Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sumo Sushi, Albuquerque

Sumo Sushi
800 3rd Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

A few months ago I gave a very disparaging review to Amerasia, Sumo Sushi’s sister restaurant which serves good, authentic Dim Sum as much as Taco Bell serves good, authentic Mexican food (though even that is generous to Amerasia). However, I had a pleasant experience in 2012 next door at Sumo Sushi and decided to go their yesterday when my fridge was absolutely bare and I was too tired to buy groceries and cook.

After parking in their gravel parking lot, I entered the restaurant and was promptly seated after a family of three. After a few minutes of serving the family ahead of me, my server gave me a glass of ice water and asked if I was ready to order. I asked for her recommendations on the Donburi and udon bowls, but she said “they’re different” and refused to give a recommendation because she “didn’t want me to complain later.” I was a little surprised at such a defensive response, but nonetheless I decided to go order salmon nigiri, inari (sushi rice wrapped in fried tofu), and Oyakodon (bowl of rice with simmered eggs, chicken, and vegetables).

Sumo Sushi 1

A bowl of complimentary miso soup and it was fairly generic, though nice given the brisk night. Then the nigiri and inari came. I was a little puzzled at only getting two inari pieces as I generally am used to three, but the inari was good if a little understuffed with rice. The salmon nigiri was decent with big pieces of salmon, albeit it wasn’t quite melt in your mouth good. The rice was a little dry and small, but all in all not bad. It could have used some freshly grated wasabi, but in general it’s rare to get fresh wasabi at any sushi restaurant that’s not high end and in a super big coastal city (and even then, you’ll likely get generic wasabi paste a lot anyway).

Sumo Sushi 2

The Oyakodon came last and was definitely redemption for the night. The broth mixed elegantly with the rice, with a slightly subtle but very clean and fresh flavor. It complimented the eggs, chicken, onion, and bell pepper slices as well. While clay pot rices of Chinese cuisine and bibimbap of Korean cuisine are divine in their own right, the Oyakodon here definitely reminded me why I liked donburi best among small mixed rice bowls in East Asian cuisine.

Once I was done, the second server refilled my water glass and cleared my table. Finally the bill was presented to me as the final seconds of the Duke-Syracuse NCAA men’s basketball were being played. It came to about $20, not including tip. While the service wasn’t great, the Oyakodon and the pleasant atmosphere more than made up for it. I’ll definitely be back again, but definitely not for the Dim Sum and hopefully with a different server.

As a side note, if you want to listen to an excellent NPR program episode on Japanese food, I recommend listening to this January episode of Good Food with Evan Kleiman.

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Pho Saigon, Houston

Pho Saigon
2808 Milam St., Suite D
Houston, TX 77006

One big thing I was excited about when I was in Houston for a conference was to try their Vietnamese food. Houston has the third largest Vietnamese population in the United States, after Orange County’s enclave of Vietnamese around Westminster and San Jose. Given the density of the Vietnamese population as well as my experience with Vietnamese food going to school in Orange County, I wanted to see how Houston stacked up.

Pho Saigon 1

I originally wanted to go to Mai’s, considered by many to be the top Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, but since it was closed on Sundays I decided to go to the ostensibly second best reviewed Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Saigon. I took a cab a couple miles to Midtown and landed in a small strip mall, which seemed auspicious in my mind given the plethora of great hole in the wall Vietnamese places in tiny Westminster strip malls. Upon entering the place, the feel got even better as it seemed very much like a Vietnamese restaurant in Southern California – bare linoleum tables stuff with condiments, busy servers flying over the place with steaming bowls of pho, and barely decorated walls.

I sat down for my quick meal before my ride to the airport and ordered their combination beef pho, #44 on their menu. Since I love Vietnamese egg rolls and typically order 2 items to see a better spectrum of the kitchen’s ability, I ordered a small plate with 2 egg rolls as well.

Pho Saigon 2

Within 7 minutes, the bowl of pho came to my table. I immediately sipped the broth and found it spectacular in taste. The beef was not too strong and balanced well with the taste of star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and onion. The noodles were cooked fairly well, though perhaps just slightly more overcooked than I liked. The slices of beef were heavenly, seasoned well and just rare. They were also generous with the slices of meatballs, which was an added bonus. The egg rolls came later, and those were done superbly as well. It was crunchy without being too oily and the filling was dense and well seasoned, without being overwhelming. I was disappointed that they did not include more slices of pickled daikon and carrots, as well as leaves of lettuce to wrap the egg rolls in. However, that is just a minor error in an overall superior meal.

The service was efficient, but friendly as well. They generously refilled water, even as busy and moderately understaffed as they were. When I requested a little sauce plate for my sriracha and hoisin sauce mixture, they were eager to oblige. Finally, the check was delivered right after I was finished and I paid up at the counter as is customary.

Overall, I would say that Orange County is still the place to beat in terms of Vietnamese food, and pho in particular, but Houston gives a good run for the money. The prices were comparable as well, which was satisfying to my wallet. The best pho of my life still remains at Pho Nguyen Hue in Westminster, but Houston is certainly a destination for Vietnamese food in America.

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Fung’s Kitchen, Houston

Fung’s Kitchen
7320 Southwest Freeway #115
Houston, TX 77074

Normally I would spend the Lunar New Year back home in San Diego with both sides of the family. However, this year I had the opportunity to go to Creating Change in Houston which just so happened to fall the same weekend as the Lunar New Year. While I was initially somewhat sad that I would not be eating at Emerald or Golden City for the traditional Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner, I became excited at the prospect of exploring Houston’s Chinese food scene and eat a Lunar New Year meal not in Southern California.

