An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

An Hy Quan for Outstanding Vegetarian Vietnamese Cuisine

Celebrity chef  and professional cynic Anthony Bourdain, one of the more vocal detractors of the vegetarian lifestyle, contends “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”  He’s not alone in his opinion.  Vegetarians are perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood group in the culinary community.  Consider the stereotypes.  Nay-sayers with their preconceived and oversimplified notions founded on ignorance would have you believe all vegetarians are emaciated and pallid tree-huggers who worship at the altar of PETA.  They attack vegetarian fare as bland and boring, lacking in variety and mostly tofu and lettuce. 

You can bet they wouldn’t spout their ill-founded drivel about vegetarian cuisine if they partook of just one meal at An Hy Quan, a Duke City restaurant showcasing Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine.  An Hy Quan’s cuisine is every bit as good as the food served at Albuquerque’s best Vietnamese restaurants, all of which cater primarily to carnivores.  They’d also have to toss out their stereotypes that a vegetarian diet renders its practitioners pale, sickly and scrawny should they meet Bill, the restaurant’s affable proprietor.  Admittedly not a bona fide vegetarian, Bill has reduced his consumption of meat over the years by nearly ninety-percent and he’s never felt better.  He sports a mesomorphic somatype (meaning he’s really built) that would put some athletes to shame.

Papaya Salad: The Very Best I’ve Ever Had

Interestingly,  even though many Vietnamese dishes are replete with vegetables, a vegetarian diet is rare in Vietnam.  Bill confirmed that strict adherence to vegetarianism is practiced mostly in Buddhist temples and on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month when all Buddhists shy away from meat.  In Vietnam as in much of Asia, the citizenry believe meat is the best part of any dish.  Try going meatless along the Mekong and you can expect quizzical looks if not being overtly asked “why would anyone would turn down meat?”  It’s not easy for Vietnamese to comprehend that someone wouldn’t want meat which they believe imbues people with strength, stamina and vigor.  Eschew meat and they worry you’ll become too enfeebled and malnourished to function.

An Hy Quan, a term which translates to “a place of peace and happiness” is breaking down any stereotypes diners may have about vegetarian food and is earning converts daily in the process.  One of the reasons for its popularity is that An Hy Quan features Vietnamese vegetarian fare that’s true to traditional Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.  It’s the antithesis of faux burgers which, even diehard vegetarians will admit, taste like desiccated, overcooked corrugated cardboard.  Another reason so many savvy diners flock to An Hy Quan is Bill, the peripatetic owner and amiable ambassador of an addictive restaurant.

Egg Rolls

Bill grew up in the restaurant business.  His mother was a pioneer, launching Huong Thao back when there were fewer than a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City.  From the onset, Huong Thao had a reputation as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, earning accolades from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.”  Bill eventually bought and operated Huong Thao for about seven years before embarking on other ventures.  When he made his return to the restaurant business, he wanted to do something different, something as pioneering as his mother had done.  He launched An Hy Quan in 2015.

Almost from the beginning, An Hy Quan was recognized as something special. In September, 2015, it was named by Movoto, a multi-state real estate brokerage, as one of the “ten best Albuquerque restaurants for vegetarians.”  Movoto wrote “The menu at An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant is enough to make a person cry with happiness. From appetizers to dessert, dining is an adventure in flavor and technique combined with excellent service and generous portions. Select memorable dishes like Vietnamese spring rolls, avocado shakes, mock pork, and much more.”  Not long thereafter, An Hy Quan was recognized by Three Best Rated as one of the Duke City’s three best vegetarian restaurants.

“Chips and Salsa” An Hy Quan Style

Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly discern many familiar favorites–ranging from rice plates to noodle dishes and some of the best, most diverse soup (including pho) selections in the city.  While some Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque boast of menus listing well over one-hundred items, An Hy Quan’s menu seems somewhat abbreviated in comparison.  That doesn’t make it any easier to decide what to order.  Put yourself in Bill’s hands and you’re assured of a great meal.  There are at least two “must have” appetizers, one of which I had both during my inaugural and second visit.  It’s an addictive dish you might dream about.

24 June 2016: That would be the papaya salad, the very best my Kim and I have ever had.  A fresh and invigorating starter possessing more mouth-pleasing qualities than any salad in recent memory, it’s artfully plated and large enough to share.  Matchstick-like slivers of papaya resembling noodles are tossed with fresh basil, chopped peanuts, ground chili and mock ham in a shallow pool of pleasantly piquant “fishless” sauce with tangy citrusy notes.   You’ll be tempted to lap it up off your plate when the last remnants of the salad have been polished off.

