Shangri-La. Eden. Paradise. Heaven on Earth. The concept of a remote and exotic utopia, a faraway haven or hideaway of idyllic beauty and tranquility, has long intrigued mankind. Paul Gauguin, the famous French post-impressionist artist thought his persistent pilgrimage for Paradise was over when he moved to Tahiti in the tropical South Pacific. Alas, his picturesque paradise, as with anything that seems too good to be true, was also discovered by French colonists who quickly transformed Tahiti into the antithesis of the “sensual loafer’s paradise” he had envisioned.
For aficionados of Asian cuisine, paradise might be defined as a restaurant from whose kitchen emanates the culinary diversity of the Pacific: time-honored and traditional delicacies, contrasting yet complementary flavors, exotic and healthful ingredients, varied and interesting textures, exquisite freshness with all cuisine reflecting the geography, culture and history of its originating nation. It would be a restaurant offering the culinary treasures of China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia, Korea and Hawaii and it would be an adventure in authenticity and deliciousness.
There are several restaurants in the Duke City which proffer entrees from more than one Pacific nation. The most ambitious, by far, is the aptly named Pacific Paradise Tropical Grill & Sushi which features fare from all the aforementioned locations. The menu is staggering in its breadth of coverage, showcasing cuisine representative of many prominent locales within Pacific Ocean, an area covering more than 64 million square miles, about one-third of the Earth’s surface. Now, it’s one thing to to claim authentic flavors; it’s another to deliver on that audacious promise.
My Singaporean friend Ming Lee, a prolific epicurean and student of Asian cuisine, often tells me that restaurants which purport to be “all things Asia” tend to serve watered-down, inauthentic parodies of the real thing. He’s also incensed that such restaurants perpetuate the stereotype that all Asians are the same, joking that Americans not only think Asians all look alike, but eat the same things. It’s unlikely my great friend would appreciate Paradise Paradise too much.
In addition to cuisine specific to nearly ten different nations, Pacific Paradise also crosses cultural boundaries to feature entrees which very discernibly combine elements of two or more nations. The restaurant definitely takes creative license in some of its entrees, even employing eye-catching naming conventions (such as “Seafood Rice Pizza”) to spur interest. That, too, would leave my friend Ming less than mirthful. He’s as much a stickler for authenticity in Asian cuisine as I am about New Mexico chile without cumin.
Pacific Paradise, located on the northeast side of the small strip mall on the intersection of Candelaria and San Pedro, might surprise my friend. Several dishes were surprisingly authentic (at least to this gaijin who won’t pretend to know nearly as much about Asian cuisine as my friend) while others employed as much creative license as they did the “dumbing down” of flavors to suit American tastes. The dumbing down manifested itself most in slightly exaggerated sweet and sour properties.
The restaurant’s exterior frontage depicts the tranquil azure waters for which the ocean was christened the Pacific. The signage on the pitched tin roof is a bit misleading; the “Tropical Grill & Sushi Bar” standing out and partially obfuscating the much smaller “Pacific Paradise” portion. The interior is awash in color with a pronounced island theme. A tiki bar in the style of the Polynesian restaurants which were the rage in the 60s is the best seat in the house for a sushi soiree. Elevated booths overlook wicker chairs tucked under comfortable tables.
An abbreviated fourteen item “lunch rush” menu is available for diners in a hurry, but a world of adventures opens up to diners who can linger longer. The first page of the compendium-like menu lists appetizers, salads, light soups, specialty soups and a “kid’s paradise” selection of items for children 12 and under. Showcased on the menu’s center page is a menu of signature dishes as well as a Japanese combo special for one or two diners. Grilled entrees, “vegetable celebration,” seafood, stir-fried chicken and beef, fried rice and noodles, sushi, sashimi and desserts make up the remainder of the menu.
