Chan Can Cook
And Chopstix Chinese Cuisine proves it
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
When Jackie Chan was in Albuquerque in 2009, filming Spy Next Door, he ended up spending a lot of time at Chopstix, a Chinese restaurant in the Fair Plaza mall at the NW corner of San Pedro and Lomas.
Chan was given the run of the kitchen, where he helped create the menu item known as “mustard green with pork and dried tofu,” aka the Jackie Chan special. Spiced with jalapeño peppers, the JC special is light and satisfying, exotic without being weird.
The line between exotic and weird is as fine as it is well traveled at Chopstix, which is partly why I’ve been having a hard time staying away. Like a book I can’t put down, I’m always eager to know what happens next. The parade of mysteries includes names like da lu noodle, wide noodles in a thick broth similar to that of hot and sour soup, but with tomatoes, Chinese black mushrooms and various meats.
Chopstix’ mysterious, exotic mojo kept me off balance at times, to the point where it was hard to believe that a dish as normal as spaghetti could actually be as nondescript as it sounds. But it was, in fact, a completely no big deal plate of pasta covered in a basic marinara, indistinguishable from what you’d expect from a red-sauce Italian joint in New Jersey.
The line between exotic and weird is as fine as it is well traveled at Chopstix, which is partly why I’ve been having a hard time staying away.
Such wackiness is a form of exotica all its own. For another example, the menu entry for house tofu includes the advisory: “not available when busy.” Nowhere else on the menu was this qualification given, leading one to believe there is something extra time consuming about this dish.
I attempted to order house tofu on a busy night, when all but two tables were filled. We’d already ordered and gorged, but were curious about the tofu, which the waitress allowed us to order without a blink.
About three minutes later, a plate arrived, full of lightly fried pieces of tofu in a thin, mild sauce. They were subtle, delicious, but nothing about it suggested any reason why this, of all the dishes on the substantial menu, would not be available when busy. When I asked the waitress about this, she shrugged. “It’s not very busy,” she said.
When I ordered dried bamboo with tofu, my crusty waitress clapped me on the back and said “You order like a Chinese!” her face beaming. The dish turned out to be an exquisite pile of toothpick-sized julienned shoots and tofu that were fun and chewy to eat. Dried bamboo is very different from the canned bamboo shoots you normally get in Chinese food. It has a chewier texture and none of the off-taste that I normally associate with bamboo shoots.
I had first noticed the dried bamboo shoots in the duck soup. With the duck itself towering above soup level, it was a hands-on experience, deliciously hitting the chicken soup spot in a ducky, brothy way.
Another head-spinner was the soy stick celery salad. The soy stick was composed of multiple layers of tofu film laid atop one another into a composite blanket, which was then twisted into a rope and cut into inch-long sections. Served slightly warm, with equally warm pieces of softened, barely crunchy celery, it was dressed in Szechuan pepper oil, which is bizarre-tasting and tongue-numbing.
Like the tofu and bamboo, the soy stick celery salad isn’t on the menu. I ordered it from a line-up of paper signs attached to a wall, which served as a specials board. Don’t neglect these signs, as they name some of the more interesting dishes to be had, from stir-fried cactus to boiled pork neck to Chinese-style, twice-cooked pork.
Wait. “Chinese-style,” twice-cooked pork?
Doesn’t the “Chinese-style” go without saying?
It also goes without saying, evidently, that Chinese-style, twice-cooked pork is about 50 percent tofu slices. Carrying a hint of five-spice, it was a deeply satisfying dish. The lightness of the tofu allows one to eat more of it, while adding to the texture, but with no loss of flavor. If pork is in your crosshairs, the appetizer-sized and priced portion of dong-po pork, slow-cooked, five-spiced and impregnated with juicy fat, and with no tofu, will hit the spot more directly.
The closest thing I ordered to “normal” Americanized Chinese food was the oyster sauce beef. It was simple, seasoned with scallions and ginger. The softness of the beef was impressive, as if it were made out of pieces of rib eye.
At the other end of the “normal” spectrum was the beef tendon pot stew. If you take your pho with tendon and consider yourself an old pro at connective tissue consumption, this will still likely push you beyond your comfort zone.
This was a pot of pure tendon, cut into large chunks and drenched in a sauce of melted tendon. The consistency was like that of half-dried glue, and my lips actually stuck together if they touched while chewing it. Flavored with ginger, it was mellow and tasty. But a little went a long way.
While the crazy animal parts are flying this way and that, the vegetable options at Chopstix are excellent as well, and interesting as always. The above-mentioned tofu with bamboo should not be missed. Also great was the silky potato leaf, a heaping pile of soy sauced greens. The eggplant was a soft, soupy, delicious chunky slurry in a dark ginger and garlic sauce. The eggplant chunks were explosively juicy. Vegetarians can also order the Jackie Chan special sans pork. The only veggie dish that disappointed was the mixed vegetables, which was surprisingly boring.
It sounds cliché, but there really is something for everyone at Chopstix. If you’re crazy and weird, like me, the kitchen will match you dish for dish. If you don’t like to stray too far from home, you can get your fried rice, sweet and sour pork and egg rolls. And if you’re so afraid to leave the house you shouldn’t even be in a Chinese restaurant, we recommend the spaghetti.