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Pho 79 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho 79 within the Motel 76 on Candelaria just east of I-25

Pho 79 within the Motel 76 on Candelaria just east of I-25

When the temperature dips and the Land of Enchantment’s ubiquitous winds howl with a vengeance, savvy diners revel in the knowledge that they can luxuriate in the familiar warmth of a steaming, swimming pool-sized bowl of aromatically alluring pho. Few things in life are as comfortable as snuggling up with a simple and no frills bowl showcasing a rich, spicy, nuanced broth with tangles of rice noodles, fresh herbs and vegetables and a veritable meat fest (rare steak, tendon, brisket, meatball).  It’s the single best way to warm up from the inside-out on a bitterly cold day. 

With nearly forty Vietnamese restaurants gracing the Duke City, diners have no shortage of purveyors to frequent for this preternaturally pleasurable elixir.  The signage on eight of those restaurants includes the term “Pho,” a term which has been known to evoke a reaction akin to Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell.  It can get pretty embarrassing if you start salivating when you espy “Pho”emblazoned on a restaurant’s signage.

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Chicken Dumplings

Whether or not Pavlov’s disciples are consulted prior to the launch of a new Vietnamese restaurant, the frequency of the term “Pho” on the marquee is telling.  If you’ve traveled extensively, you may have wondered why the term “Pho” followed by a number is so commonplace.  Often these numbers are considered lucky–and not necessarily culturally.  A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner.  Good fortune smiled upon Duke City diners in 2013 when Pho 79 opened its doors.  Adjacent to the timeworn 76 Hotel, Pho 79 is indeed named because 79 is a lucky number to the owner.  Moreover, it’s good luck to diners seeking pho and some of the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.

 It was doubly fortuitous for us in that we shared our inaugural meal at Pho 79 with our friends, prolific pod-casters Hannah and Edward who had also dined there the previous evening.  Compounding our luck was  true pho weather (blustery and overcast with wind), a day perfect for basking in the intoxicating fragrance and flavor of Vietnam’s favorite food.  Prefacing the odoriferous delights was the malodorous bane to many diners, a durian shake.  Considered the “world’s stinkiest fruit,” durian is a matter of personal preference.  Even our server considers durian rank and off-putting and was surprised I would enjoy it so much.

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Spring Rolls With Grilled Pork

The malodorous (for others) durian shake may be the only item on the menu that’s not imbued with ambrosial qualities.  Even the chicken dumplings are redolent with olfactory arousing properties.  There are five dumplings to an order and they’re served with a simple soy sauce and rice wine vinegar dipping sauce.  Lightly fried, the dumplings are stuffed with ground chicken and minced vegetables.

Spring rolls are a marvel of transparency.  Thanks to a translucent rice paper, the grilled pork, lettuce, cucumbers, and vermicelli noodles are available for your inspection.  Not that you’ll study them for long because they’re too enticing for contemplation.  The solitary pork strip, grilled in the inimitable Vietnamese way that makes pork taste like candy, is the star ingredient unless you call the peanut sauce an ingredient.  The peanut sauce (crushed peanuts, julienne carrots and daikon) is simultaneously sweet and savory.  You might want to eat it with a spoon, but should save it for your spring rolls.

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Crawfish imported from the Louisiana Gulf Coast

On Fridays, Pho 79 offers  crawfish imported from the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  Boiled in a slurry of seasonings, garlic cloves and liberal amounts of Cayenne, they’re as Cajun and as good as the crawfish we ate by the boatload when we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  A whole pound of crawfish per order seems more generous on your plate where each of the red-hued “mud bugs” seems larger than life.  Alas, as with crawfish of all sizes, it takes a lot of work to extricate a relatively small amount of “meat” from the crimson crustacean. 

It’s not solely Cajuns who enjoy sucking crawfish heads.  That’s how you extract the salty, spicy juices from the boil as well as a very rich, very flavorful yellow “fatty” substance which Cajuns prize most.  Hardcore Cajuns actually pinch the head a little as they suck.  It’s how you can savor every last morsel of that unctuous yellow fat.   After witnessing Edward’s sucking skills, I’m convinced he’s a Cajun–at least at heart.

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Spicy Curry Vermicelli Bowl

Pho isn’t the only perfect Vietnamese dish for a blustery day.  A good curry also possesses those warming qualities we crave when chilled to the bone.  Pho 79 offers curry with both noodles and rice. The very first thing you’ll discern about the spicy curry vermicelli bowl is the aromatic bouquet that precedes its arrival.  This entree literally announces itself to your nostrils before you notice the beautifully artistic presentation: fine vermicelli noodles, julienne carrots and daikon, fresh vegetables and your choice of chicken, pork or beef slathered with a sweet-piquant-pungent curry topped with crushed peanuts.  The curry is magnificent, among the very best Vietnamese curries we’ve had.  The vegetables–carrots, zucchini and more–are crisp and garden-fresh.  One word of caution: don’t empty the ramekin of fish sauce onto the dish.  Let the curry shine on its own.  It’s a rarefied curry.

