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Viet Noodle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Noodle on Montano in Albuquerque’s West Side

On April 3, 2013, University of New Mexico (UNM) Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs sent out a very simple and succinct tweet confirming the hire of head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal. The one-word tweet read simply “Noodles.”  Noodles, of course, is the sobriquet Neal received in high school on account of his tall and thin stature.  The hire was very enthusiastically received by both fans and players who were witness to the strong impact he had on the program as long-time assistant coach. 

Albuquerque has always been a Lobo basketball crazed city and it has embraced Noodles who guided his team to 27 wins during his first season as head coach.  While the UNM Lobo Club would like to believe that “Everyone’s a Lobo! Woof, woof, woof!,” there are a smattering of New Mexico State Aggie supporters strewn throughout the city.  There is also (and this will be hard for diehard Lobo fanatics to grasp) a large segment of the local populace who not only don’t like the Lobos, they don’t like sports.

The interior of Viet Noodle

Among the latter are people for whom a one-word tweet reading “Noodles” has an entirely different meaning than the hiring of a basketball coach.  To them noodles are a soul-satisfying comfort food the audible inhalation of which is heartily enjoyed whether those noodles are chilled or steamy hot.  Whether thin and translucent or thick and dense, noodles evoke warm memories of childhood (when we first discovered that food could be both delicious and fun) and of times when they nourished and comforted us.  When times get rough, noodles have always been there for us. 

Arguably the metropolitan area’s preeminent practitioners at preparing perfect  noodles are the 37 Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.   Most of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants are clustered in the International District, a section of Southeast Albuquerque stretching roughly from the state fairgrounds area to Kirtland Air Force Base.  There are two Vietnamese restaurants in Rio Rancho with the only other Vietnamese restaurant west of the Rio Grande being Viet Noodle in the Paradise Hills area.  It’s sandwiched between Spinn’s Burger & Beer (home to one of the city’s very best green chile cheeseburgers) and Little Caesar’s Pizza.

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

As the only game in this section of town, Viet Noodle has a captive market, but Duke City diners are a persnickety bunch.  If a restaurant doesn’t cut it, it’s not going to last long.  Viet Noodle has been going strong now for five years and there’s no surcease in sight.  On the day of our inaugural visit the number of sit-down diners was greatly eclipsed by to-go orders.  Friends who live in the area tell me that’s about par for the course for this popular eatery. 

Unlike many of the area’s Vietnamese restaurants, Viet Noodle’s menu is somewhat abbreviated, not a compendium listing over a hundred dishes.  Viet Noodle is also not a traditional sit-down restaurant in which you peruse the menu and a server takes your order.  Instead, you’ll place your order at a counter above which are posted lighted meal and beverage options.  Don’t mistake the concept for Vietnamese fast food.  It’ll take a few minutes for your order to be delivered to your table.  While you wait, you’ll want to take a gander at the colorful photographs festooning the walls of life in Vietnam.

Egg Rolls with Fish Sauce

Forget the perfunctory Pepsi products.  Viet Noodle has one of the most comprehensive beverage menus of any  Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque.  The most popular (and my early favorite) is the Iced Vietnamese Coffee, a concoction of sweetened condensed milk and strong black coffee poured over ice.  A number of smoothies and shakes are also available as are boba beverages.  Whether in tea or shake form, boba are gooey, gelatinous globules that seem to inherit the flavor of the drink (strawberry-banana is a good combination). 

There are fewer than fifty items on the food menu including a limited number of appetizers and several vegetarian options.  The most popular starters are egg rolls and spring rolls.  The egg rolls are tightly-packed, golden-hued rolls stuffed mostly with vegetables and served with a clear fish sauce for dipping.  Translucent rice paper wrappers envelop vermicelli noodles and vegetables on the spring rolls which are served with a Hoisin and peanut sauce.

Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

One of the most popular noodle entrees on the menu is vermicelli which you can order with tofu or with pork and egg roll.  It’s interesting that in Italian “vermicelli” translates to English as “little worms.”  While that doesn’t sound especially appetizing, vermicelli in the hands of a Vietnamese chef is a delicious combination of long and thin pasta, julienne carrots and daikon, cucumbers, lettuce, crushed peanuts and fish sauce added to taste.  The pork has the characteristic sweet and savory grilled flavor that makes Vietnamese style pork a very special entree. 

The association that comes first to mind when you mention Vietnamese noodles is pho, the luxurious broth-based noodle soup centering on a broth base made from chicken, beef, or seafood.  The combination noodle soup (rare steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef ball) is a popular option.  Served in a swimming pool sized bowl, it’s replete with tangles of noodles, green onions, cilantro and the unique spices that give pho its addictive flavor profile.   My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, described Viet Noodle’s rendition of pho as “tasty with a nice aroma,” adding that “there is better pho in the Duke City, but not on the west side.”  It’s a spot-on assessment as always.  A few squeezes of sriracha will  give the pho more “personality.”

Combination Noodle Soup

Viet Noodle’s Web site boasts of the restaurant’s “strict commitment to quality” and “the highest standards for food, service, atmosphere and value.”  These are elements to which all restaurants should adhere, especially restaurants serving noodles, an entree that elicits nostalgic feelings of warmth and joy for many of us.

