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Viet Q – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Q Vietnamese Grill Restaurant on Montgomery and San Pedro

When helicopters were snatching people from the grounds of the American embassy
compound during the panic of the final Vietcong push into Saigon,
I was sitting in front of the television set shouting, ‘Get the chefs! Get the chefs
!'”
Calvin Trillin, American writer, New Yorker Magazine

It’s unlikely Trillin, a humorist renown for his love of food, was entirely serious about his seemingly callous reaction to the poignant imagery of thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing their besieged city.  In his own inimitable way, he was using his sardonic wit to express  appreciation for the exotic cuisine he loves so much.  In fact, he considers the influx of Asians into American restaurant kitchens divine intervention of a sort: “God felt sorry for us because we lost a war to such a small country as Vietnam and sent the Vietnamese to us–where they were really needed.”

Three decades after the evacuation of Saigon, the Travel Channel’s articulate bon viveur Anthony Bourdain, wrote about Saigon: “I think I’ve gone bamboo…I’ve gone goofy on Vietnam, fallen hopelessly, hopelessly in love with the place.”  For Bourdain, that’s rare, unfettered praise.  Most viewers recognize that Bourdain’s approach to his culinary adventures is antithetical to the burbling style of Rachel Ray who visits only the most sanitary, hip and happening restaurants then anoints everything that touches her toothsome mouth as “yummo.”  Bourdain doesn’t sugarcoat anything, exposing his featured fare’s warts and blemishes yet somehow finding deliciousness in the experience and describing it with the honesty that has made him an iconic personality.

Papaya Salad

Bourdain champions the experience of dining in Saigon’s makeshift street markets in which kitchens are ad-libbed by inventive cooks.  The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located.  Though many tourists fear the Vietnamese version of Montezuma’s revenge, the incidence of food-borne illness is relatively low.

Alas, we’re not going to find improvised street markets in Albuquerque’s International District or anywhere else in our fair city and not even a fun shopping day at the Talin Market World Food Fare can match the experience of a day  of dining in  a Saigon open air market or a soiree at a side street “cafe.”  Fortunately the Duke City is home to several very good to outstanding Vietnamese restaurants, a concentration of which are centered in the city’s southeastern section.  A number of outliers (May Hong and Saigon come to mind) make Vietnamese cuisine proximal to most neighborhoods east of the Rio Grande.

Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves

In June, 2010, the Northeast Heights welcomed a new, yet seemingly familiar, Vietnamese restaurant.  It’s no coincidence that the lime green signage at Viet Q resembles the color pallet at Viet Taste, a popular strip mall eatery near Coronado Mall.  The ownership of both Viet Q and Viet Taste is related, but that’s not the only semblance.  Step inside Viet Q and you’re in the lap of upscale stylings, starting with a pergola you walk under to enter the dining room.  Lighting is subdued and the spacing between tables allows for some privacy.  Framed photographs depicting the curvature of sultry women accentuate the ambiance.

22 August 2010: Viet Q purports to be the most upscale Vietnamese restaurant in town.  To that end, service is very personable and attentive.  Every meal begins with a complementary papaya salad, a very nice touch.  Green papaya is shaved into thin slices with julienne carrots then drizzled with a sauce of soy, coconut milk and sugar topped with sprigs of cilantro and crushed peanuts.  This is an addictive salad showcasing fresh, crispy vegetables and a sauce that’s both sweet and piquant, deliciously so.  It’s very similar to the papaya salad offered at many Thai restaurants, but we enjoyed it more–so much more that in future visits, we’ll order the appetizer portions which are made with shrimp or chicken.

Meat Ball Soup

22 August 2010: Unacculturated diners visiting a Vietnamese restaurant for the first time tend to do a double-take when they see grilled beef wrap grape leaf on the menu, wondering if they stepped into a Greek restaurant. Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Q’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased is a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf.  It’s served with a light, slightly piquant and not too sweet fish sauce.   Five pieces to the order might inspire rapacious drooling.

7 December 2014:  Few things in life are as satisfying as biting into a well-crafted dumpling–the steamed or fried wrapper hermetically sealing concordant ingredients in a steamed or fried wrapper.  Preceded by an intoxicating aroma wafting toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, the  first bite is always a revelation as to whether you’re partaking of dumpling greatness.  At the very least, Viet Q’s dumplings are very good.  Engorged with pork and a tangy-piquant dipping sauce, their only fault is in quantity–there are only six per order.

Potstickers

22 August 2010: As Bourdain fans know, he considers pho, a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup, his favorite comfort food, claiming that he would “jerk a butter knife across his best friend’s throat” for a bowl of pho.  Fortunately the portion size for pho at most restaurants is about the size of a small swimming pool, so a bowl of pho is usually large enough for two to share.  If you’re not hungry enough for a large bowl, the appetizer menu comes to the rescue with two small portioned soups–a meat ball soup and a wonton soup. 

