Kai’s Chinese Restaurant isn’t much to look at. It doesn’t have fancy tables or impressive décor. That’s not why people go to a place like Kai’s, though. People go to Kai’s because, for the last decade or so, the restaurant has been serving terrific food at even better prices.
On a weekday around noon, the place is packed. Students and others from the UNM community fill the vinyl chairs and chow down on some of the best food you can get for the price.
The semi-open kitchen allows wonderful aromas to fill the dining area, and it can be fun to watch the cooks dashing back and forth among the huge commercial woks — as long as nobody blocks the equally busy wait staff shooting from table to table during the lunch rush.
The lunch menu starts at $4.95 and tops out at $6.25. Lunches come with a generous entrée, egg drop soup, an egg roll and steamed or fried rice.
Spend the extra 50 cents to get the hot and sour soup. It is a nice mix of pungency and spice, with tofu, sliced mushrooms and a thick, savory stock. Dip an egg roll in the soup for a real treat.
The entrées available are a nice mix of traditional Asian food and Americanized dishes familiar to New Mexicans.
A stand-out dish is the shrimp with garlic sauce. A dark, spicy sauce coats sliced carrots, bok choy and zucchini. Kai’s doesn’t skimp on the shrimp, either.
The jalapeno chicken is wonderful, as well. Spicy peppers and tender chicken in a light sauce make for a great lunch.
For the veggie-inclined, Kai’s has a mixed vegetable dish that is sure to please as well as half a dozen tofu entrées, from simple to complex, and a choice of mild or spicy.
The Kung-Pao tofu will please even dedicated carnivores.
In the seven or more years I’ve been eating there — sometimes twice a week — I’ve never been disappointed. Well, except when arriving too late in the lunch rush to be seated in time to get back to work or class. Even so, the staff is quick and efficient, if sometimes brusque.
It is easier to get a table at dinner time, when the place slows down a little. The service during dinner hours is much less rushed, and the expanded menu lends itself to a more relaxed eating experience.
All the lunch special entrees are available, in larger portions for a bit more money, but try to spring for something off the Chef’s Specialties section, which is still very reasonable. The Kung Pao scallops (at $12.95, the priciest dish on the menu) are tender and nicely spiced.
The triple delight with garlic sauce ($10.95) is a great mix of shrimp, chicken, beef and vegetables in the same dark, spicy and savory sauce as the lunch special.
Fans of egg foo young will be pleased at the variety available.
Pork, beef, chicken, vegetable, shrimp or combination; no matter what you like, there’s a dish that will please. Unlike so many versions of the omelet-like dish, Kai’s egg foo young is light and tender, not leathery and dense.
The dinner menu offers a dozen or so appetizers, most of which are excellent. The deep-fried garlic shrimp are amazing, and it can be tempting to just get a few orders. The Chinese steamed pork buns are worthy of a Dim Sum cart anywhere. The only complaint I’ve ever had was about the chicken skewers and the fried chicken wings, both of which were a bit tough and dry. So skip those and try the cold sesame noodles or the delicious pot stickers.
Kai’s turns up in a search for restaurants that deliver in the UNM area, but there is no delivery. Call ahead for pickup, and the food will be ready before you know it.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and noon to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. Like too many Asian restaurants in Albuquerque, Kai’s is closed on Sundays.
Kai’s is located at 138 Harvard Drive SE. For more information, visit kaischineserestaurant.com or call 266-8388.