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Budai, ABQ: authentic Chinese/Taiwanese, and it's AWESOME

I don't say this very often...WOW!!!!

After a year-long procession of fairly lackluster Chinese dining experiences in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, we checked out Budai on a whim and, finally, we've found our winner, there is no runner up. On the NE corner of Academy and San Mateo, this place is the real deal, an authentic Taiwanese restaurant that raises the bar so high for the state that I simply won't be getting my Chinese from anywhere else in NM.

If you're looking for General Gao and his army of deep-fried glop (and hey, it's cool if you are, everyone loves that stuff every now and then), Budai is probably not for you. They do have a small assortment of Americanized dishes, and they looked reasonably tasty as we saw them head out of the kitchen, but that's not the point. This is the place to go for homemade dumplings, slow-stewed meats, fresh, exotic vegetables, and subtle sauces. Highlights:

Xao Long Bao - yes, they make their own soup dumplings!!! If you haven't had them, these are circular steamed dumplings, about an inch across, filled with meat and broth, and served with vinegar and fresh ginger; they literally explode in your mouth, and the resulting flavor is unlike anything else in the world. These are a fairly hard-to-find delicacy in San Francisco or NYC, the fact that they exist in ABQ is a seriously big deal. They make a few other dumplings in-house too, but if you haven't tried XLB before, definitely start here.

Three Cup Chicken - be advised there is a second menu they don't usually hand out that contains their more, um, "varsity-level" dishes. Some of these go a little outside my personal comfort zone (thinly-sliced pig ear, intestines). Others, including the three cup chicken we ordered, are on the secret menu because of the traditional Chinese style of meat preparation, where the meat is diced and stewed with the bones still in. This adds a ton of flavor to the sauce; the downside is that you have to be a little careful as you eat, picking out bones and watching out for small fragments. Regardless, the dish was just over-the-top great, a subtle, exotic combination of basil, ginger, chile, and a mildly sweet, caramelly element, served in a traditional sizzling clay pot. As delicious as the chicken itself was, I'd have to say the best part was just the amazing sauce spooned over rice.

Hollow Heart Vegetables - if you're familiar with pea tendrils, these are similar, if ever so slightly heartier, but only available during the summer harvest. Simply sauteed with garlic and oil (howdy, Marco Polo), the fact that the chef had the good sense and humility to just get out of the way was perhaps the surest of many signs he really knew what he was doing.

The friendly, gregarious family moved here from Washington DC, opening Budai a little less than a year ago. The decor is by no means fancy, but it's several big notches up from your garden-variety hole in the wall, simple, cheerful, and clean. Entrees straddle the $10 mark for typical family-size portions, which strikes me as beyond fair for the quality. They of course do take-out, but many of the best dishes (including the first two above) kind of need to be consumed on-site.

It takes a lot for me to say "run, don't walk", but I'll say it here: run, don't walk to Budai.

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Budai
6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

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  1. Holy smokes, I go past this place twice a day on the way to and from the office. Finlero, many thanks, amigo!

    1. oh my! oh my! thank you for this wonderful morsel of info - can't wait.

      19 Replies
      1. re: DebitNM

        Okay, I brought my wife by Budai on our way home from work: Finlero, amigo, I owe you a beer.

        We're not knowledgeable about Chinese food, let alone Taiwanese. (I've eaten "Chinese" all my life, and I've been in purportedly great places in NYC, Chicago and San Francisco, but I'm not an eater of the "varsity level" dishes that Finlero mentions in his review.) We went with easy and safe choices, and were very happy with them. And I can't say how delightful the people who ran Budai were - what a welcoming and helpful group of folks they were!

        We started out with a little dim sum appetizer, an order of the steamed pork BBQ buns (two for $3.95 or so). They arrived very quickly, piping hot. Unlike many of these that I have had, Budai's buns were somewhat subtle in their sweetness (a lovely change from the cloying taste one sometimes encounters in other restaurants), and they were very flavorful with spice and pork. The pork (and indeed the filling itself) had clearly been prepared on-site by a human chef who cared about the end product, not just some automaton following a recipe.

        Gina got the honeyed vinegar fish filet ($10.95), which she described as somewhat sweet and subtly sour. She was surprised (and not really happy) to find that the fish was breaded. It was a pretty large dish. (I'm not a fish guy, so I didn't taste it.)

        I had the twice cooked pork ($8.95), with baked to fu and lots of unbelievably fresh and flavorful cabbage, pea pods, carrots, mushrooms, green bell pepper and even a few chunks of jalapeƱo. Wow. I'm a "sauce guy" - sauce is sort of the thing that I like to cook the most. I can appreciate the efforts of someone who knows his stuff, and the cook at Budai knows his (her?) stuff! There was a subtle ginger flavor, a bit of heat, light saltiness, delicate oil - it was really superb. But the vegetables - the _perfectly_ cooked, astonishingly flavorful vegetables (I kept remarking to Gina, "Why don't the veggies that I buy taste like this?") - ah, they made this dish wonderful. The pork was delightful and added a wonderful flavor and texture to the dish, and the baked to fu really was a knocked it out of the park. Yum.

