Ask dozens of locals to name their favorite Chinese restaurant, and you may get dozens of different answers. Ask a hundred, you’ll likely hear Fan Tang mentioned in Nob Hill many times.
Since its opening in 2011, Jason Zeng Restaurant has become one of the city’s most popular places to get orange peel chicken, Lo mein noodles, and other Chinese-American favorites.
Zeng comes from a family of restaurant owners. His grandfather had a restaurant in China and his parents were co-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 on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Carlisle Boulevard became vacant.
This building is a former gas station built in the 1940s in a minimalist, modern style, with rounded corners and a stepped tower rising from the rooftop.
There is a small car park on the west side of the restaurant, accessible from Central. The entrance, off the street, opens to a curved bar with a large menu spread across three walls behind it. Booths along the windows offer sweeping views of one of Central’s most picturesque intersections.
Like most Chinese places in town, Fan Tang is a fusion. Dishes like pho and Pad Thai are served alongside all American Chinese standards.
The menu features many vegetarian and gluten-free offerings. Take out gluten-free Singaporean noodles ($9.99 plus $1 for shrimp or beef) are served up as thick rice noodles in a delicious lobster sauce with onions and baby bok choy. As most Chinese food lovers know, lobster sauce does not contain lobster. It got its name because Cantonese restaurants in North America would use it to cook expensive oysters. The presentation by Fan Tang is full of garlic, ginger and chili oil that creeps up and stings you long after the bite. Hidden inside pressed pasta are a half dozen zippy shrimp. I appreciated the addition of an easy-cooked egg, the yolk still liquid enough to make the sauce.
Among the dishes featured on the menu is Mapo Tofu ($10.95) most closely related to China’s Sichuan Province, a landlocked region in the southwestern part of the country known for its spicy food. Fan Tang’s version definitely lived up to that reputation. Decisively activates the mucous membranes, it should come with a small box of tissues. Tofu is served as cubes leading to a thin center that secretes the molten broth. Served with tendrils of pork, it provides plenty of heat and umami – all it lacks is a little crunch. The side of the white rice helped quench the intense flavor and heat. The portion was easily enough for two people.
Coffee Chicken ($11.95), another Fan Tang’s signature dish, was my favorite at Chow’s Northeast Heights location before it closed in 1999, so I was eager to reconsider it. Fried chicken breast pieces appear dark brown for a French roast coffee rub. Sweet sauce balances the bitterness of coffee in the same way sugar removes an espresso shot. It was missing the promised heat, but the green beans served with it were just as good.
The Chinese have been smoking ducks, eggs, and other food items for centuries as a way to preserve them while adding flavor and aroma. Fan Tang honors this tradition with tea-smoked beef ($12.95) served with rice and chopped green peppers. The meat, smoked with tea leaves and apple wood, had appetizing charcoal and the disguised aroma of backyard barbecues and Chinese spices. However, the broad, flat steaks were mostly tough.
I ordered over the phone and the food was ready when I got there 15 minutes later. The servers were friendly and efficient. There was a 3% charge on the bill for credit card use; I would have preferred some fortune cookies instead.
Fan Tang delivers generous portions with plenty of flavor and heat. Its unique menu items and vegetarian and gluten-free options place it in the upper echelon of Albuquerque Chinese restaurants.