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

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

SweeTea Bakery Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe on San Mateo

In some metropolitan areas, legions of restaurant bloggers dissect and report on every facet of the area’s dining scene. These bloggers have a significant impact on the restaurant choices diners make. That fact isn’t lost on savvy restaurateurs—particularly young entrepreneurs active in social media–who solicit feedback on their restaurants from the dynamic food blogger community. Some restaurateurs who understand the power of online reviews even engage in “food blogger outreach campaigns” and cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with food bloggers. Alas, this doesn’t often happen in Albuquerque—maybe because you can count on one hand (with at least two fingers left over) the number of active food bloggers with staying power and brand recognition.  There is anecdotal evidence that Duke City restaurant review bloggers have some impact, but it hasn’t been quantified.

You can also count on one hand the number of restaurateurs who have actually invited me to experience their new restaurant ventures. On the rare occasion in which a restaurateur does invite me, it reaffirms for me that the restaurateur: (1) recognizes food bloggers as a legitimate, credible and influential medium; and (2) understands the power of blog-based reviews to amplify a positive dining experience. So, when Anh and Tammie, the vivacious owners of the SweeTea (the expected “t” is redundant) Bakery Café on San Mateo, invited me to “come sample and review our new sandwich bakery” and expressed their “excitement to get feedback from food experts like you,” I leaped at the opportunity…though careful as always to remain as inconspicuous as my linebacker size and “real” camera will allow.

Owners Tammie Nguyen (left) and Any Nguyen

It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I may have “outed” myself when ordering a durian-coconut smoothie. Durian, as regular readers may recognize, is considered “the world’s smelliest fruit.” Its odoriferous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and worse. Our server’s reaction—a shock and awe mix of “you are kidding, aren’t you?” and “do you really know what you’re ordering?”–is typical. Perhaps sensing the server’s trepidation, Anh Nguyen stepped out to confirm the sheer madness or foolhardiness of my beverage order. She laughed when I told her I was Vietnamese in my previous life, acknowledged that durian is an acquired taste which very few people acquire then proceeded to give us a guided tour of the bakery-café’s pastry case.

This wasn’t some special treatment accorded to a food blogger who could perhaps influence venturesome Duke City diners (remember, Anh didn’t yet know who I was). This is how SweeTea’s staff treats everyone who walks into the premises for the first time. With the pride of a young parent, Anh practically beamed as she aptly described each pulchritudinous pastry, a phalanx of sweet and savory treasures displayed under glass. It’s a wonder drool tracks don’t obscure your view; many a museum’s most cherished masterpieces pale in comparison to these pastries. Their appeal is heightened by Anh’s enthusiastic descriptions.

View of the Pastry Case and Order Counter

After our meal had been delivered to our table, Anh stopped by to see how we were enjoying it…and “caught me” carefully photographing our bounty. Surmising my gig was up, I proceeded to reveal my identity as a mild-mannered food blogger who can eat tall banh mi in a single (well, maybe ten) bite(s). She reproved me for having paid for the meal myself, indicating that having invited me she had intended to treat us to our meal. Noting our table was brimming with savory fare, she excused herself, returning scant minutes later with a trove of baked goods—eight enticing delicacies as dainty and beautiful as those baked by a Parisian patisserie.

Ahn then summoned her partner and long-time friend Tammie Nguyen to join us. If you’ve ever admired those framed portraits of statuesque Vietnamese women which adorn the walls at some Vietnamese restaurants, in Anh and Tammie you’ll see vivid confirmation that such elegant beauty does exist. Theirs is an easy friendship borne of shared years and experiences. Before launching SweeTea, Ahn worked as a pharmacist while Tammie toiled as a software engineer.  As restaurateurs they’re naturals with an ambassadorial flair all good restaurateurs have.  They’re passionate about giving their guests a memorable and delicious experience.

Meatball Banh Mi

If you ever visited the defunct House of Pho, the location’s previous occupant at Montgomery Plaza, you’ll be amazed at the wholesale transformation the 1,800 square-foot space has undergone. A complete make-over has converted a nondescript restaurant venue into one which bespeaks of both modernity and hominess. A mural depicting Singapore’s high-rise dominated skyline covers an entire wall. It’s eye-catching, but the true cynosure of the attractive milieu is the pastry case with its enticing fare. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable unless you manage to snag the comfortable red sectional sofa where you can stretch out. Anh expects a robust take-out business so the dozen or so seats should be just about right for those of us who want to eat in.

SweeTea is patterned after 85 °C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese chain of coffee shops and self-serve bakeries with a huge presence in California. Guests employ tongs to extricate their favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) pastries from self-serve pastry cases then pile them onto a tray and ferry them to the counter. In other pastry cases, you’ll see such delicacies as cheesecake and fruit-filled tarts. Above the counter you’ll espy a menu showcasing an appealing selection of delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, small bites, special entree dishes, unique specialty drinks and bubble tea. It’s an ambitious menu considering the relatively Lilliputian size of the bakery-cafe, but it’s not exclusively Vietnamese.

