.
The crispy turmeric cod (Cha Ca) in a dill sauce, a specialty of Hanoi where a pan fried meaty white fish (usually catfish) is cooked with turmeric, dill, scallions, peanuts, shrimp paste and rice noodles. I’m not sure how closely Alkemē follows this traditional preparation, but am absolutely sure this was one of many highlights of our meal. The cod was indeed crispy, sheathed in a light and flavorful batter that easily gave way to the meaty white meat. Dill is the perfect sauce for the fish. It’s a complementary sauce, not one that changes the flavor profile of this magnificent dish. Also complementing the cod is pickled onions.
For years my Kim and I have been enjoying papaya salad at Thai, Vietnamese and Lao restaurants. It’s always replete with personality, invariably tantalizing our taste buds with a refreshing combination of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour elements. As with most papaya salads we’ve had, Alkemē’s version is just about appetizer (for two) size. Unlike other versions, Alkemē’s is grilled and it’s accompanied by lemongrass chile beef jerky. The papaya salad was fabulous, an exemplar of the diversity of the dish. Also fabulous is the lemongrass chile beef jerky. We’ve had beef jerky several times at Thai and Lao restaurants, but never before a Vietnamese version. Based on Alkemē’s version, it’s something we’d certainly love to see more often.
My favorite dish among the two tasting menus was the grilled rack of lamb with Asian chimichurri and orange-ginger-tamarind sauce. Prepared at medium-rare, the rack of lamb was moist, tender and absolutely delicious, ranking among the very best I’ve had. Splitting the lamb four ways, I somehow managed to secure the bone-in “Frenched” section. The propriety of using a lamb chop’s “handle” to pick up and eat lamb (particularly at upscale restaurants) has long been debated. None of my companions had any issue with me doing so.
This grilled rack of lamb was so wonderful–tender, moist, perfectly seasoned–I wanted to suck out the bone’s marrow. The lamb was accompanied by a picture-perfect ratatouille, sauteed vegetables stacked atop one another. Also on the dish was a single donut-shaped battered and fried brie. In that Vietnam was long occupied by France, Vietnam may be well advanced of other Asian nations in its acceptance of cheese. The preparation of the brie was worthy of French cuisine at its finest.
Also inspired by traditional French culinary wizardry is the Chilean sea bass a la nage (cooking in a well-flavored court-bouillon) with coconut milk and lemongrass served with forbidden rice. It amazed us at how the delicate flavor of Chilean sea bass (a tender-fleshed, mild, slightly sweet tasting fish often compared to a combination of cod and halibut) held up against the sweet, floral, nutty notes of coconut milk and the citrusy-ginger flavor of the lemongrass. From the green leaf blades to its lighter bulbous bottoms, the accompanying bak choy is superb accompaniment. So is the forbidden rice (so called because this rice was once reserved only for the wealthy and powerful to ensure their health and long life). It’s an interesting rice in that it combines an exotic purple-black hued rice with a long-grained white rice.
Even as we ordered two tasting menus, we surmised it might not be enough for the four of us. We had the foresight to order one additional main dish, Taiwaneese three-cup chicken. Popular culinary lore has it that the name “Three cups” refers to the original recipe calling for one cup each of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. Epicurious declared that “Something magical happens when you combine sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, ginger, basil, and chicken. This alchemy involves little more than infusing the oil with the aromatics before adding the chicken, deglazing with the liquids, and stepping back to let it braise and reduce.” Having experienced that alchemy at several Chinese restaurants, my declaration is more along the lines of “this is the best three-cup chicken dish Ive ever had.”
The first of our two desserts was a curiously named caramelized ginger summer stone fruit galette, limoncello ice cream and berry coulis. The galette was an intricate balance of sweet and tangy notes though discerning which specific stone fruits was somewhat beyond my pay grade. Even better than the galette was the limoncello ice cream. It’s rich and creamy, sweet and tangy and replete with a fresh lemon flavor.
The impact miso has on a dish is well understood when it comes to savory dishes. It would be dismissive to describe that impact in one word–umami, but that would be accurate. This delectable fermented paste brings an umami (savoriness) flavor to almost any dish, leaving your tastebuds actually begging for more. Thanks to miso and the browned butter, these brownies have layers upon layers of depth, flavor, and sweetness tempered by umami. Every component–from the miso orange whipped cream to the Sai Bon cinnamon chocolate bark–of this wondrous dessert contributes to a totality of deliciousness tha makes this dessert memorable
Our foursome agreed heartily with the sentiments of Cheryl Alters Jamison, agreeing that Alkemē had served us “One of the best meals being served anywhere.” Alkemē is an experience unlike any other in Santa Fe and one of the reasons some consider the City Different the “City Delicious.”