Curry Tofu with Rice

24 June 2016: Following traditional New Mexican restaurant practices, An Hy Quan delivers complimentary Vietnamese “chips and salsa” to your table.  They’re not chips and salsa as you’d enjoy them at say, Mary & Tito’s Cafe.  They’re chips and salsa as they might be served in Vietnam.  The chips are made from fried potato starch.  Texturally they resemble the packing peanuts you shove into boxes to protect your delicate valuables.  The salsa is a chili sauce with a nice level of heat.  Instead of dipping the chips into the sauce, you’ll spoon it on as liberally as your taste buds can appreciate.

25 June 2016: Vegetarian egg rolls sound much like an oxymoron, a seemingly contradictory term much like “honest politician.”  Though described on the menu as “deep-fried egg rolls,” eggs aren’t used in preparing these tightly-wrapped, golden-hued cylindrical treasures.  Served four per order, they’re as good as any egg rolls served at any Vietnamese or Thai restaurant in the Duke City.  Because most egg rolls are engorged primarily with vegetarian ingredients, you might not be able to tell any difference.  They’re absolutely delicious.  So is the dipping sauce with flavor notes resembling fish sauce.

Curry Noodles

24 June 2016: Regular readers recognize my rapacious love of curry, whether it be Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese or meteorologist (KRQE’s pulchritudinous Kristen Currie).  It stands to reason vegetarian curry would be added to that list…and it was.  My inaugural meal at An Hy Quan was curry tofu served with rice.  Vietnamese curry tends to be very aromatic, somewhat lighter than Indian curries and not cloying as some coconut-infused Thai curries tend to be.  Though you’ll be tempted to finish the large portion, consider that the flavors of curry get better over time and the promise of left-overs becomes something to look forward to.  This curry is served piping hot and has a pleasant amount of piquancy that’s tempered only slightly by the cubed tofu and vegetable variety.  It’s an absolutely delicious curry dish!

25 June 2016: If your preference with curry leans toward noodles instead of rice, An Hy Quan has you covered.  The curry noodles dish features wide rice noodles, cubed tofu and assorted vegetables (including yu choy which resembles spinach in both appearance and flavor).   As with the curry rice dish, curry noodles are served with tofu which inherits the wonderfully pungent and pleasantly piquant flavors of the curry.  The assorted vegetables are fresh and unfailingly crispy–not quite al dente, but perfectly prepared.  My Kim, who doesn’t share my affinity for curry, loved this dish.  So will you!

Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles

25 June 2016:  One of An Hy Quan’s most popular dishes (raved about in several Yelp and Zomato reviews) is the cashew mock pork rice dish.  My Kim who prefers noodles (even over Alford) asked nicely if she could have the mock pork and cashews over crispy noodles and the ever-accommodating Bill agreed.  The dish was even more delicious than she could have conceived.  Kim finds something magical in the reconstitution of crispy noodles in the dish’s light sauce.  She loved the mock pork, admitting it’s as good as the real stuff.  She even enjoyed the vegetables and the sesame seeds which topped them.  This dish should be standard on the menu (Kim won’t even ask for residuals). 

21 November 2016: Deciding to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle is the easy part.  Preparing palatable vegetarian dishes at home or discovering restaurants which make them delicious takes a little more work.  When my friend Elaine, already one of the most healthy and fit people I know, decided to try vegetarianism, she asked me to take her to my favorite vegetarian restaurant.  It didn’t take much deliberation to decide where we’d go.  Not surprisingly, Hy Quan exceeded her expectations.  Elaine fell in love with the papaya salad and egg rolls, but it may have been the clay hot pot rice dish we split (and couldn’t finish) which most excited her.  Clay pot cooking is very popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving vessel.  Aside from rice, this dish contains an assortment of vegetables (carrots, cabbage, zucchini  and green onion) prepared perfectly as is the accompanying tofu.  The dish has a a smoky, wok-fried flavor with crispy, fresh vegetables and at the bottom edges of the pot, amazing caramelized rice which Bill confirmed is the most popular feature of a terrific dish.

