Viet Rice – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Viet Rice

Viet Rice Restaurant in Rio Rancho

In Vietnamese, “an com”‘ translates as “eating rice,” but it’s a phrase that more accurately implies the act of partaking of food. At Viet Rice, they know rice and they make the act of partaking of food a memorable one! The motto “We Know Rice” is declared on the menu and it’s part of the restaurant’s logo. It’s even on the restaurant’s entrance. More importantly, it’s obvious in the way Rio Rancho’s very first Vietnamese restaurant operates. True to its name, well crafted rice dishes are a specialty, but there’s so much more than rice at this small gem operating out of a sprawling shopping center.

Viet Rice is one of the more visually appealing Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City area with a decorous style and color scheme (lime green is very prominent) very similar to Viet Q and Viet Taste.  The counter at which you’re greeted and take-out orders are placed and picked up is under a bamboo awning.  Walls are festooned with inspired large, framed black and white photographs depicting life in Vietnam.

Grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves

Grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves

Viet Rice’s opening day, March 23rd, 2005, is a day that will live on my taste buds and olfactory memories for a long time. That’s because it’s not every restaurant that will blow me away with something so totally different or unique, but Viet Rice did so 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 New Mexico) in Vietnamese food as well.

Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Rice’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased in a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf and served with fish sauce. Four pieces to the order might inspire rapacious drooling–if prepared properly (during subsequent visits, the grilled beef and grape leaf were overdone and tough).  When prepared properly, the grilled beef is redolent with the fragrance of grilled meat and spices in harmony with one another.  The

Lemongrass and chili with vermicelli

Lemongrass and chili with vermicelli

If you’re not in the mood for traditional rice, try Viet Rice’s only bun (rice vermicelli) dish. The lemongrass and chili with rice vermicelli is topped with lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint, peanuts and sweet fish sauce which you can have with either grilled pork, beef, chicken, shrimp or egg roll. It’s healthy and delicious, a combination of sorts of salad and grilled beef that melds flavor combinations of sweet, savory, tangy and piquant.  Ladle on fish sauce and the flavor profile now includes a bit of pungency.  Contrasts are also in play when the cold vegetables meet the hot grilled pork.  This dish also plays contrasting textures with one another–the crunchiness of the vegetables, the ethereal qualities of the noodles, the chewiness of the pork and the snap of crushed peanuts.

Relatively new (as of 2011) to the Viet Rice menu is a “Vietnamese sandwich,” the longest one in the Duke City area, in fact. At an even twelve-inches, this sandwich is twice the length of the banh mi served at some Vietnamese restaurants. Length, however, doesn’t translate in this case to best. The sandwich is offered with your choice of four grilled meats: pork, beef, chicken, meatball and beef wrap. The bread is a bit more crusty than traditional French baguettes, but it’s a very good bread. Unfortunately, the ingredients nestled within its crusty confines are parsimonious. On the two sandwiches I’ve had–grilled pork and grilled beef wrap–the only sandwich ingredients between bread were cilantro and one jalapeño for every three inches of sandwich. Unlike my favorite banh mi (at May Hong and Banh Mi Coda), it did not include pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber and Vietnamese mayo. Interestingly, it is accompanied not by fish sauce, but by a peanut sauce very reminiscent of Thai peanut sauces.

Pat Thai

Pat Thai

As good as some entrees are, it’s been a surprise to encounter some relatively uninspiring entrees on the menu.  Leave it to me to find two.  An aberration called country style diced beef (bell pepper, mushrooms and onion) is served with fried rice or steamed rice. The fried rice is fabulous, but the diced beef is reminiscent of tough stew meet with very little of the olfactory arousing spice adornment for which Vietnamese food is renowned.

The other sub-par item is the pho which I had with well done beef. Compared to the pho at May Hong or Saigon, Viet Rice’s version was like dish water.  My friend Christine whose mother is Vietnamese and father is French recounted several problems with this rendition of the national dish of Vietnam.  At the top of her list is aroma, or rather the lack of it.  As Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the prolific palate points out, “scent is crucial to a good pho.”  The other, more obvious, issue is that this pho seems made with a minimum of real bone marrow, another key to a comforting pho.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than most noodle soups you’ll find in American restaurants, but there are better phos in the Duke City area.

The longest Vietnamese Sandwich in the Albuquerque area

Viet Rice does redeem itself with a mean durian shake. Durian, the world’s most stinky fruit is such an acquired taste that my dining companions don’t even want the malodorous fruit wafting toward them, but it makes for a delicious, refreshing fruit drink and it leaves neither a funky aftertaste nor halitosis.

