The fish soup is sssmmokin’
There are a million Chinese food restaurants in Albuquerque. OK, maybe not quite a million, but definitely a multitude. What sets one apart from the herd? Ho Ho has a rep for being über cheap (you could buy the entire place for $10), Chow’s is in business with the white tablecloth treatment and China Star has the biggest pile of cold shrimp I’ve ever peeled into. This leaves a few categories open for the taking, such as best background cricket noises and best place to get stewed chicken feet.
Chopstix, on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro, is almost, but not quite, hidden in the back of a busy, busy strip mall flanked by Smith’s and Hastings. The interior is tiny and well-scrubbed. I was immediately transfixed by the sounds of the great outdoors. No, not the crappy John Candy movie, but a recorded compilation of tweeting birds, chirping crickets and an occasional bubbling stream.
Upon further examination, I concluded that the furnishings were typical of a Chinese restaurant—there must be a template somewhere—the booth I was sitting in was deep and comfy, and the server was sweeter than a slice of sponge cake.
The scent of cooked meat and vinegar permeated the place, and amidst the chirping and tweeting I had a chance to peruse the menu, done up in bright colors with a picture of each and every dish, right next to the descriptions. There were a plethora of tasty options for starters, like homemade boiled meat dumplings (10 for $4.95), a plate of sliced house pork or beef ($3.50) or the Chinese meat pie ($2.95).
This meat pie was like a small, round, well-spiced Chinese hot pocket, cut into four neat slices. The meat was infused with green onions and the shell was slightly sweet. It was also very filling and, honestly, that and a small bowl of soup would make an excellent quick lunch.
The entrées consist of noodle bowls and traditional meat/poultry/seafood rice dishes. Standard fare like the beef noodle bowl and General Tao’s shrimp eventually gave way to both a fabulous selection of meatless plates and some exotic specials. Vegetarians come a runnin’ because the plump purple eggplant in rich brown garlic sauce or the sautéed Napa cabbage with vinegar would be a welcome change from tofu surprise revisited.
Menu aside, the real specials are printed on 8- by 11-inch laminated cards lining the right-hand wall, and I was told that they change often and are tailored to meet requests. A few of the particularly weird-cum-interesting cards read “purple rice,” “tomato and eggs,” “salted pepper squid” and “pickled kohlrabi with pork and chive.” Ah, kohlrabi, our cabbage/turnip-like friend, with its Sputnik look and its broccoli-stem taste.
I went the distance and chose the most interesting thing on the menu aside from the stewed chicken feet (sorry, I refuse to ingest the feet of chicken unless there is a cash prize at the end) which was the fish soup with pickled cabbage ($9.95). I was told the owner pickles the cabbage herself, as well as importing the more remarkable accoutrements from overseas.
The soup was a boiling hot pot of huge, slightly sweet and dense fish hunks with ample and absolutely delicious dark green cabbage, and a broth that was smoky and briny--and lethally spicy, as it turns out. I ate about four good, fat bites before the fires of hell consumed my olfactory organs. And, to my intense chagrin, the entire staff got a jolly kick out of seeing me gasp for air and beg for my parent to save me. It was just like that time I dropped my day planner in the toilet at Zinc—funny for everyone but me.
As the crickets chirped and the birds tweeted on, I regained my composure long enough to check out the lunch menu, which sported 20 or so meals served with egg roll, soup and rice at cheapskate prices, as in nothing over $5. The choices were actually decent, and strikingly diverse, ranging from jalapeño chicken to twice-cooked pork and Ma Po tofu.
My overall assessment of Chopstix is favorable. The place is clean, the service is top dog, and the food is light on the filler and even lighter on the price. Go for the crickets, stay for the tweety feet, but whatever you do, don’t let them see you crying over the soup. That’s just undignified.
The Alibi Recommends:
Pickled greens and pork noodles
Steamed whole red fish
Chopstix Chinese Cuisine, 6001-L Lomas NE, 268-8777. Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m–8 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., closed Mondays. No smoking, credit cards accepted.