Clay Hot Pot Rice

If you’ve never enjoyed vegetarian fare, it’s time to visit An Hy Quan where you might not be able to taste any significant difference and even if you do, you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.  An Hy Quan isn’t only one of Albuquerque’s very best vegetarian restaurants, it’s one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.  Make that best restaurants of any genre.  It’s that good!

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant
1405 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 332-8565
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2016
1st VISIT: 24 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Curry Tofu, Egg Rolls, Curry Noodles, Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles, Clay Hot Pot Rice

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saigon 2 Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Saigon 2 Restaurant in Rio Rancho

In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, numerology is very important.  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 across an entire culture.  A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner.  Espy a restaurant named Pho 66and the number  66 may well represent the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war.  Restaurants named Pho 75 may well be honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell.  Numerical repetition is also considered fortuitous.  The City of Vision certainly counts the number eleven as a lucky number.

November 11th, 2011 at precisely 11 o’clock AM (11/11/11 at 11AM) saw the launch of Rio Rancho’s third Vietnamese restaurant when Saigon 2 Restaurant opened its doors on Southern Boulevard.  The restaurant is situated in an 1,800 square foot space that’s about a thousand feet smaller than Saigon Restaurant, its elder sibling on San Mateo.  Because the Rio Rancho restaurant is smaller, the menu is somewhat abbreviated–115 items instead of 145 items.  Fish dishes are not be served in Saigon 2, but for the most part, the dishes prepared incomparably well at the original Saigon are also available in its sibling.

Saigon 2 Main Dining Room

Owner Vicki Truong could well have named her first restaurant Pho 88 in honor of 1988, the year she left Vietnam or she could have named it Pho 2000 in honor of the year she arrived in Albuquerque and launched her first restaurant.  She chose instead to honor the former capital of South Vietnam, now more often called Ho Chi Minh City.  Since launching her first restaurant, she’s garnered a tremendous following among devotees of Vietnamese cuisine.  She still spends most of her time at her original restaurant, entrusting her capable staff in Rio Rancho to uphold the high standards for which her restaurants are known. 

Vicki does try to spend Sundays in her Rio Rancho restaurant, flitting between the kitchen and the dining room, addressing her guests as “honey” or “sweetie” and ensuring their comfort.  She is one of the most personable restaurateurs in the metropolitan area and one of the very best Vietnamese chefs in New Mexico.  The latter is especially surprising considering that when she first arrived in the States, she couldn’t cook.  She learned how to cook at the Vietnamese restaurant in which she worked in San Jose, California.  That makes her mastery of Vietnamese cooking a marvel.

The best egg rolls in the Albuquerque area

SaiGon is the only restaurant for which I’d list egg rolls as an absolute “must have” (typically, especially at Chinese restaurants, egg rolls should be categorized as “must avoid.”) These cigar shaped treasures, served with a tangy fish sauce, are among the very best I’ve had anywhere. They explode with the flavor of perfectly seasoned ground pork and vegetables encased in a crispy, deep-fried yellow wrapper. Served six to an order, it might be advisable to request two orders to keep peace in the family. As with other appetizers, the greenery (cilantro, mint and Thai basil) isn’t there solely as plate decoration. Vicki expects that her guests will wrap just about their egg rolls on a lettuce leaf and add cilantro and Thai basil to taste–and if you don’t, she’ll certainly talk you into it.

If you ever espy a diner at one of the Duke City’s Vietnamese restaurants wrapping something that’s already wrapped (egg rolls) in lettuce, chances they picked up that habit at SaiGon under Vickie’s tutelage. It’s the way we now like them, but only at SaiGon where generous amounts of Thai basil and cilantro along with some of the very best fish sauce in town enliven the best egg rolls in town. The only drawback is dipping them into the fish sauce which can be a pretty messy proposition.

Steamed Vermicelli with Grilled Onion Beef

Very much a “beefaholic,” my very favorite entree, found in the “salted dishes” portion of the menu, is grilled onion beef, an order of which features ten cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled white onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Every bite is like an adventure in culinary flawlessness with tastes that awaken and tantalize your taste buds. The beef rolls are thin (but not carpaccio thin) and have a more than subtle smoky sweet fragrance. You can eat these sans fish sauce or with fish sauce. They’re terrific either way.