Viet Rice
1340 Rio Rancho Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fresh Spring Roll; Grilled Beef Wrap with Grape Leaf; Rice Noodle Bowl

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Jo’s Place – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Jo's Place for contemporary Mexican cuisine interpreted by chef Dennis Apodaca

By their fruits ye shall know them.
Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?

-Matthew 7:16

As Americans are often prone to judge fruit by the pleasingness of its appearance, the fragrance of its bouquet and the sweetness of its flavor, huitlacoche may not stand a chance.  A fungus which forms on the ears of corns, huitlacoche resembles a malignant tumor with postulous  black secretions  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement. In more pleasant company it’s called corn smut.  As if that isn’t bad enough, it’s created from a disease formed by a pathogenic plant fungus.  Is it any wonder persnickety Americans have been slow to accept that huitlacoche could possibly be considered a delicacy?

Perhaps Americans would be wise to remember that the ancient Aztecs were one of the world’s most advanced civilizations in medicine, math and science and they incorporated huitlacoche into their cooking as have generations of their descendants.  Perhaps if American farmers understood its potential as a culinary delight, they wouldn’t work so hard to eradicate it.   Perhaps if nutritionists recognized that huitlacoche is replete with unique proteins, minerals and other nutritional properties, it might be advocated as a healthful alternative to what is found acceptable within the American diet.

The interior of Jo's Place on 4th Street

In Mexico, street markets are brimming with vendors selling fresh huitlacoche, often from buckets where mounds of this purplish-blackish fungus are available both on the cob and as kernels scraped from the cob. Vendors at those same markets proffer other Aztecan delicacies such as chapulines (crispy fried crickets), gusanos (worms of the maguay cactus) and escamoles (ant eggs). Compared to these creepy crawlies (usually eaten live, rolled up in a tortilla with a squeeze of lime and a dash of salt), maybe huitlacoche doesn’t sound so bad after all.

A number of failed marketing ploys have been attempted to make huitlacoche more palatable to the “sophisticated” American palate and to disassociate it from its grotesque origin and scatological name.  It’s been called “Mexican truffles,” “Aztec caviar” and “maize mushrooms,” but for some reason, huitlacoche just has not caught on.  It didn’t catch on after Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, introduced this delicacy to the world in her timeless classic Cuisines of Mexico: “Huitlacoche…produces big, swollen, deformed kernels, black inside and covered with a silvery-gray skin.  As the fungus cooks it exudes a black juice.  It is perfectly delicious, with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is almost impossible to describe.”

A trio of Salsas

It didn’t catch on when in 1989, the James Beard Foundation hosted an “all huitlacoche” dinner, touting it as the “Mexican truffle.” It didn’t catch on after Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist Martha Mendoza (who worked for the Albuquerque bureau of the Associated Press from 1995 to 1997) wrote about its nutritional properties in 2010. Perhaps in the Duke at least, it will catch on when adventurous Albuquerque diners tell their friends about the amazing Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger at Jo’s Place on Fourth Street. If you haven’t heard about Jo’s Place, don’t worry. You will…and you’ll hear about it a lot.

Jo’s Place is the most recent (launched on January 17, 2011) brainchild of restaurant impresario and incomparable chef Dennis Apodaca who also owns and operates two of Albuquerque’s highest regarded eateries: Sophia’s Place (named for his daughter) and Ezra’s Place (named for his son). Jo’s Place is named for Dennis’s mother Josie. It is within easy walking distance of both Sophia’s Place (6313 Fourth Street, N.W.) and Ezra’s Place (6132 Fourth Street, N.W.), making it easy for Dennis to oversee his operations. Though his current focus is on getting Jo’s Place on its feet and primed for success, his other restaurants remain in good hands with CIA trained chefs at the helm. CIA, by the way, stands for the Culinary Institute of Apodaca.

