Fan Tang among the top tier of ABQ Chinese restaurants

Mapo Tofu, one of Fan Tang’s signature dishes. (Richard S. Dargan/Journal)

Ask a dozen locals to name their favorite Chinese restaurant, you might get a dozen different answers. Ask for a hundred, then you’ll probably hear Fan Tang in Nob Hill mentioned a few times.

Since opening in 2011, Jason Zeng’s restaurant has become one of the most popular places in town to enjoy orange peel chicken, lo mein noodles and other American Chinese specialties.

Zeng comes from a family of restaurateurs. His grandfather had a restaurant in China and his parents are the founders of Chow’s Bistro in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. While attending UNM, Zeng noticed the relative lack of Asian dining options in the Nob Hill area and saw an opportunity when a historic building at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Carlisle Boulevard has become vacant.

This building is a former gas station built in the 1940s in the clean modern style, with rounded corners and a stepped tower rising from the roof.

There is a small parking lot on the west side of the restaurant, accessible from Central. The entrance, set back from the street, opens into a curved bar with a large menu stretched across three walls behind it. Booths along the windows offer sweeping views of one of Central’s most scenic intersections.

Like most Chinese places in town, Fan Tang is something of a merger operation. Dishes like pho and pad thai are offered alongside all American Chinese standards.

Coffee chicken is made with chicken breast rubbed in ground coffee and sautéed. (Richard S. Dargan/Journal)

The menu stands out with its many vegan and gluten-free offerings. Gluten-free Singapore noodles ($9.99 plus $1 for prawns or beef) are served on the go as a thick slice of rice noodles in a savory lobster sauce with onions and baby bok choy. As most Chinese food lovers know, lobster sauce does not contain lobster. It gets its name from the fact that Cantonese restaurants in North America used it to cook expensive shellfish. Fan Tang’s presentation evokes garlic and ginger and an infused chili oil that creeps in and stings you long after the bite. Hidden inside the chewy noodles were half a dozen lively prawns. I appreciated the addition of an easier cooked egg, the yolk still runny enough to make a sauce.

Among the menu’s signature dishes, Mapo Tofu ($10.95) is the one most associated with the Chinese province of Sichuan, a landlocked region in the southwest of the country known for its spicy cuisine. Fan Tang’s version certainly lives up to that reputation. It activates the mucous membranes so decisively that it should be accompanied by a small box of tissues. Tofu comes in cubes that give way to a soft center that soaks up the melted broth. Served with tendrils of pork, it offers a wealth of spiciness and umami – all that’s missing is a bit of crunch. The side of white rice helped tame the intense flavor and heat. The portion was easily enough for two people.

Coffee Chicken ($11.95), another Fan Tang signature dish, was my favorite at Chow’s Northeast Heights before it closed in 1999, so I was looking forward to seeing it again. The sautéed pieces of chicken breast come out dark brown in color from the friction of French roast coffee. The sweet sauce balances the bitterness of coffee the same way sugar sweetens an espresso. It lacked the promised heat, but the green beans served with it were nicely al dente.

The Chinese have been smoking ducks, eggs and other foodstuffs for centuries in order to preserve them while adding flavor and fragrance. Fan Tang honors this tradition with its Smoked Beef in Tea ($12.95) served with rice and chopped green peppers. The meat, smoked with applewood and tea leaves, had an appetizing arctic char and the irresistible aroma of backyard barbecues and Chinese spices. The wide, flat strips of meat, however, were mostly tough.

I ordered over the phone and the food was ready when I arrived 15 minutes later. The servers were friendly and efficient. There was a 3% charge on the bill for using a credit card; I would have preferred some fortune cookies instead.

Fan Tang serves large portions with lots of flavor and heat. Its unique menu items and vegan and gluten-free options put it in the upper echelon of Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque.

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