Another way to have the grilled onion beef is with steamed vermicelli fashioned into one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern.  At May Hong, these noodles are called patter noodles.  The noodles are cut into squares about four-inches in diameter.  This entree (#46 on the menu) is served with a bowl of lettuce, carrots, daikon, cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil and cilantro.  Obviously, the intent is to use the lettuce as the outer wrap in which you layer the vermicelli noodles, grilled onion beef and vegetables into a lettuce roll to be dipped in fish sauce.  It’s a messy option, but unbelievably good.

Rare Beef with Rice Noodle Soup

If you suffer from triskaidekaphobia (fear or avoidance of the number 13), you might not order the #13 beef noodle soup at Saigon 2.  You’d be depriving yourself of one of the best pho dishes in the metropolitan area, a brimming, swimming-pool sized bowl of luxurious beef pho with rare beef, buttery rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and sundry herbs.  Perhaps the only aspect of this soup more pleasurable than how it tastes is the aroma which precedes its arrival at your table.  Steam wafts toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, a precursor to a soup that known to make grown men (at least this one) swoon. 

There are Vietnamese cuisine aficionados who will tell you the only restaurant equal to or better than Saigon 2 is the original Saigon.  Both have made visitors believe in luck and it’s all good.

Saigon 2 Restaurant
2003 Southern Blvd Suite, S.E., 105-106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505-896-0099
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2016
1st VISIT:  18 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Egg Rolls, Rare Beef With Rice Noodle Soup, Special Clay Pot with Grilled Chicken

Saigon 2 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine on San Pedro

Several years ago and much to the surprise of the proprietor, I ordered a durian shake at a Vietnamese restaurant.  She proceeded to caution me that durian has a very powerful aroma and flavor many people find off-putting.  When she witnessed my enjoyment of the cold pungent fruit beverage, she gave me a big hug and told me I was the “only white boy” she ever saw who delighted in the odoriferous nuances of what is known widely as “the world’s stinkiest fruit.”  Indeed, durian is one of the very few things in the world Travel Network celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern cannot eat.  Its sulfurous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and even decomposing corpse.

It was deja vu all over again (as Yogi Berra once said) when I visited Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine with my good friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell.  When I ordered a durian smoothie, shock and awe registered in the face of  proprietor Mindy Nguyen who proceeded to warn me that durian has a very strong flavor, a flavor my well-traveled friends had never before experienced.  Much to my own surprise, Larry and Deanell both loved the fusty flavored drink, neither of them finding it especially malodorous.  For years I’d proudly worn a badge of honor as the “only white boy” to enjoy durian.  Now Larry and Deanell join me in a rather exclusive club.  We all received hugs from Mindy who must have marveled at our intrepidity (or foolhardiness) for even trying the durian smoothie, much less enjoying it so much.

Le Bistro’s Elegant Dining Room

In a spirit of full disclosure, durian shakes and smoothies are rather tame compared to extricating the pulpy flesh from its spiky host and eating that yellowish flesh unadulterated.  My first experience with durian occurred in Massachusetts when my friend Fred, an Air Force veteran who had served in Vietnam and was married to a beautiful Vietnamese woman, essentially dared me to try it.  He was stunned that I not only didn’t gag at being in the proximity of durian, but genuinely enjoyed it.  His wife hugged me.  Hmm, do you see a pattern here?

If there’s one trait most Vietnamese restaurants share, it’s that the aromas emanating from the kitchen are absolutely alluring.  Even though Le Bistro offers the pungently potent fruit in smoothie form, the most prevalent bouquet–even before you enter the bistro–is that of baking bread.  One whiff will trigger wonderful memories for those of us who grew up with moms baking the staff of life.  As the marquee notes, Le Bistro is a bakery as much as it is a restaurant.  It’s the bakery side of the 4,500 square-foot edifice you’ll step into and where you’ll immediately be enveloped by addictive aromas.  A brightly illuminated menu board complete with food porn quality photos lists some ten banh mi, the incomparable Vietnamese sandwiches that are taking America by storm.

Le Bistro’s full-service bakery

The restaurant side of the complex is inviting and beautiful  Framed photograph-quality paintings of pulchritudinous Vietnamese women festoon the walls.  Tables are adorned with white tablecloths, a centerpiece of which is a condiment caddy with such Asian food ameliorants as Sriracha and soy sauces.  Seating–tables and booths–is as comfortable as it is functional with good spacing between tables.  Le Bistro is an attractive venue.  Service is genial and warm.  Both our server and the perpetually smiling Mindy answered all our questions about the menu, exercising great patience when we (mostly Deanell and I) couldn’t decide what to order.

