Once you love it, you love it forever.”
~ Anthony Bourdain
Most of us have never been to Vietnam. It’s possible, maybe likely, that most of us will never make it to Vietnam…at least not in a corporeal state. That’s an important distinction because for years, we’ve already been visiting Vietnam…at least vicariously. We’ve been magically transported to Vietnam every time Anthony Bourdain visited. Bourdain had the rare ability to develop intimate connections with the cultures and people he encountered in his travels then translate those connections into expressive and relatable narratives. He was a gifted raconteur whose rare honesty, lack of pretense, irreverent sense of humor and self-deprecating humility came across so endearingly empathetic. His evocative descriptions of exotic foods and cultures expanded our imaginations and allowed us to marvel and wonder about the world we know so little about. Because of him, many of us fell in love with Vietnam. Not its food. We already loved that. Because of Bourdain, we fell in love with the Vietnamese culture and its people.
Anthony Bourdain was so much more than a celebrity chef. He was a true citizen of and ambassador for the world. Now he’s mourned by the millions he enthralled with his unique ability to titillate us with a genuine appreciation for extraordinary foods prepared by accomplished chefs and for demonstrating equal esteem for home cooks as they proudly prepared simple cultural staples. Moreso, we were amazed by his flair for giving voice to the most downtrodden and trampled upon. Most of us who attempt, however futilely, to express ourselves with a modicum of the eloquence which seemed to come natural to him, don’t delude ourselves into believing we’re in the same league. We’re not even in the same universe.
It’s only fitting that my inaugural visit to Viet’s Pho was with Alonna Smith, a Philadelphia expat now living in Albuquerque. Alonna is much closer to Bourdain’s formidable orbit than I am, having published two books: The Philadelphia Food Companion and Lancaster County: The Best Fun, Food, Lodging, Shopping and Sights. Her current project, an online compendium on Indian food, is an ambitious undertaking I’m very much looking forward to reading. For several weeks we had been planning to meet for lunch only to be beset by schedule conflicts and other commitments. Alonna is a kindred spirit, a bold culinary adventurer and proud dog parent. Like me, she is still reeling by the untimely passing of Anthony Bourdain, an inspiration to both of us.
Alonna related that the Duke City has many more Vietnamese restaurants than Philadelphia, marveling that Albuquerque has somewhere around forty Vietnamese eateries to the City of Brotherly Love’s eight or so. We were both excited to visit Viet’s Pho, the metropolitan area’s newest entry into a dynamic Vietnamese culinary community. I knew we’d hit it off immediately after she suggested we order different entrees and share everything, generosity characteristic of most gastronomes. She never mentioned the seeming grammatical faux pas of the restaurant’s name, an unsnobbish act I found especially Bourdainesque.
Launched in April, 2018, Viet’s Pho has already garnered a 4.5 star rating on 54 Yelp reviews (as of this writing). Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp, described it as “easily one of the most affordable, flavorful Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque, bordering on 5-star.” He lavished his highest praise on the “best in the city” grilled pork. The Alibi‘s rapaciously talented food editor Robin Babb (like Howie and me, a Souperbowl 2018 judge) told readers that Viet’s Pho “serves hospitality and huge portions.” Great food, warm hospitality, huge portions…Viet’s Pho can’t miss!
Located in the familiar space that served as the home to Ko Palace for nearly three decades, Viet’s Pho is the inaugural family-owned and operated venture for Wendy and Bao, both of whom previously worked as servers at nearby Viet Taste. Highly indicative of the type of service they provided is the volume of regulars who have followed them to their new restaurant. They brought that customer orientation with them to Viet’s Pho. During our hour-long visit, our servers first demonstrated Job-like patience as Alonna and I lingered in perusing the menu in between getting to know one another. They then demonstrated the endearing qualities to which all servers should aspire–attentiveness and friendliness, an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu and best of all, the wisdom not to hover when guests are deep in conversation.
