Even Buddha eats here
No Burqueño with a penchant for dining out can deny that Albuquerque is home to more than its share of Asian restaurants. I once considered creating a review template just so I could cut back on typing "rice," "noodles" and "pad Thai." But that wouldn’t be fair. Or ethical. So here I go again …
Lotus Café is over on Osuna, just off San Mateo. It’s on the small side—a fish tank along the back wall is longer than any of the tables. There are obligatory silk lotus blossoms and prints depicting this or that from Far Eastern lands. A great big, shiny golden Buddha sits beneath the tanked, pacing fish. It's flanked by bowls filled with fresh vegetable offerings. Unlike sleek, upscale Asian restaurants, this cultural display didn’t come across as a cheap ploy to assure diners that that they’re getting the real deal.
Owner Diana Nguyen comes to us from Laos and brings dishes incorporating organic ingredients that she describes as “tastes I remember from my mom and dad.”
Apparently mom and dad had a taste for Thai, Chinese and Korean food. Other than sticky rice, no Lao dishes are present.
The Thai iced tea, while still sweet enough to comfort a homesick Southerner, has a velvety texture that can be credited to condensed milk poured over the tea just before serving. Along with ample spice, it’s a refreshing beverage that offers relief from some of the hotter entrées.
Appetizers don’t stray far from expected fried or skewered finger food. Good Thai spring rolls are stuffed with firm silver noodles and garden trimmings. Fried dumplings fare similarly except for the saline sauce, aided somewhat by fresh cilantro and lingering ginger in the background. Better than most, an order of Thai meatballs has a silky mouthfeel and more substance than I generally experience. A barely discernible hint of oyster sauce makes these meatballs a highlight on the appetizer menu.
Seven pages of entrées border on annoying; but when your base is rice or noodles, things can go in a million directions. The pad Thai is, well, pad Thai. No complaints, no surprises. The Thai fried rice, however, is somewhat overcooked. Rice grains seem on the verge of collapse, and excess moisture is apparent in its overall mushy mouthfeel.
The red curry goong closes in on perfection. Coconut milk is brightly colored with a complex curry blend, which is amplified by pungent Thai basil. There are clean-tasting shrimp and tender, meaty mushrooms, and it's delivered alongside fragrant jasmine rice. I’d probably put this heady concoction in my top 10 list of damn fine curries.
For dessert, sticky rice with Thai coconut ice cream puts subtlety on display after the aggressive main courses. Warm rice is capped with snow-white coconut ice cream so delicate you might miss the taste completely if you gulp it down. Take a minute to let the frozen cream melt on your tongue. Once the fragrance travels up your throat, the flavor makes itself known.
Portions are more than adequate but not overwhelming. A vast majority of Lotus Café’s dishes are under $10, and the lunch specials are even thriftier. On weekdays, $5.95 buys a main course like panang curry or pad priew wan, jasmine rice and an eggroll.
The service at Lotus stands out as exemplary. No matter which waitress is on duty, dining is seamless; no pauses or hiccups as steaming plates are passed from the kitchen through the dining room. With this level of ease and coordination, you never find yourself waiting more than a moment between courses.
In a city awash with Asian cuisine, Lotus Café is an affable contender. Nguyen’s little piece of the pie lacks pretension and certainly possesses charm. And leftovers, eaten cold with the fridge door open, are tasty even two days later.