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by Max B. Mangè
Burgers and dogs, Trini doubles and Jamaican patties, Cantonese bao and Thai tom yum all under one roof? And it is all vegan? No, I am not reviewing the college cafeteria of some granola-loving stoner’s dreams, but a real brick-and-mortar right here in Albuquerque. Enter Green Gene, a cornucopia of vegan eats.
This spot does not make for an easy review. In fact there are three cooks and what feels like at least three menus. In truth there is but one menu and one restaurant—serving pan-Asian, Caribbean and ‘merican food crafted from totally vegan ingredients. This is undeniably an uncanny undertaking. My grandma would always use the Yiddish word ungapatchka to critique art, restaurants and, well, anything that came off as overly busy or garish. Too much going on. I heard her voice in my head when I pulled up the menu on Green Gene’s (easily navigable, well-designed) website. Why would any kitchen, at least one that isn’t the size of a small stadium, try to pull all this off? It’s a question worth asking. But after reading up on owner Dr. Colin Forde‘s vegan zeal and then picking up my order—which let me actually peek inside—Green Gene isn’t exactly ungapatchka.
While crusading around the world performing missionary work, Forde accrued a wide array of favorite dishes, both those of the vegan variety and those that he could modify to meet his dietary restrictions. I love that Green Gene’s website explains this backstory, because it gave me the chance to understand this restaurant as a passion project. Forde wants vegans here in Albuquerque to be able to enjoy the same wildly varied international dishes that mean so much to him.
Those who’ve lived in Albuquerque a while will recognize Green Gene’s other gamble: It has opened in a spot that hosted several doomed restaurants over the last decade, all of them likely failed because they focused on rapidly dated food trends. Before all that, it had been a Schlotzky’s. But Green Gene is not a flash-in-the-pan type of spot, nor does it carry schlocky vibes. The edifice and interior are both elegant, and it offers a COVID-ready and quite convenient pick-up window. Up-to-date pandemic parameters and the expansive menu are clearly posted out front. The man who took my order was wonderfully polite and happy to answer all my questions. He really seemed to be invested in the spot, even though he was not the owner.
On to the food. Should I go with the “Global Vegan” section or “Asian Vegan”? As a diligent and legitimately curious part-time restaurant reviewer, I ordered a few items from both. Under the global heading, I passed up the Chicago-Style Dawg and the Beyond Meat Gene Burger, figuring they would be tasty but pedestrian, and settled instead on the Fry Nation, Trinidad doubles and the Jamaican patty. Turning to the Asian menu, I tried to order the fried spring rolls, one of my all-time favorite Viet dishes that I have never yet found in Albuquerque. Alas, they were out. So I ordered the Orange, their answer to the wildly-popular orange chicken served at Cantonese-American joints and Panda Expresses across this nation. What can I say? I have a weakness for crunchy sugared-chicken and was curious if they had a healthier answer to this tasty, yet not exactly healthy, food court favorite.
I loved the Fry Nation ($3.25 on the menu, but it cost me $5.50 according to the receipt). Green Gene lets you select from standard russet potatoes, sweet potatoes or yucca. I went with yucca, and while I couldn’t actually finish the order alone, they were excellent wedges. This is a heaping (over one and half pounds!) pile of fries. Thick yet crispy as can be and with salt on the side to allow patrons to fully customize their sodium intake. Next, the Trinidad doubles, a unique item born out of Trinidad’s diverse cultural clime and easily one of my favorite vegan dishes. The dish consists of two poori-like little fry-breads, firmly South Asian, filled with a chick pea curry and topped with an unmistakably Caribbean tamarind and scotch bonnet hot sauce that will have you fiending for more. Green Gene’s interpretation was not exactly what I am accustomed to. They were massive, for one, and the order of three ($10) didn’t hit the bright and tangy notes I know and love. That said, I only know doubles from Crown Heights and Richmond Hill, not the real deal from Chaguanas.
The Jamaican patty ($6.95 on the menu, but $10 on the receipt) with vegan jerk “chicken” was the winner here. While this turnover is not nearly on par with the value of other menu items, it was downright scrummy. The allspice worked wonders on the pure-veg potato-heavy filling, and the dough came across like a puff pastry. How they accomplished this without using copious amounts of butter baffles me. Lastly, while already stuffed to the gills, I dived into the orange “chicken” ($9.88). The protein here was tofu, properly prepared to remove excess moisture, but by the time I got the lid off, all the presumably once-crunchy and delicious coating had gotten steamed, sliding off the tofu when I tried to fork each piece. According to a vegan friend who happens to be a passionate cook and really enjoys much of Green Gene’s fare, both this dish and the crunchy tofu are total winners as long as you get that dang plastic lid off right away. A standard Chinatown delivery cube, like the ones made of paper with the interlocking top, could help remedy this issue somewhat. Interestingly, unlike the food court variety, Green Gene’s version actually tastes of fresh orange and included a ripe wedge right on top.
If you want a massive portion of what seems like most any conceivable savory vegan dish for generally very fair prices, look no further. I am rooting for this spot and am confident that, if they can continue to charm the sizable vegan community here in town, they will break the curse of this location and become a University neighborhood staple.
Green Gene Vegan Cafe
2300 Central Ave. SE (505) 933-0435
Open 10am to 8pm Sun. through Thu., 10am to 4pm Sun., closed Mon.