Rolls & Bowls – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Rolls & Bowls Vietnamese Deli and Boba Coffee

The banh mi sandwich is really the only good argument for colonialism.”
~Calvin Trillin

By most historical standards, the banh mi is a rather new entrant in the world culinary stage. Its evolution into the revered sandwich we know and love today began in 1859 with the French arrival in Saigon. Along with military occupation, the French brought their c’est delicieux cuisine to Southeast Asia…although to be clear, the colonial rulers never had the benevolent intent of introducing the Vietnamese to their more “refined” cuisine. The French, in fact, initially forbade their subjects from partaking of such stables as bread and meat, believing the Vietnamese diet of fish and rice kept them weak. In time, wealthy Vietnamese who embraced French rule were allowed to purchase sandwiches from expensive bakeries which constructed them on French baguettes (which were too pricey for the poverty classes).

One of the culinary traditions the French brought to Vietnam was casse-croute, a term which translates literally to “break or crush the crust,” but which more often translates to “snack.” Among the most popular snacks was a traditional French baguette which the “upper crust” served with a plate of cold cuts, pate, ham, cheese and butter. Is this starting to sound familiar? This obviously was the deconstructed precursor of the modern banh mi. The term “banh mi,” by the way, actually translates to “bread,” but is understood to refer specifically to the Vietnamese baguette and more often, the sandwiches constructed on those baguettes.

The counter where you place your order

After the French were ousted from Vietnam in 1954, baguettes and cold cuts became increasingly available to the Vietnamese people. It didn’t take long before a tiny family-owned snack bar known as Hoa Ma constructed the first truly Vietnamese sandwich–the banh mi which became the progenitor of the beloved banh mi of today. Hoa Ma’s version of the banh mi included traditional ingredients, condiments, sauces and garnishes the Vietnamese people considered their own. It didn’t take long before street vendors popularized the banh mi as a staple food for the masses.

When Saigon fell to the Communist North Vietnamese Army in 1975, a unified Vietnam entered a period of austerity and hardship. It fell upon those who fled Vietnam’s shores to carry forward to their new homes in America, Europe and Australia, the propagation of such Vietnamese delights as the banh mi and its culinary cousin, pho. Initially some of the expatriates established bakeries and delis which catered to their communities, but when the local populace discovered the incomparable deliciousness of Vietnamese cuisine, its popularity soared. Today there are hundreds of restaurants, bakeries, delis and cafes offering banh mi…and for that, Calvin Trillin’s statement makes good sense.

Raspberry Boba Tea and Vietnamese Coffee

We’ve been loving banh mi in Albuquerque since at least 1995 when they were called “Vietnamese Sandwiches” by the few Vietnamese restaurants (May Hong among them) which served them. That’s sixteen years before banh mi made it to the Oxford English dictionary. Albuquerque’s very first Vietnamese bakery whose primary focus was banh mi was Banh Mi Coda which opened in 2010 after a short stint as Lee’s Bakery. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches.” In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of its second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center made infamous on Better Call Saul. Ten different banh mi adorn the menu at this combination bakery, deli and tofu house.

In November, 2016, SweeTea Bakery Café opened its doors in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, gracing the Duke City with yet another very impressive array of delicious banh mi as well as some of the best pastries this side of Paris. Not quite a year later, Rolls & Bowls became the fourth Vietnamese bakery-restaurant specializing in banh mi to launch in Albuquerque. One commonality among the quadrumvirate of banh mi purveyors is some of the city’s very best sandwiches prepared and served by very talented and dedicated owners all committed to proving (to paraphrase the Beatles) you can banh mi love (how’s that for a pithy covfefe?).

Egg Rolls

Located in the timeworn shopping center that also serves as home to Basil Leaf (next door) and La Salita, Rolls & Bowls proves once again that a small space doesn’t belie huge flavors.  A handful of booths hug one wall then there’s the counter at which you place your order.  That’s the extent of this Lilliputian lair.  The face of Rolls & Bowls is the lovely Ai (or the American name Tina if you prefer) who’s lived in the Duke City for nearly a quarter-century though she barely looks much older than that.  Ai is as friendly and engaging as any restaurateur in town.  Her husband prepares the baked goods and the restaurant’s featured fare.