Eight different phos grace the menu.  Carnivores might gravitate to the deluxe beef noodle soup which includes a beefy horn of plenty with beef tendon, rare lean beef, well done steak and beef meat balls.  Each of these beef components are available on other pho dishes as is beef tripe.  While beef tripe and tendon would have been my choices, my Kim opted for a safer well-done steak.  The pho is incredibly delicate, a beauteous amalgam of noodles, beef and onions swimming in a beef broth made from bones.  The flavors emanating from spices (star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom) pair with other ingredients to make this the perfect for anytime soup.

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Well Done Steak Noodle Soup (Pho)

There are no other Vietnamese restaurants in the immediate proximity of Pho 79, but the staff and owners of this wonderful Vietnamese restaurant treat all guests as if there’s a lot of competition trying to corner the pho market in the area.  This aim to please restaurant has earned our respect and admiration.  It’s one of the Duke City’s very best.

Pho 79
2007 Candelaria
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-3747
LATEST VISIT: 8 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crawfish, Chicken Dumplings,  Spring Rolls with Grilled Pork, Well Done Steak Noodle Soup, Spicy Curry Vermicelli Bowl

Pho 79 on Urbanspoon

Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Mekong Ramen House just north of Candelaria on San Mateo

In a 2009 movie entitled Ramen Girl, Abby, a wayward American girl unacculturated to life in Tokyo witnesses the radiant smiles on the faces of diners as they eat ramen and receives an epiphany that her life’s calling is to become a ramen chef. Over time she persuades a ramen restaurant’s temperamental Japanese chef to mentor her. Initially he assigns her to perform the most menial and degrading tasks, but she perseveres and eventually convinces her tyrannical mentor of her sincerity and he teaches her how to make ramen. Alas, it’s ramen with no soul until she also learns that ramen must be prepared from the heart and not from her head.

Ramen with soul? Ramen chefs? Ramen prepared from the heart? That just doesn’t describe the ramen experience for most Americans. In the fruited plain, ramen is typically thought of as “budget” food, something to fill your belly when your bank account is empty. Few foods offer as much bang for the buck as the ubiquitous low-brow meal most often associated with the college student demographic. Fittingly, in Japan ramen is often called “gakusei ryori” which translates to “student cuisine.” It’s not just students and budget-conscious diners, however, who love ramen.

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The colorful interior of the Mekong Ramen House

Ramen is beloved worldwide to the tune of 95 billion servings in 2011.  That’s enough ramen to feed 260 million people for an entire year. Invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods, the original “Top Ramen” noodles with which most of us are familiar, rakes in some 3.2 billion dollars a year.  Throw in competing ramen clones made in other countries and you have an estimated world market of ten billion per year.  That’s a lot of noodles. 

When first introduced in Japan, ramen was considered a luxury item and was six times more expensive than homemade noodles found in Japanese grocery stores.  Ramen made its ways across the Pacific in 1972 and was marketed as “Oodles of Noodles” throughout the East Coast  The following year saw the introduction of “Nissin Cup Noodles” in the familiar and convenient Styrofoam cups.  Before long, hundreds of knock-offs flooded the market.

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Tom Yum Soup

How important is ramen in the Japanese culture? In a poll  conducted by the Fuji Research Institute, instant ramen was named by Japanese respondents as the greatest “made in Japan” invention of the 20th century, edging out karaoke, headphone stereos, TV game players and compact disks.  Attribute its popularity in part to economics.  It’s been estimated that a person can live off ramen for an entire year at a cost of under $150, approximately three-percent of what Americans spend a year on food.

It’s not solely the inexpensive instant ramen that has captured the hearts and imaginations of connoisseurs throughout the world.   The gourmet ramen craze has dispelled the stereotype that ramen is cheap food reserved exclusively for broke college students and that it’s always served in Styrofoam packages.  Gourmet ramen is an epicurean experience showcasing deeply soulful (there’s that term: soul) ramen dishes such as Tonkotsu soup with roasted Kurobuta pork for which the bones have simmered for hours, if not days.  This ramen is fresh and handmade, not instant or dry.   The quality is telling.

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Beef Stick

When fellow gastronome Chris Reddington told us about Mekong Ramen House on the northwest intersection of San Mateo and Candelaria, we entertained faint hopes that the Duke City had finally graduated in culinary sophistication to have its own gourmet ramen house.   I say “faint” because the name “Mekong” has no affiliation with Japan.  The Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, meanders from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all nations with some ramen tradition.