        I can't overstate how gracious and helpful the owners were. We were greeted immediately and seated right away, everyone smiled and genuinely cared about our experience, drinks were immediately refilled, plates were whisked away, a complimentary dish of chilled sweet watermelon was delivered before the check. It was just a joy to be there. The decor was mellow, the music was laid-back (what I'd describe as classical Chinese - what do I know?), and the place was spotlessly clean. There was a steady dinner business, but it was by no means crowded on a Wednesday evening. Our dinner, with an iced tea for me (the DD) and a glass of chardonnay for Gina came to $31, which struck us as quite reasonable.

        The food was amazing. The prices were low. The owners were delightful and the space was very pleasant. Budai is going to become a regular stop for us. Finlero, thanks so much for the recommendation!

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        Budai
        6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

        1. re: Erich

          2 for 2! We almost went tonight, but previous plans sent us to Zorba the Greek on Juan Tabo and Montgomery. Very good meal. Maybe this weekend...

          1. re: DebitNM

            We did go last night. But unfortunately we arrived at 8:20, and after a long wait at the reception desk, the gracious hostess explained, they were short staffed and the kitchen was backed up, and that she could seat us but it would be 20 minutes before she could take our order. My wife was ravenous and wanted out. I asked to see a to go menu, and off we went to Saigon, which is one of the best Vietnamese in town, which also has a very friendly staff as well. The menu at Budai looked great and I'll be back very soon.

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            Budai
            6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

            1. re: DebitNM

              Bummer, Scott. How is Zorba, Deb? I keep thinking about heading over there, but it's so close to Mykonos . . .

              Deb, perhaps we all ought to try for another meet-up . . . ?

            2. re: Erich

              Nice, glad it was a good experience for y'all as well. Although credit where credit is due -- my wife (twice the chowhound I could ever hope to be, with finely tuned chow radar) was the one to sniff this place out on a trip to Sunflower. She had a good feeling, although admittedly we still weren't expecting it to be anywhere near as good as it was.

              We'll have to get a group of hounds together and do a chowdown sometime (maybe even at Budai?), perhaps we can trade a few rounds then...

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              Budai
              6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                1. re: Erich

                  I think maybe after Balloon Fiesta, when life has settled down into autumn, might be a good time for trying a chowdown. What do you think?

                  1. re: DebitNM

                    We ate there when it very first opened and weren't as impressed as you guys seem to be, so I guess we need to try it again. Albuquerque surely needs good Chinese food! I don't post often but would love to join everyone for a chowdown!

                    1. re: abqdeb

                      Well, I just got a text from a friend I sent over there - he said that he and his son had a fabulous meal at Budai tonight. abqdeb, I think you might want to give it another shot. :-)

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                      Budai
                      6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                      1. re: Erich

                        We're planning on it--- soon! Will report back.

                2. re: finlero

                  I'd be up for a chowdown at Budai

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                  Budai
                  6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                  1. re: scottso

                    I regret that this will have to be a short review. Went back again today, and might have had an even better experience than last week. This time I got a little daring and had something off the "secret menu": Dong Bo Pork. My word - what an unbelievably wonderful dish. Pork belly, from the meat to fat to the skin, rolled, tied and cooked by a genius - slowly for almost 10 hours, then served up in a wonderfully delicious sauce. (A note to the more traditional American eaters: this is not in the least bit gross provided that you can wrap your head around it - it's probably no fattier than bacon, but you sure get a lot more of it.) I'm sort of at a loss to explain the amazing dish: subtle and delicious and FILLING. (If you're an Atkins dieter, try this and just don't eat the rice - you'll leave full and oh so happy.) The three layers (meat, fat and skin) work well separately or together. The expert cooking renders the textures into a wonderous symphony: buttery fat, chewy meat like ribs from Heaven and skin with a consistency just a little more chewy than the skin that formed on Mom's pudding when you were a kid. It was unlike anything I'd ever had, but is something that I'm now going to seek out again and again - how fortunate we are to have Budai here in town. Oh, and it was under $10. Amazing.

                    Beforehand, I had the fried egg rolls ($2.5) - we had the chicken, not the vegetarian rolls. These were the best Chinese egg rolls I've ever had: piping hot, crispy, packed with meat and delicately but intensely flavored. Just delicious. Served with a homemade mustard that pretty much could blow your head off - loved it.

                    My wife had food envy last time and didn't have as much of my Twice Cooked Pork ($9) as she'd wanted, so that's what she got. I had quite a bit of hers in my role as plate-cleaner, but I was so taken with my special-menu pork that I really didn't pay much attention to the more normal stuff.