The menu at Rolls & Bowls is rather ambitious considering its diminutive digs though as previously declared, if restaurants were measured solely by their deliciousness, it would be one of the city’s most capacious restaurants.  The menu’s tag line reads “Asian fusion comfort food freshly made for you!”  Those comfort foods include rolls (obviously), a number of egg rolls and spring rolls and bowls (of course) of rice served with your choice of chicken, grilled pork char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) and tofu loaf.  Noodle dishes also grace the menu as do bowls of salad and assorted breads, pastries and snacks.  Then there’s the banh mi, a phalanx of superb sandwiches.  To wash it all down, Rolls & Bowls offers boba flavored teas in several flavors as well as an outstanding Vietnamese espresso.

Meatball Banh Mi

Vietnamese egg rolls tend to be thinner and lighter than their Chinese and American counterparts.  Thinner, too, are the wrappers which are tightly packed with ground pork and vegetables (cabbage, dried mushrooms, carrots, and jicama) cut so small and thin that they’re difficult to distinguish by sight alone.  It’s only in the tasting that a determination as to their deliciousness can be discerned.  Rolls & Bowls prepares excellent egg rolls, as good as you’ll find at any Vietnamese restaurant in town.  Accompanied by a tart-tangy fish sauce, they’re a terrific way to start a meal.

The canvas for the banh mi are whole baguettes baked in-house and dressed with a type of aioli spread infused with fish sauce. About ten-inches in length, the baguettes become a repository for a wide variety of fillings: your choice of grilled pork, char siu, meatballs, sardines, ham, chicken, fried eggs and vegetables. A common denominator on all banh mi is a bright, crunchy “slaw” constructed from shredded carrots, daikon radish, fresh cilantro and sliced jalapeños. Freshness and flavor are a hallmark of all banh mi as is value. Unlike so many American sandwiches, the price point of most banh mi remains less than six dollars.

Grilled Pork Banh Mi

Rolls & Bowls meatball banh mi ranks with its brethren from SweeTea as my favorite Vietnamese sandwich in the Duke City.  There’s just something magical about the moist pork meatballs interplaying with the crunchy slaw that appeals to my taste buds.  As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between meatballs, slaw and sauce.  Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses.  You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi.

Perhaps the most popular banh mi across the fruited plain is the one constructed with grilled pork.  Yes, this is the same grilled pork that’s magically marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  The grilling infuses the flavors of those spices deeply into the pork while imparting the unmistakable essence of meats prepared on a grill.  The grilled pork banh mi is the favorite of my Kim–to the point that all she ever lets me have is one bite of her sandwich.

Vietnamese Steamed Pork Buns

Vietnamese steamed pork buns are, much like their Chinese counterparts, a type of dumpling made with leavened dough and rolled out into round shapes then stuffed and steamed.  Rolls & Bowls shapes their steamed pork into pig faces, a precursor to the delicious pork sausages with which the buns are stuffed.  The exterior of these steamed pork buns is cakey and dense indicative of being steamed for an optimum time (when not steamed long enough, the interior can taste undercooked and doughy).  The interior is stuffed with sausage and hard-boiled egg tinged with a sweet barbecue-like sauce.  These are addictive.

Rolls & Bowls–the name slides off your tongue like a rhapsodic melody and indeed, the flavors conjured in the kitchen are carefully orchestrated to give diners maximum enjoyment.  Rolls & Bowls is a wonderful addition to the Duke City’s increasing repertoire of banh mi restaurants.