22 August 2010: The meat ball soup is a warm elixir for whatever ails you, so warm and good you’ll long for the cold bite of winter so the soup can warm you up.  The broth is delicious with cilantro and red onions floating atop to amend the flavor profile.  The meat balls are quite dissimilar to the meatballs you might associate with an Italian spaghetti dish.  These meat balls aren’t wholly spherical, but rather sliced like thick sausage on a pizza.  Come to think of it, texturally the meat balls resemble a sliced Italian sausage.  In any case, they’re delicious and there are plenty of them on the soup.

Banh Mi

7 December 2014: Bourdain describes banh mi as a “symphony in a sandwich.”  Not very long ago, the number of Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque offering the sacrosanct sandwich of Vietnam was somewhat limited.  Today almost every Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City offers a version with levels of quality varying from very good to excellent.  That’s quite a testament as to just how good banh mi can be.  Viet Q offers two banh mi though on the menu they’ve been translated to English. 

The canvas for Viet Q’s banh mi is a warm baguette which is crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside which is stuffed with a number of robust herbs and vegetables such as coriander, parsley, jalapeño, daikon, cucumber and carrots along with your choice of meat (pork is an excellent option).  It’s a scrumptious sandwich that will wake up your palate.  It’s not, however, an Americanized “Dagwood” sandwich overstuffed with ingredients, but the ingredients that it does have are indeed symphonic in the way they coalesce into absolute deliciousness.

Hot Claypot Rice Combination with Grilled Beef, Squid, Crab and Vegetables

22 August 2010: One of Bourdain’s favorite restaurants in Vietnam adds an entertaining touch to the dining experience.  When a claypot rice dish is ready to serve, the claypot is broken open and the rice is tossed across the room.  Smashing claypots can be heard every few minutes.  The practice is probably too cost prohibitive and probably prohibited by the city’s Environmental Health Department, too, so you won’t hear smashing crockery at Viet Q.  What you will hear is hungry diners ordering this very popular entree.  There’s a good reason for this. 

22 August 2010: There are two claypot rice entrees on the menu–a rice dish with your choice of meat (pork, beef, shrimp) and a combination claypot rice dish with the aforementioned three choices plus squid.  The combination claypot rice dish is the dish for adventurous diners who don’t mind mixing seafood with meat.  The rice is sweet and delicious, the rice at the bottom of the dish sporting a nice caramelized texture.  Fresh vegetables–sugar snap peas, broccoli and more–blend well with fresh, well-prepared seafood and meat for a flavor combination that will keep diners happy.

Special Noodle Soup

7 December 2014:  Is there any term in the American restaurant menu that has been as cheapened over time as much as the word “special.”  Bourdain, in fact, advises diners to never, ever order the special of the day especially if it’s a seafood item. This is a way the kitchen staff gets rid of items about to spoil or go bad.  Seeing the term “special of the day” related to seafood now makes me cringe, however, seeing the term “special” used to describe a Vietnamese soup makes my mouth water.  Viet Q’s Special Noodle Soup ranks just below Cafe Dalat’s Spicy Beef Stew as my very favorite Vietnamese soup. 

If ever a soup earned the designation “special” it’s this one.  Our lovely server confessed that it’s as close to what she grew up with in Vietnam as she’s found in America. The enthusiasm with which she recommended it inspired me to bypass other desirable options.  As with the aforementioned Spicy Beef Stew, this soup packs a pleasantly piquant punch, the kind of which generates an endorphin rush sure to please your palate.  Its piquancy is punctuated by the discernible sweetness of anise and cinnamon.  Swimming in the reddish hued broth are thinly sliced raw beef slices which cook in the soup.  A large tangle of rich, unctuous noodles impregnated with the flavor of the broth is delightful.  This is indeed a special soup!

Stir-Fried Egg Noodle with Pork

22 August 2010: The stir-fried egg noodle with pork dish evinces why Viet Q’s signage includes “Vietnamese Grill.”  The grilled beef is delicious, tinged with the fragrant smokiness imparted by grilling.  The egg noodles are perfectly prepared as are the vegetables.  A light, slightly sweet broth is a flavorful addition to an excellent noodle dish.

Experientially, a meal at Viet Q is wholly unlike the unique experience of dining at a Saigon street market, but it does provide comfortable seating, excellent service, a varied menu and entrees (especially that addictive special noodle soup) that will having you coming back again and again.

Viet Q Vietnamese Restaurant
6205 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 872-2311
LATEST VISIT: 7 December 2014
1st VISIT: 22 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stir-Fried Egg Noodle with Pork, Hot Claypot Rice Combination, Meat Ball Soup, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves, Papaya Salad, Durian Shake, Potstickers, Special Noodle Soup

Viet Q on Urbanspoon

Viet Noodle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Noodle on Montano in Albuquerque’s West Side

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

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

The interior of Viet Noodle

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

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

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

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

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

Egg Rolls with Fish Sauce

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

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

Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

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

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

Combination Noodle Soup

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

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

Viet Noodle on Urbanspoon

Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Basil Leaf on Eubank just south of Constitution

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

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

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

The front dining room at Basil Leaf

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

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

Vietnamese Crepe with Pork

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

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

The very best clay pot rice dish in Albuquerque

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

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

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

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

Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon