“Sort through the sweet potato leaves by hand, choosing only the most tender. Only about half the leaves will be tender enough to use, and when they are cooked they will halve in size again. Sauté the leaves in a hot wok for less than a minute, coating with sesame oil and garlic. Eat them immediately, before they lose their nutrients…”
Listening to Elsa Fang describe her husband Hsia’s dishes, it’s easy to imagine I’m reading a cookbook of traditional Chinese recipes. Her description of the preparation of the sweet potato leaves on my plate begins my culinary adventure through several dishes at Budai Gourmet Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque. I’m super excited. After reading a local bloggers’ accounts of Chef Hsia’s dishes, I know I’m in for some authentic, home-cooked Chinese cuisine—not the cloyingly sweet and sticky sweet-and-sour chicken and how-long-has-this-been-sitting-here fried rice from ubiquitous Chinese chain restaurants. Owned by the Taiwanese couple Hsia and Elsa Fang, the small restaurant is tucked away inside a busy shopping center off San Mateo. As each dish is brought to the table, Elsa provides a detailed description of ingredients and preparation. Because Chef Hsia’s English is limited, she is the face of Budai.
A talented storyteller, Elsa fills me in on the couple’s history in the restaurant business, which spans the globe (from China to the U.S.) and covers several decades. Although they both grew up in Taiwan, the couple met in Washington, D.C., where Hsia was working for a well-established Chinese restaurant. After 27 years of marriage, Elsa speaks for Hsia easily. I ask how Hsia became a chef and get an unexpected answer. “Go back about forty years,” she begins. “I was from a middle class family and we never worried about meals, education or surviving. But my husband came from a very poor town. His father was a fisherman, and he died when Hsia was fourteen. There was no savings, nothing left for a family of five to survive.” So Hsia took a job in a restaurant where he scrubbed the floors, pots and pans—the beginning of his training in cooking.
What has cleaning got to do with becoming a chef, you might ask? Elsa reminds me of the movie The Karate Kid, in which the main character has to begin his martial arts training with some hard work and elbow grease, buffing floors and painting fences. “My husband often compares cooking with kung fu,” she explains. One of the main philosophies behind kung fu is the idea that success and achievement are only possible through long years of hard work and dedication. “Like students of kung fu, a chef must come from the basics—scrub the floor, wash pots and pans. When Hsia started, they trained a state of mind: obedience and education. Anything we learn, we start at the bottom and go up, in any field or profession. To Hsia, that is the most important.”
I get the feeling that I’m also climbing a ladder in my culinary adventure at Budai, beginning at the bottom. I’m dying to try dishes from the so-called “secret” menu, an additional paper menu with exciting-sounding choices like fish head soup and salt-and-pepper frog legs. Elsa explains that the menu isn’t really a secret but instead is meant to offer additional dishes not on the everyday menu. She likes to recommend these extra items to regular customers whose tastes she has come to know. For the Fangs, good business is about bringing folks back and earning the loyalty of customers, not serving generic dishes and packing the restaurant in a turn-and-burn method.
Likewise, my culinary adventure doesn’t begin with the exotic. Instead, I must first learn to appreciate the simple flavor of freshly sautéed sweet potato leaves. They are indeed delicious, and as I eat I notice that several of the customers coming in are Chinese. They speak with Elsa in Mandarin, the official language of China. I consider it a good sign that Albuquerque’s Asian community comes to eat at Budai, and I let her lead the way with my next two dishes: snow vegetable, baked tofu and pork (Shanghai) and Chinese eggplant in garlic sauce.
In the summer, you should eat more vegetables and tofu, rather than meat. For the snow vegetable, baked tofu and pork dish, pickle the mustard greens slightly so they won’t taste bitter. Cut the tofu into squares and bake it slowly. This will make it a bit saltier, and the texture will be firmer. Slice the tofu and the lean pork in a julienne style so that the dish will feel light and fresh.
Chinese eggplant is very different than other kinds of eggplant. It has a creamier texture and a milder flavor, with a beautiful purple color. Cut the eggplant into large chunks and add some broccoli. A garlic sauce with chopped Chinese pepper pods adds a richness and kick to the vegetables.
Elsa’s description of her husband’s food highlights the differences between American and Chinese cuisine. Hsia’s cooking emphasizes healthfulness, and Elsa likes to point out that not much needs to be done to make a dish vegetarian or gluten-free (sweet potato starch is used in place of flour to eliminate gluten). In the Budai kitchen there is no butter, milk or cream; these items aren’t part of China’s culinary repertoire. “We like to emphasize food that’s delicious and healthy,” Elsa says. “Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the flavor and the taste of the food.”
Elsa also points out that the average American doesn’t usually eat enough vegetables. Once a customer who ordered the sweet potato leaves complained, “I feel like I’m eating a plate of grass.” Elsa wittily replied, “That’s a high-class plate of grass!” The leaves are considered a delicacy. Health through food is one reason she’s such a fan of her husband’s Chinese eggplant in garlic sauce. “Everything in moderation. We get plenty of green and red, so we need more purple! Our bodies like to take in as many different things as possible.” I myself am a fan of vegetables of all colors and am happy to be munching on the crunchy and savory pickled mustard greens. The Chinese eggplant is soft and creamy with a buttery flavor and a texture similar to squash. I’d never tried either of these vegetables before, and I’ll definitely be looking for them next time I hit the market.
After I devour the first three dishes, Elsa takes the cue and brings out something that’s not on the menu at all—a plate of fresh razor clams with onions, garlic and wilted basil. The clams are meaty and juicy, much more substantial than average. I tear at the meat with my bright red chopsticks, dredging each piece through the sautéed basil. They are delicious! At this point the restaurant is filling up, and I watch the Fangs standing together at a blender, grinding some unknown ingredient until it’s just right.
It has taken some time for Budai to earn recognition in the Albuquerque community (the restaurant has been open for more than three years). Although the couple has owned other restaurants before, Elsa says Budai is the first place where making money is not the top goal. This time, it’s all about Hsia’s talent as a chef. “We’ve been in the restaurant business a long time, but Budai is the place we’re most proud of,” Elsa tells me. “When we were young, we had to think about making money. Now that our kids are older and we’re comfortable, we don’t have to think about money as the number one thing.” Instead of sticking to more generic dishes that most Americans will recognize, Elsa says that she and Hsia “are introducing more and more authentic dishes. When we opened Budai, we decided to keep the kitchen and the restaurant small. It’s riskier, but we want to focus on Hsia’s talent.” So much so that when Hsia leaves town, the restaurant closes—the food just isn’t the same without him in the kitchen.
Peel the outside of the tongue. Marinate it for at least three hours in a sauce of rice wine, garlic, ginger and a bit of soy sauce. Now place the meat in a stew pot and stew it for another three hours until it’s nice and tender. Then quickly sauté the tongue with onions and pepper before serving.
I’m finally ready to try something a little more exotic. Elsa describes the Mongolian-style thin sliced beef tongue, and as I take my first bite I’m suddenly reminded of my grandmother’s kitchen, which used to fill up with the smell of pot roast that had been simmering all day. The beef tongue is delicious, with a rich home-style flavor and a smoother texture than other cuts of beef. But this isn’t the average Chinese restaurant. This is authentic Chinese cuisine at its best, in the most unlikely of spots. And as a new student of Hsia’s food, I’m only beginning my adventure. There is so much more to try at Budai.
Budai Gourmet Chinese is located at 6300 San Mateo NE in Albuquerque. 505.797.7898. budaigourmet.com.
by Erin Brooks