Nanami Noodle House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nanami Noodle House and Sister Restaurant, Plum Cafe

If Chinese superstitions have any credence, some of us may not be long for this world.  Chinese superstitions posit that long noodles symbolize a long life.  Ostensibly, if you cut your noodles, you’re cutting your life short.  Instead of cutting your noodles, the Chinese advocate slurping up long noodles without breaking them.  When it comes to noodles, the Chinese should know.  After all, they’ve been preparing noodles longer than any culture in the world.  In 2005, archaeologists uncovered a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles in Northeast China, the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.  Buried under ten feet of sediment, an overturned sealed bowl contained beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles made from two kinds of millet. Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern indicated that “even today, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found” at the Chinese site, adding that  “this shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication.” 

If you’ve never seen the art-and-science process of hand-making noodles, it should be on your bucket list–and because the process is quickly becoming a lost art, you should place it near the top of that list.  Fortunately you don’t have to go far to witness veritable feats of noodular prestidigitation.  The art of hand-pulled noodles is on daily display at Beijing Noodle No. 9 within Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where the open kitchen doubles as an exhibition hall for chefs who’ve been intensely trained on how to hand stretch noodles.  Through a process of stretching and twisting flour, noodle-masters can hand pull hundreds of beautiful long thin noodles for a variety of dishes.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but even more spectacular is sampling the results.

Nanami Dining Room

When we heard a new Duke City restaurant named Nanami Noodle House would be launching in January, 2017, we dared hope hand-pulled noodles would be featured fare.  Alas, such was not meant to be.  Nanami showcases noodles made elsewhere and flown in for use on a variety of broth-based, vegetarian and non-broth noodle dishes (if it’s any consolation, very few cities across the fruited plain can boast of restaurants in which noodles are made in the traditional hand-pulled manner).  Captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen gave us very little opportunity to bemoan our ill-fortune.  The source of those fragrant bouquets were in dire need of exploration as was a menu as diverse and delightful as we’ve seen in quite some time.

Befitting the restaurant’s name, which translates to “seven seas,” that menu includes dishes originating in Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea with a nod to New Mexico here and there.   The Land of Enchantment meets Asia in the very first appetizer listed on the menu.  That would be the green chile Rangoon.  It’s one of nine appetizers, most of which are pretty standard fare.  You can eschew appetizers altogether and enjoy one of the four available salads.  Some diners will gravitate immediately to the noodle soups section of the menu, a listing of fifteen slurp-worthy soups.  If you prefer noodles sans broth, the menu lists four inviting options including grilled vermicelli.  Vegetarian options are also available.

Green Chile Rangoon

Lest I forget, the menu lists a nice array of hot and cold beverages including sixteen-ounce shakes, some in flavors you might not expect (green tea, Vietnamese coffee and Thai tea, for example).  Caffeine fiends should try the Vietnamese Coffee Frappe, an eye-opening meld of strong coffee and sweetened condensed milk.  Hot tea by the pot flavors include oolong, jasmine, green tea and a decaffeinated green tea.  Ice tea flavors include unsweetened green tea, mango, lychee and peach.  Coke products are also available, but other options just seem so much more appropriate.  Oh, and you’ll definitely want to peruse the dessert menu, too.

Nanami Noodle House is located at the former site of Cafe Jean-Pierre off the Pan American Highway.  It faces and is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater.  Nanami is the brainchild of first-time restaurant owners Brian and Nga Trieu, both of whom have extensive restaurant experience.  Brian cut his teeth working in restaurants owned and operated by his siblings in Roswell, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.  Among family owned restaurants with which you might be familiar are Banana Leaf (which a sibling sold years ago) and the Plum Cafe next door.  There are some similarities between the three.

Chicken Dumplings

Sure to become the restaurant’s signature appetizer is the Green Chile Rangoon (crispy Rangoon filled with green chile, jalapeño, onion, cream cheese and Cheddar).  If you’ve ever lamented the cloying flavor of most Crab Rangoon, you’ll appreciate that this six-piece starter bites back–not too much, but enough to be discernible.  The Green chile Rangoon is served with a plum sauce, a term which usually engenders yawning and ennui.  This plum sauce actually has personality courtesy of a nice infusion of ginger and chili.  It only looks sweet and innocuous.

Nanami pays attention to the sauces which accompany its appetizers.  That’s a difference-maker discerning diners will notice.  The chicken dumplings (crispy pot stickers filled with chicken, Napa cabbage, shallot and green onion), for example, are accompanied by a chili oil sweet soy sauce that emphasizes both its piquant and sweet elements.  The chicken dumplings are flash-fried to a golden hue and are generously filled.  It’s telling that the dumplings are delicious with or without sauce though the sauce does bring out more flavors.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Whether you noodle over the choices carefully or you espy a noodle dish that quickly wins you over, you’re in for a real treat.  My Kim beat me to the spicy beef noodle soup (rice noodle, medium flank steak, beef broth, tomato, cucumber and bean sprouts in a sate pork-shrimp broth topped with crushed peanuts, green onions, fried shallots and basil), my ad-libitum choice when trying a new Vietnamese restaurant.  While the flavor profile of most spicy beef noodle soups in the Duke City gravitates toward anise-kissed pho made piquant with the addition of chili, this one is wholly different.  It derives its heat from sate, a piquant Vietnamese sauce typically made with garlic, lemongrass, chili, fish sauce and other ingredients.  You may have noticed from the ingredients listed above that the broth is a sate pork-shrimp broth, not a beef broth.  There are many surprises in this soup, the least of which is the addition of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices.  This deeply satisfying, rich elixir may have you rethink what you believe spicy beef noodle soup should be.

If you can’t get enough ramen in your life, you’ll appreciate Nanami offering one ramen option heretofore unavailable in the Duke City.  That would be the Kim Chi Ramen (wheat noodle, chasu, tofu, soft-boiled egg, mushrooms, bean sprouts and kimchi in a pork dashi broth topped with sesame seed, green onion and nori).  This is a ramen dish rich in umami, one of the five basic tastes (along with salt, sweet, sour and bitter) with a profile described as “meaty” and “brothy.”  The rich stock (dashi), soy sauce, earthy mushrooms and even the fermented kimchi are especially imbued with umami.   There is a lot going on in this dish, a melding of ingredients which go very well together, but if the term “kimchi” inspires visions of fiery, fermented cabbage, you might be disappointed.  The focus of this ramen is in developing a multitude of flavors, not one overwhelming flavor.  This is a memorable dish!

Kim Chi Ramen

The Nanami Noodle House may not hand-pull its noodles, but the chef certainly knows how to use noodles to craft deeply satisfying, soulful and delicious dishes you’ll want to enjoy again and again.

Nanami Noodle House
4959 Pan American, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-1125
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Rangoon, Chicken Pot Stickers, Kim Chi Ramen, Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Nanami Noodle House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Linh at its new location as of 2016

You always remember your first time…and if it’s good, it may set the standard by which you’ll forever measure every other time. I was a lanky lad of nineteen, away from home for the first time when “it” happened.  As a precocious yet naive child growing up in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico, I had been sheltered from the wiles and ways of the world and felt silly and embarrassed about being so inexperienced. All my new friends in Massachusetts seemed so sophisticated in comparison.

Luckily I had a very patient and understanding teacher who taught me all its nuances and variations–how to appreciate its fragrant bouquet, taste the subtleties of its unique flavors and use my fingers as if lightly caressing its delicate features.  To this day, I still compare all other Vietnamese meals against my first that balmy summer day in Massachusetts. I treasure the memories of my first fresh spring rolls; marinated, grilled beef served atop a bed of rice vermicelli and the fragrance of leafy basil wafting from my first steaming bowl of pho.

Pho Linh’s colorful interior

The intoxicating aromas of Vietnamese cuisine remain a potent medium for conjuring up memories of my first time. A flood of memories greeted me when we first walked into Pho Linh, a 2005 addition to a fabulous array of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City. Pho Linh was originally situated on the Central Avenue location just west of San Mateo which had long been the home of a Golden City Chinese restaurant. It was adjacent to the historical Desert Sands Motel, a survivor of the 1960s which made a bloody cameo appearance in the 2007 movie No Country For Old Men.

On 24 May 2016, an arsonist set fire to the Desert Sands Motel, in the process displacing about five dozen people and causing $1.5 million in damages.  Among the conflagration’s casualties was the beloved Pho Lin Vietnamese Grill.  Although the fire didn’t reach Pho Linh, everything in the restaurant was lost due to fire, water, and power failure.  Because the fire did not reach the restaurant, no reimbursement from the insurance company was forthcoming.   Friends of Pho Linh established a GoFundMe account to help the restaurant owners get back on their feet and start a new restaurant in a different location as quickly as possible.