Turkey Achiote Quesadilla with pico de gallo and salad

Dennis can probably relate to the plight of the huitlacoche. Sophia’s Place is situated in a timeworn edifice you might pass by without a second thought save for wondering why the parking lot is so full. Ezra’s Place is housed in a bowling alley, traditionally not a venue in which you can expect to find outstanding food. By their fruits, Albuquerque has come to know that Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place serve some of the very best and most exciting food in New Mexico. In fact, the culinary world arrived at that realization when Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri visited Sophia’s in 2008 for an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Jo’s Place showcases Dennis’s interpretation of contemporary Mexican food. As has come to be expected from the inventive chef, he does not subscribe to anyone’s template of what contemporary Mexican food should be and how it should look. His menu is not some compendium of every stereotypical “contemporary” Mexican food item any cognoscenti might believe should be on such a menu. Nor are there any obvious indications from the restaurant’s simple signage to its exterior color pallet what Dennis’s vision for his new restaurant is. Jo’s Place is housed in the same space that was previously used by Hurley’s Coffee, Tea and Bistro, an Irish-themed eatery.

Passers-by might surmise by its hunter green exterior that Jo’s Place remains an Irish restaurant, but you won’t any time soon see Dennis painting the structure red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. Nor does the restaurant’s interior bear any telltale signs that Jo’s Place is about contemporary Mexican food as others might interpret it. This is all indicative of the genius of Dennis Apodaca who does not subscribe to stereotypes, templates or expectations. He is very much his own man and he does what he wants. As at the walls of his two other restaurants, Jo’s Place is festooned with colorful contemporary art including several intriguing paintings from Cecilia M. Schmider’s “face off” series.

Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger with Fries

The menu is festooned with intriguing items.  Headlining the abbreviated menu is a trio of burgers served with fries or a salad.  What makes these burgers “contemporary Mexican” is the ingredients with which they are concocted.  Consider the Mole Puebla burger with Jack cheese, the Poblano burger with Jack cheese and the aforementioned Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom burger.  When is the last time you saw a burger line-up that inventive?  The Comida Economicas (cheap eats) section of the menu features a plain burger with cheese (yawn), a chicken and lime tortilla soup and a trio of salsas.

Open from 7AM to 7PM, Jo’s Place offers only a handful of breakfast items: a breakfast quesadilla; potatoes, scrambled eggs and black chili oil; chorizo scramble; and huevos with salsa ranchera. All are available with or without meat.  The menu also includes a number of salads served with or without meat (fish o’ day, shrimp, chicken, sirloin).  Salads are adorned with avocado, black beans, corn, Cojita cheese and tomatoes and can be topped with your choice of dressing: jalapeño ranch, green onion vinaigrette, roasted garlic, fresca, charred tomato and pineapple vinaigrette.  Also available are a red chile lime Caesar salad and a unique rendition of a Cobb salad which includes chorizo, achiote, turkey, black beans, tomatoes, corn and cheese.  As at Sophia’s Place, specials of the day are plentiful and varied and you place your order at a counter before taking a seat.

Long-time followers of Dennis Apodaca’s culinary career might remember that prior to launching Sophia’s Place, he served as chef at the long-defunct Fajitaville.  One of Fajitaville’s hallmarks was its creative salsas, the flavors of which remain imprinted in my memories.  In the salsa trio with chips, those memories are rekindled.  The triumvirate of terrific salsas are a fire-roasted tomato salsa, a pico de gallo and a pineapple salsa (pineapple, red onion, cilantro, red pepper).  None of the salsas are especially piquant, but all have depth of flavor and deliciousness.  The chips are housemade and served warm.

Mole Puebla Burger with Jack Cheese

A special of the day during our inaugural visit, a turkey achiote quesadilla served with a side salad and a ramekin of pico de gallo is reflective of Dennis’s unique genius.  Instead of one large tortilla being sliced pizza-style (triangle-shaped wedges), this quesadilla appears to be four small flour tortillas.  Each is engorged with finely cubed turkey, Cheddar, black beans and onions.  The quesadillas are grilled to a consistency somewhere between slightly crispy and soft and pliable.  They’re made even more flavorful when one of the salsas is applied to the proportion of your choice.

The Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger was easily the highlight of our inaugural visit, impressing on my taste buds a deliciousness that not even Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cuisine, was able to describe adequately.  Huitlacoche truly does have a flavor that may be impossible to describe.  It’s unlike any other flavor, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  This is a burger which you dare not adulterate with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or any other ameliorant.  It needs absolutely no help.  Not even green chile would make it any better.  It’s a fantastic burger!

