Mariscos Culiacan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mariscos Culiacan

Mariscos Culiacan

As a precocious product (some might say victim) of the American public school system, I learned more about the geography of old Mexico from one song than from twelve years of the best education our tax dollars can buy.

Legendary Mexican crooner Jose Alfredo Jimenez immortalized the city of Culiacan in his hauntingly stirring ballad El Caballo Blanco which recounts a bareback rider’s journey from Guadalajara to Tijuana astride a noble white horse.

In that journey, rider and horse traversed through Escuinapa, Culiacan, Los Mochis, Sonora, El Valle Del Yaqui, Hermosillo, Caborca, Mexicali and Rumorosa. How lyrically poetic and cool are those names?

The name Culiacan, I found out, has been translated by some sources as “place of snakes,” as intriguing a city sobriquet as you can have. Culiacan is the largest city in the Mexican state of Sinaloa with a population of more than 600,000.

Tostados with salsa

Tostados with salsa

Situated in northwest Mexico, Culiacan is approximately forty miles inland which is what makes even more intriguing the name of yet another mariscos restaurant in Albuquerque.

Mariscos Culiacan sprung up in seemingly no time at the Sequoia Square plaza in mid-summer 2007, occupying the suite in which once stood a failed Peruvian restaurant. Its business card promises “Autentico Sabor Sinaloense” or authentic flavor of Sinaloa.

In terms of authenticity, no mariscos restaurant in town feels more like Mexico to me than Mariscos Culiacan.

That means music turned up loud on tinny speakers competing with the sound of a television blaring. There’s variety in that competition. While the radio plays Norteno music, characterized by a polka beat created by the accordion and bajo sexto (a unique 12-string guitar), the television is tuned to a program featuring hip hop Mexican videos. It makes for a unique, albeit noisy, ambience.

A Campechana cocktail

A Campechana cocktail

There is no air conditioning at Mariscos Culiacan. Instead, large floor fans and an ineffective swamp cooler do their best to keep things cool (and thankfully drown out some of the din.

The west wall includes several framed photographs of Culiacan while another wall features framed photographs of several menu items. There are no actual paper or plastic table menus, by the way. A listing of all featured fare is posted above the order counter and it pays to know Spanish because there are no English subtitles. Unlike at other mariscos restaurants in the Duke City, there are also no meat based items on the menu. The marquee reads mariscos and that’s what you’re going to get.

There are three squeeze bottles at each table–mayonesa, ketchup and a bottle labeled “Peligro Salsa Siete Chiles” which means Danger, Seven Chile Salsa. Unlike some Santa Fe restaurants which warn tourists of their hot chile then deliver chile with the potency of tomato sauce, this label means it. This salsa has the kick of an angry mule. Instead of chips, you’re served five or six tostada shells which most diners break into pieces.

Ceviche Mixto

Ceviche Mixto

Beverages are primarily Jarritos and Coke products bottled in Mexico which means real sugar and really acidic. Soft drink options include a non-diet version of Fresca, a grapefruit flavored soda which was very popular in the early 70s as well as a refreshing manzana (apple) soda. Aguas frescas, not including horchata, are also available.

Tostadas de Ceviche are available in three varieties–pescado (fish), camaron (shrimp) or mixto (a combination of fish and shrimp). Atop a crispy shell are piled fish and shrimp marinated in citrus juice along with red onion, tomato and cilantro. Mexican tostadas are not nearly as brittle as their American counterparts so the entire concoction doesn’t come crumbling down on your lap when you bite into it.

At any mariscos restaurant just about anywhere, at least one diner at each table seems to be partaking of the unique Mexican seafood cocktail called the Campechana. That’s the case as well at Mariscos Culiacan.

Served in a large stemmed glass, a Campechana cocktail includes shrimp, whitefish (or abalone), scallops, oysters, mussels, baby squid and octopus mixed with diced tomatoes, onions, lime juice, avocado, Clamato and cilantro.

Camaron Costa Azul

Camaron Costa Azul

Campecana is as murky as some of the water in which the seafood ingredients were caught, but don’t let appearances fool you. This is a fresh and delicious entree, especially if you douse it liberally with some of that Peligro salsa. It’s sweet, piquant, tart and briny all at once.