Rolls & Bowls
1301 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 990-0480
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Raspberry Boba Tea, Vietnamese Espresso, Egg Rolls, Vietnamese Bun, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Meatball Banh Mi, Ham Banh Mi

Rolls & Bowls Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

May Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Paul Bunyan Leaving His Favorite Vietnamese Restaurant

There are perhaps thousands of examples throughout the Duke City of immigrants whose path to the American dream involved rising above humble origins and surmounting extraordinary circumstances to achieve success.  Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that many of them arrived in America as refugees from war-torn nations with nary a modicum of English. 

One such example is Liem Nguyen, who along with wife Kim founded the May Cafe in 1992, a scant nine years after arriving in Albuquerque through a church resettlement program.  Speaking almost no English, Liem, then 22 years old, enrolled in Highland High School as a ninth-grader.  He didn’t know how to drive, shop at the supermarket or even catch a bus.  He slept in a closet in a tiny apartment he shared with several other immigrants.

Grilled Onion Beef

Grilled Onion Beef

Among the city’s very first Vietnamese restaurants, May Cafe wasn’t an immediate success save within the tight-knit Vietnamese community craving the tastes of home and among the servicemen at Kirtland Air Force Base who had been stationed in Vietnam and fell in love with the cuisine.  It took a while before the widespread acceptance by a trepidatious general public of the alluring and theretofore mysterious flavors of Vietnam.  It helped tremendously when in its annual restaurant issue, the long-defunct Abq Magazine listed the May Cafe as a handful of second-tier restaurants just below the magazine’s anointed ten best.

The May Cafe is situated on Louisiana just south of Central.  The most conspicuous sign that you’ve arrived is a 27-foot tall fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan just behind the restaurant.  Weighing more than 2,000 pounds and wielding an axe as long as a compact car, the giant lumberman has been perched on a customized steel beam 25 feet above the ground for more than four decades.  Anywhere but in Albuquerque the behemoth statue might seem out-of-place, but here it’s become a beloved local landmark.

MayCafe03

Vietnamese Sandwich (Banh Mi)

Beloved local landmark is also an apt description for the May Cafe which has earned every peoples’ choice and “best of” award possible during its twenty plus years of serving the Duke City.  Most recently, in 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine bestowed a “Hot Plate” award on the restaurant’s popular pork chop dish, signifying its selection as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Despite competition from more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants strewn throughout the metropolitan area, the May Cafe remains one of the most highly regarded and popular independent restaurants of any genre.

The menu reads like a compendium of all that is delicious and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine.  The menu boasts “our food is made from the best ingredients, freshest vegetables and meats.”  The proof is in the tasting and that’s where the May Cafe shines.  You’re not likely to find any appetizer or entree that doesn’t elicit exclamations of “wow!” or “yummo” if you’re a Rachael Ray clone!

MayCafe04

Spicy Beef Stew

9 February 2013: One of the Cafe’s most popular starters is the grilled onion beef, a specialty available as an entree at SaiGon Restaurant.  An order features five cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled spring onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion.  Vietnamese grilling imparts a slight smoky char imprint on beef with a fragrance promising deliciousness in every morsel.  The deliciousness comes from a melding of such spices as star anise and cinnamon which prove a perfect foil for the full-flavored onions.  The grilled onion beef is served with the Cafe’s renowned fish sauce which adds sweet-savory-tangy notes to the beef.

9 February 2013: Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are almost antithetical to their American counterparts.  On the latter, sandwich aficionados want ingredients, particularly meat, piled high and spilling over.  With banh mi, it’s all about a balance of delicate, complimentary flavors.  You’ll probably never find a Dagwood-sized banh mi and if you did, it probably wouldn’t be very good.  May Cafe’s banh mi combines barbecue pork, beef or chicken with daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, julienne carrots, cucumber slivers in an airy baguette.  The baguette is key.  It can’t be dense and thick or it might dominate the flavor profile.  In perfect combination with the ingredients it cocoons, the baguette is a repository for the perfect sandwich. 

