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Duke’s Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Antonio)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Mateo

Did you ever see the customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead.
In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people. They’re dying, of course, but they look terrific
.”
-Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby probably didn’t have actor Robert Mitchum in mind when describing the type of people who visit steak houses.  Heralded by movie critic Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest actors of all time,” the masculine Mitchum was certainly robust (evincing strength and vigorous health) and ruddy (inclined to a healthy reddish color often associated with outdoor life), but he wasn’t the type of he-man you might envision in a steak house.  Presiding over a campfire, yes, but sitting down at a restaurant, no.

Over an open flame, Mitchum would, of course, be grilling a sizzling, flame-kissed slab of thick, red beef destined to overfill his plate.  There would be no vegetables in sight nor would you find a tablecloth, candles or soft music.  With the rousing composition “Rodeo” playing in the background, Mitchum would be heard to say, “Beef.  It’s what’s for dinner!”

Largely through Robert Mitchum’s compelling voiceovers, the American Beef Council has been telling America beef is what’s for dinner for more than a quarter-century.  Thanks to its increased availability, not only is beef for dinner, Americans are eating it for breakfast, lunch and brunch, too.  They’re eating it at home and at restaurants, at picnics and at special events, on paper plates and on fine china.  There’s a steak priced just right for every wallet or purse.

One of the first things you see at Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

One of the first things you see when you step into Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

Until recent years, Duke City beef buffs wanting sizzling steaks at an economy price were, with few exceptions, forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, anemically flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants.  Ironically some of those restaurants are named after manly western television shows of yore–classic shows which deserve better than their names taken in vain.

In the summer of 2009, Duke’s Steakhouse, a steak restaurant at the economy to mid-point price range opened at the Far North Shopping Center in the space that previously housed Athens Eclectic Cuisine.  Interestingly, Duke’s is within a couple of miles of two comparably priced restaurants which closed in the late 1990s: Austin’s Steakhouse and the Copper Creek Steakhouse.  Duke’s reminds me of the former.

As with Athens Eclectic Cuisine, Duke’s Steakhouse is owned by Gus Petropoulos, an entrepreneur who prior to setting up shop in Albuquerque, owned six restaurants in Florida, including an affordable steak restaurant.  He must have seen something in the economic winds when deciding to convert from a gourmet Greek restaurant to an affordable steak house.

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

The first thing you see after stepping into the restaurant’s anteroom is a decorative wagon wheel underneath which is a faux vanity plate reading “New Mexico Beef is Great.”  The New Mexico Beef Council would certainly agree with that assertion as would anyone who’s sampled the beef which grazes on northern New Mexico’s lush, verdant mountain pastures.

Enter the restaurant and to your immediate right is a large refrigerated display case which showcases Flintstone sized slabs of beef.  Even the most prolific gurgitator will be intimidated at the 72-ounce steak, a gargantuan steak the size of a large roast.  Similar to the world-famous Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, Duke’s Steakhouse offers a challenge to prolific eaters.  Finish the 72-ounce (that’s a whopping four and a half pounds) steak and all the trimmings (salad, two vegetables, dessert, bread and a skewer of shrimp) in an hour or less and the meal is on the house.  Fail and you owe the house $72.

The 72-ounce mountain of meat dwarfs a 44-ounce steak next to it on the display case.  Both are hand-cut and aged sirloin marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs.  Brawny beef isn’t exclusive to Duke’s steaks.  Behemoth “Ol West” burgers offer their own challenges, the type of which caloric overachievers relish.

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Now you might think a burger called “Motherload” would be Duke’s most substantial burger, but at a half-pound, it’s a bitty burger.  “Duke’s Signature Cheeseburger” weighs in at a whopping three pounds.  It includes “lots of lettuce, tomato, Cheddar cheese, green chili, onions, mustard, a pickle spear and the restaurant’s signature green-chile mayonnaise.  If you feel shortchanged, you can add on several optional ingredients.

The appetizers on Duke’s menu are pretty standard economy-priced starters: buffalo wings, loaded potato skins, onion petals, chicken strips, fried mushrooms, red chili poppers, fried mozzarella cheese and a combination of the aforementioned artery-hardeners.  Three “garden fresh”salads occupy the column opposite the mostly fried appetizers.

