IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!

Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre. Indeed, much of the restaurant’s traffic comes from word-of-mouth. That’s truly the best advertising you can get.

iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavors

Bourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1 Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employs to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.

16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  Note: For the fire-eaters among you, ask Hien to replace the jalapeños with Thai bird peppers which are far more incendiary and delicious.   The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Grilled Chicken and Pork Banh Mi

23 July 2016: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.  If you can’t make up your mind between grilled pork and grilled chicken, the ever-accommodating Hien will build a combination grilled pork and chicken banh mi for you.  It’s my new favorite among the grilled banh mi.

16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

Sugar Cane Juice

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Ikrave Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

DG’s Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

DG’s Deli, a mainstay on Martin Luther King Avenue

There are sandwich shops in New York which offer the nobility and gentry
a choice of no less than 100 different sandwiches,
all of them alluring and some of them downright masterpieces.

H.L. Mencken

In conversations with trusted gastronomes about what the Albuquerque area dining scene is most direly lacking, it’s not Basque cuisine, Russian food, Low-Country cooking or the food of any other race or ethnicity that’s most often mentioned.  Surprisingly, what my esteemed colleagues believe is most desperately needed in the Duke City is a big city deli–and not just any kind of deli.  My colleagues lament the absence of a true Kosher-style deli, the type of which were born in the Jewish enclaves of New York City in the 1930s.  While the short-lived Nosh Jewish Delicatessen & Bakery quelled some of those longings, it still wasn’t the quintessential kosher deli my urban sophisticate colleagues wanted.

Kosher-style delis are not true practitioners of traditional Kosher dietary laws, meaning the food they produce is not deemed “fit” for consumption by Jews in accordance with standards for cleanliness, spotlessness and for being “intact.”  As an example, Kosher practices forbid the consumption of meat and milk together while Kosher-style delis break taboos by offering such favorites as pastrami or corned beef (on real rye bread, of course) topped with cheese.

Hungry patrons waiting in line to place orders

It’s not the “forbidden fruit” aspects my colleagues love about the Kosher-style deli (also known as a Jewish deli or New York deli).  It’s the concept of “farshtopt” they (we) love.  Farshtopt, a Yiddish word which means “stuffed” is an understatement.  At many New York style delis, you can expect your sandwich to be over-stuffed, a skyscraper high behemoth with a pound or more of meats which are generally smoked and cured right on the premises by seasoned professionals who have been doing it for years.  You can’t get meats like this from a franchised food service provider nor will you see a pound of meat on any sandwich at any Duke City diner or deli.  Best of all, you can provision yourself with meats, cheeses, condiments and sundry deliciousness to take home.

We also love the dour disposition of the countermen who are as quick with their wit as they are with the knife.  Some may call it attitude; we call it charm.  Countermen expect you to understand the ordering process, to know what you want and to state it clearly and loudly.  If you want your pastrami a little fatty (the way former New York City mayor Koch likes it), just let them know and they’ll serve it that way.  That’s fatty as in with plenty of marbling for flavor.  Your cardiologist might not like it that way, but you will.

The walls at DG’s Deli are covered in posters: movies, musicians, pin-up girls and more

We love the New York style delis which specialize in such old-world favorites as stuffed cabbage, matzoh ball soup, knishes, lox schmear, bagels, kippers and of course, pickles (which are made on the premises in plastic garbage bags).  Frankly, there’s not much about a New York style deli we don’t like and miss.  From an experiential perspective, there’s nothing like them and the food they proffer is incomparable.  Not convinced?  Rent When Harry Met Sally and fast-forward to Meg Ryan’s er…enthusiastic reaction to a meal at Katz’s Deli in New York City.

The hard-liners among my colleagues consider the word “deli” a misnomer for any so-called “deli” in New Mexico.  Others use the word “travesty” to describe the use of the word “deli” on marquees in New Mexico.  Most have conceded that New Mexico might never have a true New York style deli.  That’s not necessarily bad.  New York style delis generally don’t serve sandwiches with green chile.  That’s one point–a huge one–you have to concede to New Mexico.  Frankly, if you can overlook the fact that you might never have a farshtopt sandwich with house-made meats, you can find very good sandwiches in New Mexican “delis,” semantics not withstanding.