Bulgogi Banh Mi

Anh explained that contemporary Vietnamese food has been heavily influenced by nearly a century of French colonialism. The influx of French flavors, ingredients and techniques essentially revolutionized traditional Vietnamese food. One of the most visible aspects of modern French-inspired Vietnamese food is the crusty baguette, the basis for banh mi, the widely popular Vietnamese sandwich. Sweet and savory pastries, sweet breads, chocolate-filled croissants and other tantalizing baked goods may now be ubiquitous in Vietnam, but their origin is French.

“In Vietnam,” Anh told me “it takes a lot more work to make a banh mi.” That’s because ovens are still relatively scarce within family homes. Throughout Ho Chi Minh City where she was born, banh mi are a featured fare of the makeshift street markets in which “kitchens” are ad-libbed by inventive cooks. The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial street 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 she can’t hope to recreate the incomparable experience of preparing banh mi in the street food style of her birthplace, she certainly knows what it takes to create the best to be found in Albuquerque.

Egg Rolls

Before launching SweeTea, Anh and Tammie returned to Vietnam to study baking techniques then spent time refining recipes to adapt to Albuquerque’s high altitude, high alkaline water and arid climate.  These challenges have baffled transplanted bakers for years, but with lots of practice, water-softening technology and a determination to treat Duke City diners to the very and most authentic best banh mi in New Mexico, they’ve got it down pat.  The authenticity is immediately obvious in that the baguettes (baked on the premises, not purchased at Costco) have a perfect balance of pillowy softness inside and crustiness of the exterior.  Moreover, Anh explained, banh mi sandwiches are supposed to be at least twelve-inches long as they are at SweeTea.

In our first two visits, we enjoyed five banh mi, each one dressed with picked carrots, daikon relish, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumbers and SweeTea mayo.  Banh mi aren’t ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) in the manner of American sandwiches.  There’s just enough meat in each of the five sandwiches we enjoyed to complement the accompanying vegetables without obscuring the freshness and deliciousness of the baguette.  Each banh mi is a balance of flavors in perfect proportion to one another.  My early favorite is the meatball banh mi.  If you’re picturing golf ball-sized meatballs as you’d find in an Italian meatball sandwich, you won’t find them here, but you will find them addictively delicious.  These “meatballs” have neither the texture nor orb-like shape of Italian meatballs.  They are instead more akin to a very moist, very well-seasoned ground pork simmered in tomato sauce.

Chicken Dumplings

My Kim enjoyed the bulgogi banh mi most.  Bulgogi is certainly not Vietnamese.  It is instead the signature dish of Korea,  what many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue–thin strips of marinated lean beef imbued with a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes.  The fusion of signature elements from Korean and Vietnamese culinary cultures is a winner, but in terms of flavor profile, it’s not significantly different than the grilled pork banh mi.  For more distinctive, savory flavors try the grilled sausage banh mi, a pork-based sausage redolent with the flavors of fish sauce and garlic.  If “cold-cut” sandwiches are your preference, you’ll love the #1 Special Banh Mi made with Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate (yet another delicacy for which Vietnam can thank France).  Don’t let the term “headcheese” scare you off.  There’s not enough of it to overwhelm the sandwich.  Besides, it’s a nice complement to the other ingredients.

But I digress.  Before you get to the banh mi, you’ll want to enjoy at least two of the four listed “small bites” on the menu.  Make one of them the deep-fried, golden-hued egg rolls.  Come to think of it, you may want two orders of these cigar-shaped beauties lest you risk fighting over who gets the third one (being a gentleman, I always let my Kim have it then stew over it later).  Served with a sweet-savory and slightly tart sauce of thick viscosity, these egg rolls are generously stuffed and perfectly fried.  They’re absolutely delicious.

Vermicelli with Grilled Pork

For those of us who dine with a spouse or partner, the matter of appetizers served in odd-numbered quantities can be confounding.  Exempli gratia, the pan-fried chicken dumplings which are served five to an order.  You’ll probably covet all five of these crescent-shaped beauties for yourself.  Who can blame you?  They’re tender and plump, filled with fresh, tasty minced chicken fried to a crispy (but not greasy) golden-hue.  There’s only one thing missing–and that’s the elusive sixth dumpling to make it an even-numbered starter so neither you or your partner will feel short-changed. 

While not a compendium-like menu (such as the 145-items at nearby Saigon Restaurant), SweeTea offers more than enough entrees to make it not just your favorite pastry provider, but a very viable lunch or dinner option.  In thirty or forty visits, for example, you might  want to deviate from the banh mi menu.  There to sate and likely hook you are seven vermicelli options, each made with the same familiar proteins you love on the bahn mi.  The grilled pork vermicelli is a resplendent swimming pool-sized bowl crammed with vermicelli noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrot and daikon, scallion and roasted peanuts served with SweeTea fish sauce.  If freshness has a flavor, it’s exemplified by this dish in which a melange of ingredients and flavors coalesce into a palate-pleasing, tongue-titillating bowl of pure gustatory enjoyment.