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside (circa 2007)

The second instantiation of Pho Linh celebrated its grand opening on September 15th, 2016, not quite four months after fire consumed the original restaurant.  Its new location, 9100 Central Avenue, N.E., just east of Wyoming and about four miles east of the original, occupies the location which previously housed Lee’s Chinese Fast Food, a long-time tenant.  We hadn’t been seated for long when Toa Kim (who goes by Kim), who owns the restaurant along with her husband, came to our table, indicating she remembered us from our previous visit ten years ago–my Kim because she’s so nice and me because I “took the best pictures of her she’d ever seen.” 

As the three photos on this review–the first two taken in 2007 and the third taken in January, 2017–of Toa Kim attest, she’s aged gracefully and remains as lovely and youthful as when we first met her.  Back then she was a shy young lady who struggled with English.  Today she has a good command of English…and obviously a good memory.  To her delight, Pho Linh’s new location has already eclipsed its predecessor in terms of popularity.  Not only have many loyal guests followed their favorite Vietnamese restaurant east, Pho Linh has started to win over new loyalists courtesy of Kirtland Air Force Base, the Sandia National Labs and others like us who just feel safer in the new location.

Toa grills beef at our table

Toa Kim grills beef at our table (circa 2007)

We reminisced with Toa Kim about her having prepared seven courses of beef for us a decade ago.  Seven courses of beef were a Pho Linh specialty during its time at the Desert Inn, an entree so popular that in 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded its highly-coveted Hot Plate award to the carnivores’ delight.  The award signifies the selection of seven courses of beef as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections across the city, to be singled out is quite an honor.    Sadly, seven courses of beef are no longer on the menu as an entree though each individual item comprising the seven is still available.

Pho Linh is one of the most colorful Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City with a brightness matched only by Toa Kim’s sparkling personality.  On a wall behind a bamboo counter are five painted plates, each representing some of Vietnam’s most populous and culinarily influential cities: Saigon and Nha Trang in the South, Da Nang and Hue in Central Vietnam and Ha Noi in the North.  An “I Love Me” wall on which hang the aforementioned Hot Plate Award and several published restaurant reviews, is on your immediate left as you walk in.  The words “Mom Cooking Ware” are displayed beneath the accolades and reviews, a tribute Toa Kim explained, to her adopted American mother, a frequent guest of Pho Linh with whom she became so close that the two formed a mother-daughter relationship.

Ten years later (2017), Toa Kim remains as lovely as ever

While some may find the color scheme a bit loud, there’s no denying the appeal of Pho Linh’s appetizers. Options include fresh spring rolls with steamed pork and shrimp served with a sweet peanut sauce barely emboldened by chilies but redolent in minty fragrance.  For daring diners, an order of golden crispy squid with butter sauce might be in order. The squid is somewhat reminiscent of fried calamari in taste and texture while butter sauce is an acquired taste disdained by many Westerners. Also quite good are the Vietnamese egg rolls, four cigar shaped rolls fried to a golden hue and tightly wrapped to hold in anise blessed beef. The accompanying fish sauce is served without julienne carrots and daikon and is somewhat salty.

Grilled Mussels

14 January 2017: Remembering how much we enjoyed the aforementioned appetizers ten years previously, we decided to try appetizers heretofore new to us–preferably appetizers not available at other Vietnamese restaurants. We lucked upon two of them. The first, grilled mussels with scallions sprinkled with peanuts served with homemade sweet and sour ginger fish sauce provided an excellent re-introduction to Pho Linh.  Unlike the fried mussels with tamarind from Saigon Restaurant, there is no attempt to alter or obfuscate the native, “fishy” flavors of the mussels though you can immerse them in the sweet and sour ginger sauce if you’d like a more fruity flavor profile.  We enjoyed the mussels immensely with only the crushed peanuts to temper their natural flavors.

Grilled slices beef rolled with pickled leek

14 January 2017: Another appetizer we’d not previously seen at a Vietnamese restaurant was grilled beef slices rolled with pickled leeks though we did enjoy this remarkable starter while indulging in the seven courses of beef entree.  It’s an appetizer very similar to the grilled onion beef pictured in my review of Saigon 2 Restaurant in Rio Rancho though instead of onions, it’s leeks that are rolled tightly in beef.  While leeks may be more closely associated with the cuisine of several European nations, pickled leeks are quite common in Vietnamese cuisine.  They’re not pickled to the extent that they’ll purse your lips as a sour lemon might, but they serve as a nice foil for the anise-blessed beef.  This dish also includes a tangle of noodles along with shredded carrots, daikon and cucumber slices.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

14 January 2017: When it comes to comfort, you can’t beat swimming pool sized bowls of steaming, fragrant, absolutely delicious pho. During a recent discussion about Albuquerque’s best pho, my friend and colleague Tuan Bui convinced me that a return visit to Pho Linh is long overdue. He raved about the Beef Noodle Soup Combination (rare steak, well done flank, beef brisket, beef tendon, beef tripe and beef meat ball). These same meats are also available on the spicy beef noodle soup, my very favorite of all Vietnamese soups. The aforementioned meats swim in a house special spicy lemongrass sauce with sundry aromatic seasonings, onions, scallions, sliced tomatoes and tangles of noodles. A plate of bean sprouts, sweet basil, jalapeno and lemon wedges accompanies each gargantuan bowl. The basil is the freshest we’ve had at any Vietnamese restaurant. Only at Cafe Dalat and the May Cafe have we had a comparable spicy beef noodle soup, meaning it’s in rarefied air–among the very best in the city.

Singapore Noodles

14 January 2017: Only at May Cafe have we experienced Singapore Noodles as addictively delicious as those pictured below. While the origin of Singapore Noodles is Cantonese, several Vietnamese restaurants have one-upped their Chinese restaurant counterparts in preparing outstanding versions of this terrific noodle dish. As with all versions of Singapore noodles, Pho Linh’s rendition is seasoned with curry powder and its vermicelli-thin rice noodles are stir-fried along with pork and a mix of vegetables. What makes this version so much better than so many others is the moistness of the dish, every morsel permeated with sweet, savory, pungent flavors. 

Top: Banh Mi with Pork; Bottom: Banh Mi with Beef

14 January 2017: To say Americans love sandwiches is as much an understatement as declaring ducks love water.  There have probably been more new and more inventive sandwich options introduced in the past ten years as in the remainder of the history of the fruited plains.  To think banh mi, the popular Vietnamese sandwich, were not widely available even a quarter-century ago is almost inconceivable.  Banh mi have become as ubiquitous, even in Albuquerque, as Hawaiian pizza–and you don’t have to visit one of the city’s Vietnamese bakeries to enjoy them.  Menus at restaurants such as Pho Linh offer very good banh mi.  Two options–banh mi engorged with pork and banh mi stuffed with beef–are available here.  These may be the most “Americanized” of all banh mi in the city in that they’re overstuffed–absolutely filled with beef or pork along with carrots, daikon, cilantro and fish sauce.  Alas, they’re somewhat smaller, maybe seven inches, than banh mi at other purveyors, but then again, there’s all the stuff inside.  It’s all good stuff.

Seven Courses of Beef

24 November 2007Though, as previously noted, seven courses of beef are no longer on the menu as an entree, it is still possible to enjoy each of the seven items or you can pick-and-choose from among the seven for an abbreviated experience.  As such, indulge me while I explain this extraordinary offering which we hope will some day soon be reinstated onto the menu. Traditionally served at Vietnamese weddings, seven courses of beef is a meal to be shared with someone you love.  The seven courses of beef provide a uniquely interactive dining experience in which you’ll have ample opportunity to use your hands so make sure they’re well washed before you begin. For most diners, this means you’ll have the opportunity to create your own spring rolls–wrapping various courses of beef and sundry ingredients into a tissue-thin, translucent rice paper.
24 November 2007: I’ve been able to feign (without much effort) an all thumbs clumsiness that prompts lovely attendants such as Toa Kim to feel sorry for me and craft spring rolls that are more uniform than I could make in a lifetime.  A table for two won’t do if you order the seven courses of beef. Just for starters, the courses require two different cooking appliances–a grill and a fondue pot.  You’ll also have to make room for a bowl of hot water (in which to dip the rice paper) as well as a bevy of vegetation that includes green leaf lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled carrots, daikon, green apples, cucumbers, mint and the house’s special dipping sauce.  This sauce, called mam nem is brackish brown in color and is more pungent in flavor than nuoc mam, the traditional fish sauce served in many Vietnamese restaurants throughout Albuquerque.  Unlike the nuoc mam, the mam nem is made from fermented fish, but it is not strained and retains bits of fish that fermented in a barrel for about a year. It’s thicker and more chunky than nuoc mam and is more sweet than tangy.