If raw, yucky looking seafood isn’t your thing, Mariscos Culiacan can accommodate your preference for all things fried.

The camarones Costa Azul (Blue Coast Shrimp) is a very good option. Six giant shrimp (my favorite oxymoron) are stuffed with queso Mexicana then enrobed in Mexican bacon for a taste you’ll risk shark-infested waters to obtain. The bacon is neither too crispy or too flaccid so it wraps around the shrimp perfectly. The shrimp is sweet and succulent with just a bit of snap to each bite.

This entree is served with French fries (out of the bag) and Mexican fried rice with those crunchy little carrot bits.

Mariscos Culiacan
3250 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Camarones Costa Azul, Tostada de Ceviche Mixto, Cocotele Campechano

Stop And Eat Drive In – Española, New Mexico

Stop and Eat in Espanola, New Mexico

The world-famous Stop and Eat in Espanola, New Mexico: On the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

Stop And Eat–Although it seems this 50s style drive-in has always been at its Paseo De Oñate location, it hadn’t yet opened in 1598 when don Juan de Oñate led his expedition of Spanish colonists to the east bank of the Rio Grande near its confluence with the Chama River. That’s where they founded San Gabriel, New Mexico’s first capital at a site close to present day Española, home of the Stop And Eat restaurant.

While Stop And Eat might sound like a mandate, it’s really more of a strong suggestion that will visit your brain every time you drive by this restaurant. All it takes is one visit and you’ll be hooked.

This 50’s style drive-in not only has an inviting name, it’s got an inviting location on a busy intersection. It’s also got an inviting menu replete with delicious fast food New Mexico style. It’s one of a dying breed, a drive-in under whose canopy you can park your car, walk to an order window to place your order and wait to be called over a loudspeaker.

Stop And Eat features the type of Americana roadfood atmosphere Michael and Jane Stern like so it’s no surprise that this relatively obscure restaurant has been featured on their Roadfood Web site. The Sterns observed that despite its drive-in facade, this restaurant has no carhop service or picnic tables on which to dine. All it’s got is excellent roadside cuisine…scratch that, it’s roadside food. Stop And Eat makes no pretence about serving “cuisine.”

Alas, with its Anglicized spelling of “chili,” Stop And Eat may lend credence to the infamous Española jokes, New Mexico’s equivalent of Polish jokes. The menu, posted on a painted slab of plywood, spells it “chili” in several places. That’s the only faux pas this restaurant makes…and its chile is a fire-breather’s special as in muy piquante, as in the hottest green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico piquant!

The burgers are liberally endowed with fresh ingredients, among which green chile is a must. Ask for a jumbo twin, two saucer sized meat patties if you’re famished or even if you’re not and just want to maximize the sensory delights of eating a very good burger. I took two photos of the green chile cheeseburger but neither turned out clearly. Attribute that to the hiccups caused by the piquant heat generated by this excellent burger.

At Stop And Eat, the tacos are terrific, especially the rolled tacos (and nowhere in the world can you find rolled tacos as good as in Espanola) which are hand-rolled and definitely not the cigar shaped mass produced messes you find at warehouse stores throughout New Mexico. These beauties are stuffed with a bean, meat and chile (my spellchecker wouldn’t allow another misspelled version) blend.

Contrary to what you might find at other restaurants, the Frito pie contains no beans or cheese, but it does possess some of the best capsaicin laden red chile, well seasoned ground beef and at least one chip in every spoonful. It’s among the best Frito pies in the north.

The shakes are delicious–a bit thin, but always cold which really helps on a hot summer day.

Stop And Eat Drive In
110 E Paseo De Onate
Española, NM

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2007
BEST BET: Rolled tacos, Shakes, Burgers, Frito Pie

Stop & Eat Drive-In on Urbanspoon

Felipe’s Tacos – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Felipe's Tacos

Felipe's Tacos

The rich folklore of the Hispanic culture of New Mexico and southern Colorado is preserved largely through cuentos (stories, legends and myths) passed down from one generation to the next. Among my favorites is a short story of how God named His people.

