The Lunar New Year is nearly upon us! The celebration, which falls on Saturday Jan. 25 this year, is based on the cycles of the moon. It also signifies new beginnings, just as with the solar-based New Year, but because it celebrates according to the rhythms of nature, it just feels more powerful. Maybe that's because I am a moon child. Or, maybe it's because 2020 is the Year of the Rat—of which I am also.
Either way, I'm not the only one excited about the Lunar New Year. Converse, Nike and New Balance have dropped Year of the Rat sneakers and even Gucci and Diane von Furstenberg have similarly released rodent-themed collections. If I were so inclined, l might throw on some Year of the Rat Jack Purcells ($100) and a Gucci coat ($4,900) and head up to the Museum of International Folk Art where, on Sunday Feb. 2, they'll welcome the new year with lion dances and Japanese Taiko drumming performances. I would also gorge myself on my spirit food: fat, fragrant, delicious dumplings.
Dumplings are one of the signature foods of the Lunar New Year, signifying wealth and prosperity, but there are also pork, chicken and fish dishes offering similar tidings. We already know Santa Fe has some damn fine dumplings at Dumpling Tea & Dim Sum but, I wondered, what about other Chinese foods? While the Lunar New Year is celebrated in countries other than China, I realized I had yet to write about any of our local Chinese offerings, and this seemed like fortuitous timing to do so. I perused Google reviews and chose two (there's only so much I can eat) of the highest-rated—Lulu's Chinese Cuisine & Bar (3011 Cerrillos Road, 473-9898) and Chow's Asian Bistro (720 St. Michael's Drive, 471-7120).
Lulu's was my first stop. My dining partner and I were immediately seated in a high-backed booth upon arrival, our drink orders appearing within minutes. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. While we waited, we discussed our hopes that the lack of attention to ambiance, and us, might be due to an overabundance of attention to the food. For 30 minutes we struggled from within the confines of our vinyl-lined nest to make eye contact with someone, anyone, who might take our order. When someone finally did, apologizing for the wait, we hoped the food wouldn't take as long to cook as the wait.
Approximately 45 seconds after ordering, food started arriving at our table. Perhaps ordering here is done by telepathy? The fried rice ($2 per person) was first, steaming hot and calling to us to dive in. We did. It was good. But then, fried rice is always good. An order of sesame tofu ($9.95) and kung pao tofu ($9.95) followed. The kung pao was softly fried and studded with crisp veggies and chewy nuts, but with no spice whatsoever, the sesame was confusing. Swaddled in a thick, sticky, overly sweet orange sauce that was literally orange but also tasted of oranges, the only thing sesame about the tofu was the little sprinkle of seeds. Aside from the yummy veggies, dining at Lulu's was a mostly disappointing experience. My fortune cookie read, "A sense of humor is one of your greatest assets." Indeed.
At Chow's, a festive interior immediately signaled a change of intention, as if to say "we want you to like it here!" Our server was a true pro, attentive and actively offering suggestions. Our orders were taken as soon as our menus were down and, to give it all a fair shake, we ordered the same dishes we'd tried at Lulu's—fried rice, sesame tofu, and kung pao tofu ($10.95 each).
Our server (and the menu) proclaimed "Dragon sesame" as the most popular dish at Chow's, and for good reason. The cubes of tofu were deep-fried golden and crispy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside, and ideally engineered to absorb the orange sauce which, in this case, was sweet but also savory thanks to the addition of garlic and chile. The kung pao tofu was served up with fresh veggies and nuts and packed an appropriate spicy punch. The tofu was wok-fried versus deep-fried, allowing the sauce to fully coat the protein, rather than absorb it, leaving drippings to spoon over the fried rice. As for the fried rice, well, again, fried rice is always good. My fortune cookie read, "Happiness is not pleasure, it's victory." And Chow's was the clear victor here.
If Chinese food isn't your thing, perhaps Vietnamese is? You may think you'd be hard-pressed to find a true Tt fête in our neck of the woods but, luckily, Open Kitchen (openkitchenevents.com) is hosting a traditional Lunar New Year dinner crafted by chef and owner Hue-Chan Karels. Each course of the Feb. 1 celebration will be paired with sake chosen by certified sake sommelier Linda Tetrault, co-owner of locally based sake importer and distributor Floating World. A deliciously memorable way to ring in the rat!