In New Mexico, green chile cheeseburgers are sacrosanct, a state treasure we cherish and celebrate.  It would be too easy for Dennis to craft a green chile cheeseburger worthy of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  Instead, he dares to be different and it pays off in huge dividends of flavor.  The Mole Puebla Burger with Jack Cheese is listed second on his revolutionary burger menu, but may be the equal of the aforementioned huitlacoche burger.  Dennis’s mole is the main reason.  With an explosive flavor reminiscent of reconstituted dried chiles flavored redolent of chocolate, raisins, cinnamon (I’m just guessing here) and other sweet-piquant-tangy ingredients.  Mole is a highly complex sauce, but Dennis has the formula down pat.  Unfortunately, there are no other items on the menu that showcase what is some of the best mole in Albuquerque.  One word of warning–the mole is very messing.  Expect your fingers to be painted a brownish-red color.  Burgers at Jo’s Place are served with tomatoes, lettuce and chopped onion, all fresh and crisp.

Poppy Seed Scone and Chocolate Walnut Brownie

The mole would be terrific as a dipping sauce for the fries, one of two options (the other is a salad) you can have with your burger.  Though my preference would have been for the sublimely sexy shoestring fries served at Sophia’s, these fries have a personality all their own.  They appear to be double-fried which imbues them with a crispy stiffness wholly unlike the flaccid fries served by some restaurants.  The fries are sprinkled with a spice mix that includes both red chile and just a hint of cumin (no comment here).

Desserts, mostly pastries and cookies, are available in a glass case by the counter at which you place your order. The poppy seed scone is impregnated with a bit of tangy orange zest. It’s light and flaky, a perfect scone for dipping into coffee or a British milk tea. Even better is a chocolate brownie studded with chunks of walnut. The brownie has an adult chocolate flavor and is moist and delicious.

In Jo’s Place, Dennis Apodaca has yet another winner, a restaurant that might soon be spoken of in the same reverential tones as Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place.  Though other Duke City restaurant impresarios may do it in grander, more opulent style with the flash and panache made possible with bigger bankrolls, when it comes to pure deliciousness and personality, you can’t beat Dennis Apodaca’s Fourth Street restaurant trio.

Jo’s Place
6100-B 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2011
1st VISIT:  1 February 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Trio of Salsas, Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger, Turkey Achiote Quesadilla, Mole Puebla with Jack Cheese Burger

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Weck’s – Rio Rancho, New Mexico


Weck's Restaurant with locations throughout the metropolitan area

Arguably the very best programming all year long on KNME, Albuquerque’s Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) comes during its four annual fund-raising campaigns.  For sandwich lovers all over New Mexico, no PBS feature is more greatly appreciated than Sandwiches That You Will Like, a documentary by Rick Sebak of television station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The documentary showcases unique sandwich offerings from throughout America.

Voracious viewers like me practically salivate at the scrumptious sandwiches on display and lament the fact that most of them can’t be found within the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Watching the documentary is torture of the most delicious sort, no doubt prompting a rush to the refrigerator for even the least tortured among us.  One of the sandwiches featured, a staple in the Buffalo, New York area, is called a “Beef on Weck.” Weck is a colloquial diminutive of Kummelweck, a salty roll topped with pretzel salt and caraway seeds.

A 50s/60s movie and pop theme at the Riverside Plaza Weck's

A 50s/60s movie and pop theme at the Riverside Plaza Weck's

The first time I passed by an Albuquerque restaurant named “Wecks,” the sandwich fanatic in me hoped against hope, the menu would showcase the fabulous Beef on Weck sandwich, but it wasn’t meant to be. The name Weck’s is a shortened form of the original owner’s last name, Weckerly.  Doug Weckerly launched the restaurant in 1991 and opened two other Weck’s in the Albuquerque metropolitan area before selling the local chain in 2004 to local restaurateur Art Kaplan and his wife Toya. Today there are six Weck’s restaurants in Albuquerque, one in Rio Rancho, one in Los Lunas and one in Santa Fe.

The restaurant’s motto is “A full bellied tradition since 1991.” Rarely have truer words been uttered. Weck’s is renown for serving titanic portions. Weck’s mission statement reads in part: “We will consistently serve our community great tasting foods, promptly and politely. We will greet all our customers with a smile and provide them with courteous service in a clean and orderly environment. We will do this with the knowledge that if we take care of business today, we will build business for tomorrow.”  While many mission statements, particularly in the corporate world, seem to be just so many words on paper, Weck’s lives up to its.  The wait staff is attentive and rarely does a visit go by without a visit from the manager on duty ensuring on your comfort and satisfaction.

