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Pho Linh – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill on Central Avenue.

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill on Central Avenue.

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 lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside

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.

Toa grills beef at our table

Toa grills beef at our table

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.

Grilled Loaf Leaf Beef and Grilled Beef Roll in Pickled Leek

Grilled Loaf Leaf Beef and Grilled Beef Roll in Pickled Leek

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.

Lemon beef

Lemon beef

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.

Lemon grass beef balls served with rice crackers.

Lemon grass beef balls served with rice crackers.

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.

Beef Congee

Beef Congee

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.

Pho Linh
5000 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
266-3368

LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Squid With Butter Sauce, Spicy Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup, Seven Courses of Beef

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill on Urbanspoon

315 Restaurant & Wine Bar – Santa Fe, New Mexico

315 Restaurant and Wine Bar

315 Restaurant and Wine Bar

Compared to the extraordinarily perceptive 19th-century detective Sherlock Holmes, his best friend and confidante Dr. John H. Watson was an ordinary man, a perfect “foil” for the brilliant Holmes.

Though lacking his friend’s deductive abilities and almost prescient ability to solve problems, Dr. Watson was, however, prone to occasional observations of brilliance and statements of profound eloquence.

For example, in the 2004 novel Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara, Dr. Watson describes a three-hour French meal:

“Each dish was more fantastical than the last. One can only conclude that it is the special purpose of French cookery to dissolve the entire substance of a dish into polish, so that no trace of the primeval beef, pork, or chicken remains, converting the whole into a sort of puree raisonne that can then be shaped and reshaped by an abstract and extravagant fancy far closer to architecture than cookery, a fancy whose sole intent is to remove from its creations all taint of the hearth and kitchen, not to mention pasture and field.”

Juxtaposed against the fluidity and clarity of Watson’s vivid appreciation for his meal, my review of 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar (formerly known as Bistro 315) may seem provincial and dare I say, elementary, my dear reader.  That would be a shame because this is a restaurant worthy of more eloquence than perhaps I am able to express.  Quite simply, it’s likely one of the two or three best French restaurants in New Mexico.

Basil wrapped shrimp

Basil wrapped shrimp

In its October, 2004 restaurant edition, Gourmet magazine designated 315 as a “Where to Eat Right Now in 30 American Cities” dining destination.  While 315 may be outstanding year round, there may be no better time to visit than when “right now” means Monday through Thursday in autumn and winter.

That’s because the Bistro features a prix fixe menu–three courses, anything off the printed menu for $29 a person.  Price differentials apply for nightly specials printed on a slate board.  For example, if the special includes an entree priced at $30, the differential would be $10.  At any rate, this is a delicious bargain aficionados of French culinary art should not pass up.

315 boasts of one of the most extensive wine lists in Santa Fe with 250 wines by the bottle and 25 by the glass.  It’s no wonder 315 has earned the coveted “Award of Excellence” from the Wine Spectator since 2000.

In addition to accolades from Zagat, Bon Appetit, Fodor’s, Wine Spectator, Gourmet, Esquire and other national publications, 315 is a perennial winner of “Best French Restaurant in Santa Fe” honors in annual polling of newspaper and magazine readers.  In 2003, it earned the Santa Fe Reporter’s “Best Restaurant of the Year.”

Bibb lettuce salad

Bibb lettuce salad

315 derives its name from its address on one of Santa Fe’s most famous and historically significant streets, the Old Santa Fe Trail.  Once a transportation route connecting Missouri with Santa Fe, the Trail runs just in front of the restaurant–not that you’d notice.  A former residence, 315′s foliage laden frontage keeps the traffic mayhem from view.

I’ve heard 315 described as warm and cozy and while that may be true to an extent, it is also quite cramped, a restaurant in which close proximity to other diners makes true dining intimacy difficult.  The tables are so close that even in hushed tones you can hear your neighbor’s conversations.

That familiarity may be the restaurant’s sole foible because in every other respect, it executes to perfection.  Service is attentive without being overbearing.  Delivery is well-paced so that you have ample time to finish your appetizers before entrees are brought to your table.