Lemon Beef

24 November 2007:The first courses of beef are grilled loaf leaf beef (say that ten times as fast as you can) and grilled beef rolls in pickled leek. Both are reminiscent of link sausage in texture, size and appearance, but with the unmistakable fragrance of anise blessed grilling. Next comes the fun part–a beef fondue prepared at your table on a brazier with a bubbling hot pot of vinegar fondue. A plate of tissue-thin slices of raw beef is swirled on the fondue and flash-cooked to your specifications.  Swirling the beef on the fondue is easy compared to dipping the rice paper in a warm water bath to soften it then lining the rice paper with sundry ingredients and wrapping your creation into a sort of do-it-yourself spring roll. This is where not being dexterous and having a face like a pouty hound dog pays off if you can get one of the lovely waitresses to do this for you.
In Vietnam, wrapping rice paper is an Olympic sport and it’s done to an art form. Most Americans will want to super-size their spring rolls and rice paper isn’t meant to hold a steak and a half head of lettuce. That’s another reason to have your waitress play with your food instead of you doing it.  Alas, there isn’t enough fondue beef to finish off all the accompanying vegetables, so your next course of beef is a lemongrass beef with five spices. The beef is Calista Flockhart thin and is grilled on a tabletop hibachi. The wrapping adventure ensues.

Grilled Loaf and Grilled Beef Rolls in Pickled Leek

24 November 2007:The next course is lemon beef (as thin as Nicole Ritchie) topped with mint, herbs and peanuts. At an Italian restaurant it would be called carpaccio and it probably wouldn’t taste as good. You can opt to have this dish grilled, but there are few things as tasty as raw beef marinated in lemon.  A quartered lemongrass beef ball served with rice crackers follows suit. The beef is steamed into a succulent mass topped with crushed peanuts and spices. It is meant to be eaten with the crackers.  Rice crackers are an adventure in eating. They look like and have the consistency of packing material you might use to mail something fragile. They don’t taste much better than what you might imagine that packing material would taste like, but top one of these crackers with a bit of beef ball and it’s not bad.

24 November 2007:The final course is a beef congee, a rice and beef soup similar to Chinese juke (rice porridge). The rice is cooked until very soft then served in a ginger-infused broth with minced beef and scallions. It is served warmer than all the other courses and has the effect of finishing your seven courses with the most comforting of all. 

Our return visit to Pho Linh was akin to a homecoming. It was indeed as if we were coming back home–home to outstanding Vietnamese cuisine and to an effusive, energetic owner with a pho-nomenal memory and sparkling personality. There’s no way we’ll allow ten years to elapse before returning again and again.

Pho Linh
9100 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-3368
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Squid With Butter Sauce, Spicy Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup, Seven Courses of Beef, Spicy Beef Noodle Soup, Singapore Noodles, Grilled Beef Slices with Pickled Leek, Grilled Mussels

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lime Vietnamese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Lime Vietnamese Restaurant

Kevin: What am I looking at here?
Donna: It’s pho.
Kevin: It’s what?
Donna: Pho.
Kevin: Well pho looks like a clogged sink. What are those chunks floating around in there? What is that?
Donna: It’s chicken. You love chicken.
Kevin: Do they make this outside? What is this? <pulls up a single basil leaf>
Donna: Seasoning. Just try it.
Kevin: <slurps up spoonful and contemplates flavor>
Donna: Is it good?
Kevin: <holds up finger and slurps up another spoonful; slaps palm on table>
Kevin: Hold the pho-one. This is insane! This existed this whole time and you don’t tell me about it?
Donna: Yeah and wait til you try the beef.
Kevin: <look of utter surprise> This comes in beef?
~ Kevin Can Wait

If you’ve ever introduced an unadventurous dining companion to the wonder of utter deliciousness that is Vietnamese cuisine, you can probably relate to that little snippet from the CBS comedy series Kevin Can Wait.  Kevin exemplifies the culinary neophyte who is reluctant to try new foods, especially those which might be considered exotic or strange.  Life’s travels and travails haven’t afforded them the opportunity to experience and enjoy such foods, so it’s up to us, their more culinarily acculturated friends, to help expand their horizons by introducing them to foods they would not otherwise brave.

The Interior of Lime Vietnamese Restaurant

We know that such introductions must be gradual and carefully orchestrated or we risk losing them.  For the most unadventurous among them, we begin with baby steps–perhaps relating the similarities between Vietnamese cuisine and Chinese food, a contention we can prove easily by ordering egg rolls.  Surely, even the most culinary circumspect among us have tried Chinese food.  Similarly, we can inaugurate their taste buds to Vietnamese fried rice or dumplings, again by comparing them to their Chinese counterparts.  We can appeal to their sense of the familiar, explaining that pho is very much like the soups they enjoy out of a can–only much better (just ask Kevin).

What you absolutely cannot do if you hope to gain a convert is tell them about or introduce them to the more “exotic” ingredients which are part and parcel of the Vietnamese culinary culture.  You wouldn’t for example, order pho for them if its ingredients include tendon or even rare steak.  Never mind that we love those ingredients, newbies would be traumatized at the very notion of trying them.  You certainly wouldn’t–even on a dare–ask them to try a durian shake.  Durian, as regular readers of Gil’s Thrilling… know is considered the world’s smelliest fruit, it’s malodorous emanations being off-putting to all but a few.  Even many Vietnamese people find its unique bouquet offensive.

Papaya Salad

Whether you’ve been eating Vietnamese food for a long time or you’re a relative novitiate, there are numerous excellent-to-outstanding Vietnamese restaurants throughout the metropolitan area sure to win you over.  Just before the advent of 2017, another one–Lime Vietnamese Restaurant–began its foray into the Duke City dining scene.  Lime has an impressive pedigree, its culinary lineage including such Albuquerque stalwarts as Que Huong, one of the city’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants; Viet Taste in Albuquerque; and Rio Rancho’s Viet Rice.  Because the recipes at these restaurants have a common genesis, if you like these three, you’ll like Lime.

What’s not to like?  Well, for one thing, it’s located at the former home of long-time favorite May Hong.  Yes, my friends, May Hong has shuttered its doors and served its last bowl of pho, an event which warrants flying an apron at half mast.  Gone are the familiar timeworn booths and dated wasabi-colored walls.  In their place is a completely revamped restaurant, one with modern accoutrements and masculine wood accents throughout.  Lime is one of the more attractive Vietnamese restaurants in town. . Its menu is very attractive too, offering a number of dishes not commonly found in other Vietnamese restaurants. What it’s not is a compendium of Vietnamese dishes, offering perhaps half as many dishes as May Hong once did.

Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves

There are only eight appetizers on the menu, but these are an elite eight. It’s been our quest since experiencing the transformative papaya salad at An Hy Quan to find a version as amazing. Though most we’ve had since are quite good, they’re not in the same rarefied air. That goes for the papaya salad at Lime. It’s got the usual suspects of ingredients—shredded green papaya, julienned carrots, crushed peanuts, pork, cilantro, green onions, Thai chili and lots of lime juice. It’s a very invigorating salad with a nice balance of tanginess from the lime and heat from the chilis. The shredded green papaya is fresh and crisp with a mild, almost cucumber-like flavor only sweeter. The crushed peanuts lend a textural contrast and provide just enough saltiness to be discernible.

Que Huong and its restaurant tree throughout the metropolitan area have long been known for grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves— marinated ground beef (with minced garlic, ginger, cilantro and scallion) wrapped in grape leaves and charbroiled. Yes, that does sound like a Greek dish, but it’s most assuredly Vietnamese in preparation style and flavor. Charring the leaves imparts a unique smoky flavor (with charcoal notes) and texture you can’t duplicate. The grape leaves are served with a small bowl of fish sauce which lends sweet-tangy notes to the cigar-shaped grape leaf treasures. Crushed peanuts are used for garnish, but lend just a bit of salt. This is a magnificent starter.

Spicy Lemongrass Soup

I’m often asked where to find the best pho (beef noodle soup) in Albuquerque, but feel almost unqualified to answer. For the most part, instead of ordering the more conventional pho, this gastronome likes to spice things up a bit by ordering a restaurant’s spicy lemongrass soup. It may fall under the Pho menu, but to my taste buds it’s so much more exciting and vibrant. The version at Lime is replete with rare steak, well-done steak, beef meatball and tendon. It’s an excellent version, one of the very best in Albuquerque. Lime is more generous with its meat than most other Vietnamese restaurants in town, but not at the expense of flavors. The lemongrass hits all the right notes and may even clear out some congestion, but mostly it’s just delicious and comforting.