                    Gina also had a couple glasses of the chardonnay ($4 ea.) - she was fine with it.

                    Again, the service was as wonderful as can be, and the space was completely comfortable and spotlessly clean. The owner kindly took a great deal of time to visit with us and tell us about various dishes and to explain the special menu - she's such a lovely lady.

                    I can't wait to go back.

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                    Budai
                    6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                    1. re: Erich

                      That's it! As soon as Hubby gets back into town - we are there! Your description alone Erich are enough to make me run over there right now. Good think I have some excellent enchiladas right here to take the edge off :o)

                      1. re: DebitNM

                        GRRRRR we went over tonight cause we were in that part of town, and it's CLOSED on Mondays. We are going tomorrow night - anyone want to meet us there??

                        1. re: DebitNM

                          I'd love to, but I need to start watching my girlish figure before our trip to HI later this month. Very sad to hear of your Monday-night travails.

                          1. re: DebitNM

                            I SO wanted to love this place...

                            Elsa was wonderful, wanted to know how I knew her name and how I knew about the secret menu! The food was good, but maybe I was expecting something way more, not sure.

                            We started with BBQ Pork Buns: we both thought the dough had a wonderful yeasty smell [love that] but that it was a tad too sweet and dry. The filling was minisucle and also very dry.

                            We then had chicken egg rolls and while the were crisp on the outside and the veggies inside were crisp and nice and tiny cut, there was hardly any filling. And to me an egg roll has a large diameter and a spring rolls has a very small diameter. So to me, these were spring rolls not egg rolls.

                            We then had mini shrimp dumplings which were delicate in size and mouth feel, but were a bit bland.

                            DH had the tea leave smoked duck which was not at all fatty, had lots of meat and was nicely presented. I found it to be a tad smokey for my taste although DH loved it.

                            I had the Sugar Vinegar Shortribs from the secret menu. What I got was a very nice, sweet and sour dish with small pieces of beef with bones, cut up carrots, onions and green bell peppers with a nice, not gloppy, sauce that was neither too sweet or sour.

                            We were served white rice [I prefer Jasmine, oh well] with the meal.

                            We each had iced tea [not much flavor except from the lemon] with refills.

                            Tab came to $41.

                            We saw many things on the menu that looked great, we are willing to come back and try more dishes.

                            Don't get me wrong, it was better than any other ABQ oriental restaurant, but it didn't WOW me.

                            1. re: DebitNM

                              I logged in twice today, just to hear what you thought. Interesting that you didn't do well on the fillings for either of the apps - ours were pretty well loaded. Sorry that it wasn't as good for you. :-( Hope next time is better.

                              1. re: Erich

                                My husband wanted to be sure I mentioned that we would definitely go back and that this was still a find and a half!!

                3. Add me to those who can't get enough of this place. It's the real deal.

                  Andrea Lin in the Albuquerque Journal was onto it early (she posts here) and Gil Garduno raved about it in July.

                  Read this if you're unsure then run, don't walk !

                  http://nmgastronome.com/blog/?p=9008

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: fyfas

                    Went back again this evening - had the chicken egg rolls again (this time with a sweet/sour sauce) and the special menu "Lions Head" (amazing enormous homemade pork meatballs in a piquant and slightly sweet sauce with cabbage and mung bean noodles - $13.95) and the mushroom-chicken (Gina had it - I didn't even taste it). The Lions Head was spectacular . . . man, I love this place. And Elsa is such a charming hostess.

                    1. re: Erich

                      sure, you couldn't meet us for dinner Tues but you went today.... :o(

                      1. re: DebitNM

                        So much for my girlish figure!

                        1. re: Erich

                          Went back with another couple on Saturday night - room was full and the food was great. We had four entrees - two off the secret menu and two specials - and a few plates of appetizers, along with the tea blossom. Pretty darned good chow. Elsa was very helpful in guiding us toward ordering dishes that "sing" together. Our friends are now confirmed fans as well.

                          We need to stop telling people about Budai . . . at this rate, it's going to turn out that we can't get seated.

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                          Budai
                          6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                          1. re: Erich

                            After the amazing Pork Belly we had at 315 in Santa Fe, we are going to have to try it here.

                  2. A quick note I should have mentioned in my initial post: the Xao Long Bao soup dumplings are listed on the standard menu, in the dim sum section, as something like "steamed mini pork dumplings". I have yet to try anything here that falls short of outstanding, but the XLB are an absolute must.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: finlero

                      Thanks for that info, finlero! I looked for them on secret menu to no avail. Next time.

                    2. We are headed to Budai today. Thanks. Will post. How about an NM Chow meeting over Xmas? We'd drive in for it.
                      Keg

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                      Budai
                      6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Passadumkeg

                        NM Chow meeting - sounds good to me. Anytime after 12/23.

                        1. re: DebitNM

                          Let's do it. I'm on school vacation and will be moving into our new house. A Chow break would be most welcomed