Egg Rolls

14 June 2017:  The history of Vietnam is one of colonization by conquering nations.  Centuries of colonization fashioned what ultimately evolved into Vietnamese cuisine, distinctly different from the cuisine of any intervening conquerors.  Vietnamese egg rolls are on example.  While they bear some resemblance to their Chinese progenitors, preparation and flavor are entirely different from the Chinese version.  Vietnamese egg rolls are smaller and more crispy, wrapped and lightly fried in rice paper and filled with seasoned bits of vegetables and served with the ubiquitous nuoc mam sauce. Nuoc mam is considered the Vietnamese alternative to soy sauce, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s a distilled and fermented fish extract used to season many dishes. Both the egg rolls and nuoc man sauce at the May Cafe are terrific.

9 February 2013: When fellow Vietnamese cuisine aficionados often ask what my favorite pho in the Albuquerque area is, I’m almost unqualified to answer.  Rather than pho, if a Vietnamese restaurant offers a spicy beef stew, that’s what I’ll order.   There are three Duke City restaurants which offer phenomenal spicy beef stew: Cafe Dalat, May Hong and the May Cafe.  Aside from the fact that the proprietors of each are related, the common element among the three spicy beef stews is intense flavor–not intense spiciness if your definition of such is piquancy, but the spiciness born of spice combinations redolent with flavor.  May Cafe’s version is the color of brackish water and can be prepared with your choice of noodles: rice, egg or vermicelli.  What singles out this spicy beef stew from among its brethren is the beef which is carne adovada tender and absolutely delicious. The broth is replete with flavor so good it might make you swoon.

MayCafe05

Singapore Noodles

9 February 2013: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls the May Cafe’s Singapore Noodles “perhaps the best I have ever had.”  I beg to disagree with my esteemed friend.  The word “perhaps” doesn’t belong in the sentence.  This is the very best bowl of Singapore Noodles I’ve ever had.  With a make-your-mouth-happy level of piquancy, the curry-based dish with tangles of vermicelli noodles and ultra-fresh vegetables is one of those rare dishes so good it would be the only thing you’ll ever order.  That is if the menu wasn’t already replete with other dishes that good.

14 June 2017:  Ginger or Mary Ann?  Oops, wrong ginger.  In this case, ginger definitely wins.  The May Cafe’s version of ginger catfish (crispy catfish in ginger sauce is one of the most surprising dishes you’ll find in Albuquerque.  Fish, for all that is said about them, have a rather “blandish” flavor profile while ginger is an assertive, peppery spice that will wake up your taste buds.  Fish and ginger go wonderfully together.  The ginger sauce is the color of luminous, fluorescent Day-Glo or maybe French dressing, but it has a flavor you won’t soon forget.  That’s because it imprints itself on your taste buds with piquant, savory, sweet and just slightly sour sensations.  Surprisingly it is a perfect complement to the meaty catfish which is fried to perfection.  Though the catfish skin is crispy, the fish is light and flaky and not “fishy” in the least.

Ginger Catfish

As with many of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurants, the May Cafe provides excellent value, proving gourmet quality cuisine doesn’t have to be expensive in order to be very good.

May Cafe
111 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-4448
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2017
# OF VISITS:  5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Vietnamese Sandwich, Singapore Noodles, Spicy Beef Stew, Ginger Catfish, Egg Rolls

May Cafe 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. 

24 May 2017: In modern vernacular, the term “size doesn’t matter” has implications of double entendre.  In the culinary world, only the Food Network and Travel Channel would have you believe meatballs should be the size of basketballs.  Vietnamese purveyors of meatball banh mi know better and the proof is in the eating.  iKrave’s meatballs are about the size of the tiny meatballs once found on Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti and meatballs.  Size truly doesn’t matter when the flavor of these tender pork meatballs will make you swoon.  The meatballs are impregnated with seasonings that complement the fresh, crispy vegetable “slaw” made with pickled carrots and daikon radishes, sliced jalapeños, cucumber slices and fresh cilantro in a baguette canvas.  This is one of the very best banh mi in the city.

Meatball 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!  