My Kim finds comfort in rich, buttery noodles in any form. One of her favorite ways to enjoy Vietnamese noodles is in pattie form where noodles actually take on an almost cheesecloth-like appearance. Lime’s vermicelli patties with pork and beef exemplifies what she loves about noodles that aren’t necessarily conventional. Served along with this dish are broad lettuce leaves which are intended to be used as wrappers for the noodle patties, pork and beef. Dipped into the accompanying fish sauce, this seemingly strange “sandwich” is surprisingly good. It helps that the pork and beef are imbued with both sweet, anise-kissed and smoky, charcoal flavors.

Vermicelli Patties with Pork and Beef

Having succeeded a veritable Albuquerque institution in a location long familiar to Duke City diners, Lime Vietnamese Restaurant has a tough road to how.  Longevity, the type of which May Hong achieved, is assured only to those rarefied restaurants who can prove themselves consistently over time.  Based on our inaugural experience, Lime has a chance.

Lime Vietnamese Restaurant
9800 Montgomery, N.E., #2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 219-3824
LATEST VISIT: 7 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vermicelli Patties with Pork and Beef, Papaya Salad, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves, Spicy Lemongrass Soup

Lime Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aya’s New Asian on Menaul

There’s an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between restaurant guests and the restaurant personnel with whom we interact. As guests, we show our appreciation for a dining experience well executed by tipping generously and maybe complimenting the kitchen and wait staff during and after the meal. Representatives of the restaurant– whether they be chefs, maître ds, servers or owners—typically thank their guests and invite them to return. All too often these interactions seem trite, maybe even rehearsed or expected. It’s what we all do because it’s what we’ve always done and it’s what’s expected to be done. Only during and after exceptional (or exceptionally bad) dining experiences do interactions between guests and restaurant personnel become more effusive…or so we thought.

During our inaugural visit to Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine on Menaul, we experienced gratitude and friendliness so sincere and authentic that we couldn’t help but be touched.  Even if the Japanese cuisine hadn’t won us over, the humility and friendliness of Aya herself would have.  Let me step back at this point and explain that the restaurant is actually operated by two women named Aya (short for Ayako).  One Aya runs the front of the house and serves as sushi chef while the other runs the kitchen.  We only met the Aya who’s the public face of the restaurant and we were impressed.

Aya’s Dining Room

The two Ayas have been in Albuquerque for just over half a year, having made the move from Seattle which they found too rainy and dreary.  In contrast, they love the Duke City, especially its incomparable skies and weather.  The Ayas plan on making their lives in the United States, having liquidated their assets in Japan to move here.  Both classically trained in Japanese culinary techniques, they hope to introduce Duke City diners to the food of their homeland…and indeed, the menu offers a few “just a little different” items heretofore not found in the area’s Japanese restaurants.

Aya (the restaurant, not the owners) is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Menaul.  To its immediate west is a Flying Star and just east is Relish.  Wasabi and cranberry colored walls are festooned with serene paintings of lotus blossoms on one side and magnificent glass art showcasing Michael Miro‘s kabuki series on the other.  Aya was delighted in my knowledge and appreciation of the kabuki practices depicted so colorfully.  With an amazing command of English–considering she’s only been in America for about a year–she told us about her life in Okinawa.  Her self-effacing modesty in accepting compliments on her English was but one thing we immediately liked about her.

Vege Tempura

We also liked the Web site’s URL. It’s not just aya.com. It’s ayako-san.com. In Japanese, appending a name with the suffix “san” is a title of respect which can be used with both female and male names and with either given names or surnames. It can also be attached to the name of occupations and titles. In Japan, restaurant owners are often called mama-san or papa-san by both customers and employees. This signifies a level of affection as well as respect. It’s easy to see that Aya deserves such a title of endearment. We also liked that menu items are spelled phonetically—how they sound. Some menu items aren’t necessarily spelled the way Americans or even other Japanese restaurants would spell them. For example, the American spelling for Japanese dumplings is “gyoza” but the Aya menu spells it “gyouza.”

There’s much to like about Aya’s menu. There are seven starters on the menu, including three recently added (such as the green chile Ohitashi and poke salad). Four ala carte tempura options and miso soup can also be ordered as starters. The next section of the menu is dedicated to curry—five types, each served with a small salad. Six noodle dishes, including miso ramen, will sate all of us who love to nosh on noodles. Nine rice dishes, several of the donburi variety, follow suit. Next on the menu are three platters which are served with steamed rice, small salad, soup and small dish of the day. Sushi, available only during dinner time, follows suit then it’s a vegetarian tofu teriyaki dish. Last, but certainly not least is a three item dessert menu.

Gyouza

Let tempura tease your taste buds. The vege tempura is an excellent starter option, rewarding you with a generous plating of deep-fried assorted seasonal vegetables sheathed in a crispy tempura batter. Having been born and raised in the Windy City area, my Kim generally eschews vegetables unless they’re covered in meat and potatoes, but she loves tempura vegetables. Unlike fried foods in Chicago, these are virtually grease-less. Aya served us lightly battered green beans, zucchini, squash and carrots. Underneath the tempura sheath, each vegetable retains a nice crispness that is indicative of fresh vegetables. Tempura dishes are served with a light soy-based sauce.

Another excellent starter is the aforementioned gyouza, five lightly stir-fried, house-made Japanese pork dumplings served with ponzu (thin, tart citrus-based) sauce. While Japan is steeped in ancient culinary traditions, gyouza isn’t one of them. Japanese didn’t start making gyouza until after World War II when Japanese soldiers were exposed to Chinese dumplings while serving in Manchuria. Gyouza are usually thinner, smaller (two to three bites), more delicate and fillings tend to have a finer texture than their Chinese counterparts. Made well, gyouza is as good as any Chinese dumplings you’ll ever have. Aya makes them well.

Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate

You can emphasize the word “special” when a special of the day is posted on the slate board or Facebook page. As someone who tends to order specials more often than from the regular menu, I’m ever attuned for something new and different such as the Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate (cubes of tuna, boiled shrimp, egg, zencom, cucumber and avocado over sushi rice). While we’ve certainly had chirashi before, it’s always been served donburi-style (in a bowl).  At Aya, the chirashi is served in a rectangular plate. The dish is pleasing to the eye and the palate with a nice balance of ingredients in good proportion to one another. Unlike chirashi we’ve had in other Japanese restaurants, we weren’t provided wasabi-sushi which really changes the flavor profile. Instead, we were left to enjoy sweet, delicate flavors that practically had us swooning.

The Chirashi Sushi Plate is served with a salad, miso soup and pickled vegetables somewhat reminiscent of Korean namul (assorted unfermented salads). A simple salad (iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots) is transformed into a paragon of deliciousness with a cool, refreshing ginger dressing so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate. The miso soup is much better than most we’ve had in Albuquerque where bouillon cube quality miso is maybe not the norm, but it’s shamefully all too common. It’s served hot as opposed to warm which gives it good miso creds with us and the tofu appears to have been made in-house.

Yakisoba

Another popular Japanese dish of Chinese origin is Yakisoba, a fried noodle dish similar to chow mein. Aya elevates this relatively simple dish of fried noodles and vegetables with the addition of bacon. Yes, bacon! In Japan, thinly sliced pork is most commonly used on Yakisoba. Japan needs to have a bacon epiphany! A generous amount of bite-sized pieces of smoky, delicious bacon coalesces with the thick, sweet sauce to make this potentially the best Yakisoba dish we’ve ever had (we can’t remember having one better).

Great desserts and Japanese restaurant are two terms not commonly associated with one another. If a Japanese restaurant in New Mexico even deigns to serve dessert, it’s usually plum sorbet or green tea ice cream. Aya offers several desserts heretofore unknown to us. The most intriguing may be the green tea parfait which is served on a goblet similar to what Dairy Queen might use to serve a sundae. Layers of flavor, color and texture define this dessert. Imagine corn flakes (yes, the Kellogs type), green tea ice cream, whipped cream, green tea jelly, chocolate and seasonal fruits. Where do you start? We discovered early on that this dessert is best experienced if you can combine flavors and textures in each spoonful. The combination of corn flakes, chocolate sauce and green tea ice cream is especially satisfying.

Green Tea Parfait

We first experienced green tea tempura cheesecake at Naruto, one of the Duke City’s premier ramen houses.  It’s since been an obsession.  Comparisons with Naruto’s version were inevitable.  At Naruto, the cheesecake is drizzled with cocoa powder served atop a swirl of chocolate.  Not so at Aya where a thin tempura batter sheathes a beautiful wedge of green tea cheesecake.  A dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top is served on the side.  It’s a very good cheesecake.

