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 walked into Pho Linh, a 2005 addition to a fabulous array of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City. Pho Linh is situated on the Central Avenue location which had been the long-time home of a Golden City Chinese restaurant. It is adjacent to the Desert Sands Motel, a survivor of the 1960s which made a bloody cameo appearance in the 2007 movie No Country For Old Men.
While our nostrils were gently introduced to the incomparable perfumes in the air, our eyes were being assaulted by a color palette which achieves a visually loud consistency uncommon in New Mexico where subtle earth tones and muted patinas seem mandated by law. During our inaugural visit, the chairs were lime green, but they have since replaced by black chairs (perhaps more conducive to diners holding in their meals). The tables are a shade of pink rose and the walls are burnt orange. Considering the Vietnamese penchant for incorporating Feng Shui principles into architectural design, I’m sure Pho Linh’s color scheme is subliminally, if not overtly, appealing.
More appealing than the color scheme are 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.
Swimming pool sized bowls of steaming pho are a house specialty. New Mexicans who appreciate the hangover assuaging properties of menudo will also appreciate the several variations of Pho Linh’s savory soup in which tripe is the featured meat. Eschewing tripe, you might opt instead for the Central of Vietnam spicy lemongrass beef noodle soup, itself an aromatic elixir for whatever ails you. This is one soup you want your head close to as you eat it so as to imbibe its enthralling aromas. A plate of bean sprouts, sweet basil, jalapeno and lemon wedges accompanies each gargantuan bowl.
Seven courses of beef is another Pho Linh specialty. Traditionally served at Vietnamese weddings, this is a meal to be shared with someone you love. At less than $30 for two, it’s also quite a bargain. 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.
Note: I’ve been able to feign (without much effort) an all thumbs clumsiness that prompts lovely attendants such as Toa (pictured above) 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.
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.
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.
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.
Lest you think the seven courses of beef are an orgiastic feast for carnivores, most the courses feature fresh herbs and a marketplace worth of vegetables. That’s more than small consolation for us beefaholics.
9100 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Squid With Butter Sauce, Spicy Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup, Seven Courses of Beef