Outside the Bento Box
Nu Asia Vegan
If you’ve ever tried to dine out as a vegan (or with a vegan), there may have been times when you’ve wanted to bang your head against a wall trying to find a place that has even one dish you can eat. Fortunately, in Albuquerque it is getting easier every day for us, not just to find single dishes, but also to find restaurants that serve only vegan food. The latest option is the Nu Asia fusion restaurant.
It’s clear the place is just getting started. There is still some evidence in the décor that Cosmo Tapas used to reside here, and some of the waitstaff don’t appear well-trained on the menu. Still, the dining area has been transformed into a brightly lit, chic looking restaurant, and the service is attentive and quick. The servers bring out a bowl of soup while you are looking at the menu, which I appreciated—I came here because I’m hungry, so let’s eat.
A good way to try a variety of menu items is to order one of the “box” meals, which include smaller portions of stand-alone meals. Nu Asia’s bento boxes ($12.99 for lunch or dinner) include kimchi, four pieces of sushi, steamed tofu, salad and an entrée. The lunch and dinner boxes ($8.50 at lunch, $9.50 at dinner) also have an entrée with kimchi and salad in addition to two fried spring rolls and rice. Both types of kimchi offered on the menu (a standard style and a variation where cucumber replaces the cabbage) were my favorite items. While they were less spicy than I’d expect (I think Burqueños eat enough green chile to handle a little more kick), both had a cool, refreshing crispness that was welcome in this toasty summer weather.
The bento box entrée options include bulgogi, a hearty and delicious Korean-style dish with slices of marinated seitan (wheat protein) in a stew-like mixture with veggies. A Thai red curry with vegan pepper steak as spicy and creamy as one would hope for is available in the lunch and dinner boxes. Between these dishes and how well the tofu was incorporated in their miso soup, the chefs at Nu Asia clearly know how to properly prepare their protein alternatives. The flavor and texture all hit the right notes, whether chewy, like the pepper steak, or melt-in-your-mouth like the miso soup tofu. It’s up for debate whether the “meat” would please an omnivore, but this isn’t the meat-flavored cardboard some of us long-time herbivores remember.
The dining area has been transformed into a brightly lit, chic looking restaurant, and the service is attentive and quick. The servers bring out a bowl of soup while you are looking at the menu, which I appreciated—I came here because I’m hungry, so let’s eat.
In the past, the phrase “vegan sushi” at a restaurant translated to “we have a cucumber roll.” Nu Asia has that, but why bother when you can have the winning sweet and spicy combination of pineapple, green chile and crunchy shrimp tempura in the lucky roll ($8.99)? Their sushi menu is pretty extensive and easily the most unique part of their menu. Another good example of this is their salmon crunch roll ($8.50), a savory chewy combo of tempura salmon, avocado and crab, topped with toasted spicy shrimp. For the faux seafood skeptics, there are options like the states roll ($9.50), which takes mushrooms and tofu smothered in a mild BBQ sauce and adds cucumber with a garnish of avocado. Nu Asia is also offering an all-you-can-eat option ($16.99 at lunch, $18.99 at dinner), and it’s easy to see how you could get your money’s worth.
There are a number of sweets on the menu as well. One of the delights of eating at an all-vegan Asian restaurant is washing down your food with vegan Thai iced tea. Nu Asia’s ($2.95) did not fail to deliver the sweet, creamy drink I craved—in fact, it didn’t survive the short wait for my meal to arrive. The spinach ice cream ($4.95), which only betrays its vegetable contents in its dark green color, has a nice portion size for one, but has the classic homemade soy ice cream problem of a crumbly consistency. For a sharable dessert, you can’t go wrong with the bananas chocolate ($4.50)—deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with banana and drizzled with chocolate syrup. In fact, you should probably bring a friend with you so you have an excuse to order some.
Here’s the issue, though. At least half of the items I mentioned, and a significant amount of the rest of the menu, can be obtained at one of the other all-vegan Asian restaurants within the same half-mile on Central. Does Albuquerque have enough demand for vegan Asian food to support that many restaurants in a small radius, especially if they have duplicate menu items? For my part, I’m not complaining. After years of nothing but bean burritos and grilled vegetables when eating out, having multiple restaurants to choose from is pretty glorious. I only hope that Nu Asia can focus on what makes its menu different so it can enhance, rather than over saturate, the vegan options in the neighborhood.
4200 Central SE
Hours: 11am to 9pm Monday through Saturday
1pm to 8pm Sundays
Price range: $5-$20
Vibe: Trendy cafe
Extras: All-you-can-eat sushi
The Weekly Alibi recommends: Regular or cucumber kimchi, bulgogi, lucky roll, bananas chocolate