My introduction of this review posited the existence of an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between guests at a restaurant and the restaurant personnel who serve them.  I explained that our experience with Aya was unlike the usual polite interaction between the two parties.  As we settled our bill of fare and prepared to leave, Aya didn’t extend the perfunctory “come back soon.”  She embraced us as one might an old friend or family member and told us how much she appreciated our visit and interest in her food.  She meant it!

Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine offers many of the comfort food favorites Americans have come to love as well as some new and different options which just might become new favorites.  There’s also a strong chance Aya herself will quickly become one of your favorite restaurateurs.

Aya’s New Asian
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-5441
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate, Yakisoba, Vege Tempura, Gyoza, Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake, Green Tea Ice Cream Parfait

Ayas New Asian Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

SweeTea Bakery Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe on San Mateo

In some metropolitan areas, legions of restaurant bloggers dissect and report on every facet of the area’s dining scene. These bloggers have a significant impact on the restaurant choices diners make. That fact isn’t lost on savvy restaurateurs—particularly young entrepreneurs active in social media–who solicit feedback on their restaurants from the dynamic food blogger community. Some restaurateurs who understand the power of online reviews even engage in “food blogger outreach campaigns” and cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with food bloggers. Alas, this doesn’t often happen in Albuquerque—maybe because you can count on one hand (with at least two fingers left over) the number of active food bloggers with staying power and brand recognition.  There is anecdotal evidence that Duke City restaurant review bloggers have some impact, but it hasn’t been quantified.

You can also count on one hand the number of restaurateurs who have actually invited me to experience their new restaurant ventures. On the rare occasion in which a restaurateur does invite me, it reaffirms for me that the restaurateur: (1) recognizes food bloggers as a legitimate, credible and influential medium; and (2) understands the power of blog-based reviews to amplify a positive dining experience. So, when Anh and Tammie, the vivacious owners of the SweeTea (the expected “t” is redundant) Bakery Café on San Mateo, invited me to “come sample and review our new sandwich bakery” and expressed their “excitement to get feedback from food experts like you,” I leaped at the opportunity…though careful as always to remain as inconspicuous as my linebacker size and “real” camera will allow.

Owners Tammie Nguyen (left) and Any Nguyen

It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I may have “outed” myself when ordering a durian-coconut smoothie. Durian, as regular readers may recognize, is considered “the world’s smelliest fruit.” Its odoriferous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and worse. Our server’s reaction—a shock and awe mix of “you are kidding, aren’t you?” and “do you really know what you’re ordering?”–is typical. Perhaps sensing the server’s trepidation, Anh Nguyen stepped out to confirm the sheer madness or foolhardiness of my beverage order. She laughed when I told her I was Vietnamese in my previous life, acknowledged that durian is an acquired taste which very few people acquire then proceeded to give us a guided tour of the bakery-café’s pastry case.

This wasn’t some special treatment accorded to a food blogger who could perhaps influence venturesome Duke City diners (remember, Anh didn’t yet know who I was). This is how SweeTea’s staff treats everyone who walks into the premises for the first time. With the pride of a young parent, Anh practically beamed as she aptly described each pulchritudinous pastry, a phalanx of sweet and savory treasures displayed under glass. It’s a wonder drool tracks don’t obscure your view; many a museum’s most cherished masterpieces pale in comparison to these pastries. Their appeal is heightened by Anh’s enthusiastic descriptions.

View of the Pastry Case and Order Counter

After our meal had been delivered to our table, Anh stopped by to see how we were enjoying it…and “caught me” carefully photographing our bounty. Surmising my gig was up, I proceeded to reveal my identity as a mild-mannered food blogger who can eat tall banh mi in a single (well, maybe ten) bite(s). She reproved me for having paid for the meal myself, indicating that having invited me she had intended to treat us to our meal. Noting our table was brimming with savory fare, she excused herself, returning scant minutes later with a trove of baked goods—eight enticing delicacies as dainty and beautiful as those baked by a Parisian patisserie.

Ahn then summoned her partner and long-time friend Tammie Nguyen to join us. If you’ve ever admired those framed portraits of statuesque Vietnamese women which adorn the walls at some Vietnamese restaurants, in Anh and Tammie you’ll see vivid confirmation that such elegant beauty does exist. Theirs is an easy friendship borne of shared years and experiences. Before launching SweeTea, Ahn worked as a pharmacist while Tammie toiled as a software engineer.  As restaurateurs they’re naturals with an ambassadorial flair all good restaurateurs have.  They’re passionate about giving their guests a memorable and delicious experience.

Meatball Banh Mi

If you ever visited the defunct House of Pho, the location’s previous occupant at Montgomery Plaza, you’ll be amazed at the wholesale transformation the 1,800 square-foot space has undergone. A complete make-over has converted a nondescript restaurant venue into one which bespeaks of both modernity and hominess. A mural depicting Singapore’s high-rise dominated skyline covers an entire wall. It’s eye-catching, but the true cynosure of the attractive milieu is the pastry case with its enticing fare. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable unless you manage to snag the comfortable red sectional sofa where you can stretch out. Anh expects a robust take-out business so the dozen or so seats should be just about right for those of us who want to eat in.

SweeTea is patterned after 85 °C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese chain of coffee shops and self-serve bakeries with a huge presence in California. Guests employ tongs to extricate their favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) pastries from self-serve pastry cases then pile them onto a tray and ferry them to the counter. In other pastry cases, you’ll see such delicacies as cheesecake and fruit-filled tarts. Above the counter you’ll espy a menu showcasing an appealing selection of delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, small bites, special entree dishes, unique specialty drinks and bubble tea. It’s an ambitious menu considering the relatively Lilliputian size of the bakery-cafe, but it’s not exclusively Vietnamese.

Bulgogi Banh Mi

Anh explained that contemporary Vietnamese food has been heavily influenced by nearly a century of French colonialism. The influx of French flavors, ingredients and techniques essentially revolutionized traditional Vietnamese food. One of the most visible aspects of modern French-inspired Vietnamese food is the crusty baguette, the basis for banh mi, the widely popular Vietnamese sandwich. Sweet and savory pastries, sweet breads, chocolate-filled croissants and other tantalizing baked goods may now be ubiquitous in Vietnam, but their origin is French.

“In Vietnam,” Anh told me “it takes a lot more work to make a banh mi.” That’s because ovens are still relatively scarce within family homes. Throughout Ho Chi Minh City where she was born, banh mi are a featured fare of the makeshift street markets in which “kitchens” are ad-libbed by inventive cooks. The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial street foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located. Though she can’t hope to recreate the incomparable experience of preparing banh mi in the street food style of her birthplace, she certainly knows what it takes to create the best to be found in Albuquerque.

Egg Rolls

Before launching SweeTea, Anh and Tammie returned to Vietnam to study baking techniques then spent time refining recipes to adapt to Albuquerque’s high altitude, high alkaline water and arid climate.  These challenges have baffled transplanted bakers for years, but with lots of practice, water-softening technology and a determination to treat Duke City diners to the very and most authentic best banh mi in New Mexico, they’ve got it down pat.  The authenticity is immediately obvious in that the baguettes (baked on the premises, not purchased at Costco) have a perfect balance of pillowy softness inside and crustiness of the exterior.  Moreover, Anh explained, banh mi sandwiches are supposed to be at least twelve-inches long as they are at SweeTea.

In our first two visits, we enjoyed five banh mi, each one dressed with picked carrots, daikon relish, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumbers and SweeTea mayo.  Banh mi aren’t ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) in the manner of American sandwiches.  There’s just enough meat in each of the five sandwiches we enjoyed to complement the accompanying vegetables without obscuring the freshness and deliciousness of the baguette.  Each banh mi is a balance of flavors in perfect proportion to one another.  My early favorite is the meatball banh mi.  If you’re picturing golf ball-sized meatballs as you’d find in an Italian meatball sandwich, you won’t find them here, but you will find them addictively delicious.  These “meatballs” have neither the texture nor orb-like shape of Italian meatballs.  They are instead more akin to a very moist, very well-seasoned ground pork simmered in tomato sauce.

Chicken Dumplings

My Kim enjoyed the bulgogi banh mi most.  Bulgogi is certainly not Vietnamese.  It is instead the signature dish of Korea,  what many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue–thin strips of marinated lean beef imbued with a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes.  The fusion of signature elements from Korean and Vietnamese culinary cultures is a winner, but in terms of flavor profile, it’s not significantly different than the grilled pork banh mi.  For more distinctive, savory flavors try the grilled sausage banh mi, a pork-based sausage redolent with the flavors of fish sauce and garlic.  If “cold-cut” sandwiches are your preference, you’ll love the #1 Special Banh Mi made with Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate (yet another delicacy for which Vietnam can thank France).  Don’t let the term “headcheese” scare you off.  There’s not enough of it to overwhelm the sandwich.  Besides, it’s a nice complement to the other ingredients.

