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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 3 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: 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