I researched the internet, flipped through a Zagat guide, and even took a peak at tour guides. While there seemed to be a number of options, I ultimately picked Fung’s Kitchen and placed a reservation for Lunar New Year’s Eve, knowing that nearly all restaurants would likely be full. I invited a couple friends of mine that were also going to the conference from New Mexico because the Lunar New Year, of all holidays in the Chinese calendar, is the holiday to be celebrating with family (chosen, biological, or otherwise).

At about 7:30PM we drove my rental car to the restaurant. We arrived nearly 30 minutes before our reservation and, as expected, the place was packed. Nonetheless, because I made the reservation we secured the next open table. After waiting about 5 minutes, we were seated and ordered chrysanthemum tea and a couple glasses of water. We looked at the menu and inquired about special Chinese New Year dishes. Unfortunately, all the specials were in Chinese and given that my Chinese reading skills aren’t quite that good (especially when half the Lunar New Year dishes have auspicious names instead of actually telling you what the dish is) we settled on regular menu items.

Fung's 1

We initially ordered stir fried pea sprouts, “Buddha’s Delight” which is basically stir fried vegetables and fungus (which is traditional to eat for the new year), and seafood crispy chow mein as fish is a must for the Lunar New Year as a symbol of prosperity (fish is a homonym for fortune). One of my friends spotted dumplings so we ordered vegetable dumplings as well. Finally, as we were waiting for our food the owner came to our table and generously upsold us on scallops.

Fung's 2

The scallops came first. Despite the price tag of $5,99 each, they were actually pretty good with a nice and light garlicky sauce. The vegetable dishes came next. The textures for the vegetables turned out perfect but I wished both the pea sprouts and the “Buddha’s Delight” had a little bit more seasoning. I ended up having to dab the vegetables with chili oil to make things more palatable. The vegetable dumplings were pretty well made and played very well with a vinegar and soy sauce dip. The final dish to arrive was the chow mein, which was done nearly flawlessly. The play between the crunchy noodles with the noodles softened by the seafood and sauce sublimely danced in my mouth.

Aside from slower service during the beginning of the meal, the attention by the restaurant was spot on. They quickly refilled our water glasses and teapot. The owner was also very friendly, though definitely pushed us to also buy more dessert. Knowing that the bill was already going to be about $25 a person, I politely but firmly declined.

For dessert, we headed further down Houston’s Chinatown instead. We ended up going to a lovely boba place that had great almond milk tea. Upon one sip, I was instantly transported back to Southern California.

My meal may have not been as great as I hoped, but the end note to this experience was perfect: drinking boba with friends and having a good time. The year of the Horse started on a great note.

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Manna, San Diego

Manna Korean BBQ
4228 Convoy Street R210
San Diego, CA 92111

When I was in Southern California a couple weeks ago to mourn the loss of my cousin, I had the opportunity to go down to San Diego and spend time with good friends. One of those friends had never had Korean barbecue before, much to the amazement of a mutual friend and myself. After several casual chats about going to an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Korean barbecue place, I finally decided to gather my friends and consume an unhealthy amount of delicious grilled meat.

I had never been to Manna before, but it has be heralded as one of the best Korean restaurants in San Diego, so we had to go there. We went for a Sunday lunch, but luckily just before the crowds started rushing into the restaurant. While the policy of the restaurant is to only seat people when everyone in the party has arrived, the hostess sat my friend (who hadn’t had Korean barbecue before) and I a few minutes before our mutual friend arrived as she sensed the crowds rushing in soon.

Once we sat down, we were given a menu of multiple all-you-can-eat options, some with very fancy and interesting seafood options of up to $40 a person. Since we really only needed a basic, but good, introduction to Korean barbecue for my friend we opted for the cheapest all-you-can-eat option at $20 a person. We then selected our meats: bulgogi (marinated thinly sliced beef), thinly sliced brisket, pork belly, and galbi (marinated beef spareribs).

Manna

As we eagerly anticipated our plates of meat to grill, we were served with complimentary banchan (little snacks). These banchan included sauteed spinach, cucumber kimchi, napa cabbage kimchi, pickled daikon, mung bean noodle salad, potato salad, and marinated beans. Nearly all of the banchan were spectacular, with the mung bean noodle salad and spinach being particular favorites of our group. The salad they gave us was good as well, though may have needed some extra dressing.

After about 10 minutes or so, the meat started to arrive. First came the brisket and pork belly. The brisket was pretty good, and complimented very nicely to the sauce dip we had for it. The pork belly was decent as well, albeit could have used a little more seasoning, even after our group had already seasoned with a little salt and pepper. The bulgogi was wonderful, having a marinade that was succulent without being overwhelming. The galbi was fantastic and flavorful as well, with some parts just falling off the bone after we grilled it. Of course, there was so much meat that a hefty combined effort from the three of us still failed the finish all the meat as we ended with some uncooked bulgogi.

Thankfully, our servers did not judge our failure, but instead were rather pleasant and warm. They regularly filled our water carafes and helpfully turned the meat over the cook faster when we were busy shoveling already done pieces of meat into our mouth. They also pleasantly refilled several banchan plates and were even kind enough to offer a second grill top late in our lunch. Unfortunately, given that we were defeated in our attempt to eat all the meat, we politely declined the new grill top.

All in all, this was one of the best Korean barbecue experiences I have ever had. While it’s not quite the cheapest option around in the highly competitive Korean restaurant scene in Southern California, it is definitely a vanguard of quality for San Diego Korean barbecue joints. My friend had a great first time eating Korean barbecue and I was definitely happy to have taken him here instead of the cheaper places down the street.

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