But I digress.  Before you get to the banh mi, you’ll want to enjoy at least two of the four listed “small bites” on the menu.  Make one of them the deep-fried, golden-hued egg rolls.  Come to think of it, you may want two orders of these cigar-shaped beauties lest you risk fighting over who gets the third one (being a gentleman, I always let my Kim have it then stew over it later).  Served with a sweet-savory and slightly tart sauce of thick viscosity, these egg rolls are generously stuffed and perfectly fried.  They’re absolutely delicious.

Vermicelli with Grilled Pork

For those of us who dine with a spouse or partner, the matter of appetizers served in odd-numbered quantities can be confounding.  Exempli gratia, the pan-fried chicken dumplings which are served five to an order.  You’ll probably covet all five of these crescent-shaped beauties for yourself.  Who can blame you?  They’re tender and plump, filled with fresh, tasty minced chicken fried to a crispy (but not greasy) golden-hue.  There’s only one thing missing–and that’s the elusive sixth dumpling to make it an even-numbered starter so neither you or your partner will feel short-changed. 

While not a compendium-like menu (such as the 145-items at nearby Saigon Restaurant), SweeTea offers more than enough entrees to make it not just your favorite pastry provider, but a very viable lunch or dinner option.  In thirty or forty visits, for example, you might  want to deviate from the banh mi menu.  There to sate and likely hook you are seven vermicelli options, each made with the same familiar proteins you love on the bahn mi.  The grilled pork vermicelli is a resplendent swimming pool-sized bowl crammed with vermicelli noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrot and daikon, scallion and roasted peanuts served with SweeTea fish sauce.  If freshness has a flavor, it’s exemplified by this dish in which a melange of ingredients and flavors coalesce into a palate-pleasing, tongue-titillating bowl of pure gustatory enjoyment.

Assorted Vietnamese Pastries

Now for the pastries!  Trays of these artisanal delicacies are baked twice daily so you’ll always have fresh pastries on hand. That is until the bakery runs out…and if you get to SweeTea late in the day, you just might find slim pickings. Not that a limited selection is a bad thing. It’s how we discovered the cinnamon rose buns, (not pictured) cinnamon rolls shaped like roses.  Unlike those overly-glazed grocery store pretenders, the prevalent flavor here is sweet cinnamon in perfect proportion to the soft bread dough which unravels easily.  After two visits and nine different pastries, these may be my favorite…at least until I try another new one.  

For years the Coconut Craisins Butterfly at Banh Mi Coda has been my favorite of all Vietnamese pastries.  Though somewhat smaller, SweeTea’s version is better…more of the coconut-raising marriage we love.  For my Kim, the nutella buns reign supreme.  She’s fiendishly addicted to the sweetened hazelnut cocoa spread and smiles broadly with every bite of the soft buns.  We both love the “not your traditional banana nut bread” which is baked with fresh rum-soaked bananas and is topped with walnuts.  This is not your mother’s dry, tasteless banana nut bread.  It’s rich, moist and utterly decadent.  SweeTea’s signature pastry is the Kim Sa Bun, a soft bun filled with egg custard and with a cookie crust top.  Anh described the painstaking process of brining the egg yolks to prepare the custard, a labor of love for a pastry you will love.  

More Pastry Deliciousness

24 December 2016: It stands to reason that innovative and avant-garde restaurateurs such as Anh and Tammie wouldn’t subject their guests to the de rigueur Coke or Pepsi product offerings.  Though soft drinks are available, adventurous diners will gravitate to the exceptional teas or smoothies (truly intrepid souls will try the coconut-durian smoothie).  If you’re of a more healthful bent, Anh (remember she was a pharmacist) might recommend Thai basil seed with Malva nut which has properties conducive to good health. 

The childlike among us (okay, me) might instead opt for a colorful, multi-layered “rainbow” drink.  From bottom to top, this beverage is layered with chestnuts, mung bean, agar, coconut and crushed ice.  Use your straw to blend it all together and you’ll enjoy one of the more unique flavor-texture experiences you’ll have in the Duke City.

Nhu Holding “Rainbow” Drink

There are many things to love about the SweeTea Bakery Cafe, a magical fusion of Vietnamese and French ingenuity.  With Anh and Tammie turning out the best pastries this side of Ho Chi Minh City, it promises to be a very welcome and exciting addition to the Duke City dining scene.  Tell them Gil sent you.

SweeTea Bakery Cafe
4565 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2592
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2016
1st VISIT: 4 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Meatball Banh Mi, Bulgogi Banh Mi, Special (Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate) Banh Mi, Grilled Sausage Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Chicken Dumplings, Egg Rolls, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, “Not Your Traditional Banana Nut Bread,” Kim Sa Bun, Egg Custard Bun, Nutella Bun, Coconut Craisins Butterfly, Cinnamon Rose Bun

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Restaurant on Wyoming

Opinions vary as to what the next “hot” cuisine in America will be.  As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I’m more interested in how long it will take for that heat to make its way to the Land of Enchantment…and whether its sizzle will wow Duke City diners or pass us by.  In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian the next hot cuisine.  Apparently Albuquerque didn’t think it was so hot because Perumex, the city’s first and only Peruvian restaurant at the time both opened and closed the year of Bon Appetit’s proclamation.  Thankfully in 2011 Rene and Monica Coronado opened Pollito Con Papas to give the Duke City a second chance at a taste of Peru.  In 2013, Sara Correa launched Sara’s Pastries which gives Duke City diners a sweeter perspective on Peruvian cuisine.

If history repeats itself, perhaps Lao cuisine, the cuisine of Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) will follow Thai and Vietnamese cuisines as the hot cuisine embraced by ethnic-food ravenous American diners.  That would be my wish and my prediction.  Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  The influence of neighboring nations can be seen in Lao cuisine.  A French influence is also in evidence.  From 1893 to 1954 when it gained full independence, Laos was part of the Protectorate of French Indonesia.

Sakura’s Sushi Bar (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The geography and history of a nation is a strong determinant in its culinary culture, and while the influence of other nations may be in evidence, each country in Southeast Asia has stamped its own distinct mark on America’s palate.  Americans in cities fortunate enough to have a restaurant serving the cuisine of Laos have lustily embraced that distinctiveness.  Alas, Duke City diners have had to trek to Amarillo’s LM Restaurant to partake of this relatively new trendy dining sensation.

So what’s the Cuisine of Lao like?  It might help to understand that its closest “relative” is the cuisine of the Issan region of northern Thailand. New Mexicans who love their food a bit on the incendiary side would love  Issan style Thai food which is more highly spiced than cuisine at other regions of Thailand. Spiciness aside, there are other differences between Thai and Lao cuisine. Where Thai food is colorful and exotic, Lao food is more basic and simple. Interestingly, the savory dishes of Laos are never sweet and the concept of “sweet and sour” is considered foreign and bizarre.

Cheese and Green Chile Egg Roll with Plum Sauce

A Lao saying about its cuisine can be translated as “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.  The cuisine of Laos incorporates a wide variety of bitter ingredients including mint and dill, two herbs generally ignored by their neighbors.  Other cooking herbs of vast importance in Lao cuisine are galangal, fish sauce, garlic, shallots and lemongrass. These ingredients help give the cuisine of Lao a more intense flavor profile than the cuisine of neighboring nations.  If a dish is intended to be sour, you can bet it’ll be intensely sour at a Lao restaurant.

Recent years have seen an increasing number of Asian restaurants in the Duke City serving more than one type of Asian cuisine.  Sakura Sushi has the pedigree to do it well. Still, you wouldn’t expect to find Lao cuisine in a restaurant named Sakura Sushi until you read the “subtitle” on the marquee: Thai and Laos cuisine. You might visit for the sushi, but you’ll keep coming back for the Lao.

Ceviche (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Located in in the former site of Asia Restaurant (which closed in 2007 after more than five years of inconsistent business), Sakura Sushi is owned and operated by Vong and Pialo Soumphonphakdy, both natives of Laos.  Vong, who previously plied his trade as sushi chef at Minato’s (closed) Eurasia (also defunct) and Neko Sushi (also closed) artfully wields his knives behind the sushi bar at Sakura.  His wife Pialo is the kitchen chef, preparing all the Thai and Lao cuisine.