3 August 2016: We continued to peruse the menu as we enjoyed our appetizer, listed on the menu in both Vietnamese (Wonton Ga Chien) and English (chicken fried dumplings).  Served six per order, the dumplings are engorged with minced chicken which is seasoned well.  Enjoyable as the dumplings are, the real palate-pleasing aspect of this starter is the dipping sauce, a wonderful departure from the seemingly de rigueur soy-based dipping sauces served ad-nauseum with dumplings.  Le Bistro’s alternative is a reddish-brown (likely from tamarind) sauce with a light syrupy consistency and balanced flavor notes of sweet, savory, tangy and piquancy.

Le Bistro’s vivacious owner Mindy Nguyen

3 August 2016: Larry’s selection, as it was when we visited An Hy Quan was a stir-fried noodle dish (Hu Tien Ap Chao) in the shape of a crispy, crunchy bird’s nest.  Concerned with maintaining his svelte physique, before ordering Larry verified that stir-fried doesn’t mean a long, luxurious bath in hot, calorific oil.  Instead, the pre-fried noodles are flash fried–just momentarily immersed and quickly extricated from the oil then served with fresh garden vegetables (onions, broccoli, cabbage, celery and carrots), shrimp and a sauce that reconstitutes the noodles.  Larry loves this dish and raved about Le Bistro’s version.  He even ate the broccoli which he usually enjoys about as much as President George H. W. Bush did (which means not at all).

3 August 2016: For Deanell, a vermicelli noodle dish with shrimp and grilled pork called loudest.  The grilled pork, marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon and possessing a pronounced grilled flavor, is delicious and Le Bistro doesn’t scrimp on portion size.  Douse the entire dish with nuoc mam, a delightful Vietnamese fish sauce, and even the vermicelli noodles come to life.  The dish also includes chopped and whole peanuts and fresh vegetables (bean sprouts, lettuce, cilantro and mint leaves and scallions).  It’s served in a swimming pool-sized bowl, but is so good you may not be able to stop yourself from eating it all.

Chicken Dumplings

3 August 2016: My Kim would have been proud of my choice.  Listed on the menu as steamed vermicelli with grilled pork, shrimp and pork sausage, the vermicelli noodles are often called “patter noodles” which don’t really seem to be noodles at all.  In fact, they’re more akin to one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern.  The grilled pork shrimp and pork sausage are topped with crushed peanuts and scallions.  As we learned at the legendary May Hong, it’s traditional to wrap the proteins first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro and fresh basil leaves inside.  These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Le Bistro’s terrific fish sauce.  Only the pork sausage lacks personality. 

In attempting to convey that a dish is habit-forming, some print and online critics you may have read use the despicable metaphor “it’s like crack.”  In comparing food to crack, an exaggerated, more colorful way of saying that a food is addictive, perhaps those misguided critics are trying to be funny. Perhaps they don’t have the vocabulary to better describe just how delicious a dish may be.  Why not say a dish is instantly gratifying, maybe even habit-forming?  One such dish is the papaya salad as prepared at An Hy Quan, one of my favorite dishes thus far in 2016.  We’ve had papaya salad at several Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, but none better than at Albuquerque’s best Vietnamese vegetarian dish.

Papaya Salad with Shrimp and Pork

29 October 2016:  Le Bistro’s version of papaya salad with shrimp and grilled pork is quite good, albeit very much on the sweet side.  Where An Hy Quan’s version acquires its invigorating properties from tangy limes, it’s the fresh basil and a few flecks of chili on Le Bistro’s version that cuts through the sweetness and lends a modicum of balance.  Matchstick-like slivers of papaya resembling noodles are tossed with fresh basil, chopped peanuts and ground chili in a shallow pool of fish sauce that’s very much the culprit behind the salad’s cloying notes.  If you like shrimp, you’ll appreciate that this salad includes both fresh and dried shrimp as well as grilled pork.

29 October 2016: Unlike Thai curry which is bound with coconut milk, Vietnamese curry is bound with broth, making it much lighter and not nearly as sweet as its Thai counterpart.  Also unlike other curries in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese curry is more stew-like with the curry serving a more supporting role to fresh vegetables and meats.   You’re not likely to find Vietnamese curry served in bowls ready to be spooned into your eagerly awaiting mouth.  Instead, you’ll likely find it plated with a myriad of other ingredients.  Le Bistro’s chicken curry, for example, is served over stir-fried vegetables prepared at just past al dente.  You’ll find broccoli, carrots, celery and more along with bite-sized pieces of chicken.  The curry, as aromatic as it is flavorful, is delightful, not as pungent as Indian curry or nearly as sweet as Thai curry.