The menu is inspired by the culinary traditions of France’s Provence region where lively market stalls proffer fresh and colorful homegrown ingredients used in the preparation of cuisine said to have seductive properties capable of enticing even the most demanding palates.

Pan seared mahi mahi and sea scallops

Pan seared mahi mahi and sea scallops

The menu is graced by several standards while the specials, presented on a slate board, tend to be more seasonal and based on the availability of ingredients.  Chef Louis Moskow is renown for his passion for fresh ingredients and he certainly uses them masterfully.

Because of the restaurant’s specials, in addition to infinite variety, there are also infinite possibilities.  Every meal can be a culinary adventure as your taste buds open up to the possibilities.

The restaurant isn’t nearly big enough to bake its own bread on the premises.  Outstanding bread, however, is still a hallmark of 315 because it features warm, crusty sourdough bread baked by the Sage Bakehouse, a state treasure.  This bread truly deserves the sobriquet “staff of life” as each and every loaf is baked to golden perfection using a natural leavening process free of commercial yeast.

I’ve always contented that there are two types of lovers of food.  There are those who will quickly devour anything put in front of them and thoroughly appreciate their meals.  There are other, more discerning diners who will savor each and every bite with a deliberate precision so they don’t miss anything.  These are the true gastronomes.  These are the culinary explorers who will derive the most pleasure from a meal at 315.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au Poivre

A wonderful way to begin your culinary exploration is with 315′s basil wrapped shrimp served over apricot chutney and Madras curry sauce.  There are a lot of things going on with this appetizer and your taste buds and olfactory senses will be challenged to discern all of them.

Flavors coalesce not so much in explosiveness, but in subtlety–from the sweet brininess of the shrimp to the delicate pungency of the curry to the spicy fruitiness of the chutney, all the flavors meld together in rapt deliciousness.  In addition to multitudinous flavors, there is variety in this offering’s textures.  In mere bites you traverse through the slight crunchiness of a light breading, the snap of fresh shrimp and the piquant crispness of chutney bits.

Equally inspiring and adventurous is the grilled Bibb lettuce salad.  Bibb lettuce is known for its crispy leaves and miraculously the lettuce retained some of its inherent crispness despite being grilled and topped with crispy bacon and warm Maytag blue cheese fondue.  As with the basil wrapped shrimp, there was a lot taking place in this palate arousing appetizer.

Tarte Tartin

Tarte Tartin

315′s preparation of Steak Frittes is classic, one of the best we’ve had anywhere.  It’s available Au Poivre style with or sans sauce (a choice of Béarnaise or herb butter).  At 315, Au Poivre means a New York strip coated on one side in loosely cracked peppercorns which adhere to the strip thanks to a basting in softened butter.

This steak is fabulous with a pungent, nearly piquant counterpoint to a rich, flavorful beef with nary a hint of fat.  It is seared at high temperature and served to your exacting specifications.

A mountain of frites accompanies the steak.  Though not traditional frites, the thin, crispy fries are quite good, inheriting the peppercorn properties of the steak.

One entree special I hope makes it to the standard menu is mahi mahi and sea scallops with root vegetable perogis, sauteed spinach and a Chardonnay Gastrique (a glaze by reduction).

A sole mahi mahi filet was pan-seared to absolute perfection.  Mahi mahi is a firm fish not prone to easy flakiness, but that doesn’t mean its flesh isn’t tender.  The Chardonnay Gastrique, meanwhile, seemed to bring out, not mask, the mahi mahi’s inherent flavor, rendering this special one of a select list of outstanding fish entrees we’ve had.

Each of the three accompanying scallops was easily two to two-and-a-half ounces of sweet, succulent deliciousness.  Rarely have we had scallops quite as ethereal in their delicacy and flavor.

The root vegetable perogis were phenomenal–two Polish dumplings engorged with fleshy underground roots and tubers.

The sautéed spinach had that wonderful wild, slightly acidic aftertaste canned spinach and even most salad spinach don’t possess.  This spinach triggered memories of the phenomenally delicious wild quelites we picked in Northern New Mexico during my youth.