According to this cuento, God passed out so many names–Ortega, Lopez, Gonzalez, Sanchez–that He ran out of last names and said, “the rest of you will be called Martinez.”

This cuento is meant to illustrate why there are so many people with the last name of Martinez in New Mexico and southern Colorado. Told in English, God would have given everyone else the last name of Smith or Jones.

Common though the name Martinez may be, it is also a very proud name brought to distinction by its bearers–proud holders such as Rico Martinez, the brilliant founder of the now defunct The Rant Pack, Albuquerque’s most hilarious blog, and Felipe Martinez, the proprietor and creative genius behind his eponymous restaurant in St Michael’s Village.

The recipes were actually passed down from Felipe’s mother, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, but it is Felipe who has been sharing them with Santa Fe for more than a decade. For that, budget and health conscious diners are most grateful and consistently accord Felipe’s tacos “best in the city” honors in restaurant polls.

Felipe Martinez behind the cash register

Felipe Martinez behind the cash register

Felipe’s restaurant is adorned in the colors of the Mexican flag–red, white and green. The walls are white trimmed in red while the counter at which you order is a lime green. Tables are covered in red oilcloth. Red, white and green are also the colors in Felipe’s pico de gallo–red tomatoes, white onions and green cilantro. This is some of the very best pico in Santa Fe, so good you might eschew the salsa which would be a mistake since it is also quite good.

You’ll also notice the colors of the Mexican flag on the to-go menu. In fact, Felipe’s motto “Fresh, Healthy and Authentic” is scribed below an illustration of a waving Mexican flag. On the wall between the counter and the kitchen are hung seven colorfully illustrated Mexican calendars, the sort New Mexicans of my generation might remember hanging on their abuelitas’ homes.

The lines at the counter usually stretch to the door to the restaurant. That’s the case even in mid afternoon. Felipe’s is open only for breakfast and lunch and much of the business appears to be take-out. Health conscious diners know that Felipe’s is the fresh, healthy alternative to the calorie-laden, greasy Americanized chain restaurant that teeming masses (dare I say, of ignoramuses) frequent. In no way does Felipe’s resemble Taco Bell.

Carne Asada, Pollo Asado and Al Pastor Tacos

Carne Asada, Pollo Asado and Al Pastor Tacos

For one thing, Felipe’s really does live up to its motto (Fresh, Healthy and Authentic). The restaurant only uses lean steak, skinless chicken and marinated pork. No lard is used in the preparation of any item, all of which are “just made” fresh. As for authenticity, you won’t find any hard-shelled, “pre-fabricated” tacos here.

Instead, Felipe’s serves only soft corn or white tortillas that tend to fall apart with all the ingredients crammed into them. Still, the aroma and taste of fresh corn tortillas make them the only real choice for taco lovers.

There are four basic tacos on the menu: carne asada (lean, grilled beef), pollo asado (grilled chicken), al pastor (marinated pork prepared on a vertical spit) and meatless. The salsas with which you top them provide variety.

The al pastor taco stands out among the three thanks to the flavor-rich and juicy marinade. It resembles red chile but has a sweet taste (and at many restaurants, the marinade does include pineapple chunks.)

You’ll want to wash down your tacos with horchata, a traditional Mexican rice-water drink or with Felipe’s homemade limeade in which lime slices float merrily.

Tacos aren’t the only items on the menu and may not even be the best items on the menu. Felipe’s features several gourmet burritos, all made with fresh ingredients and all bulging with content. Where the tacos tend to be smallish, the burritos are a handful.

Also on the menu are quesadillas, tortas, combination plates and several a la carte items. Breakfast goers will find their favorite early morning burritos or can opt instead for menudo or a breakfast torta.

Felipe’s Tacos
St Michael’s Village
1711-A Llano Street
Santa Fe, NM

LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pollo Asado Soft Taco, Carne Asada Soft Taco, Al Pastor Soft Taco, Bean & Cheese Gourmet Burrito, Salsa & Chips

Pizzeria Espiritu – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Pizzeria Espiritu

Pizzeria Espiritu in Santa Fe

The name Pizzeria Espiritu reflects the deep-seeded faith of its founder and owner Tom Berkes, the liturgy and music director at St. Joseph’s Church in Cerrillos since 1990. A liturgical music composer, Berkes plays guitar, piano and harmonica for the small Catholic parish on the Turquoise Trail.

Berkes is probably more well known for the fun and festive pizzeria he and songstress Jewel Sato founded in 1997, a restaurant which has garnered recognition as one of America’s Hot 100 Independents by Pizza Today Magazine, a respected trade publication.

A self-professed Renaissance Man, it is Berkes’ goal to create a fun atmosphere where people can come in and enjoy themselves while they partake of good food. To that end, he has created a beautiful space which, aside from the frontage’s stucco exterior, is so un-Santa Fe-like.

In its exterior, Pizzeria Espiritu looks more like a restaurant you’d find in a larger, more cosmopolitan city, maybe even a city in Italy. The centerpiece, a fourteen foot original oil painting by artist Gary Larson, hangs not on one of the restaurant’s walls but on the ceiling.

The Creation of Adam festoons the ceiling

The Creation of Adam festoons the ceiling

That painting is based on Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted in 1511. The painting illustrates the Genesis story in which God the Father breathes life into Adam, the first man. More of Larson’s works hang the traditional way–on the walls of the inviting and pleasant dining space. It is gallery quality work.

Despite a sophisticated ambience that includes an Italian-style statuary fountain, Pizzeria Espiritu remains at heart, a neighborhood pizzeria, the type of restaurant in which patrons of every walk of life will feel right at home. That’s pretty much the way Berkes intends his Old-World Eatery to be.

The menu features fresh salads, sandwiches (lunch only), pastas from Old-World recipes and stone hearth fired custom-made pizzas. Fine wines as well as domestic, imported and microbrew beers are also available as is a nice selection of desserts. You won’t find lasagna, manicotti, ravioli or many of the other entrees served at other Italian restaurants.

The Sicilian sausage pizza

The Sicilian sausage pizza

Instead, Pizzeria Espiritu features pasta entrees crafted with your choice of Angel Hair, Fettuccine, Linguine, Penne, Spaghetti or Tortellini which can be topped with any one of several made fresh daily sauces: the House Marinara, Alfredo, Pesto, Three Mushroom, Primavera, Meat, Seafood Marinara or Linguini and Salmon.

For a pittance, you can add to your entree either grilled chicken, sautéed shrimp, sautéed salmon or Italian meatballs. With options like this who needs lasagna.

If it’s the quest for delicious pizza that prompts your visit, you’ll be well pleased. It takes some doing for the pizza to match the intoxicating aromas emanating from the kitchen–aromas of simmering, garlic-infused sauces and yeasty bread–but Pizzeria Espiritu does it.

Your pizza can be either a thick, deep-dish crust or a flaky thin-crust and you can order one of the creative pies on the menu or customize a pie with your favorite toppings. In either case, the wait is almost painful (up to 45 minutes for a deep dish pizza) courtesy of the heavenly aromas surrounding you. Fortunately, a small plate of focaccia bread and a seasoned olive oil dip mitigates the pain of waiting somewhat.

A beautiful slice

A beautiful slice

The pizza is definitely worth the wait, but be careful not to attack it right off as it comes out of the oven steaming hot. The Sicilian Sausage pizza, a pie designed to be served deep-dish but which can be ordered thin crust, is redolent with flavors and covered in a blanket of mozzarella with Italian sausage begging to break out.

Unlike at many pizzerias, the tomato sauce at Pizzeria Espiritu isn’t baked in completely into the bread or cheese where it’s lost among the other flavors. It doesn’t run off the pie either. Instead, there’s a perfect amount of sauce–enough to be discernable, but not enough to dominate the pizza either. It’s a perfect complement to the other ingredients.

Similarly, the sausage has just the right amount of fennel so that its flavor sneaks across instead of tasting like licorice. At thin-crust, the dough isn’t cracker-like, but it’s nearly stiff enough to be picked up from the edges without all the ingredients drooping off the pie. The bottom and sides show a good amount of char.

The Greek Pie–tomato sauce, Feta cheese and mozzarella with Kalamata olives, spinach and red onions brushed with olive oil–is food fit for the Gods of Mount Olympus. It is one of the more flavor-rich Greek style pizzas we’ve had.

Until 2001, Berkes also owned and operated Espiritu Canyon Road, a very popular restaurant and nightclub which was forced to close by a Santa Fe city ordinance. Some still say it took the heart and soul out of Canyon Road. Certainly it took its spirit.

Pizzeria Espiritu
1722-A St Michaels
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sicilian Sausage Pizza, Greek Pie, Lemonade

Japengo Sushi – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Japengo--wonderful salads and more

Japengo--wonderful salads and more

The Chinese philosophy of yin and yang posits a dualistic universe in which both sides of opposite forces are each part of a whole and work together. Examples include good and bad, male and female, light and dark and positive and negative.

These opposing forces are equal and necessary for harmony. A dualistic nature is what we uncovered at Japengo Sushi–in this case the opposites being truly sensational, saucy salads and sushi sadly at the level of mediocrity.

Launched in August, 2004, Japengo is one of the very best restaurants on what has become restaurant row just off I-25–despite the sushi. Its proximity to the Century Rio 24 movie theater has made it a popular dining destination among movie goers. The quality and freshness of ingredients will make it a destination to which I’ll return.

An artfully decorated plate brimming with sushi (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

An artfully decorated plate brimming with sushi (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador; click on image for more)

Japengo might best be categorized as contemporary Japanese with a slight fusion Asian twist. Its relatively minimalist decor is modern, almost industrial. The wait staff is courteous and professional.

The menu includes an array of traditional Japanese entrees (such as noodle bowls topped with tempura or chicken) as well as dishes which push the envelope insofar as tradition. Plating is pleasing to the eye and the palate. On any given night, the music piped in through the restaurant’s speakers might be contemporary American jazz, but it feels oddly in place here. That might be because Japengo is a dichotomy, straddling the fine line between traditional and contemporary.

Age Cyoza, fried pot stickers

Age Cyoza, fried pot stickers

An appetizer of fresh, lightly battered green chiles deep fried in tempura is a good introduction to an innovative menu sure to appeal to discerning diners. It is served with a very light tempura and soy sauce.

Another interesting appetizer (at least as far as its spelling is concerned) is age cyoza, a deep-fried pot sticker prepared in a wrapper just slightly thicker than a wonton. At most restaurants, the spelling of this popular starter is “gyoza.”

More sensational sushi (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

More sensational sushi (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador; click on image for more)

Gyoza actually originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the late 17th century. At Japengo, the cyoza are stuffed with ground pork, chives and cabbage. Despite the deep-frying, they are surprisingly moist with slightly crunch edges. They are served six per order.

Another great way to start your meal is with a salad appetizer called Japengo Ceviche which isn’t quite antithetical to the Mexican version, but vastly different.

Viagra Salad

Viagra Salad

Like Mexican Ceviche, it features seafood (various types of fish and shrimp) marinated and cooked in citrus juices, but you won’t find tomatoes or garlic on Japengo’s version. Instead you’ll find crisp lettuce of various varieties, thankfully not including the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce inferior restaurants serve. The greens are marinated in the tangy citrus dressing which invigorates all the ingredients in a memorable palate pleasing manner.

The ginger-based dressing served with the lunch salads is also exceptional, perhaps the very best of its kind we’ve had in Albuquerque.

New Yorker Roll (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

New Yorker Roll (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador; click on photo for more)

The slightly piquant, slightly tangy dressing on the Tuna Tataki made an exquisite entree supremely sublime as it charged up a generous amount of every so slightly seared and perfectly pink tuna. Unlike other piquant foods, the only “burn” you might feel will be on your lips where the citrus and chili combination will linger for just seconds after each bite.

While seared tuna has become de rigueur on menus throughout the country, very few restaurants prepare it exceptionally well. Japengo Sushi is one of those.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

You’ll hit the quadrafecta of outstanding dressings with the piquant dressing on the Viagra Salad (pictured above), a peppy salad of ultra-fresh greens and raw fish. It’s got restorative properties that may tantalize your palate as opposed to other parts Viagra typically addresses.

Leaving lettuce laden entrees, you might want to try one of the restaurant’s luncheon or dinner specials, all of which are served with a house salad, white rice and miso soup. Other entrees include a California roll, shrimp tempura, crabby wonton and rice.

Magnificent maki rolls (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador; click on picture for more)

Magnificent maki rolls (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The lightly salted miso soup is a rich, delicious broth, the type of which are so comforting particularly on cold winter nights.

Dip your tempura vegetables into the house salad’s ginger dressing and you may never want teriyaki again. Lightly battered in tempura batter, the inherent flavor of each vegetable isn’t lost in either the dressing or the batter. If you’ve ever dined at restaurants in which you can’t tell the difference between tempura battered zucchini and tempura battered shrimp, you’ll be happy to hear that’s not the case at Japengo.

Spicy Pork Yakiniku Style

Spicy Pork Yakiniku Style

The spicy pork loin, a popular dinner entree, is prepared Yakiniku style which means it’s thinly sliced, fried on a skillet or grilled and marinated. In this case the marinade was a sweet, spicy sauce similar to Korean bulgogi. We were thoroughly impressed with the quality of the pork which didn’t have a smidgeon of sinew and was as tender as a bird’s heart. It is topped with smoked almond shavings which complement the pork wonderfully.

As for the sushi, we found most of the fish unfailingly fresh (a commonality among the restaurant’s offerings) but the maki style rolls were cut too thick and the rice disintegrated as soon as we dipped our sushi into a very weak Wasabi.

One of the rolls included a low-grade fish roe with the consistency of pop-rocks, the child’s candy that pops in your mouth. The sushi is among the most expensive in town with several rolls approaching the $15 mark. Better sushi is available elsewhere, but for a sensational salad experience in a fun, festive and thoroughly contemporary, Japengo Sushi rocks!

Japengo Sushi
4959 Pan American Freeway
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 13 July 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Spicy Pork Loin, Japengo Style Ceviche, Tuna Tataki

Japengo Sushi on Urbanspoon

Viet Taste – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Taste where you eat with your five senses

Viet Taste where you eat with your five senses

In the “gobble and go” pace of contemporary American life, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what you ate during your last meal, much less recall the sensory experience of that meal.

When that happens to true gourmands, they will actively seek a memorable dining experience in which all five senses are invoked. One of the best restaurants in Albuquerque in which to have such a sensory experience is Viet Taste which opened on April 4, 2007.

Even more than most Vietnamese restaurants, Viet Taste exemplifies comprehensive eating, the most sublime form of Vietnamese cooking and eating. This style of eating involves all five senses.

In comprehensive eating, you eat with your eyes first. It’s important that all dishes be attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and Vietnamese wait staffs have a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance should give diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks.

The bamboo accented dining room

The bamboo accented dining room

The nose follows. Each dish must arouse the olfactory senses with a balance of pleasant odors: fish or meat, vegetables and a sauce. With dishes such as grilled pork, the alluring aroma of smoke permeates the pork as fat drips onto the flames.

While chewing, diners should be attentive to the texture of the ingredients and feel the softness of the noodles. Al dente herbs, bean sprouts, nuts, carrots and peanuts provide crispness to a meal and allow diners to hear their crunchiness.

Finally, there’s the sensation of taste which it might be argued, you can’t experience at all if you subscribe to the American gobble and go dining lifestyle.

Each dish must have its own distinct signature and it must be easy for the diner to discern the differences in taste in dishes that may have a similarity in flavors, but have their own subtle properties.

A dish will often have all of the five flavors–salty, sweet, hot, bitter and sour–but with balance. None should dominate.

Stuffed grape leafs

Stuffed grape leafs

As a practitioner of the comprehensive style of cooking, Viet Taste may have no equal in Albuquerque. It may also be unequaled for ambience with a decidedly upscale look and feel that seems to incorporate many elements of feng shui.

Bamboo accents are prevalent as is contemporary art, much of it black and white photography which incorporates light and shadow to frame subject matter in emotion stirring ways. Some of the walls are the color of an avocado shake while others are nearly a charcoal grey color. Lighting is subtle.