The interior at Sakura reflects a Japanese theme more so than either Thai or Lao. The color palate includes wasabi green walls festooned with framed art depicting Geishas in their beautiful silk kimonos. During our inaugural visit, there were two things that told us this might be a special restaurant. The first was the loyalty of a gaunt septuagenarian seated at the table behind us. He dines at Sakura six days a week and has done so since the restaurant opened in the fall of 2007. We were determined to find out what engendered such loyalty.

The Ruby Red Roll

The Ruby Red Roll

That may have been answered with the second thing that struck us about Sakura Sushi. It was Vong’s sage-like conveyance of the rudimentary facets of sushi to a couple in their forties.  That couple’s sole experience with sushi had been limited to eating sushi from Trader Joe’s.  Under Vong’s tutelage, the couple went from sushi novices to sushi lovers in short order.  It was fun to watch them become more and more adventurous as their dinner went on.

13 January 2008: The menu currently features only seven Lao cuisine entrees with the better part of two pages dedicated to Thai cuisine. Not including sushi, there is also a page dedicated to Japanese cuisine as well as a page listing the sushi chef’s specialties. Appetizers include monkey balls (forget the double-entendre). Monkey balls are deep-fried wheat flour tempura balls stuffed with spicy tuna and mushrooms and served with a sauce comprised of fiery Sriracha, savory Japanese mayo, and sweet unagi sauce.

Lao Sausage (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The monkey balls are terrific, but the sauce elevates them to a higher plain.  It strikes a perfect balance between  sweet, savory and piquant flavors and presents them subtly so that you’re able to experience each of these taste sensations individually and in combination with one another.  This is the type of sauce you could literally put on anything and it would improve it.

22 December 2016: Another fabulous appetizer is the Japanese ceviche served in a tall goblet. While the refreshing, bright dish of citrus-marinated seafood has its roots in South American cuisine, variations are increasingly found in trendy menus everywhere. Conceptually Japanese ceviche is similar to its Latin American counterpart in that the seafood isn’t (ostensibly) catalyzed (cooked) by citrus juices.  Where it differs significantly is with its ginger-based sauce that mingles magnificently with the citrus to give this ceviche its flavor.  It’s not the intense ginger you get as if when shaving a ginger root, but a tempered version that works very well with a lesser citrus influence.  My friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling Deanell, both aficionados of Mexican sushi, were blown away by Sakura’s terrific ceviche.

Beef Laab (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

The ceviche combines the very best of East meets West, fusing the flavors of Japan with a popular South American dish that really brings out the character of any raw fish.  Sakura’s version of ceviche includes shredded crab, butterflied shrimp and other sushi favorites such as tuna and salmon in a goblet showcasing micro greens, sesame seeds and spring mix lettuce.  This ceviche provides a delectable balance between the tang of citrus and the zesty kick of ginger.  It’s an absolute winner!

24 June 2012:  One appetizer sure to pique your curiosity is a cheese and green chile egg roll.  There are several things that make this an intriguing starter, not the least of which is the fact that cheese is not often used in Asian cuisine (save for that of India).  At first glance, it looks like a traditional egg roll and indeed, it is served with Sakura’s plum sauce.  Bite into it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, but be forewarned.  The cheese is gooey and hot.  So is the chile.  The plum sauce isn’t really necessary, but it’s several orders of magnitude better than most sweet and sour sauce.

Lao Beef Jerky (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

13 June 2008: A chef’s specialty needing no improvement is the Ruby Red Roll.  Inside, this maki style roll is engorged with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and Gobo, a Japanese root.  On top, you’ll find fresh tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe) and sweet unagi sauce. The Ruby Red Roll earns its name.  At first glance you might even mistake the tobiko with a fruit jam, but one taste and you’ll know for sure you’re partaking of briny, delicious roe.  There are several inventive maki rolls on the menu, but you can also have sashimi or nigiri style sushi (vinegared rice topped with a bite-size, raw or cooked piece of either egg, fish, or other seafood.

22 December 2016: Aficionados of pork sausage will quickly become besotted with Sakura’s Laos Sausage Special, a plateful of pork sausage sliced diagonally. This sausage has the type of unmistakable reddish coloring that comes from a smoking process. The sausage is somewhere between a slightly coarse-ground and a fine-ground texture. Insofar as taste, you’ll be able to discern scallions, garlic, lemongrass and a bit of chile. Overall the taste leans toward mild with just a hint of piquancy. This is very good sausage, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese sausage.  Larry, whose predilection for piquancy leans toward masochistic, enjoys this sausage with Sakura’s fiery chili sauce, a weapon of mass deliciousness…and heat.

Moo Todd

Moo Todd

22 December 2016: Sakura’s rendition of the national dish of Laos is also quite good.  Every household in Laos has its own recipe for Laab, a minced salad crafted from your choice of ground pork or beef seasoned with lime juice, lemongrass, yellow and green onions, toasted puffed rice, rice powder, cilantro and mint. There is a synergy and freshness among the various ingredients.  There is also a profusion of deliciousness in how those ingredients meld with and swim in the citrusy tanginess of more lime than you’ll ever find in a Thai version of this quintessential Southeast Asia salad.  Dazzling Deanell was surprised at the flavor intensity of Sakura’s version.

22 December 2016: Several years ago during one of our many visits to Lotus of Siam (the best Thai restaurant in America) in Las Vegas, Nevada, we fell in love with an Issan style beef jerky appetizer.  Yes, beef jerky!  It’s not something you see in many restaurant menus, but you will find a Lao version at Sakura.  This is definitely not the desiccated hardtack quality jerky you might find at a gas station.  It’s surprisingly moist, unbelievably delicious and roughly the dimensions of a small finger.  Eight of these wondrously seasoned gems sit on a bed of thin noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and bean sprouts in a sweet-savory sauce you’d gladly lap up.  Larry called this dish “unforkable” in that you literally have to pick up each shard of jerky with your fingers because a fork just won’t pierce it without devolving its integrity.

Green Curry with Mussels and Rice

13 January 2012: The Thai side of the menu includes Moo Todd, stir-fried pork fillets with Thai hot black pepper, garlic and sweet soy sauce. These may be the best pork fillets we’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant. On their own they’re special, but the accompanying sauce, an inventive mango and crushed peanut sauce, imparts even more flavor. The mango-based sauce is rich, piquant and sweet. 

24 June 2012: The Thai menu includes several curry dishes including a rather unique green curry which is available with beef, chicken, mussels and shrimp.  Instead of the conventional greenish color, this curry is a brackish brown color.  Perhaps the green is reserved for the New Zealand green-lipped mussels.  There are eight of them on the dish along with green pepper, bamboo shoots, coconut milk and curry, of course.  The curry has a rather mild flavor profile in that both coconut milk and chili are used in moderation.

Green Chile Tempura (Image Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

19 February 2009: While sticky rice is the preferred way to eat rice in Laos, you can also opt for pork-fried rice.  Doing so will reward you with the second best fried rice dish in Albuquerque (behind the Chinese sausage fried rice at Ming Dynasty).  This rice includes scallions, carrots, green beans and even niblets of corn.  It has a pronounced smokiness resultant from having been fried in the chef’s fried rice sauce. 

22 December 2016: Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City have long incorporated New Mexico’s official state vegetable into their menus.  Virtually every purveyor of great sushi offers a New Mexico roll (or a similarly named maki roll) impregnated with green chile.  Some, including Sakura even offer green chile tempura, whole green chiles sheathed in a light, almost translucent batter.  Alas, we found Sakura’s version so greasy none of us enjoyed it much.  We also didn’t like the relatively anemic sauce which accompanied it.

Sakura’s unique rendition of mangoes and sticky rice

Dessert options include sweet rice with mangoes as well as green tea, red bean and plum wine ice cream.  The plum wine ice cream is refreshing and delicious, flecked with bits of rich, sweet plum.  In season, a popular choice is mangoes with sticky rice, a version quite different than you’ll find in the Duke City’s Thai restaurants.   The coconut milk is unsweetened and thick, blanketing the mangoes and the black (it’s actually purplish) sticky rice which is naturally sweet.  The mangoes and sticky rice offset the unsweetened coconut milk, providing a delicious and surprising contrast.

I don’t know if the cuisine of Laos will become the next “hot” thing, but I do know that if Sakura Sushi continues to do the things it did to impress us during our first, second, third and fourth visits, it has a chance to be a very successful restaurant in the Duke City.

