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Exotic flavors just right for falling in love

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The magical holiday is nearly upon us – Valentine’s, when a few things might happen, depending on your circumstances. You could go out for a nice dinner with your sweetie, planned out weeks in advance. You could partake of your usual routine with yourself or your single friends. Or, you could look at the calendar and realize the date, having a moment of panic. Latter bunch, Budai Gourmet Chinese is for you.

The glorious part of Budai is that the food is actually quite romantic and utterly delicious. Start with the deep colors of the dining room – those booths might be vinyl, but the atmosphere is subdued by the calm demeanor of Elsa Fang, who runs the front of the restaurant while her husband cooks.

Warm up your appetites with the gentle Fish and Goji Berry Soup ($6.95) served in a large bowl with a ladle for the twin serving cups. The broth is deeply flavored yet clear, the mild fish offset by tangy mustard greens and dots of red from the raisinlike gojis.

Budai Gourmet Chinese
LOCATION: 6300 San Mateo NE, H1 (north of Osuna), 797-7898
HOURS: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays; noon-9:30 p.m. Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays

Typical starters stud the appetizer list; notable is the Five-Spice Honeyed Ribs ($6.25). Also notice the dim sum options near the bottom of the page. When properly seared, a Green Onion Pan Cake ($4.95) has flecks of green from the scallions and a crispy exterior, ready for dipping. Steamed Mini Shrimp Dumplings ($4.95) are wonderfully chewy in their rice-flour dough.

Budai shines by marrying Northern Chinese dishes with a Taiwanese flair – and vice versa. Elsa is eager to talk about the food and its origins and go over the “secret menu” if you’re ready for some adventure. Mostly translated into English, it’s hardly a secret anymore. Make sure you get one when seated. It does contain flavors that are a hard sell to some diners, but there are bridge foods, too, that warm up the neophyte to the simple spices of real Chinese cooking. Salt & Pepper Short Ribs are a northern-style treasure, best enjoyed with a Chinese beer to wash down the crispy and spiced pieces.

Chinese meals are often served family-style: you order one entree and a few sides, share everything, and see how your hunger levels are before ordering more. This makes for intimate dining and a lovely experience no matter what holiday is looming on the calendar. Don’t worry if your sweetie is still warming up to the unusual dishes – even standards like Sesame Chicken or Kung Pao Beef are treated with respect for the flavors instead of heavy sauces.

Ready for more? Share the generous Tea Smoked Duck ($13.95) with your companion and revel in the inherent richness of the dark meat and the protective layer of fat still attached. Elsa knows which tastes are complementary and will recommend sides to balance the whole meal. On one visit I ordered a wonderfully tender saut̩ of beef tongue, peppers and onions in a rich sauce that could have gotten overwhelming. But out came a cup of refreshing marinated salad Рalmost like the tangy coleslaw in a barbecue meal.

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