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

Huong Thao – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Huong Thao Vietnamese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

In the year 2000 (ancient history by restaurant standards) when the Duke City had only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants, only one was listed on Zagat Survey’s Millennium Edition of the top restaurants in the Southwest. That restaurant was Huong Thao which was widely regarded at the time as perhaps the city’s very best Vietnamese dining establishment. Zagat Survey accorded Huong Thao a rating of “24” which categorized it as “very good to excellent.” The restaurant was praised for its “delicious traditional foods” and was singled out for its “no-puff” policies back when smoking was still allowed in Albuquerque dining establishments.  

In 2002, Huong Thao eked out a win over other highly-regarded Vietnamese restaurants in La Cocinita magazine’s (defunct) 2002 second annual critic’s choice awards. Garnering praise from an august body of panelists were the “herb-filled spring rolls” and “oh-so-crispy grilled pork.” Today, Huong Thao is a venerable presence, an elder statesperson among a phalanx of very good to outstanding Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. It remains a formidable favorite to this day because it’s not only retained loyal patrons, it’s cultivated new aficionados.

Huong Thao’s Dining Room

From the very beginning, Huong Thao has held a reputation as a Vegan-friendly restaurant, earning accolades throughout the 1990s and beyond from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.” Although the word “Huong” translates from Vietnamese to “scent of the flower” and “Thao” translates to “herbal,” the restaurant was actually named for its founder. Though she long ago sold her eponymous restaurant, the fragrant bouquets which always wafted from Huong Thao’s kitchen remain part and parcel of the restaurant experience. Huong Thao (the restaurant’s founder, not the restaurant) continues to perform fragrant feats of culinary magic, albeit at her son Bill’s restaurant An Hy Quan. Not surprisingly, An Hy Quan is not only the city’s very best Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants, but one of its best restaurants of any genre.

Over the years, our visits to Huong Thao have been infrequent, in part because this Northeast Heights restaurant is the furthest east from our home of any Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. My return visit in March, 2017, after an eleven year absence sure makes me wish I’d listened to my friend and fellow epicurean Jim Millington who long ago urged me to return. My flimsy excuse had been that Huong Thao had begun offering sushi (which no Vietnamese restaurant should ever do), but Jim also assured me the restaurant’s sole focus had also long ago returned to its Vietnamese cuisine. If there is one excuse that only partially absolves my transgression of not having visited sooner, it’s that Huong Thao does not have a street (Juan Tabo) facing presence and is set back in a nondescript shopping center.

New Mexico Spring Roll

Unlike several other Vietnamese restaurants in the city, Huong Thao’s menu isn’t a veritable compendium of all possible Vietnamese deliciousness. With fewer than sixty appetizers and entrees, its menu is roughly half the size of the menu at some restaurants. Study the menu and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of your favorites absent. In fact, the menu offers several items not widely seen in the Duke City. The appetizer menu, for example, includes an asparagus and crab meat soup. Among unique entrée offerings are stir-fried curry, shaken beef and mung bean crepes. The menu is a delight to peruse, offering something for everyone who loves Vietnamese cuisine.

22 March 2017: When you do visit Huong Thao, there’s really no excuse for not having the restaurant’s amazing spring rolls. After all these years, these zeppelin-sized spring rolls are still the biggest (and among the very best) in the city–two rice paper rolls per order engorged with pork (and or shrimp and tofu), noodles and fresh vegetables. New Mexicans, of course, will order the New Mexico Spring Roll (green chile and avocado with chicken, tofu or shrimp). This is an idea whose time has come, further confirmation that green chile improves the flavor of everything it touches. The green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it has a nice roasted flavor. Fresh avocado and cilantro lend the essence of freshness. The accompanying fish sauce is a bit on the sweet side, but that’s easily remedied with a liberal application of the chili sauce on your table.

Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings

24 March 2017: Despite pretty obvious limitations—they’re messy, they don’t give you a lot of meat and they’re so small it takes a lot of them to put a dent on your appetite—chicken wings have become a veritable culinary institution in America. In many cases, however, the only difference between the chicken wing at one eatery and another is the sauce with which they’re served. There’s not much originality in the concept. Some Vietnamese and Thai restaurants have an answer to the homogeneity of the ubiquitous chicken wing—stuff it.

