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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2007: Though, 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.
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.
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.
9100 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 14 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
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