Entrees are served with your choice of a garden salad or steamed vegetables, your choice of a light soup and steamed rice or plain noodles, a refreshing departure from the seemingly de rigueur standard of miso soup and a garden salad. The garden salad (mostly iceberg lettuce) has a light drizzle of a citrus-based vinaigrette dressing. The steamed vegetable medley features green beans, carrots, broccoli, onions and mushrooms all prepared al dente. You could hardly call the noodles “plain” because they have a distinct sweet-soy flavor and are quite good.
The light soup offerings are surprising–a cup of miso soup (Japan), minced chicken and corn soup (China), vegetable soup (Singapore) and hot and sour soup (China), not solely because of the variety offered, but because of their flavor profiles. The hot and sour soup was indeed both hot and sour, but best of all, it wasn’t overly thickened with corn starch as many of this ilk tend to be. The bigger surprise was the minced chicken and corn soup whose basis is a traditional egg drop soup. The soup is served piping hot as they should be.
The sushi menu is extensive, highlighting regular (maki) rolls, not all containing raw fish as well as more pricey “Chef’s special rolls.” The versatility of the Dragon Roll is demonstrated in four different ways. Nigiri sushi (vinegared rice with a piece of fish on top), sashimi, hand rolls and tempura rolls are also available. As do most sushi restaurants in Albuquerque, Pacific Paradise panders to locals with a maki roll named for our fair city. The Albuquerque Roll (green chili (sic) tempura, avocado, cucumber) is quite good although the tempura sheathe somewhat masks the piquancy of the green chile.
On the day of our inaugural visit, the sushi special of the day was the intriguingly named “Lobster Roll,” which conjured memories of the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine where the best lobster roll in the universe is made. While we didn’t expect any maki roll could come close to approximating the Maine specialty, we hoped for something accentuating the unctuous flavors of sweet, succulent lobster. Alas, this roll (crab meat, avocado and cucumber on the inside baked with lobster and “chef’s special sauce” on top) obfuscated the flavor of lobster because of a cloying sauce. Not even an immersion in the wasabi-soy bath mitigated that sweetness.
My personal preferences in the wide diversity that is Asian cuisine start with Malaysian, Singaporean and Vietnamese dishes, all of which display a wider range of flavors (piquant, sweet, savory, tangy) than their Pacific brethren. There are no Malaysian or Singaporean restaurants in the Duke City, but a few restaurants pay a cursory tribute to these nations with one or two entrees. Pacific Paradise serves an entree with which I fell in love at a Malaysian restaurant in Mountain View, California. It’s Sambal Scallops (sauteed scallops with fresh mushrooms and bell pepper in a curry coconut sauce), a fiery and exotic curry dish with eye-opening flavors. Pacific Paradise’s Sambal is an excellent rendition with an authentic chili-based sauce that will singe the taste buds of the uninitiated.
Several Hawaiian dishes punctuate the menu, America’s contribution to the Pacific themed menu. For non-risk-takers, a safe and delicious bet is the Hawaiian Golden Crisp Chicken (tender chicken breast in a light coat of tempura batter deep-fried until crispy and served with a pineapple sauce) which bears a striking resemblance to the chicken cutlets served at the fabulous Kokoro restaurant. The pineapple sauce is about as thick as a typical sweet and sour sauce, but distinctively different in that it showcases the pineapple with an attitude, just enough piquancy to surprise and titillate your taste buds.
Desserts also play homage to the Pacific nation of their origin. In addition to mangoes and sticky rice (Thailand) and crispy banana (Malaysia), you’ll find several Pacific Paradise unique desserts whose genesis is the fertile mind of the chef. Quite popular are the tropical ice creams: mango, avocado, coconut, green tea, plumwine, ginger and red bean. These ice creams are creamy and delicious with a light texture and flavors that resonate with the flavor of their named ingredients. A sure cure for the heat of a summer day, they’re delicious any time.
A visit to Pacific Paradise may not be paradise on Earth, but it does offer a culinary journey to the flavors of the Pacific and you won’t have to travel across the ocean to get them.
3000 San Pedro Dr NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 December 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Ginger Ice Cream, Avocado Ice Cream, Albuquerque Roll, Sanbal Scallops, Hawaiian Golden Crisp Chicken