Editor's Note: Unfortunately after this story went to press, Liu Liu Liu closed temporarily with hopes of reopening in June. As of mid-month, a voicemail message indicates that the restaurant has closed permanently. You can still get a taste of Chef Elizabeth Blankenship's fare by trying her sweet potato dumplings with the recipe below.
IN A CHEF'S CONSTANT PURSUIT of new dishes, flavors, and gastronomic gimmicks, creativity can too often spill over into culinary chaos. Fusion cookery becomes confusion cookery, leaving diners bewildered, perplexed, or downright turned off. I well remember a misguided dish of chicken glazed in a chocolate-and-peanut-butter mole. It sounded intriguing, given that many moles contain those ingredients, but it never left the cloyingly sweet Reese’s candy realm. A major dish fail.
Ingredients shoehorned in to share a recipe with other elements or exotic flavors can sometimes make for an unhappy marriage. But when the combo works—eureka!—new cuisines are born. New Mexico fare is already a fusion. Many of our dishes, ingredients, and cooking styles carry Native American, Mexican, and European roots.
The stars of the show are our celebrated chiles, which garner huge curiosity among foodies from around the globe and fire the imaginations of chefs and home cooks. Fans of all cuisines like to fiddle with our favored ingredients and incorporate them in unexpected but often delicious ways.
Although brick-and-mortar establishments have long dabbled in this fusion experimentation, I noticed an explosion of food trucks and grab-and-go eateries joining them over the past year. New Mexican favorites such as tacos and other tortilla-centric dishes seem to be primary targets for this culinary blending, with Asian ingredients often holding the other side of the flavor balance.
At Albuquerque’s Cafe Nom Nom, chef Nam Thai Tran credits his mother—“Chef Mum,” as he calls her—for giving him the Vietnamese culinary training that set the bones of his creative menu. Arriving from Saigon in 1975 as a three-year-old, Tran has had an eclectic career as both restaurant chef and successful hair salon entrepreneur.
When a restaurant space became available in the building that housed one of his salons, Tran snapped it up. In planning the name of his new venture, he decided on a fractured version of his own name—nom nom—a slang term that many of us use to express the pleasure of eating. What started off as a food truck and a three-days-a-week stint at Boxing Bear Brewery’s Corrales location has grown into a complete takeover of the kitchen.
Throughout the menu, Tran has fun combining Vietnamese flavors with New Mexican favorites. In his Angry Edamame, swirls of hot red chile fire up the standard Japanese nibble. His Saigon Street Quesadilla boasts house-made green chile kimchi (available for sale by the jar), bean sprouts, hoisin and sriracha sauces, and cilantro, mint, and black sesame seed garnishes.
The additions of jasmine rice and homemade wasabi aioli to his street tacos make them a clever take on the ubiquitous Tuesday fave. Fiery bulgogi beef gives his rice bowl a tasty Korean spin. The classic banh mi gets an East-meets-Southwest kick from more of the kimchi.
In Santa Fe, the year-old Liu Liu Liu restaurant (which has since closed) has an intriguing high-end menu of unexpected pairings and bursts of flavor. Chef Elizabeth Blankstein credits her Taiwanese heritage and tenure in a variety of cuisines for her fusion skill. With her partner, Cameron Markham, she settled in Santa Fe after working in and designing high-profile California restaurants. The couple’s off-the-beaten-track City Different location has become a popular destination for diners looking for an adventurous dining experience.
At Liu Liu Liu (named for the Mandarin pronunciation of 666, a lucky number in Taiwanese culture), the menu lists each dish by its main element, rather than a clever name. Bean Curd is simply listed with its accompaniments: peanuts, carrots, cucumber, and cilantro. This challenges diners to, in effect, put the flavors together in their minds and on their tongues. With dishes offered in shareable portions, the experience inspires conversation and debate.
Remembering her childhood visits to the night markets in Taipei, Blankstein reinvents her memories of dishes to create her own style. Markham, who grew up in New Mexico, adds his well-traveled palate and 25 years as a chef and back-of-house wizard.
Yummy fusions on their Asian-Southwestern-French menu include slices of a sharply tart raw Thai eggplant with a creamy black sesame hummus, warm, greaseless sopaipilla squares with a silky chicken liver mousse, and lamb-filled sweet potato dumplings with a green chile soy glaze. Popcorn fried chicken gets a French gussy-up with Périgord black truffles, while a decadently dense chocolate tart carries a hint of mezcal.
The menu pops with surprises, and Blankstein’s firm handle gives diners the confidence to go along with her flow. No Reese’s candy sauce here.
Other fusion options around the state I can’t wait to try include the Green Chile Tempura Roll at Pacific Rim, in Hobbs; the Can-cún Roll at Aqua Reef, in Las Cruces; Green Chile Spicy Fried Rice at Fareast Fuzion, in Albuquerque; Taoseño Rice at Gutiz Restaurant, in Taos; and the North African Spiced Lamb Burger at Jambo Café, in Santa Fe.
Set aside your preconceived ideas of what goes with what and let your palate’s curiosity guide you. Try these three recipes to get you off and blending.
I developed this vegetarian recipe for New Mexico Flavors in World Cuisine, a class I offer at Las Cosas Cooking School. Give the healthy dip a New Mexico kick with green chile and serve it with smoky grilled fennel and crispy tortilla chips.
Chef Nam Thai Tran at Cafe Nom Nom gives his Mexican quesadillas a twist by adding classic Asian ingredients. He uses 14-inch tortillas for a whopping quesadilla. I recommend 10-inch tortillas.
Although this is a multiple-step recipe, the results are deliciously worth it. Make extra dumplings and freeze. The yield will vary depending on the size of your sweet potatoes and how much filling you pack into each dumpling.