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine
4200 Wyoming, N.E. C-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 294-9696
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2016
1st VISIT: 12 January 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Laab, Laos Sausage Special (Pork), Ruby Red Roll, Plum Wine Ice Cream, Pork Fried Rice, Miso Soup, Green Curry, Lao Jerky, Mangoes and Sticky Rice, Green Chile and Cheese Roll

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thai Heritage – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Heritage Restaurant on Montgomery

Who among us hasn’t learned at least one thing about Thai culinary heritage from The Big Bang Theory? In a 2011 episode, for example, we learned that according to Thai tradition the last morsel of food, the greng jie, goes to the most important person in the room. At least that’s what Sheldon tells Penny when she reaches for the last remaining dumpling. Thanking everyone for the honor, she devours the dumpling. Sheldon’s retort: “I’ve seen pictures of your mother. Keep eating.” Some of us learned that Thai food is meant to be eaten with forks not chop sticks though in Thailand, they don’t put the fork in their mouth. It’s simply a tool to put the food on a spoon which then goes into the mouth.

We also learned that Sheldon, the quirky wunderkind with an obsessive compulsive tendencies orders mee krob and chicken satay with extra peanut sauce on Mondays. Every Monday! As an adventurous diner with polygamous culinary tendencies, the concept of ordering the same meal repeatedly is galling. When expressing my intolerance towards monogamous (monotonous?) diners to my Kim, she quickly knocked me off my high-horse, reminding me that whenever we dine at a Thai restaurant I always order a curry dish. Whether it be Penang curry, Masuman curry, yellow curry pumpkin curry, curry with catfish or Kristen Currie (if she was on the menu), it’s invariably a curry dish our server ferries to our table. She suggested my next curry meal should come with crow.

The Thai Heritage Dining Room

In truth, curry is a dish to which I graduated after having explored the myriad of other Thai food options. While Thai restaurant menus are replete with zesty, spicy, flavorful dishes, curry dishes are the pinnacle of deliciousness. Curry is Thai food self-actualized, Thai food as good as it possibly can be–complex, bold, pungent and aromatic. Curry satisfies my need for balance and order with sweet, savory and piquant notes in perfect proportion.  It’s layered with comforting richness and soul-warming flavor. So why deprive myself?

My Kim also chided me for calling some aspects of Thai cuisine across the fruited plain “Americanized,” recalling that she’s never heard me complain about the portion size of my curry being too small. Americans–me included–tend to like prodigious portion sizes which, in the land of the brave, are easily twice or thrice the portion size served in Thailand. She urged me to remember a wise Thai aphorism: “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.” Grrr, I hate that she’s always right, but she is my conscience and my buffer.

Chef Onuma Thongthip and our lovely server

When my friend and fellow culinary explorer Mary Kroner told me about a new Thai restaurant on Montgomery, my immediate thoughts were about what curry dish to try. Mary had raved about the green curry, one of my very favorite dishes. It took only a brief perusal of the menu to recognize that Thai Heritage may be the Albuquerque restaurant in which my every order might not be curry-centric. In the appetizer section alone, there are a number of dishes heretofore not seen on Duke City Thai restaurant menus. Their genesis is the Issan Province in northeast Thailand. Issan dishes are characterized by incendiary chilies, pungent fish sauces, lip-pursing sour bites and flavorful sauces.

Issan dishes are strewn throughout the menu including two salad dishes Thai food aficionados will recognize: larb (chopped chicken, mint, basil and red onions dressed with lime juice and ground red chilies) and papaya salad (shredded papaya mixed with garlic, lime juice, chilies, tomatoes and ground peanuts). It’s certainly a menu that deserves serious exploration. Your explorations will reveal several dishes—such as orange chicken and pineapple fried rice–more closely associated with Chinese restaurants than with Thai eateries. You’ll find that noodle dishes outnumber rice dishes by a wide margin. You’ll delight in seeing eight desserts on the menu, more than at just about any other Thai restaurant in town. Alas, there are only four curry dishes including a tempting pumpkin curry. Nonetheless, this is a menu in which even those of us who’ve tried everything (or think we have) will find something new.

Grand Tempura

Owner-chef Onuma Thongthip prepares every meal to order which means you’ll experience fresh Thai flavors at their alluringly aromatic best. As the name implies, Thai Heritage celebrates authentic Thai recipes handed down over generations. The gracious chef, a smiling, peripatetic presence strives to give her guests the experience of the fundamental Thai tastes in every meal you order, the harmonious combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy. If you’ve ever lamented the over-emphasis of near cloying Thai food in the city’s Thai restaurants, the promise of balanced flavors should excite you. It’s a promise Chef Thongthip has fulfilled very well at her other restaurant, Thai Vegan.

Though tempura—battering and deep-frying vegetables or seafood—is most closely associated with Japanese cuisine, the technique for battering and frying foods was introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by Portuguese explorers. Appreciating the lighter, less greasy frying style, the Japanese adopted and perfected tempura. With increased frequency, you’ll find other Asian restaurants serving tempura dishes though it’s not as common to find tempura in Thai restaurants.

Fried Papaya Salad

Intrigued at the prospect, we ordered not just any tempura dish, but Grand Tempura, lightly battered and deep-fried broccoli, pumpkin, zucchini, carrots and shrimp served with tempura sauce. A generous plateful of golden-hued, deep-fried planks arrived at our table. You know the batter is light when it’s almost translucent and you can see the native colors of the vegetables sheathed in that batter—the orange of the pumpkin and the light green of the broccoli, for example. The accompanying “tempura sauce” is very much on the sweet side and would be greatly improved with a bit of acid and salt.

Since first experiencing the transcendent papaya salad at An Hy Quan, Albuquerque’s premier Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, we’ve craved the deeply satisfying balance of flavors in that dish. We often wondered if those flavors translated well to the frying process. Leave it to Thai Heritage to answer that deeply existential question for us. Yes, the menu does include a Fried Papaya Salad. Fried very lightly, a passel of shredded papaya is indeed infused with the flavors we love in its fresh counterpart—piquancy from Thai chilies, pungency from fish sauce, sweetness from sugar, savory notes from garlic and sour notes from lime juice. Sprinkled with finely crushed peanuts and garnished with sliced tomatoes and green beans, it’s a very enjoyable starter.

Spicy Noodles

In small part because my Kim got tired of me referring to Pad Thai, her favorite Thai dish, as “Pad Boring,” she tends to order more adventurously…and perhaps because she got tired of me proclaiming my love for it, she never orders curry. Ordering more adventurously doesn’t mean departing too far from noodles though it may mean ordering something that bites back. Spicy Noodles are a safe—and surprising (considering her heat level preference for green chile borders on “wimpy”) choice. This dish (stir-fried flat noodle with basil, bell peppers, onion, carrots and pork) is actually quite good though the incorrigible mad scientist in me wonders what it would be like smothered in curry.

This is usually the portion of my review in which I wax poetic about the latest curry dish to enrapt me…and by now you’re probably thinking “enough with the curry.” After a long and careful deliberation aided by my Kim’s encouragement, I ordered a non-curry dish (and it didn’t kill me to do so). Thai food fanatics are well acquainted with Tom Kha Kai and Tom Yum Koong, perhaps the most popular of all Thai soups across the fruited plain. Thai Heritage offers a number of alternatives, including a few we hadn’t seen before. My choice was the Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup (noodles with minced pork, pork ball, crispy wanton, sliced fish cake, boiled egg, pork snack, milk, chili sauce, Thai paste, bean sprouts and mushrooms in pork broth). If it sounds like an “everything but the kitchen sink” soup, you’re not far off the mark. The milky yellowish broth, somewhat reminiscent of Tonkatsu ramen broth, is brimming with deliciousness on and below the surface.

Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup

With eight dessert options available, you’d think picking one would be a challenge. Not so! Whenever mangoes with sweet sticky rice are on the menu, it’s soon at our table. We’re at the very tail end of mango season so mangoes aren’t at their peak of sweetness, but even a “semi-sweet” mango is delicious. Besides, the sweet sticky rice goes so well with mangoes that are just a bit on the green, tart side. Mangoes and sticky rice are one of the things we miss most about summer.

Picking two desserts wasn’t much more of a challenge than picking just one. That’s because the dessert menu includes roti. Described on the menu as a Thai-style pancake, it’s more akin to a circular flatbread. Roti is enjoyed everywhere from India to Malaysia. The roti at Thai Heritage is wholly unlike any roti we’ve ever had. Instead of resembling (to some extent) Indian naan, it resembled—both texturally and in terms of flavor—a very think puff pastry drizzled with chocolate. While enjoyable, it’s certainly not what we expected.

Roti

It really is hard to “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.”  When restaurants such as Thai Heritage prepare it so well, you’ll want to eat sizable portions.  Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this October addition to the Duke City dining scene is that it got me to order something other than curry…and I loved it.

Thai Heritage Restaurant
6219 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-3989
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Roti, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Grand Tempura, Fried Papaya Salad, Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup, Spicy Noodles

Thai Heritage Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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