There is no surcease in quality when it comes to 315′s dessert repertoire.  The dessert menu features seven sweet treats as well as a cheese plate.  You may be tempted to order more than one dessert.

A popular favorite is 315′s Pots de Crème made not with the dairy chocolate variety for children, but with dark, rich chocolate worthy of an “R” rating for adults only.  It is the essence of chocolate comfort, bathing your taste buds in a swathe of decadence and deliciousness.  One taste and you’ll experience Nirvana.

At another plain on the dessert scale is the Tarte Tatin which is essentially an upside down apple pie.  Because of the way it is baked, the apples are very soft and caramelized.  The best Tarte Tatin retains much of the apple’s tartness and 315′s is one of the best we’ve had.  Similar to our entrees and appetizers, it had a lot going on in terms of flavor richness and quality.

315 may quite be at the end of the Trail, but if you want an outstanding French dining experience, it should definitely be on your roadmap.

315 Restaurant & Wine Bar
315 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 986-9190
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Basil Wrapped Shrimp, Grilled Bibb Lettuce Salad, Pots de Crème, Tarte Tatin, Steak Frittes, Pan Seared Mahi Mahi & Sea Scallops

Villa del Mar – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Villa del Mar

Villa del Mar

Who hasn’t dreamt of a luxurious Mexican Villa overlooking pristine sandy beaches and translucent blue waters–a distinguished gate, thriving gardens and a capacious floor plan with earth-toned terracotta and ochre floors and walls festooned in vibrant colors? Think of it–your own personal chef preparing the briny delicacies of the sea for your every meal, the soulful voice of a Mexican singer plumbing the depths of your emotions, a fresh Pacific breeze negating the balmy climate.  It would be an idyllic life.

The Villa del Mar restaurant on Albuquerque’s Central Avenue won’t make all these dreams a reality, but it will serve you a meal that–maybe just for a moment–will transport you to that villa of your dreams. Villa del Mar, launched in April, 2007, gained notoriety before it even opened when several palm trees were planted in front of the restaurant.  While Albuquerque may be in the desert, our winters tend to be too severe for most palm trees. Sanibel Island, Florida we’re not.

The nautical themed Villa del Mar

The nautical themed Villa del Mar

Atop the Spanish tiled building and impaled on a pole is a large blue marlin, a large sporting fish that is rarely, if ever, table fare. Aside from the usual table condiments, each table is decorated with a decorative foot-long craft palm tree, the only kind likely to survive New Mexico’s weather.  A small bowl of smoked jalapenos also sits on every table.

The menu is primarily mariscos (seafood), however, other Mexican favorites are available.  As you peruse the menu, the personable wait staff brings to atypical salsas to your table.  One is an avocado and sour cream based salsa and the other is a salsa made from roasted green chile, jalapenos and tomatoes.  The latter is most definitely a winner.

Salsa and chips.

Salsa and chips.

Both salsas are muy piquante and muy sabroso.  We liked the green chile and jalapeno salsa so much we paid four dollars for a sixteen ounce Styrofoam cup of the stuff and considered it a bargain at that price.  We also did our best to consume about sixteen ounces of that salsa with our meal. This salsa reminded me very much of the roasted green chile on which I was weaned in Northern New Mexico.  We used to spread that chile thickly on a warm tortilla then added a slice of Cheddar cheese to offset the capsaicin burn.

The avocado based salsa isn’t quite as piquant, but it’s certainly a dynamo in its own right. The accompanying chips are thin, crisp and served hot.  Best of all, the accommodating wait staff will replenish both chips and salsa throughout your meal Like so many of the mariscos restaurants in the Duke City, Villa del Mar serves several aguas frescas (literally “fresh waters”), a refreshing drink popular throughout Latin America.  The restaurant’s horchata is one such agua fresca.  It’s not nearly as sweet as at some restaurants in which it tastes like the milk from a child’s breakfast cereal.