Although ramen is prominent on the menu (and it’s made on the premises), the Mekong Ramen House is not a traditional gourmet ramen house.  Instead, the restaurant offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience which showcases cuisine from several Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as well as from Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region which sits just across the Mekong River from Laos.  The chef is from Laos, home in my opinion to one of the world’s most under-appreciated cuisines.  Perhaps because of the restaurant’s “newness,” we found the cuisine relatively unspoiled by the over-the-top Americanized sauces which lean heavily toward cloying sweetness.  The food is refreshingly authentic, clean and untainted.

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Cucumber Ramen Salad

Ensconced in a nondescript shopping center, the Mekong Ramen House is tastefully arrayed in walls of many colors festooned with attractive wall hangings.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Although English is a second language to the wait staff, service is unfailingly polite, prompt and attentive.  The menu is priced comparably to most Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City and while offering the cuisine of several Southeast Asian nations, is not an especially ambitious menu, listing only 41 items.  A limited menu does not limited flavors make.

No sooner had we been seated and our beverage order taken than our server brought us a delightful amuse-bouche, a bowl of Tom Yum soup.  If you’re used to Tum Yum soups being served in tureens big enough for a small family with shards of lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms bobbing to the surface, you’ll wonder where those elements went.  Mekong’s version is as “murky” as a light chicken noodle soup with only scallions floating to the top.  Though the aforementioned ingredients aren’t in evidence to the eye, they are pleasantly discernible to the taste buds.  This Tum Yum is simple and delicious, not lip-pursing as too many Americanized versions are made.

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Pad Ramen Noodle

One of the ways in which ramen is showcased on the menu is in a crispy appetizer.  The cucumber ramen salad (sliced cucumbers topped with crispy ramen noodles and served with a sweet chili sauce) highlights the diversity of ramen in ways most college students probably haven’t explored.  My Kim frequently orders dehydrated noodles and delights in their squiggly qualities coming to life when introduced to sauces.  She enjoyed the crispy ramen, too.  This is a relatively simple salad emboldened by a sweet-tangy-piquant chili sauce.

Another simple appetizer popular in street-side stands throughout Laos is the beef stick, Lao style grilled beef skewers served with chili lime sauce.  Their portability make them an ideal street food snack while their simplicity and deliciousness will make them a popular draw to the Ramen Noodle House.  Three perfectly grilled skewers of tender, delicious beef are served with a gunpowder strong chili lime sauce.  The piquancy of the sauce means you’ll likely perform “touch and go” maneuvers with your beef stick instead of dipping or scooping.

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Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

The menu offers a number of pad (stir-fry) dishes, two made with ramen noodles, one with Udon noodles and one with a simple rice noodle.  The Pad Ramen Noodle (ramen noodles, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and green onions) dish is perhaps the most simple, but it’s a dish which very well demonstrates stir-fry executed by a wok master.  Available with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu or shrimp, this dish emphasizes the tangle of noodles and their harmonious interplay with other ingredients.

There are a number of Lao dishes interspersed throughout the menu, but there’s also a page dedicated solely to the cuisine of Laos.  Alas, there are only six items on that page, but they include some of the Lao dishes with whom acculturated Americans are familiar: Laab, beef Jerky, Lao sausage and Lao papaya.  The menu also includes a Lao grilled chicken served with sticky rice and Mekong chili tomatoes sauce.  The grilled chicken–a leg, a breast and a thigh–is dissimilar to the way grilled chicken is prepared in Mexico in that it’s not infused with charcoal flavor.  Though there is a pleasant smokiness, the grilling influence penetrates deeply and it’s delicious.  The accompanying sticky rice is served in a cute little wicker basket that retains heat.

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Mangoes with sticky rice

Our preferred way of enjoying sticky rice is with mangoes, the quintessential Thai and Lao dessert.  Few desserts of any nation are as wonderful as mangoes with sticky rice, especially when the mangoes are in season.  In-season means their flesh is a sweet and intensely tropical with a fragrant aroma and a fibrous texture around the pit.  The intensity of mangoes in-season marries oh so well with the sticky rice which swims with rich, sweet coconut milk. 

If you survived on ramen noodles during your collegiate days, the Mekong Ramen House will introduce you to ramen in ways of which you may not have conceived, all of them delicious.  It will also introduce you to some of the best Thai and Lao cuisine you’ll find in the Duke City.

Mekong Ramen House
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2326
LATEST VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon

Pho Hoa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant on Fourth Street

Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant on Fourth Street

Though it ended in 1975, the Vietnam war was still very fresh in the minds of Americans when I enlisted in the Air Force two years later.  Many of my senior colleagues had served in Vietnam and regaled me with tales of their adventures.  It wasn’t man’s inhumanity to man they took away from the experience, but the goodness of people brought together by exigent circumstances.  It is very telling of the high character of my colleagues that despite the ravages of war, they had fallen in love with Vietnam: its people, culture and its food.  Several of my friends sponsored Vietnamese families fleeing the beleaguered nation.