Steaks range in size from a smallish USDA choice seven-ounce sirloin to the humongous hunks of meat previously described, but there are plenty of cuts in the more reasonable 10-, 12- and 16-ounce sizes.  Carnivores can also order jumbo grilled pork chops, filet mignon kababs and a number of barbecue entrees.  Some desserts are served in small metal buckets, the type in which complimentary salted peanuts are provided.

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

Normal eaters might have to exercise caution not to fill up on the complimentary bucket of salted peanuts in the shell brought to your table.  In days past restaurants serving such peanuts considered it ambience to allow their customers to discard the empty shells on the floor.  I surmise a costly litigious settlement courtesy of someone slipping and falling on the floor may be the reason this practice belongs to the past.  Either that or Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department and their dreaded red stickers scared peanut-providing restauranteurs straight.

After placing your order, a roundish loaf of honey-glazed bread with soft butter will be brought to your table.  Despite the sharpness of a serrated knife, the bread doesn’t slice cleanly and is apt to leave crumbs all over your table.  It’s not the soft, doughy bread that goes so well with soft butter, but it’s a good “sopping up” bread for excess barbecue sauce (more on that later).

The entree your order will determine the number of sides accompanying your entree.  Available sides are bbq beans, curly seasoned fries, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, country coleslaw, rice pilaf, baked potato, sweet potato, sauteed garden vegetables and sauteed mushrooms.  You can load up your baked or mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon for under a dollar if you wish.

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

Difficult to resist, impossible not to love (at least among barbecue aficionados), baby back ribs are often a good test of a barbecue restaurant’s mettle.  With meat between and on top of the bone, a rack of baby back ribs follows the contours of a pig’s rib cage which tapers so that the rack is smaller on one end than on the other.  The perfect rack tapers, in fact, like the bamboo Zampona, an Andean instrument made in Peru.  A typical rack of baby backs contains a minimum of eight ribs and generally includes as many as 13 ribs depending on the butcher.

Duke’s menu touts their baby backs as “our signature baby backs,” and describes them on the menu as “our incredibly tender baby back ribs are charcoal grilled and basted in our delicious homemade BBQ sauce.”  Alas, our waitress broke my heart in telling me the “baby backs” were actually larger pork ribs–so large, in fact, that the rack of ribs extended beyond the plate on which they were served.  The Flintstone-sized ribs were meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, but the annoying membrane made it difficult to cut and separate one rib from the other.

The “do you remove the membrane or not” question has long been debated by better grillers than I. Leave the membrane on and your ribs are going to hold much more of their natural juices, but that messy annoyance of separating ribs can be an exercise in frustration.  The sauce is more tangy than sweet and it’s generously applied though not so late in the preparation that it’s dry (or worse, lacquered on).  It is still so moist, you’ll need several wipes to remove the evidence off your hands and face.

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

My two sides–a loaded baked potato and baked beans–suffered from the same cooking faux-pas.  Both were just slightly undercooked–not so much that they were inedible, but enough that it was noticeable.  Signs of a perfectly baked potato include a skin just crispy enough that it begins to separate from the fluffy potato inside.  My preference is for the asada style potatoes offered by some Mexican restaurants, but it’s steak restaurants with which people tend to associate baked potatoes.  As such, there’s no excuse for underdone potatoes.

My Kim asked for a twelve-ounce New York strip steak with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and boy did she ever get what she asked for.  It was a bit too garlicky for me, but my Kim likes her food garlicky enough to ward off werewolves.  The steak was tender, juicy and perfectly prepared at medium.  It was much better than the type of steak you might find at the chains which dare to co-opt the names of classic western television shows.

Instead of a bucket dessert, we opted for bread pudding which turned out to be more bread than pudding.  It lacked the characteristics of great bread puddings: moistness, balance of flavors and that “wow” factor you’ll find in the bread pudding at one of Albuquerque’s best purveyors of bread pudding, Barry’s Oasis.

Duke’s Steakhouse fills a niche.  It offers budget-priced steak in a fairly stereotypical milieu (country music, cowboy accoutrements, wood paneling, etc.).  It’s a better steakhouse than the economy chains and it’s a fun restaurant to visit. Duke’s is open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 11AM to 9PM and Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM.