Chicken Curry

29 October 2016:  Though Pad Thai has long been considered the prototypical Thai dish, Gastronomica contends that Pad Thai isn’t really Thai at all.  Many culinary historians agree, actually crediting the Chinese with the invention of Pad Thai.  Regardless of origin, you’re more likely to find a Burger King restaurant not serving cheeseburgers than you are a Thai restaurant not serving Pad Thai.  It’s also not surprising to find that many many Vietnamese restaurants also serve Pad Thai.  After all, the thin rice noodles used in making Pad Thai are similar to Vietnamese noodles used in making pho.  Le Bistro’s version of Pad Thai is very similar to and as good as the Pad Thai at many of Albuquerque’s Thai restaurants.  It’s got a nice balance of sweet, salty, and sour flavors and is generally delightful, particularly if you’re an aficionado of this popular dish.

29 October 2016:  It’s oft said that you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach lest you return home with bags of comestibles you might not otherwise have ordered.  You’d think the same premise would apply at restaurants, but on our way out the aromas of fresh bread wafting from the front room pulled me in like a siren’s call–to the tune of three banh mi sandwiches: the special combination, grilled pork and grilled chicken sandwiches.  Those I took home for dinner which pleased my bride of 31 years very much.  The banh mi were superb, but frankly, your humble blogger was still rather sated from lunch and didn’t enjoy them as much as a famished Gil would have.

Pad Thai

Le Bistro is located on San Pedro between Lomas and Constitution (almost directly across the street from Christy Mae’s).  It’s a destination which promises to draw savvy diners with a magnetic pull.  With more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants, Albuquerque hasn’t reached a critical mass.  As long as they’re all as good as Le Bistro, we’ll continue to frequent them.

Le Bistro Vietnamese Bakery & Cuisine
1313 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-6118
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2016
1st VISIT: 3 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Durian Shake, Chicken Fried Dumplings, Steamed Vermicelli, Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork and Shrimp, Stir-Fried Noodles with Pork, Special Combination Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi, Chicken Curry, Pad Thai, Papaya Salad with Shrimp and Pork

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Que Huong – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Que Huong Vietnamese Restaurant on Louisiana and Central

Wisdom oft comes from the mouth of babes.”
~George R.R. Martin

After far too many meals at restaurants in which children are either screaming at the top of their lungs, throwing hysterical tantrums or wandering unsupervised around the dining room, our inaugural meal at Que Huong proved a very pleasant surprise. Across the dining room, we espied a Vietnamese family with several young children.  Theirs was the quietest table in the restaurant.  All of them were completely focused on their meals. When my Kim commented on how well behaved Vietnamese children are, I reminded her of at least one Vietnamese child who doesn’t always behave as well as the children Kim was idealizing. In fact, that child is as candid and unfiltered as some adults, the antithesis of the precious little angels at Que Huong.

When her adoptive parents took Lily Pritchett-Tucker to a Vietnamese restaurant so they could teach her about her heritage, Lily became stubborn and outspoken….a true little diva. She refused her parents attempts to teach her anything about Vietnam. When her daddy told her about a “special soup called pho (pronounced “fuh”),” she responded “you told me not to say that word.” After repeated efforts to tell her more about the country of her birth, she shouted “I hate Vietnam,” a declaration which made the group appear horribly racist. The entire meal became a succession of intolerant-sounding, albeit wholly innocent comedy that escalated until the family realized it was time to beat a hasty exit.

Que Huong’s Dining Room

Some of you may recognize that scene from an episode of Modern Family, an Emmy Award-winning television mockumentary. Though entirely fictitious, that scene spawned a debate between my Kim and I about children in restaurants. My pop psychology theories as to why the Vietnamese children at Que Huong behaved so well included everything from attributing their behavior to a hyper-disciplining “tiger mom” to crediting the elevator music piped in through the restaurant’s sound system for making the children sleepy. Finally, my Kim, who’s much smarter than I, chided me for not having attributed the children’s behavior to the food. Her theory had a lot more validity (and common sense) than mine.