Tostada de ceviche

Tostada de ceviche

The menu lists several appetizers, but when mariscos is featured fare, it’s usually best to start with tostadas de ceviche, raw fish (pescado) or shrimp (camaron) marinated in lemon and piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices. Interestingly ceviche originated where seafood was plentiful and refrigeration was rare.  Usually served as an appetizer, it is low in calories and has a refreshing taste that melds the briny savoriness of fish with the citrusy tang of the lemon.  The lemon won’t quite pucker your lips and won’t overwhelm the fish.  It’s a marriage made in seafood heaven.

During our inaugural visit, we didn’t make it past the especiales del chef (chef’s specialties) on page two of the menu.  That’s where we saw the entrees we just had to have. For my landlubber wife it was the Steak Tampiqueña that snared her.  You probably won’t ever obtain consensus as to what Steak Tampiqueña is.  Ostensibly, it originated in Tampico, Mexico, but rarely will you see any two restaurants in one city preparing it the same way or even using the same cut of beef.  At high-end restaurants, this steak might be a ribeye or a New York Strip while at less expensive dining establishments, it might be a thinly cut skirt steak.  At some restaurants, it’s doused with red chile and at others, it’s just a slab of unadorned beef.

Steak Tampiquena

Steak Tampiquena

At Villa del Mar, the Steak Tampiqueña is a succulent, marinated and grilled skirt steak without the usual toughness for which skirt steak is renown.  Being thinly cut, the steak was served at about medium well, but it somehow managed to retain the juiciness of a good slab of beef. The Steak Tampiqueña comes with enchiladas (which my Kim substituted with a taco), rice, salad (lettuce and tomato with no salad dressing) and a baked potato.  The rice is light and buttery with a lot of flavor for rice.

No one in the world serves better baked potatoes than Mexican restaurants and Villa del Mar is no exception.  While not the size of footballs as you’ll find in some American steak restaurants, these tubers are absolutely delicious, tender, slow baked and served in aluminum foil.  At your request, the cook will slather on drawn butter and sour cream, a carbohydrate laden feast.

Parillada Villa del Mar

Parillada Villa del Mar

For me the first choice at a mariscos restaurant in which it is featured is parillada del mar (grilled seafood).  It’s also been my experience that rarely do I order this entree a second time.  That’s because at most restaurants the seafood tastes as if just plucked out of the Dead Sea.  It’s briny and salty enough to warrant desalinization. It was a wonderfully pleasant surprise when my first bite of the crab meat met with sweet, succulent and tender crab meat.  The other seafood in this delightful mix–shrimp, octopus and fish–were grilled to perfection in a bed of bell peppers, sweet onions and a special seasoning.

Without a doubt, the best and freshest seafood parillada we’ve had on this side of the border, the Parillada Villa del Mar restored my faith in this entree.  This is an entree I could eat every day of the week without growing tired of it.

Caldo de res

Caldo de res

Winter doldrums call for a change of pace and the enveloping comfort of something warm and delicious.  Villa del Mar offers such comfort in the form of various soups. A wonderful option is the restaurant’s caldo de res, a Mexican beef soup that is extremely hearty, satisfying and delicious.  It derives much of its flavor from hind shank and bone marrow.  Villa del Mar’s rendition (pictured at right) also includes large pieces of cabbage, corn on the cob, carrots, onions and cilantro.

The menu lists only three desserts, our favorite being the pastel tres leches (cake of the three milks).  As its name implies, this cake is made with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream.  Butter is not an ingredient and as such, this is a very light cake with a lot of air bubbles. As you press your fork down on this cake, it positively oozes with milky goodness, but there’s no way you can call this a soggy cake. It’s delicious and refreshing, a great way to end a terrific meal.

Pastel Tres Leches

Pastel Tres Leches

Years ago there were very few mariscos restaurants in the Albuquerque area.  Today it seems a new mariscos restaurant launches every few months or so and savvy Albuquerque diners can’t get enough.  Villa del Mar is poised to compete with the very best mariscos restaurants in town.  With an unbeatable green chile and jalapeno salsa and sweet, succulent seafood, it promises to ascend quickly up my restaurant ratings.

Villa del Mar
5001 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Ceviche de Pescado, Tampiquena Especial, Parillada Villa Del Mar, Pastel Tres Leches, Horchata, Salsa, Caldo De Res, Camarones Boston