Assorted Vietnamese Pastries

Now for the pastries!  Trays of these artisanal delicacies are baked twice daily so you’ll always have fresh pastries on hand. That is until the bakery runs out…and if you get to SweeTea late in the day, you just might find slim pickings. Not that a limited selection is a bad thing. It’s how we discovered the cinnamon rose buns, (not pictured) cinnamon rolls shaped like roses.  Unlike those overly-glazed grocery store pretenders, the prevalent flavor here is sweet cinnamon in perfect proportion to the soft bread dough which unravels easily.  After two visits and nine different pastries, these may be my favorite…at least until I try another new one.  

For years the Coconut Craisins Butterfly at Banh Mi Coda has been my favorite of all Vietnamese pastries.  Though somewhat smaller, SweeTea’s version is better…more of the coconut-raising marriage we love.  For my Kim, the nutella buns reign supreme.  She’s fiendishly addicted to the sweetened hazelnut cocoa spread and smiles broadly with every bite of the soft buns.  We both love the “not your traditional banana nut bread” which is baked with fresh rum-soaked bananas and is topped with walnuts.  This is not your mother’s dry, tasteless banana nut bread.  It’s rich, moist and utterly decadent.  SweeTea’s signature pastry is the Kim Sa Bun, a soft bun filled with egg custard and with a cookie crust top.  Anh described the painstaking process of brining the egg yolks to prepare the custard, a labor of love for a pastry you will love.  

More Pastry Deliciousness

24 December 2016: It stands to reason that innovative and avant-garde restaurateurs such as Anh and Tammie wouldn’t subject their guests to the de rigueur Coke or Pepsi product offerings.  Though soft drinks are available, adventurous diners will gravitate to the exceptional teas or smoothies (truly intrepid souls will try the coconut-durian smoothie).  If you’re of a more healthful bent, Anh (remember she was a pharmacist) might recommend Thai basil seed with Malva nut which has properties conducive to good health. 

The childlike among us (okay, me) might instead opt for a colorful, multi-layered “rainbow” drink.  From bottom to top, this beverage is layered with chestnuts, mung bean, agar, coconut and crushed ice.  Use your straw to blend it all together and you’ll enjoy one of the more unique flavor-texture experiences you’ll have in the Duke City.

Nhu Holding “Rainbow” Drink

There are many things to love about the SweeTea Bakery Cafe, a magical fusion of Vietnamese and French ingenuity.  With Anh and Tammie turning out the best pastries this side of Ho Chi Minh City, it promises to be a very welcome and exciting addition to the Duke City dining scene.  Tell them Gil sent you.

SweeTea Bakery Cafe
4565 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2592
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2016
1st VISIT: 4 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Meatball Banh Mi, Bulgogi Banh Mi, Special (Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate) Banh Mi, Grilled Sausage Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Chicken Dumplings, Egg Rolls, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, “Not Your Traditional Banana Nut Bread,” Kim Sa Bun, Egg Custard Bun, Nutella Bun, Coconut Craisins Butterfly, Cinnamon Rose Bun

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

An Hy Quan for Outstanding Vegetarian Vietnamese Cuisine

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

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

Papaya Salad: The Very Best I’ve Ever Had

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

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

Egg Rolls

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

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

“Chips and Salsa” An Hy Quan Style

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

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

Curry Tofu with Rice

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

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

Curry Noodles

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

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

Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles

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

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

Clay Hot Pot Rice

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

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

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

Saigon 2 Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Saigon 2 Restaurant in Rio Rancho

In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, numerology is very important.  If you’ve traveled extensively, you may have wondered why the term “Pho” followed by a number is so commonplace.  Often these numbers are considered lucky–and not necessarily across an entire culture.  A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner.  Espy a restaurant named Pho 66and the number  66 may well represent the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war.  Restaurants named Pho 75 may well be honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell.  Numerical repetition is also considered fortuitous.  The City of Vision certainly counts the number eleven as a lucky number.

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

Saigon 2 Main Dining Room

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

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

The best egg rolls in the Albuquerque area

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

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

Steamed Vermicelli with Grilled Onion Beef

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

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

Rare Beef with Rice Noodle Soup

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

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

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

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

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine on San Pedro

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

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

Le Bistro’s Elegant Dining Room

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

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

Le Bistro’s full-service bakery

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

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

Le Bistro’s vivacious owner Mindy Nguyen

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

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

Chicken Dumplings

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

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

Papaya Salad with Shrimp and Pork

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

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

Chicken Curry

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

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

Pad Thai

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

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

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

IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!

Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre. Indeed, much of the restaurant’s traffic comes from word-of-mouth. That’s truly the best advertising you can get.

iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavors

Bourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1 Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employs to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.

16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  Note: For the fire-eaters among you, ask Hien to replace the jalapeños with Thai bird peppers which are far more incendiary and delicious.   The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Grilled Chicken and Pork Banh Mi

23 July 2016: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.  If you can’t make up your mind between grilled pork and grilled chicken, the ever-accommodating Hien will build a combination grilled pork and chicken banh mi for you.  It’s my new favorite among the grilled banh mi.

16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

Sugar Cane Juice

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Ikrave Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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