A few vestiges–specifically glass murals depicting fierce dragons and docile pandas–of Ko Palace remain. More prevalent as a decorative touch is wallpaper showcasing clusters of bamboo which Vietnamese esteem as both a symbol of vitality and a utilitarian material. Thankfully, there were no remnants of the space’s previous tenant on the menu, aptly described by Howie as “going on for days.” Both Alonna and I came in with a tabula rasa attitude, that is we were both blank slates open to being inscribed upon by something alluring that caught our eyes. Many items caught our eyes. The menu is a virtual compendium of all that is great and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine.
First up were spring rolls (Goi cuon) which are available with shrimp, chicken or pork. The Duke City default seems to be shrimp so it was a refreshing change to order pork spring rolls (gasp, even the idea sounds almost heretical). As Howie sagely declared, the grilled pork may just be the very best in the city. The pork is marinated in a mix that includes fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and sundry ingredients that meld preternaturally well to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. The aroma and flavor of thinly sliced pork in thin, nearly transparent rice paper wrappers is reminiscent of grilling outdoors in a small hibachi with fat dripping from the pork and sizzling into a smoky haze which permeates the pork. Sure there are other ingredients (vermicelli noodles, Thai basil, lettuce) in the thick, cigar-shaped rolls, but that pork stands out and imprints itself on your taste buds and memories. So does the dipping sauce, a terrific blend of hoisin sauce, peanut butter, chili paste and more.
Alonna’s selection was a pork and shrimp rice flour crepe (sliced pork, whole shrimp, bean sprouts, and white onions), a crescent-shaped beauty resembling a folded pancake. Interestingly, Banh Xeo, the Vietnamese name for this dish, actually translates to “sizzling cake” and in many circles, is referred to as a Vietnamese pancake, not a crepe. Alonna quickly discerned a sweetness courtesy of coconut milk while I marveled at the slightly pungent, early flavor and fluorescent yellow of the turmeric used in the preparation of the crepe. The crepe is served with a fish sauce with real personality and bite. It proved an outstanding choice, comparable in deliciousness to my “best of the city” choice at Basil Leaf.
Even had my beloved May Hong not closed in 2016, Viet Pho’s spicy lemongrass (your choice of chicken, pork, beef or shrimp stir-fried with onions, celery and bell pepper and available on bed of rice or noodles) might be the best in the city. While lemongrass itself is a very mild herb with very little “spiciness,” this dish is replete with a pleasant piquancy, some of which comes from the accompanying fish sauce. We’ve already established that the grilled pork is in rarefied air. So, too, is the stir-fry, done masterfully by someone who obviously knows how to control the intense heat inherent in flash fry cuisine. This is a magnificent dish.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Viet’s Pho is to proclaim that I believe Anthony Bourdain would have loved it. I began this review with a tribute to Vietnam’s biggest advocate and champion. In the days since his untimely passing, it seems everyone in the culinary community has penned a similar paean to him. The very best I’ve read comes from my friend Hannah Walraven who’s now living in Wisconsin. It’s too good not to share:
“I read his books, I watched his shows. I admired him and also had plenty of complaints about him. I appreciated some of the ways he presented the world and I disdained other ways. B and I had plenty of criticisms that I would never have dared to say to his face, no matter how brave I think I am. He didn’t know me and never would have. But here’s what hurts the most: that guy was in pain and he just tried to keep going. He was shooting his show. He left behind an 11-year old kid. Someone who obviously and clearly loved him found his body. He was the first to describe himself as a miserable bastard and yet he tried (sometimes against his own will it seems) to make the world better. He tried to make americans better in some small way. That’s so much more than so many people do. I’m so sad. I’m so sorry he was in pain. I’m so sorry for his loved ones. And I’m sorry for us, that another one of the helpers is gone. This crushing world is so crushing, I’m starting to see how only kindness and empathy matter, that being loving and honest and open are subversive acts. I love you guys, please please be well and let me know if you need anything I can give you.”
4208 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 June 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pork Spring Rolls, Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Bowl, Chicken and Shrimp Rice Flour Crepe