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Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Basil Leaf on Eubank just south of Constitution

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

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

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

The front dining room at Basil Leaf

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

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

Vietnamese Crepe with Pork

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

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

The very best clay pot rice dish in Albuquerque

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

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

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

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

Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon

Pho 79 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

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

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

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Chicken Dumplings

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

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

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Spring Rolls With Grilled Pork

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

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

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Crawfish imported from the Louisiana Gulf Coast

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

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

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Spicy Curry Vermicelli Bowl

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

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

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Well Done Steak Noodle Soup (Pho)

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

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

Pho 79 on Urbanspoon

Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Mekong Ramen House just north of Candelaria on San Mateo

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

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

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The colorful interior of the Mekong Ramen House

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

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

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Tom Yum Soup

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

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

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Beef Stick

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

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

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Cucumber Ramen Salad

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

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

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Pad Ramen Noodle

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

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

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Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

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

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

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Mangoes with sticky rice

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

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

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

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon