I don't say this very often...WOW!!!!
After a year-long procession of fairly lackluster Chinese dining experiences in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, we checked out Budai on a whim and, finally, we've found our winner, there is no runner up. On the NE corner of Academy and San Mateo, this place is the real deal, an authentic Taiwanese restaurant that raises the bar so high for the state that I simply won't be getting my Chinese from anywhere else in NM.
If you're looking for General Gao and his army of deep-fried glop (and hey, it's cool if you are, everyone loves that stuff every now and then), Budai is probably not for you. They do have a small assortment of Americanized dishes, and they looked reasonably tasty as we saw them head out of the kitchen, but that's not the point. This is the place to go for homemade dumplings, slow-stewed meats, fresh, exotic vegetables, and subtle sauces. Highlights:
Xao Long Bao - yes, they make their own soup dumplings!!! If you haven't had them, these are circular steamed dumplings, about an inch across, filled with meat and broth, and served with vinegar and fresh ginger; they literally explode in your mouth, and the resulting flavor is unlike anything else in the world. These are a fairly hard-to-find delicacy in San Francisco or NYC, the fact that they exist in ABQ is a seriously big deal. They make a few other dumplings in-house too, but if you haven't tried XLB before, definitely start here.
Three Cup Chicken - be advised there is a second menu they don't usually hand out that contains their more, um, "varsity-level" dishes. Some of these go a little outside my personal comfort zone (thinly-sliced pig ear, intestines). Others, including the three cup chicken we ordered, are on the secret menu because of the traditional Chinese style of meat preparation, where the meat is diced and stewed with the bones still in. This adds a ton of flavor to the sauce; the downside is that you have to be a little careful as you eat, picking out bones and watching out for small fragments. Regardless, the dish was just over-the-top great, a subtle, exotic combination of basil, ginger, chile, and a mildly sweet, caramelly element, served in a traditional sizzling clay pot. As delicious as the chicken itself was, I'd have to say the best part was just the amazing sauce spooned over rice.
Hollow Heart Vegetables - if you're familiar with pea tendrils, these are similar, if ever so slightly heartier, but only available during the summer harvest. Simply sauteed with garlic and oil (howdy, Marco Polo), the fact that the chef had the good sense and humility to just get out of the way was perhaps the surest of many signs he really knew what he was doing.
The friendly, gregarious family moved here from Washington DC, opening Budai a little less than a year ago. The decor is by no means fancy, but it's several big notches up from your garden-variety hole in the wall, simple, cheerful, and clean. Entrees straddle the $10 mark for typical family-size portions, which strikes me as beyond fair for the quality. They of course do take-out, but many of the best dishes (including the first two above) kind of need to be consumed on-site.
It takes a lot for me to say "run, don't walk", but I'll say it here: run, don't walk to Budai.
6300 San Mateo Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109