Duke’s Steakhouse
6300 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-2900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bucket of Peanuts, New York Strip, Sauteed Mushrooms

Duke's Steakhouse and Ribs on Urbanspoon

Lotus Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Balance.  The Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region have a word for it: “hózhó.”  The word embodies the idea of striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Balance.  America’s favorite everyman philosopher Homer J. Simpson might define it as “a donut in each hand.”  Obviously politicians discussing the budget should definite it as something unachievable, an ephemeral concept, a meaningless and baseless promise uttered simply to mollify their constituency.  The dictionary might define it as a state of equilibrium.

Balance.  The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.  Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.

Gigantic fish tank

Gigantic fish tank atop altar to Buddha

Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced.  In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary.  In Thai red curry, for example, the ingredients are a red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour), covering four of five basic tastes.  Striking the optimum balance between these tastes is an art, some might say magic.

The most skillful of Thai cooks rely far less on precise measurements to arrive at the exacting levels and quantities of each ingredient used to craft that balance.  Instead, they tend to rely on years of experience and taste to achieve the optimal balance in ingredients that results in utter deliciousness.  We didn’t have the opportunity to check, but it’s a good bet you won’t find measuring cups in Diana Nguyen’s kitchen in Albuquerque’s Lotus Cafe–and if you do find them, they’re probably decorative.

Diana is the owner of one of the Duke City’s best (the best according to Sneaky Sunday.com) Thai restaurants.  Ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Osuna just west of San Mateo, it’s not situated in a well-trafficked area which could account for its relatively low profile among casual Thai cuisine fans.  Among true aficionados–those who discern and appreciate the balance of flavors in a great Thai entree–however, it is very well known.

Grilled Mushrooms

Grilled Mushrooms with a peanut sauce

Diana is originally from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Interestingly, the Lotus Cafe doesn’t showcase the wonderful foods of Laos, but features several Chinese and Korean dishes along with a compendium of Thai dishes.

Despite being the country’s most common flower, the lotus for which Diana’s cafe is named plays an integral part in Thai life where it is not only prevalent in literature, but is associated with heavenly beings. Buddhists use the lotus in paying homage to the image of Buddha and Brahman goddesses are generally portrayed with lotus blooms in their hands.  The Lotus Cafe has two altars to Buddha, one beneath the fish tank in which marine life busily swims.  Food offerings to Buddha are visible on both altars.

Being diminutive in size has a definite advantage for the Lotus Cafe–the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen are confined to a smaller space.  The entire restaurant is an olfactory arousing denizen of flavors and aromas wafting out of the kitchen with the irresistible appeal of a siren’s call.  The traditional Navajo prayer “Walk In Beauty” seems remarkably appropriate for this Thai restaurant.  To step into the Lotus Cafe is to walk among beauty, a restaurant with beguiling art on the walls.  It’s an immaculate milieu in which to enjoy a well-paced meal.

Thai Chicken Wings

Thai Chicken Wings

Even the large refrigerator that separates diners from the kitchen is more than functional.  Its shelves are meticulous with canned beverages (including durian and coconut drinks) lined up in orderly formation like Air Force cadets.  Atop the refrigerator, you’ll find gleaming silver tureens, a clay sculpture of elephants frolicking in the mud and silk lotus blossoms, all arranged in a decorative and meticulous manner.  Dare I say, even the functional arrangements are balanced.

Service is attentive without being obtrusive–”in the moment” when you need something in the manner of excellent service providers everywhere.  If you’re uncertain as to what to order, they will gladly make suggestions without being pushy about it.  Our waitress, for example, noticing our dilemma in selecting from among the twenty or so appetizers, recommended the grilled mushroom appetizer, a starter we may or may not have seen at other Thai restaurants, but strangely had not considered ordering

Our adventure in balance began with three skewers, each impaling four organic char-broiled mushroom caps inheriting a golden sheen from an oyster sauce. Served with ground peanuts in a sweet and sour sauce, the mushrooms were an absolute delight!  The fleshy fungi were perfectly prepared, as light and delicate as any we’ve had while retaining a just picked freshness.  The oyster sauce imbued them with a subtle sweetness wholly different than the sweetness attained by dipping each mushroom into the piquant sweet and sour sauce.  Balance is achieved!

Green Curry Catfish

Green Curry Catfish

Six chicken wings marinated in Thai herbs and deep-fried to a crispy golden hue also achieved a nice balance of flavors.  The wings are enrobed in a light, slightly sweet batter that seals in the chicken’s inherent juiciness.  The Lotus chicken sauce is the color of honey, but it packs a piquant potency.  You can have Buffalo wings if you want them.  I’ll take these any day.