If the ambience seems familiar, you’ve probably dined at Viet Rice in Rio Rancho. Like its Rio Rancho sibling, Viet Taste was founded by Huong Thi Pham who has deep roots in the community. His brother is the owner of Que Huong, a long-time Vietnamese restaurant on Central Avenue.

While there are similarities between Viet Rice and Viet Taste, the newer sibling has a much larger (should I say, more comprehensive) menu. It’s the type of menu you peruse through slowly, studying all your dining options even though you know that whatever you have will likely be terrific.

A great way to start is with an appetizer of grilled beef wrapped in grape leaf. Grape leaf is typically associated with Greek food, but it is also quite prevalent (although not in Albuquerque) in Vietnamese food as well. Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Taste’s version features anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased is a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf and served with Nuoc Mam, the incomparable fish sauce. Five pieces to an order might inspire rapacious drooling.

Banh Mi Thit Nuong

Banh Mi Thit Nuong

The stuffed grape leaf is presented on a lovely bed of assorted vegetables, all crispy and fresh. They make a fine salad with a dressing of Nuoc Mam.

A little bit about Viet Taste’s Nuoc Mam–it is some of the very best in Albuquerque, so good you might want to drink it, so precious you won’t spill a drop. It is pungent, sour, savory and fruity all at once.

Another appetizer option is Banh Mi, known in some American circles as a Vietnamese sandwich. Viet Taste offers several sandwich options: grilled pork, chicken or beef as well as meatballs and even a beef stew sandwich.

Each sandwich is served on a toasted baguette, a bread first introduced by the French when they colonized Vietnam as a part of French Indochina.

crispy noodles with beef and vegetables.

crispy noodles with beef and vegetables.

The menu has a wide selection of pho (beef noodle soup) as well as rice noodle, egg noodle and Udon style noodle soups. There may be nothing in the world as comforting and sustaining as a bowl of steaming hot soup and at Viet Taste, each bowl is roughly the size of a small swimming pool.

Noodles are plentiful in Vietnam and on Viet Taste’s menu. Most start off dry, but are reconstituted with hot water for use in soups or stir-fried dishes. Some noodles are translucent, some are broad and some are thin. It will take some practice before you can discern the sometimes subtle differences in noodle styles.

You can even have crispy egg noodles with your choice of seafood, beef, pork or chicken and vegetables. While they may start off as a nest of dry noodles, the addition of vegetables, meat and sauce quickly reconstitute them into soft noodles that slide into your mouth.

An avowed aficionado of noodles, the most endearing to both my palate and soul, might just be Vietnamese style vermicelli-style noodles. Vermicelli is actually an Italian word for a very fine round noodle and the word literally means “small worms.”

Vermicelli with spicy lemongrass and pork

Vermicelli noodles are thinner than spaghetti and are a staple in Vietnam. Perhaps the best way to eat vermicelli is as a noodle bowl, called bun in Vietnam.

Traditionally these thin noodles are served at room temperature or slightly warm with warm toppings (such as anise blessed pork or beef) and cool garnishes such as daikon, shallots, crushed peanuts and lettuce.

One of the very best bun dishes in Albuquerque is Viet Taste’s noodle bowl with spicy lemongrass and grilled pork. It’s one of the few menu items designated on the menu as spicy and it derives that heat element from about half a spoonful of Sriracha sauce.

More than most Vietnamese dishes which come to mind, this dish also embodies comprehensive eating in every way. The aroma of grilled pork is as if prepared outdoors in a small hibachi with fat dripping from the pork and sizzling into a smoky haze which permeates the meat.

Beverage options include cool, refreshing shakes: avocado, coconut, soursop, jackfruit, durian, strawberry, mango and pineapple.

Picture perfect plating, contrasting textures, invigorating aromas, and delicate, light, yet complex flavors–this is what your five senses will experience with a meal at Viet Taste, already one of Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese restaurants in a city which has several great ones.
Viet Taste
5721 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 July 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Beef Wrap Grape Leaf, Spicy Lemongrass With Pork Noodle Bowl, Crispy Egg Noodle Stir Fried Combination

Viet Taste on Urbanspoon