Ask a dozen locals to name their favorite Chinese restaurant, you might get a dozen different answers. Ask 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 more popular places in town to get orange peel chicken, lo mein noodles and other American Chinese favorites.
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 an historic building on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Carlisle Boulevard became vacant.
That building is a former gas station built in the 1940s in the streamline moderne style, with rounded corners and a stepped tower rising from the roof.
There’s a small parking lot on the west side of the restaurant, accessed from Central. The entrance, set back from the street, opens on a curving bar with a large menu stretched across three walls behind it. Booths along the windows offer sweeping views of one of Central’s more picturesque intersections.
Like most Chinese places in town, Fan Tang is something of a fusion operation. Dishes like pho and Pad Thai are offered alongside all the American Chinese standards.
The menu stands out for its numerous vegan and gluten-free offerings. Gluten-free Singapore Noodles ($9.99 plus $1 for shrimp or beef), are served for takeout as a thick slab of rice noodles in savory lobster sauce with onions and baby bok choy. As most Chinese food lovers know, lobster sauce doesn’t contain lobster. It gets its name because Cantonese restaurants in North America would use it to cook the pricey shellfish. Fan Tang’s presentation is redolent of garlic and ginger and an infused chili oil that sneaks up and stings you long after the bite. Hidden inside the chewy noodles were a half-dozen sprightly shrimp. I appreciated the addition of an egg cooked over easy, the yolk still runny enough to make a sauce.
Among the signature dishes on the menu, Mapo Tofu ($10.95) is the one most associated China’s Sichuan province, a landlocked region in the southwestern part of the country known for its spicy food. Fan Tang’s version certainly lives up to that reputation. It activates the mucus membranes so decisively, it should come with a small box of tissues. The tofu presents as cubes that yield to a fluffy center that sponges up the molten broth. Served with tendrils of pork, it offers a wealth of heat and umami – all that’s missing is a little crunch. The side of white rice helped subdue the intense flavor and heat. The portion was easily enough for two people.
Coffee Chicken ($11.95), another Fan Tang signature dish, was my go-to at Chow’s Northeast Heights location before it closed back in 1999, so I was eager to revisit it. The bits of stir-fried chicken breast come out the dark brown color of the French roast coffee rub. The sweet sauce balances the coffee’s bitterness in the same way that sugar takes the edge off a shot of espresso. It was missing the promised heat, but the green beans served with it were nicely al dente.
The Chinese have been smoking ducks and eggs and other foodstuffs for centuries as a way to preserve them while adding flavor and fragrance. Fan Tang honors that tradition with its Tea-smoked Beef ($12.95) served with rice and chopped green bell peppers. The meat, smoked with applewood and tea leaves, had an appetizing char and the compelling aroma of backyard barbecues and Chinese spices. The broad, flat strips of meat, however, were mostly tough.
I ordered by phone and the food was ready when I got there 15 minutes later. Servers were friendly and efficient. There was a 3% charge on the bill for using a credit card; I would have preferred a few fortune cookies instead.
Fan Tang serves up big portions with lots of flavor and heat. Its unique menu items and vegan and gluten-free options place it in the upper echelon of Albuquerque’s Chinese restaurants.