Huong Thao’s boneless stuffed chicken wings are terrific, the complete antithesis of the limitations listed above. Somehow, the chef has managed to debone a chicken wing; stuff it with ground pork, clear noodles and mushrooms; and deep-fry it. Frankly, it resembles a small fried game hen, pumped up like a football (no Tom Brady jokes here) and fried to a crispy, golden brown. The stuffing is addictive with pungent, earthy notes that complement the crispy chicken skin. The accompanying fish sauce is wholly unnecessary.

Spicy Beef Soup (Bun Ho Hue)

22 March 2017: My very favorite entrée is the Hue-style spicy beef soup (bun bo Hue), the spicier, heartier, livelier, more flavorful cousin to pho. It’s the best (and only) reason to eschew pho. Huong Thao’s rendition is, by far, the “beefiest,” most beef-concentrated version of Hue-style soup I’ve ever had. Some of that is courtesy of the beef, meatloaf, tendon and pork hock swimming around in the aromatic beef stock, but look closer and you’ll see lots of the fatty globules which characterize soup that starts with beef and pork bones. Some diners may consider the pork hock and tendon a bit off-putting, but they lend so much personality to a soup already brimming with soul-warming and assertive flavors. Its spiciness comes from lots of lemongrass, shrimp paste and a tangle of aromatic herbs.

24 March 2017: While it seems the Land of Enchantment competes with Mississippi for last place in virtually every quality of life factor, there is one area in which the Magnolia State reigns supreme. That would be in the preparation of catfish. I’ve often lamented (probably ad-nauseum) the lack of great catfish dishes in New Mexico, but should qualify that doesn’t apply to the way Vietnamese restaurants prepare catfish. Café Dalat and before that May Hong have quelled our yen for catfish many times. In Huong Thao’s deep-fried catfish in ginger sauce, we found another superb catfish dish. The ginger sauce is applied lightly as opposed to the lacquered on sauce at Café Dalat, but it is no less potent. That sauce enlivens the flaky fish. Perhaps in deference to queasy diners, Huong Thao serves its catfish sans head which is a shame because there’s plenty of flavorful flesh in fish cheeks.

Deep-Fried Catfish in Ginger Sauce

Huong Thao remains one of the city’s best and most popular Vietnamese restaurants. Don’t just take my word for it (considering the eleven year gap between visits). Ask anyone who knows and loves Vietnamese cuisine and they’ll tell you.

Huong Thao
1016B Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 292-8222
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: New Mexico Spring Rolls, Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings, Rice Noodle Bowl Grilled With Lemongrass and Sliced Pork, Stir Fried Egg Noodles With Pork, Deep-Fried Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Spicy Beef Soup,

Huong Thao Vietnamese Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nanami Noodle House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nanami Noodle House and Sister Restaurant, Plum Cafe

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

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

Nanami Dining Room

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

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

Green Chile Rangoon

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

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

Chicken Dumplings

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

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

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

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

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

Kim Chi Ramen

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

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

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

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Linh at its new location as of 2016

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

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

Pho Linh’s colorful interior

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

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

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside

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

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

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

Toa grills beef at our table

Toa Kim grills beef at our table (circa 2007)

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

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

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

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

Grilled Mussels

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

Grilled slices beef rolled with pickled leek

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

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

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

Singapore Noodles

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

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

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

Seven Courses of Beef

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

Lemon Beef

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

Grilled Loaf and Grilled Beef Rolls in Pickled Leek

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

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

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

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

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

Lime Vietnamese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Lime Vietnamese Restaurant

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

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

The Interior of Lime Vietnamese Restaurant

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

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

Papaya Salad

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

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

Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves

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

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

Spicy Lemongrass Soup

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

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

Vermicelli Patties with Pork and Beef

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

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

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

1 2 3 6