It typically takes years for a restaurant to stand out in Albuquerque’s crowded Chinese restaurant scene, but Nio Szechuan is different. Open less than a year, the Northeast Heights restaurant has quickly become a favorite of locals for its spicy, warming renditions of Szechuan cuisine.
I first heard of Nio through social media, but what cemented my decision to visit was a recommendation from a friend who grew up in China said Nio had the best Chinese food in the city.
Nio opened in February in a strip mall on the south side of Montgomery near Louisiana NE anchored by the discount clothing store TJ Maxx.
The dining room, brightened by halo-like light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, is clean and uncluttered. There’s a Buddha statuette near the register with dollar bills taped to it, an act that is said to bring good fortune. With the lunch rush over, some of the restaurant staff held animated conversations in Chinese in a small dining room off of the main dining space.
Like so many Chinese restaurants in the United States, Nio’s food is based on the cuisine of Sichuan, a province of south-central Chinese known for its numbing spices. Most of the menu is organized by different proteins. Prices are competitive with other Chinese restaurants. The Ma Po Tofu ($11.95), for instance, is the same price as Fan Tang’s version. The Orange Chicken ($13.95) is just slightly more expensive than the one at Chinshan. In addition, there is a selection of Chef’s Specials that run from $11.95 for Stir-fried Cabbage all the way up to $25.95 for half a roast duck. Alongside the Kung Pao Chicken and Mongolian Beef are a few less commonly seen items like a Szechuan dish of Stir-fried Potato Shreds ($11.95).
Spicy Fried Chicken ($16.95) is one of Nio’s most popular dishes, and it’s easy to see why. The popcorn-sized pieces of chicken wore a crispy cornstarch-based coating flecked with pepper flakes. It gave off a noticeable but tolerable burn that hung around for a few minutes after eating. The marvelous savory coating reminds of the famous salt and pepper crab at R&G Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was enough for at least a couple of meals.
Several of the seafood options feature flounder, a flat fish with a flaky white flesh that carries a mild, faintly sweet flavour. You can get a whole flounder steamed or flounder fillets served in broth. The Fish Filet with Pickled Vegetables ($21.95) arrived in a broad, shallow stainless-steel bowl with handles on the side. The bowl kept the well-seasoned broth just a few degrees below scaling. The fish fillets in the broth – easily enough for three people – proved to be a good test for one’s skill with the chopsticks. Bok choy and cabbage leaves insinuated themselves among the thin rice noodles on the bottom of the bowl. It’s a superior dish for a cold afternoon.
One of the familiar sights of big-city Chinatowns is roast ducks hanging in the window of a restaurant, their skin shimmering like freshly lacquered mahogany. Nio doesn’t have any such display in its windows, but it does offer half a Roast Duck ($25.95) chopped up for easy sharing. I got an order to-go. It was thoughtfully presented with the legs laid over the sliced breast. The meat was moist and fatty, its flavor somewhere between dark meat chicken and stewed beef. It comes with hot chili sauce and a couple of cups of housemade sweet and sour duck sauce.
There are numerous vegetarian and gluten-friendly options and the cooks can modify many other dishes for dietary restrictions or food allergies. I picked up a gluten-free Honey-glazed Walnut Shrimp ($16.95) to go. Long thought of as an Americanized Chinese dish, it actually comes from Hong Kong, where it was served to celebrate special occasions. Nio’s version contained a generous serving of plump shrimp in a sweet sauce of honey and mayonnaise topped with candied walnuts. It was served over broccoli with a side of rice. Sweet, brinny, crunchy and creamy, it had a little bit of everything. This is a dish best eaten at the restaurant, however, as the shrimp loses all crispiness by taking it home and reheating it.
Besides soda, there is a selection of drinks like Thai tea, boba tea, slushies and smoothies. The only dessert option is mochi ice cream in assorted flavors.
Service was friendly and prompt. The food came out of the kitchen piping hot in 10 to 15 minutes.
In less than a year, Nio Szechuan has ascended into the upper ranks of Albuquerque’s Chinese food scene. Eating there, it’s easy to understand why.