One of my friends told me the beauty of Vietnam was best seen in the bright colors of its flowers, the innocence of its children and the femininity of women attired in ao dai, the form-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons.  Two of the elements which best exemplify the beauty of Vietnam in my friend’s estimation were fully on display during my inaugural visit to the Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant on Fourth Street.

Monica and Lisa, the delightful servers at Pho Hoa

Monica and Lisa wearing ao dai

Attired  in colorful ao dai which contours elegantly to their lithe bodies, Monica and Lisa, the delightful servers at Pho Hoa, seem to flow gracefully through the restaurant as they take and fill lunch orders.  As my friend had described, the ao dail does accentuate the femininity and attractiveness of women who wear them.  Physical pulchritude will only go so far, however.  Monica and Lisa are also so friendly and attentive, they could well become as popular a draw to Pho Hoa as its cuisine.

The other element on display at Pho Hoa which embodies Vietnamese beauty is flowers.  The word “Hoa” translates to English as flower.  The top shelf on a room divider is replete with flowers, as bright and beautiful as nature can create.  The restaurant itself is also bright and colorful with wasabi green and cranberry walls, hardwood floors and Vietnamese decorations festooning a very attractive restaurant.

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

The menu is fairly typical of Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City.  There are nearly 80 items on the menu, not including beverages.  Vegetarian items are plentiful.  With so many items from which to select, you’re well advised to ask Lisa and Monica what they recommend.  Lisa guided me toward Pho Hoa’s spring rolls, a fresh rice paper roll filled with vermicelli noodles, mint, lettuce, shrimp and pork.  Those ingredients are visible through the translucent rice paper.  The spring rolls are served with a peanut sauce topped with crushed peanuts.  It’s not as cloying as some peanut sauces tend to be and serves as an excellent dip for very good spring rolls.

Morgain Davison, a long-time friend of this blog and mom-to-be, asked me to eat some pho for her since pho can’t be found where she now lives.  Morgain, this Pho Tai (rare steak noodle soup) is for you; only sharing a swimming pool-sized bowl of this luxurious, aromatic elixir with you could possibly have made it better. One of the secrets of using rare beef in pho is to make sure the heat of the broth doesn’t fully cook the rare beef.  It ensures the beefiness of the flavor.   Throw in some wonderful fresh veggies with tangles of perfectly prepared noodles and you’ve got a nutritious and delicious soup as good as any you’ll find in Albuquerque.

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Rare Beef Noodle Soup (#14)

SECOND VISIT – 3 MAY 2013:  Whenever I want validation of my opinion on the authenticity and deliciousness of a new Vietnamese restaurant, I turn to my friend Hu Vuu who was born in Vietnam and whose mother owns and operates a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco.  Hu has forgotten more about Vietnamese food than I’ll probably ever know.  He accompanied me on my second visit along with our friends and colleagues Fancy Mortensen, Harold Lopez and Karen Ascoli, all three of whom have become very savvy on Vietnamese food courtesy of our friend Hu. 

While my friends luxuriated on the comforting qualities of pho, my choice was spicy chicken lemongrass, one of the first of so many Vietnamese dishes to ensnare my affections.  It’s a beautifully presented dish served on a triangular plate.  Served on a large lettuce leaf is some of the highest quality, mostly white meat chicken you’ll find at any Asian restaurant.  It’s tender and wholly devoid of any sinew or gristle.  Lemongrass, the wondrous aromatically enticing herb, enlivens this dish as does chili, crushed peanuts, onions and julienne carrots and daikon.  This may be the best rendition of chicken lemongrass in Albuquerque.

Spicy Chicken Lemongrass

Spicy Chicken Lemongrass

The menu includes five banh mi, the wonderful Vietnamese sandwich which is finally starting to catch on in Albuquerque.  Three meats–grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken–are available as well as a vegetarian fried tofu sandwich and a fried egg sandwich.  All sandwiches are served with pickled daikon, radish, carrots, cilantro, jalapeño and cucumber.  The Banh Mi Trung Chien (fried egg sandwich) is the Vietnamese answer to the Egg McMuffin, only much better and certainly not just for breakfast.  The canvas for this sandwich is an excellent nine-inch baguette with a characteristically crusty exterior.  Eggs and pickled vegetables are much better than they sound, a true combination of contrasting flavors which go well together.

Pho Hoa is not just the only Vietnamese restaurant in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, it’s the only Vietnamese restaurant within miles of the heart of the North Valley.  Launched in April, 2013, it has introduced many elements of the beauty of Vietnam to its guests.

Pho Hoa
6601 4th St NW Suite H
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 369-1547
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 3 May 2013
1st VISIT:  19 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Rare Beef Noodle Soup, Avocado Shake, Spring Rolls, Banh Mi, Spicy Chicken Lemongrass

Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant on Urbanspoon