Viet Noodle
4411 Montano Road, N.W., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792 – 5252
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Combination Noodle Soup, Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

Viet Noodle on Urbanspoon

Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Basil Leaf on Eubank just south of Constitution

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed Popemobiles
through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East,
eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?
Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew,
the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?
I know what I want. I want it all.  I want to try everything once.”
Anthony Bourdain

Genesis 11 recounts a time when the entire world had a common language and dwelt as one people.  Alas, hubris overtook the generations of survivors of the great flood who decided, with great unity of purpose, to build a city named Babel with a tower that would reach to heaven itself.  God immediately knew this “stairway to heaven” was essentially a self-aggrandizing monument to the people themselves, calling attention to their own abilities and achievements instead of giving glory to God.  Consequently, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not understand one another.  He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the Earth. 

Some Biblical scholars believe this event marks the point in history when God divided the Earth into separate continents.  Whether or not you believe this Old Testament account, there’s no denying some good would ultimately came from such a division of humanity.  That may be especially true from a culinary perspective.  It stands to reason that a common language and proximal dwelling would limit the diversity of culinary thought and opportunities.  Conversely, the more the population spread out across the wide expanse of climatic and topographical variation, the more diverse the culinary opportunities.

The front dining room at Basil Leaf

Why then, in an increasingly connected and informed world, do so many people limit their culinary opportunities and refuse to deviate from their culinary comfort zones?  It’s a matter long pondered by many of us who look upon Anthony Bourdain’s aforementioned sagacity as a marching order–those of us who want it all, who want to try everything at least once.  Culinary bon vivants see the diversity of dining as an adventure, an experience to be cherished and repeated.  It’s because we have this sense of adventure that we love the diversity proffered by such  restaurants as the Basil Leaf on Eubank.  

Heck without the culinary diversity resultant from topographical and climatic variety around the world we might not even have basil itself. Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs in the world, a richly aromatic, slightly spicy ameliorant to many of the best dishes proffered at all Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.  Also known as “hairy basil” and by its Thai name of “horapa”, it’s used in salads, soups, curries and as a garnish.  The aroma of Thai basil is stronger and sweeter than its Italian counterpart and it has a peppery flavor slightly reminiscent of star anise. It’s no wonder so many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants across the country are named for this diverse and revered herb.

Vietnamese Crepe with Pork

The Basil Leaf occupies one of those seemingly cursed restaurant locations in Albuquerque, a venue which has seen a number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants give it the old college try before succumbing to both economic malaise and absence of culinary adventurers.  Perhaps the Basil Leaf  has the familial pedigree to succeed where others have failed.  Family members include Tony Trinh who owns and operates Relish, one of the Duke City’s most popular sandwich shops.  Other family members own and operate Pacific Rim, the only Vietnamese restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The menu at Basil Leaf isn’t quite the voluminous compendium you’ll find at other Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. The menu is segmented by related fare: appetizers, beef noodle soup (pho), rice dishes, stir-fried noodles, vermicelli, kid’s menu and beverages.  Unless you’ve got a predetermined notion what you’re in the mood for you’ll spend some time perusing the menu.  It’s a terrific menu promising a culinary adventure in every bite.

The very best clay pot rice dish in Albuquerque

For some reason, the Vietnamese crepe is listed as an appetizer.  Whether deliberate or an anomaly, you’ll marvel at the size of this golden-hued (courtesy of tumeric) beauty.  Resembling a well-engorged egg omelet, the half-moon shaped crepe takes up half the plate.  The other half is covered by fresh, crisp vegetables: a shredded carrot and daikon salad, whole leaf lettuce and sprigs of basil.  It’s much like the vegetable accompaniment for pho.  The Vietnamese crepe, made from coconut milk and rice flour, is stuffed with savory ingredients: bean sprouts, white onions and green onions and is served with fish sauce and your choice of tofu, shrimp, pork or chicken.  Though the crepe itself has a slightly sweet flavor, it’s rare that Vietnamese crepes are stuffed with sweet fillings or toppings.  Pan-fried so they’re just slightly crispy, the crepes have a mild flavor profile for which the tangy, acidic, slightly piquant fish sauce is a perfect foil.  At Basil Leaf, the Vietnamese crepe is an appetizer built for two, especially if you have any expectation of enjoying an entree, too. 

Alas, the best laid plans of gastronomes often go astray.  After consuming the entire crepe, my plan was to sample a few bites of my entree then take the rest home for my Kim to enjoy.  The Sizzling Clay Pot Rice dish had other ideas.  It would ensnare me with its preternatural deliciousness and it wouldn’t let me go until nary a grain of rice remained on the clay pot.  This is a dish which earns its name.  It remained almost too hot to eat even after the Vietnamese crepe was a memory  As you eat, the clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce of your choice of meat or tofu to caramelize and waft invitingly for the duration of your meal.  For this reason, clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish.  Aside from rice, this dish contains broccoli, Vietnamese sausage, mushrooms, cashews, cilantro and green onion along with your choice of pork, tofu, shrimp, beef, chicken or a combination thereof.  To the pork goes my highest recommendation.  It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a sweet-savory-tangy marinade that renders the pork’s edges a reddish hue.  Only the Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot at China Luck is in the rarefied company of this fabulous hot pot dish.

Basil Leaf is the type of restaurant good enough to convert even the nay-sayers who rarely stray outside their culinary comfort zones.  Moreover, it’s the type of restaurant culinarily adventurous diners love best for its authenticity and oh, those basil-enhanced taste explosions.

Basil Leaf
1225 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-2594
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vietnamese Crepe, Clay Pot Rice

Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon

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.

Pho79-03

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.

Pho79-04

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.

Pho79-05

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