A jumbo-sized green chile Philly

DG’s Deli is one such purveyor of quality sandwiches.  Founded in 1994, DG’s Deli is an Albuquerque lunchtime favorite for throngs–as in lines extending outside the door to place their orders–of sandwich lovers.  Between 11AM and 2PM, this converted grocery market is the haven and hang-out for hungry health care professionals from nearby hospitals, police officers, students and professors from the university, car dealers and just about anyone who craves the appetite-sating comfort of a very good sandwich.  During the lunch rush, DG’s receives such a high volume of calls for take-out orders that a busy signal is commonplace and if you don’t get a busy signal, you might be placed on hold for a while. Though DG’s has implemented an online ordering system, you still have to call to confirm your order.

Similar to the New York style delis of old, DG’s offers a variety of meats and cheeses for purchase: chicken breast, turkey breast, smoked turkey, domestic ham, smoked ham, mortadella, capocllo, cotto salami, Genoa salami, prosciutto, bacon, pepperoni, pastrami, corned beef, roast beef and choice ribeye steak.  Boar’s Head products are featured.  Cheese selections are white American, yellow American, pepper Jack, Cheddar, provolone and Swiss.  Available breads are hoagie, sliced wheat, sliced rye, sliced sourdough, Kaiser roll and tortilla.  Open for breakfast Monday through Friday from 9AM to 11AM, DG’s offers a nice variety of breakfast burritos, omelets and bagels.  If you’re not breakfast inclined, you can have anything from the lunch menu during breakfast hours.

A jumbo meatball sandwich

That means you can have a sandwich selection unlike any in Albuquerque–31 cold sandwiches alone, including a build your own option. They’re available in four sizes: mini (six-inches), regular (eight-inches), large (nine-inches) and jumbo (ten-inches).  A wide variety of condiments and dressings are available so you can have your sandwich your way.  The menu also showcases sixteen hot sandwiches (not available in mini), eleven “Favorites” and four Vegetarian sandwiches.  That’s more than sixty sandwiches alone, not counting daily specials.  You can have your sandwich with your choice of sides: potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, chips (eleven options) and pickles.

Several sandwich purveyors in the Albuquerque area won’t use hoagie rolls baked in the Albuquerque area, citing our water’s “chemical” taste as an off-putting influence on how baked bread tastes.  DG’s obtains its hoagie rolls from the Le Paris French Bakery, an Albuquerque treasure.  The hoagie rolls are actually quite good!  The exterior crust crunches when you bite into it, but the insides are soft and chewy, a nice repository for nestling meats, condiments and seasonings.

Tuna Melt: Grilled White Meat Tuna & Swiss Cheese

27 June 2011: A triumvirate of companions with whom I frequently dine consider the Green Chile Philly to be the be-all and end-all for sandwich sumptuousness in Albuquerque.  The standard-bearer is currently Philly’s N Fries in Albuquerque and until it closed in 2011, Rocco’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho.  The former is beloved for its flavor and the latter for its size.  The quest for a Green Chile Philly which matches Itsa for flavor and Rocco’s for sheer size may have been answered by DG’s Deli where a jumbo-sized sandwich is redolent with the flavor of sliced choice ribeye steak, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, white American cheese and green chile.  It’s a tasty sandwich with both piquancy and size.  White American cheese is an under-utilized, under-appreciated cheese which puts the flavor profile all together on this sandwich.  It’s so good, however, that Sr. Plata, having consumed the ten-inch jumbo complained it was too small.

7 July 2011: As much as I personally love Green Chile Phillys, I wouldn’t be much of an essayist if I wrote solely about them.  It takes willpower not to order one at every visit, but doing so would mean missing out on other very good sandwiches–such as the meatball hoagie (meatballs, marinara sauce, provolone and Parmesan cheeses).  This is a behemoth in which meatballs mean meat not some mystery meat-substitute filler.  With meatballs in every bite and a sweet marinara sauce worthy of mama’s spaghetti and meatballs, DG’s rendition of a meatball hoagie is among the best in the Duke City. 

Italian Grinder

12 November 2012: DG’s is a rarity in sandwich shops in that it offers both a tuna melt and a tuna salad sandwich.  The tuna melt is for tuna aficionados who like the purity of unadorned tuna.  Unlike so many tuna sandwiches, it isn’t slathered in an excess of mayonnaise.  Nor is it served with a veritable salad of celery, onions and lettuce.  This is tuna at its essence.  In fact the only thing coming between the tuna and the bread is melted Swiss cheese, a fairly innocuous cheese that doesn’t get in the way of the tuna.