Great food–even moreso than music–has charms that sooth the savage breast…or child. A great meal can usurp even great conversation…or at least provide a temporary surcease from talking until appetites are sated. Our question was “is the food at Que Huong so good, it can keep children from being themselves?” Alas, in subsequent visits we haven’t had the opportunity to reprise our observations. We have discovered for ourselves, however, that when we’re sharing a meal at Que Huong, our conversation tends to be about the meal itself, not our day-to-day shop talk. More often than not, we’re discussing how much we’re enjoying a particular dish.

Stuffed Grape Leaves with Durian Shake and Fish Sauce

Que Huong, a Vietnamese term which translates to “hometown” sits at the corner of Central and Louisiana. It’s directly across Louisiana from the Talin Market World Food Fare, New Mexico’s largest international foods market. Que Huong’s Web site boasts of the “most authentic Vietnamese food in Albuquerque!” and of serving “unique delicacies that will keep you coming back and bringing your friends and relatives!”. It’s one of only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in the metropolitan area open for business on Sundays. In fact, Que Huong is open seven days a week and remains open until 9PM every day.

Excluding beverages, there are 115 items on Que Huong’s menu. It’s a veritable compendium of Vietnamese cuisine, showcasing everything from pho to noodle bowls and rice dishes. You could sample something new every day for nearly four months, but chances are you’ll find something wonderfully addictive from which you’ll be hard-pressed to deviate. For me, that one beguiling temptress is durian shakes. Considered the “stinkiest fruit in the world,” durian is an acquired taste, one which even bizarre food gurgitator Andrew Zimmern can’t stomach. Servers at Vietnamese and Thai restaurants still give me “are you crazy?” looks every time I order it, but it’s one of my favorite beverages.

Beef Stew Sandwich

In ancient and contemporary cuisine across Greece, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, stuffed grape leaves are a ubiquitous dish. Though not indigenous to Southeast Asia, grape leaves have found their way into Vietnamese cuisine, a remnant of French colonization. Large grape leaves are rolled with a mixture of ground beef, cilantro and scallions seasoned with various herbs and spices then served with fish sauce. Though served five per order, the stuffed grape leaves at Que Huong aren’t quite as sizeable as dolmas at local Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants tend to be. In terms of flavor, dolmas and Vietnamese grape leaves are worlds apart, as different as night and day. Both are uniquely delicious onto themselves.

The menu lists two sandwiches. One is the grilled pork chicken or vegetarian banh mi. The other is called a “Beef Stew Sandwich” even though it’s far from a conventional sandwich. It is essentially an appetizer-sized bowl of beef stew Vietnamese-style. What makes it a sandwich is the baguette which accompanies the beef stew. Crispy on the outside, soft and pillowy on the inside, the baguette is perfect for dredging up the luscious stew. Talk about comfort food. The steamy, fragrant beef stew does indeed include beef chunks along with sliced carrots, scallions, white onions and noodles. It’s redolent with star anise and fresh herbs which coalesce into one uniquely wonderful, delightfully addictive flavor.

Que Huong Special

Clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish. One of the more endearing qualities of a clay pot is its ability to retain heat, to the point at which the rice at the bottom of the pot tends to caramelize into an even more delicious version of itself. The “Que Huong Special” is the restaurant’s version of a sizzling clay pot dish, a combination of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, crab meat and vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, mushroom, carrots and peas) stir-fried with a special sweet-savory sauce. As delicious as it is, this dish is both too hot and too large to finish in one sitting. Leftovers are just as good.

Since May Hong introduced her to patter noodles, a large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern, my Kim has searched this dish out at every Vietnamese restaurant we frequent. Que Huong’s version is called a vermicelli pattie and it’s served with grilled beef. The grilled pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds then it is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Que Huong’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it tastes something like this dish..

Vermicelli Pattie with Grilled Beef

It may be debated as to whether or not it’s the deliciousness of Que Huong’s menu that causes children of all ages to behave well and focus exclusively on their meals. What isn’t up for debate is that this restaurant is one of Albuquerque’s favorite Vietnamese restaurants, a restaurant worthy of the “hometown” designation.