The menu is divided into thirteen sections, but rather than experiencing triskaidekaphobia, thirteen will be your lucky number: appetizers, Thai Tom Yum Soup, Thai Pho, Thai Yum Salad, Thai Curry, Thai Fried Rice, Thai Stir-Fried Noodles, Fish Lover, Chinese Dishes, Korean Dishes, Beverages and Desserts.  There are several items heretofore unseen in Albuquerque Thai restaurants.

For me, the true test of a Thai restaurant is how well they prepare curry dishes.  Unfortunately too many of the Duke City’s Thai restaurants tend to “Americanize” their curry dishes by making them almost cloying in their sweetness.  Though they may heat things up a bit with Thai chilis, the overwhelming flavor of many Thai curries tends to be sweetness.

Bulgogi

Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea

As with many Americans, particularly machismo fanatical New Mexican men, my preference for curry is with plenty of piquancy. Lotus Cafe will accommodate the thrill-seekers among us whose palates are accustomed to the burning sensation of chili enhanced curry dishes.  That being said, to distill curry so that it emphasizes one flavor sensation, particularly the heat of chili, is to dumb it down, to strip if of the layers of flavor, not to mention culture, history and balance.  Preparing a curry that focuses too much on heat is to obfuscate the glorious complexity curry has to offer.

The Lotus Cafe did an excellent job in striking the balance I like in my curry.  My green curry catfish dish showcased my precious piquancy while retaining the luxurious richness of coconut milk, the lip-puckering kiss of lime juice, the floral aroma of green peppers and so forth.  The catfish had no batter therefore absorbing the flavors of the curry while retaining the moistness of a well-prepared fish.  Served with jasmine rice, this is a curry dish to be savored slowly though it will leave a lasting impact on your taste buds.

The Korean section of the menu includes eight dishes starting with Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea.  Bulgogi  is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.  Though not a Thai dish, we were surprised at how balanced in flavors the Lotus Cafe prepares “Korean barbecue.”

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

When it comes to dessert, some of my chef friends tend to downplay just how formidable and delicious Thai desserts can be.  That’s probably because most traditional Thai desserts are relatively simple.  An example of simple ingredients melding together to form a sublime explosion of flavors is Lotus Cafe’s Sticky Rice with Coconut Ice Cream.  The sticky rice is purplish, the result of boiling black rice with sticky rice for hours.  Unlike some sticky rice which can be sticky and even mushy, this has a nutty, crunchy texture that makes it a pleasure to eat.  The hot rice is a wonderful contrast to the cold ice cream, melting it into a creamy custard-like consistency.  This is a dessert we’ll be back for.

Plating at the Lotus Cafe is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, appearance and yes, balance. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know

Lotus Cafe is the perfect restaurant when you need a little balance in your life.

Lotus Cafe
5554 Osuna Road, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream, Green Curry Catfish, Bulgogi, Grilled Mushrooms, Thai Chicken Wings

Lotus Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saigon Far East – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saigon Far East on San Pedro

Saigon Far East on San Pedro

Breaking a paradigm.  That’s a modern corporate buzz phrase that essentially means approaching a situation or routine from a different perspective instead of the standard or typical way.  In the parlance of dining out, breaking a paradigm means eating somewhere other than the “usual suspects.”  That  means getting out of your rut and visiting a restaurant you’ve never visited, especially one  that no one has recommended to you.

Breaking a paradigm is eating at a restaurant like Saigon Far East,  one of Albuquerque’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants.  Despite being around for nearly a quarter of a century, Saigon Far East is surprisingly not very well known.    It wasn’t mentioned a single time by any of the 60 plus respondents to a “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town” discussion on the Duke City Fix’s “Chow Down in Burque Town” group which tends to be very well-versed on all matters culinary.

Saigon Far East

A beautiful and functional pergola at Saigon Far East

If you’ve ever visited Giovanni’s Pizzeria in its nondescript San Pedro shopping center, you may have noticed Saigon Far East on the northeast corner.  Like its host timeworn shopping center, it has seen better days and indeed may have been quite stylish when it first launched in 1987 with its beckoning pagoda style roof painted over its door.

Being in a windowless building might account for why some see Saigon Far East as an ominous, maybe mysterious restaurant.  It definitely doesn’t have the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate the Duke City’s restaurant scene. It doesn’t need any of that superficiality.

