Unquestionably the Best Chinese Meal I Have Had in New Mexico. Maybe Even the Whole USA.
First Visit: August 8, 2010
Sixth Visit: May 16, 2012
I had yet to find a Chinese restaurant in the Albuquerque area that I could rate better than poor-good.
Until now. Budai is sensational.
My good friend Barbara Trembath is an unabashed Budai fan. She knows Asian food and also writes for Urbanspoon (as do I). She got a small group of friends and family together for a special meal that Chef Hsia Fang would prepare for us that included dishes that are neither on the regular menu nor on the not-so-secret secret menu. In addition to her family (David, Rhys, and Ilona), she invited a few of her favorite foodies to join her at this special feast. Andrea Lin (food critic for the ABQ Journal and local food blogger) and I were there, but Gil Garduño (Albuquerque’s premiere food blogger) was in Phoenix at the time. His loss. Next time, Gil.
Barbara worked with Hsia and Elsa to put together an unusual feast that would be different and really be demonstrative of Hsia’s skills. All the dishes were amazing.
Elsa served each dish and carefully explained what they were all about. We had
Eight Flavor Duck (Shanghai)
This dish is most often called Eight Treasure Duck. This is a boned duck large enough to feed 4 – 6 hungry diners. It is rubbed inside and out with Chinese five spice mixture and salt. It is stuffed with a savory mixture of glutinous rice fortified with such (but usuakky not all) ingredients as cooked rice, dried Chinese or shiitake mushrooms, walnuts, fresh lotus nuts (or gingko nuts), Chinese sausage, minced Yunnan ham, green peas, diced carrots, spring onions, coriander leaves, p oyster sauce, sesame oil, and Salt and pepper to taste.
Roast the stuffed bird to a crispy brown, and get Elsa to slice it into portions lest we destroy the beauty of the dish. The sweetness of the Chinese sausage is noteworthy. One of my favorite home0cooked meal is Chinese sausage and rice, a dish taught to me by my first secretary at the University of Chicago (she would regularly bring me offerings of the sausage). Great stuff, and its sweetness penetrates the stuffing in the bird. This is likely to become my favorite duck preparation. It is festive and looks ans tastes quite spectacular. I would like to try my Christmas goose prepared in this way.
Water Boiled Fish (水煮鱼 shuǐ zhǔ yú)
This is a classic Chongqing dishes. Water Boiled Fish is a stew of sliced freshwater fish cooked in a seasoned broth covered with dried red chilies (Tien-Tsin) and Sizechuan peppercorns. The stew is ladled over a bed of blanched yellow bean sprouts before serving. The words “water-boiled” are deceiving. This is not a bland dish by any means. Everything about it is hot, hot, hot! Elsa carefully explained all this to us.
We had not only bean sprouts in this potion, but also thin strips of cabbage. The combination of the two different peppers added a piquancy that belied its gentle look. It turned out to be among the spiciest Chinese dish I have yet had. Both Andrea and I would have liked it hotter, but Hsia wisely held back a tad for the non0asbestos mouths at the table. Another spectacular dish, and it was nearly polished off by Andrea and me. Quite a delicious mouthful. The white fish was tender, flaky, and tasty.It never had a chance to get mushy in the expert hands of Hsia.
I suspect that had Gil been there, he might have blocked our way to second helpings. And I am quite sure that he would have liked more piquancy.
Kung Pao Chicken (Szechuan)
Almost every Chinese or Chinese-American restaurant serves a version on Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁/宮保雞丁). Most are boring and very poorly done. I rarely order this dish because I am always expecting to be disappointed. One of Barbara’s quests is to find a superb version of this dish. Hsia’s creation greatly exceeds her expectations. Mine, too. Best I have ever had.
These morsels of very tender chicken are sautéed lightly in with a delicate mixture of spices. The usual peanuts are added. Tien-Tsin peppers supply the copious heat: T
There are lots of peppers in Hsia’s dish, but the result is not too hot. Just right for most people, although Andrea and I wished for considerably more heat (we both are asbestos mouths.
Five Flavor Rice
I usually avoid desserts in Chinese restaurants, finding them rather boring. Elsa brought out this huge plate of sticky rice with five-spice flavorig and lghtly caramelized. The thin layer of rice sat atop some carrot strings that had the look of orange rice vermicelli noodles. The carrot strings were soaked in a light sugar mixture. I absolutely loved this dessert. So did Gil Garduño on an earlier visit. This is a spectacular dessert that is not cloyingly sweet. I’m hooked.
Each time I visit Budai, Elsa always brings out a dish of some kind of fresh fruit. This time it was fully ripe pineapple. Delicious, and it finishes off the meal with a bit of gentleness. She also brought the inevitable Fortune Cookies (originated in Japan),. I abstained, never having met a fortune cookie I liked. And the fortunes always suck. You know the jokes already, so I won’t pursue thai farther.
The kids also love Budai. Their usual meal is chicken fried rice, which they gulped down politel. nut Rhys polished off the pineapple. Good hor him.
We all decided that this foodie meeting needs to continue. Next time I’ll make sure to bring Jane. And Gil. Anyone else interested?
Barbara and I will try to convince Andrea to write a feature profile of Hsia. He is relatively unknown outside his avid fan club, and is one of the best and most imaginative chefs in the Duke City.
I repeat: this was the very best Chinese meal I have ever had. Awesome. Phenomenal. Thanks to Barbara for planning this feast, and to Hsia and Elsa for carrying it off with aplomb and grace. What a team.
As Ernie Banks used to say, let’s play two.
You should read my original review of Budai that covers my first five visits.
Budai Gourmet Chinese.