29 July 2016: If there’s one aspect of dining at DG’s that kosher deli aficionados don’t like, it’s that sandwiches aren’t at all farshtopt.  In fact, the meat on some sandwiches is nearly as rare as a Detroit Lions win (of course, this could be said about almost all sandwich joints in Albuquerque).  Case in point is the Italian Grinder (mortadella, prosciutto, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, Italian dressing, oil and vinegar) in which the meats–a single, waifishly thin slice of each meat listed–are dwarfed by seemingly half-a-head of lettuce.  Worse, the sandwich is virtually drenched in Italian dressing, making it the predominant flavor.  Having partaken of dozens of overstuffed, meat-laden Italian grinders during my days in Massachusetts, comparisons are inevitable.  Alas, DG’s Italian Grinder falls woefully understuffed.

Not only are the sandwiches at DG’s Deli redolent with flavor and personality, the deli itself is a lively, jumping joint with something to see everywhere you turn.  Walls are festooned with posters of movies, pin-up girls (including Bettie Page), bands and more.  It doesn’t take long after you place your order for your name to be called to pick it up and ferry it back to your table as all eyes train lasciviously on the sandwich destined for your table.

The ultimate compliment I can pay DG’s Deli is to say I’d bring my friend Bob from Tesuque here for a sandwich.  Bob, who’s lived in both New York City and Los Angeles and who’s traveled extensively is a true deli connoisseur and a tough critic.  I believe he will like DG’s.

DG’s Deli
1418 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Avenue
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)  247-DELI
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 June 2016
1st VISIT:  27 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Philly, Meatball Sandwich, Tuna Melt, Italian Grinder

DG's Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Limonata Italian Street Food Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Limonata

While contemplating a name for their second Duke City restaurant venture, Maxime and Daniela Bouneou wanted to convey the feeling of a refreshing and invigorating venue in which their patrons could relax and enjoy themselves. After deliberating several options, they ultimately decided on Limonata, the Italian word for lemonade. When Daniela proudly told her friends in Italy what the new restaurant would be named, they laughed, reminding her that Limonata is an Italian slang term for “French kiss.”

Though Maxime and Daniela may have become a bit more “Americanized” by having lived in the United States for more than a decade, Limonata has the look, feel and most importantly, tastes of a true Italian trattoria. Limonata was launched as the more informal and sassy younger sibling of Torinos @ Home, the sensational Italian ristorante many of the cognoscenti consider one of, if not the Land of Enchantment’s best for Italian cuisine. Limonata’s menu focuses on simple fare–Italian street food–at relatively low prices in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere and as the Bouneous envisioned, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Place your order here and in minutes, deliciousness will be delivered to your table

Limonata is located in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, one block south of Central Avenue on Silver. There’s a bit of delicious irony in that its next door neighbor is a French kiss of deliciousness, the second instantiation of P’Tit Louis Bistro.  Limonata is the eastern-most cornerstone in a contiguous complex that includes ‘Tit Louis and Ajiaco Colombian Bistro. Save for the Spanish tiled roof, the wider-than-it-is-deep building is wholly antithetical to the abobe hued stereotype of Duke City architecture. Limonata actually more closely resembles its residential neighbors than it does other area restaurants.

Step inside the welcoming edifice and you’ll be enveloped in a swath of warm colors and the architecture of a bygone era.  You’ll also be welcomed by a very courteous and professional staff, perhaps even Bill and (or) Brenda Ennis who acquired Limonata early in 2015.  With with experience in restaurants and baking, the Ennis family hasn’t skipped a beat.  Standards are still exceedingly high.  The front room, where you place your order invites browsing through the slate board on which the menu is scrawled in chalk. You’ll want to carefully study the glass display cases and their treasures. It’s a wonder there aren’t drool tracks on the glass because the tortas (Italian-style quiches) and pastries are mouth-watering.

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” enjoys a large house salad

The best part of waking up may just be breakfast at Limonata which offers cappuccino, espresso, lattes and cioccolata calda all’Italiana (Italian hot chocolate) as well as such breakfast favorites as granola, pastries, waffles and the New Mexican breakfast standard, the breakfast burrito.  Fresh lavender lemonade, fresh-squeezed orange juice and an array of San Pellegrino Italian fruit beverages are also available.  One of the welcome additions brought in by the new owners is an alluring assortment of sweet and savory crepes.  If it sometimes feels as if crepes are priced like gold, you’ll appreciate the reasonable prices of Limonata’s crepes.