Two Happy Rolls

Two Aptly Named Happy Rolls

The restaurant’s interior is somewhat more appealing than its exterior facade.  Chinese style lanterns illuminate the cavernous dining room and hanging plants suspended from the ceiling add color.  The center of the large room is dominated by a pergola, a purplish, roof-less structure resembling an uncompleted porch.  An adjacent room serves as a pool hall.

So who frequents Saigon Far East?  It’s popular with employees of the Veterans Administration, Lovelace Hospital, Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Air National Guard–veterans like Carlos Apodaca and his fellow Guardsmen who eat there every drill weekend.  It’s been my experience that veterans of the armed forces aren’t scared off by foreboding windowless buildings or by exotic cuisine.  If you want to know where to eat, ask a well-traveled veteran.

Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce

Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce

When Carlos wrote to tell me about some of  Saigon Far East’s treasures, I knew instantly one of my paradigms would be broken–a long overdue visit to that mysterious old restaurant on San Pedro.  Carlos suggested that we leave our dining experience in the hands of Kim.

Kim, it turns out, is the restaurant’s caretaker.  She has been running Saigon Far East since its owner Diane Nguyen passed away in 2008.   A petite lady with boundless energy, Kim has an intimate knowledge of the menu and can be counted on for recommending something great (although I surmise that’s an easy task with a menu as broad-reaching.)

SaigonFarEast10

Imperial Rolls from Saigon Far East

Broad-reaching means a menu replete with appetizers, entrees and desserts we haven’t seen at other Vietnamese restaurants.  Considering Albuquerque has so many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, surprises are rare.  Saigon Far East is full of surprises.

One of those surprises is  ginger limeade, a refreshing beverage with the salubrious flavor of concentrated ginger.  At many Vietnamese restaurants, ginger is only hinted at when ginger limeade is offered.  At Saigon Far East, it’s the lime that plays a supporting role.  This limeade is neither too savory or too sweet or even too tart, but if you’re a fan of strong, aromatic ginger, you’ll love this brackish-colored drink because it’s all about ginger.

The beauteous Kim delivers pho to our table

The vivacious Kim delivers pho to our table

Similar to other Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon Far East offers both fried (imperial) rolls and fresh spring rolls made with thin, translucent flour wrappers which are never fried.  Both are available as vegetarian options.  Among the spring rolls, the Happy Roll is a nice surprise.  Although it sounds like a sushi roll, it’s essentially a traditional Vietnamese spring roll engorged with vegetables and shrimp.  The surprise here is the inclusion of grilled beef.

The Imperial Rolls, a sobriquet bestowed by the French, are wholly unlike the simple, translucent spring rolls.  They are wrapped in rice paper as opposed to the more conventional Chinese egg roll wrapper.  One of the true signs of a Vietnamese Imperial Roll is that one of its ingredients is taro, a starchy root.  Other ingredients include pork, shrimp and fresh herbs. Served two per order on a decorative lettuce leaf, they are quite good.

Honey Roasted Quail

Honey Roasted Quail

An even more pleasant surprise is the accompanying sauce.  It’s wholly unlike most of the fish sauce generally offered with spring rolls which tends to be very sweet.  While Saigon Far East’s rendition does have the characteristic sweetness, it is much more piquant with chili seeds floating on the vinegary mixture alongside julienned carrots.  The sauce also doesn’t have the pronounced “fishy” taste of some nuoc mam.

Another appetizer sure to sate the discerning diner are the stir-fried green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce.  The artful star-shaped arrangement of six New Zealand green lip mussels swimming in a piquant sauce speaks volumes about the restaurant’s plating.  This is not only a delicious appetizer, it is a beautiful one as well.   Minced cilantro, garlic, red pepper, scallions and ginger coalesce to enliven the bivalve mollusks with flavor as well as color and texture.

Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce

Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce

The French influenced yet another traditional Vietnamese appetizer, honey-roasted quail–two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail.  This is the epitome of finger-licking good. That’s due, in part, to the delicately small quail itself, which by virtue of its size has to be held by both hands even as you nibble tiny bites of the sinewy flesh.  A slice of lime is squeezed onto small plate of spices (salt, pepper, garlic and more) to provide a unique dipping sauce which impacts a wonderful flavor to the quail.