Que Huong
7010 Louisiana Avenue, S.E., Suites C & D
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 262-0575
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Que Huong Special, Vermicelli Pattie with Grilled Beef, Grilled Beef Rolls with Grape Leaves, Beef Stew Sandwich, Durian Shake

Que Huong Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

8 March 2014: 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.

8 March 2014: 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.

Crawfish

8 March 2014: For a few months in 2014, Pho 79 offered crawfish imported from the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  Boiled in a slurry of seasonings, garlic cloves and liberal amounts of Cayenne, they were 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

8 March 2014: 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.

8 March 2014: 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)

4 November 2015: One of the telling culinary and cultural differences between American cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine is the importance the latter places on dishes Americans might consider secondary or supporting.  Study a Vietnamese menu and you’ll see a number of dishes categorized under the heading “Rice Dishes” and “Noodle Dishes.”  A dish could conceivably include Almas caviar ($25,000 an ounce) and seared foie gras and it would still fall under either the “Rice” or “Noodle” dish section of the menu.  

If you’re Vietnamese, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the Rice Dish with Curry quite as much if it didn’t have rice.  Americans on the other hand, use the rice to sop up the curry and mix it with the perfectly al dente stir-fried vegetables.  Some of us wouldn’t even mind if the rice wasn’t there at all.  That’s because the curry and vegetable (broccoli, squash, carrots, onions) are swoon-worthy delicious.  Vietnamese curry isn’t nearly as sweet as Thai curry nor as pungent as Indian curry even though its genesis is India.  It tends to be more “stew-like” than other Asian curries and is imbued with a bouquet sure to please.  Pho 79’s version of Rice with Curry is among the best of its kind to be found in Albuquerque.

Rice Dish with Curry

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
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 November 2015
1st VISIT: 8 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crawfish, Chicken Dumplings,  Spring Rolls with Grilled Pork, Well Done Steak Noodle Soup, Spicy Curry Vermicelli Bowl, Rice Dish with Curry

Pho 79 on Urbanspoon

Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mekong01

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.

22 February 2014: 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.

Egg Rolls

22 February 2014: 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.

22 February 2014: 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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Pad Ramen Noodle

19 February 2015:  Forgive me if you’ve read this before on this blog, but egg rolls–or at least Chinese egg rolls–have morphed into one of the most uninteresting and tasteless appetizers in creation.  What ever happened to Chinese egg rolls stuffed with julienne pork, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and just a bit of cabbage wrapped by crispy, slightly chewy skins. Today, cabbage comprises approximately 90% of the content of Chinese egg rolls.  If you want a good egg roll, you’ve got to visit an Asian restaurant other than Chinese.  While every Asian culture makes its egg rolls differently, the concept is basically the same.  The wrappers on the Mekong Ramen House’s egg rolls have a golden sheen and a crispy exterior that belies an interior of cabbage, carrots, ramen noodles and more.  These egg rolls are slightly larger than a Cuban cigar and are served with a sweet-tangy sauce.

22 February 2014: 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.

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Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

22 February 2014: 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.

19 February 2015: It stands to reason that because Laos and Thailand border one another, their cuisines are very similar.  That means rich, coconut-milk based sauces, fresh ingredients and exotic flavors such as galangal, Kaffir lime, and curry paste.  The latter is best on display in the Mekong House’s Red Curry Ramen, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with ingredients: cabbage, broccoli, julienne carrots, bean sprouts, chives, bell pepper, red curry and some of the most unctuous, rich and delicious ramen noodles you’ll ever have.  Those noodles would easily be the starring attraction on this excellent soup were it not for the red curry itself.  Not quite as coconut milk-sweet as most Thai curries, it’s got an assertiveness (courtesy of ginger) I’ve often missed in curries which emphasize sweetness.  This is an excellent curry dish, albeit one that’s not available on the daily menu but shows up periodically as a special of the day.

Red Curry Ramen

9 March 2015:  The bordering nations of Laos and Thailand share many culinary commonalities, including a love for larb, a moist, citrusy minced-beef or chicken salad.  There are sometimes subtle differences in the ways it’s prepared, but such differences exist from restaurant to restaurant and home to home.  Mekong Ramen’s version isn’t nearly as citrusy as larb offered at most Duke City restaurants.  It’s still punctuated with citrus influences and remains lively, a melange of lime, shallots, scallions, mint, cilantro and chile with toasty notes from pulverized toasted rice which lends an interesting textural profile.  The larb is available with either beef or chicken.  It’s not a dish everyone will love, but if you do, this is one you’ll appreciate.

Lao Larb

22 February 2014: 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.

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Mangoes with sticky rice

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
LATEST VISIT: 9 March 2015
1st VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken, Egg Rolls, Red Curry Ramen, Larb

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon

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