Limonata’s goal is twofold–“make you happy” and “make you feel you are in Italy.”  Mission accomplished…or at least as much as it’s possible to do so in the desert Southwest.  A sun-bathed east-facing patio is the perfect venue for meeting up with friends and family for great conversation and (perhaps even better) food.  In the spirit of the true and authentic Italian trattoria, Limonata’s menu focuses on housemade pastas, fresh and locally sourced vegetables and produce, fine cheeses and delicious antipastos.  Because the menu offers such variety and deliciousness, repeat visits are a certainty.

Antipasto Platter

Launched on June 26th, 2012, Limonata–open from 7AM to 5PM Monday through Friday and 8AM to 5PM on Sunday–has something for all tastes, including one of the most vegetarian-friendly menus in town. Best of all, breakfast and lunch are available all day long.   Whether it’s a loaded breakfast burrito, a bowl of granola and yogurt or something as simple as toast and jam, you can’t help but start your day off in a good mood.  You’ll sustain that good mood all day long if you take home as many of Limonata’s macaroons as you can carry.

It’s been my experience (Gutiz comes to mind) that when a restaurant offers an outstanding chocolate croissant (also known as pain au chocolat), you’d better order one before they’re all gone. Don’t wait to decide if you want dessert or not. Order the chocolate croissant and don’t worry about saving the best for last. This is a life-altering chocolate croissant, on par with those at the aforementioned Gutiz. The croissant itself is very delicate and flaky. It’s also buttery, but not overly so. The chocolate is an adult chocolate, not the cloying kid stuff and there’s just enough of it.

Marionberry Pie

During a May, 2016 visit to Limonata, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my good friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, the dazzling Deanell Collins and that culinary bon-vivant Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver.  It was the inaugural visit for all three of them and the first time Larry and Deanell got to meet Sr. Plata.  It’s been my experience that great food is made even better by great company and sparkling conversation.  That’s an unbeatable combination.  So were the unbeatable combination of dishes we ordered, dishes which quickly won over our little gastronomic group.

31 May 2016: One of the many not-to-be-missed entrees at Limonata is the antipasto platter, a beautifully plated wooden cutting board piled generously with diverse ingredients, each one seemingly titillating different taste buds. The grilled vegetables–red peppers, grilled zucchini and eggplant–are nicely pickled so that their natural flavors are accentuated, not masked. One of the platter’s many highlights are the pickled cipolline onions. Cipolline onions are saucer-shaped Italian pearl onions with a uniquely sweet and mild flavor. They are positively addictive.  So is the goat cheese which Deanell found delightful on or independent of the focaccia, half a loaf of which is served with each antipasto platter.  The meats–mortadella and prosciutto–on the antipasto platter are an excellent foil for the vegetables.  The mortadella, a generously sliced pork sausage, will remind you that to ever equate it to American baloney is an insult.  The thinly-sliced, salt-cured prosciutto is nicely marbled for flavor richness.

31 May 2016:  It’s a given that if a menu features something this gastronome has never previously tried, it’ll be crossing my lips in short order.  Limonata’s dessert case included one such item–marionberry pie which I jokingly referred to as “Marion Barry,” for the disgraced former mayor of Washington, D.C.  Marrionberry is a cross between Chehalem blackberry and Olallieberry blackberry.  If that doesn’t help much, think of it as sweeter and not as tangy as blackberries.  At any regard, it’s a delicious pie, densely packed with berries sandwiched between a flaky crust (alas rendered somewhat flaccid by being microwaved). 

31 May 2016: According to The Kitchn, one of the ten food items which defined the 1970s was salad bars with Green Goddess and Ranch dressings.  We’ve come a long way since the disco era.  Salads are much more diverse and imaginative while retaining many of the healthful properties that have long made salad a dietary staple.  Limonata’s large house salad is a bounty of the garden, a plate brimming with organic baby green mix, grilled zucchini and eggplant, red bell pepper, tomatoes, chicken mix, cipollini onions and a shallot vinaigrette.  It’s a far cry from the relatively plain, iceberg lettuce-laden salads of yesteryear.  Best of all, it’s both good for you and delicious to eat.

Limonata is a fabulous Italian trattoria with an inspired menu served in the European fashion.  Though separated from Route 66 by one mere block, a visit may transport you to Italy.

Limonata Trattoria
3222 Silver Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-0607
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2016
1st VISIT: 3 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chocolate Croissant, Antipasto Platter,  Lavender Lemonade, Large House Salad

Limonata Italian Street Food Caffe on Urbanspoon

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