Sensational soups are a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine and it seems all the best soups are celebrated on Saigon Far East’s multi-page menu.  Vietnamese soups  showcase a rich, flavorful broth in a  swimming pool sized bowl big enough to feed a small family.  The broth is like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails the partaker.   It invigorates the senses and tantalizes the taste buds.

Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)

Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)

The most popular soup is pho (pronounced pha or phuh), a soup of beef and rice noodles.  It’s become so popular among non-Asians that the Campbell Soup Company is introducing a commercially prepared pho aimed at mainstream eateries.  Pho promises to continue to grow in popularity as an ethnic food trend.

American tastes which gravitate toward the piquant will absolutely love Saigon Far East’s Hu Tieu Sate, a spicy bowl of rice noodle soup which the menu promises “will make your mouth water and your body sweat as soon as you taste it.”  This rice noodle pho rare features slices of paper-thin eye round that cook directly in the hot spiced soup.  It is the perfect pick-me-up, a pho on par nearly as good as the best Cafe Dalat and May Hong have to offer (although nothing can compare with the spicy beef stew at Dalat and May Hong).

Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork

Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork

This soup is rich and fragrant, sweet and savory, piquant and intensely beefy with a comforting balance of vegetables and thick noodles.  There’s a burst of flavor with every spoonful.   The pho is accompanied by the usual herbal trimmings (mint, basil, cilantro and bamboo sprouts) and one surprise–banana blossoms.  If the quality of its broth is the true measure of greatness in pho, the fresh herbal accompaniment is like the proverbial cherry on top, the only possible way to improve on near perfection.

Another terrific soup, one replete with an astounding number of ingredients is an egg noodle soup (#M1 on the menu) named Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong.  It’s Saigon Far East’s special combination bowl of prawn shrimp, BBQ pork, fish ball, crab and quail egg in a tasty clear broth.  Instead of a side bowl with the aforementioned herbal trimmings, the herbs are already on the soup.  You can have this soup prepared to your exacting specification of spiciness, up to and including the level of pain.  It’s a delicious soup, absolutely perfect for wintery days.  It comes with an “Asian Donut” which is wholly unlike anything you’ll ever see at Krispy Kreme.  If anything, it tastes more like a sopaipilla than any dessert donut.  Because the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, the donut comes in handy for dipping into the ambrosiatic broth.

Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice

Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice

Stir-fried rice noodles are not only tasty, they’re fun to eat as they’re reconstituted by the sauce with which they’re served.  Case in point, Saigon Far East’s stir-fried rice noodles with barbecue pork in a garlic and ginger sauce.  The noodles start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and they reacquire the soft noodle texture so typical in soups.  Scallions, onion and cilantro provide a sweet and savory balance while the barbecue pork is just plain deliciousness.

So are the vermicelli noodle bowls all served with fresh shredded lettuce, cucumber, basil and bean sprouts garnished with carrots, peanuts and grilled onions.  Meat or seafood options include a marinated, sliced BBQ grilled pork which blankets the wide bowl in which this entree is served.  The BBQ grilled pork is more savory than sweet as it should be.  You can douse this dish with as little or as much fish sauce as you’d like.   It’s an entree that combines Vietnamese staples such as noodles, vegetables and sauces in a surprisingly interesting and delicious manner.

Young tofu in ginger

Young tofu in ginger

Saigon Far East offers several fried rice options including a Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice that combines shrimp, pork, beef, chicken, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, chopped green onion, peas and carrots.  Fine ingredients all, but none quite as flavorful as Chinese sausage.  If you’ve never had fried rice with Chinese sausage, you owe yourself a trip to Ming Dynasty where it’s made to perfection.  No fried rice in town comes close, not even one replete with ingredients.

Perhaps the very best dessert at Saigon Far East isn’t even on the dessert menu.  It’s a dessert Kim may recommend if you’re particularly effusive about the ginger limeade.  It’s a dessert that showcases the versatility of ginger.  Young tofu swims in a steaming hot broth of ginger and sugar to form one of the most fragrant and intriguing desserts we’ve had.  It’s sweet, savory and salubrious, like the very best medicine you’ve ever had.  How very typical of this surprisingly good restaurant.

If you’ve found yourself in a rut and want to try something refreshingly different and delicious, go east–to Saigon Far East.

Saigon Far East
901D San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-7408
1st VISIT: 31 January 2009
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Happy Roll,  Ginger Limeade, Stir Fried Green Mussels, Pho, Stir Fried Noodles

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