Iron Clad Quality
Iron Cafe is just plain amazing
Noodles are a bit of a universal language in food. With their ease of creation, they tend to be functional in many different dishes and styles. Take for example lamian noodles, the style of noodle associated with Lanzhou dishes. Chinese in origin, these noodles are typically hand pulled by twisting, stretching and folding the dough repeatedly until the strands are the correct size. There are references to this style of noodle creation dating back as far as 1504, which gives them just a little bit of history. So imagine my excitement when I saw a traditional hand-pulled noodles place was opening up in what I feel now needs to be dubbed “The Noodle District” here in Albuquerque.
Iron Cafe popped up with a glorious sign proclaiming they did traditional Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, and I, a noodle aficionado, sat patiently waiting for the doors to finally open. Located across from the University of New Mexico next to other local ramen shops at 2108 Central Ave. SE, they seem to be a perfect fit for the spot. In a cozy interior with comfortable chairs, the affordable prices and variety remind me of my university days of getting out of class and having lunch with friends somewhere nearby that accommodated everyone.
Straight up, the food is amazing. A testament to good pricing, I was able to get the popcorn chicken, General Tso’s chicken bento box, the Lanzhou noodles, tempura cheesecake and the takoyaki all for under $40. I left with more food than I knew what to do with, and subsisted on the leftovers (which, minus the sushi, all held up really well on reheatings) for the next week.
Let’s start with the takoyaki ($4 for six pieces). This is a seafood lover’s dream meal, being a batter-fried ball of octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion. It’s decorated on top with dried bonito shavings, a type of mackerel. They’re just big enough to be bite-sized if you stretch wide enough and have the taste of octopus without the overwhelming seafood assault that some places with bad or old fish have.
Next was my favorite from the meal, the Japanese Popcorn Chicken Karaage ($5.50). I don’t know how else to describe this to you, but think batter-fried chicken with one of the most killer combos of seasoning and sauce you have ever had. I can’t even identify all the pieces of what made up these two important additions, but all I know is that I devoured it faster than I have almost anything else in my life. Slightly sweet with a hint salty and a kick of heat, the seasoning coats your mouth and leaves you experiencing a gentle seasoning overload while your senses try to catch up. Add the creamy sauce with those same hints in a different style, and you have something next-level. It was so good, I went back and ordered another one the next day because I couldn’t stop thinking about it the night before.
The General Tso’s Chicken Bento Box is a crazy good deal. For $9.95, you get your entree with white rice, two pieces of gyozo, four pieces of a California roll and a salad. The chicken was tender, with the crust being thick enough to hold that iconic sauce, but not so thick as to be extra crunchy or difficult to break through. The California rolls were freshly made and tasted as good as you could hope for in New Mexico. The rice was fluffy and sticky, and the gyozo had been fried to just the right crispiness. This is a definitively huge lunch for less than $10, and you would be crazy not to order it.
The large sign outside highlighted the noodles, so I had to order the noodles. For $9.75, a bowl of the Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles is yours, featuring a spicy grass-fed beef broth, with white carrot, cilantro, green onion, daikon and of course sliced beef and hand pulled noodles. This is a meal on its own, no question about it. The noodles boasted a level of freshness you don’t often see, and added some authenticity and home-cooked feel to the dish as a whole. The broth was so good, had I not already eaten two meals worth of food at this point, I would have immediately downed the whole thing. There’s a heartiness to the dish, while also maintaining a sense of lightness from the broth. Much like Schrodinger's cat, I was both full yet felt light and unburdened by this dish. They hedged their bets on this dish with that sign, and it’s beyond clear that they won. This is an iconic dish that will help cement their place in our new Noodle District.
Finally, the tempura cheesecake ($6.50). Battered and fried, this manages to find the best of both worlds. The outside is a nice, crispy warm shell, but hidden inside we find the smooth, creamy soft cheesecake just waiting to be devoured. With a light chocolate sauce drizzle on top, it was everything you could ever want from a fried cheesecake. I now have a new drop-in place for a quick dessert that is both delicious and affordable.
Is Albuquerque’s Noodle District a thing? It needs to be. With so many shops offering a variety of different styles of Asian noodles all next door to each other, one might worry that over-saturation could take hold. I contest this thought, namely because each one is so unique and strong in different areas that you would be hard pressed to legitimately compare them. Iron Cafe has found a strong foothold with some amazing food, and I hope to see them still standing for years to come.
2108 Central Ave. SE
Hours: Mon-Sat: 11am to 9pm Sun: 1pm to 8pm
Vibe: Laid-back Asian cuisine with a focus on traditional style.
Alibi Recommends: The popcorn chicken, Lanzhou noodles and tempura cheesecake.