Homemade chips and salsa

Homemade chips and salsa

Humongous portions and a customer orientation that’s much more than lip service are but two of the reasons Weck’s is a family favorite. Other reasons include good value for your money and some genuinely wonderful menu items.  Weck’s serves only breakfast and lunch and you’ll sometimes experience short waits as faithful patrons finish the platters of food gracing their tables. More often than not they leave the restaurant hefting dinner in doggie bags the size of shopping bags.

Breakfast is served all day long and in full bellied tradition may fill you up for the entire day. Pancakes are the size of car tires, an order of papas (hash browns with your choice of red and/or green chile, Cheddar and Jack cheeses and two eggs any style) is mountainous and omelets are made with four eggs.You could feed a developing nation on lunch portions from a menu that includes big sandwiches, belly busting burgers, really big salads (where are you now Elaine Benes) and substantially portioned New Mexican food.

Green chile cheeseburger with homemade potato chips and fries

Green chile cheeseburger with homemade potato chips and fries

Burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of two sides, among the most popular being the fresh, homemade potato chips and unique crinkle wedge fries. Two sides means prodigious portions of each–sides which dwarf any competitor’s offerings. The potato chips can be terrific if not left too long on the fryer. They’re slightly thicker than the bagged chips which all too easily crumble into annoying little pieces. The chips are also relatively lightly salted. The crinkled wedge fries are Texas sized and delicious.  Other sides options include gourmet onion rings, fresh fruit, cottage cheese.  You can also substitute a small salad or bowl of soup for the two sides 

The mound of tortilla chips Weck’s serves with its salsa are also homemade, unfailingly fresh and lightly salted. The salsa is jalapeno based and slightly reminiscent of Pace Picante Sauce without the acerbic aftertaste. This chunky salsa is mild on the piquant scale but that doesn’t detract from a pleasant flavor.  Weck’s guacamole is also quite good. Constructed from fresh avocados, it has a distinct hint of lime which some of the best guacamoles use for flavor (and to keep guacamole from browning too soon with exposure to the air).

Chicken enchiladas

Chicken enchiladas

The green chile cheeseburger is a handful with a beef patty easily exceeding eight ounces (twice the size of the Quarter Pounder). I’ve always asked for my burger to be prepared at medium rare–and rarely have my exacting specifications been met. Burgers typically seem to be served at medium or medium well.  The green chile could use some wildness as it is tame even by “gringo” standards. Melted Cheddar cheese and a slightly toasted bun are the burger’s saving graces.

Although Weck’s doesn’t feature the Beef on Weck, it does serve several very good, very big sandwiches. In fact, Weck’s sandwiches–all ten of them–are my favorite reason to visit. My current favorite is the “Different Philly:” roast beef, sauteed mushrooms, onions, bell pepper and mozzarella cheese on griddled sourdough.  By no stretch of the imagine will this rendition of the “Philly” remind anyone of, say, the sublime Philly at Itsa, but it’s a good sandwich in its own right.   Weck’s makes their sandwiches the way you’d make them for yourself at homes.  That means they don’t scrimp on the portions.  The Different Philly is skyscraper high with a very tender and delicious roast beef.  Though it’s offered with an au jus, ask for green chile instead.

"Different Philly": roast beef, sauteed mushrooms, onions, bell pepper and mozzarella cheese on griddled sourdough.

New Mexican food is available for both breakfast and lunch. Breakfast burritos are the size of a motorcycle’s sidecar. They start with three scrambled eggs folded inside a flour tortilla smothered with your choice of red and/or green chile, Cheddar and Jack cheeses served with hash browns (out of the bag and nothing special).  Both the red and green chiles are made with a surfeit of cornstarch, an unnecessary thickener which may actually detract from the flavor of the chile.

One of the best New Mexican entrees is the chicken enchilada plate served with beans, hash browns and a garnish of guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and tomato. The chicken is moist and delicious, wholly unlike the desiccated poultry you sometimes find in enchiladas. The red chile has a discernible amount of cumin.  With green chile, the enchiladas are much better.

The breakfast burrito with green chile

While some of Weck’s portion sizes would challenge the most edacious of gurgitators (competitive eaters), most people do walk out with dinner in tow.  One reason not to finish your meal is so you can indulge in one of Weck’s tummy stretching desserts. These include saucer sized cookies, brick sized brownies and best of all, cinnamon rolls big enough to share.

The cinnamon rolls are glazed with a generous sheen of icing and are redolent with the aromatic essence of thickly spread cinnamon. For best results, ask your server to grill the cinnamon roll instead of microwaving it. The grilling lends a delightful flakiness to the crust while a thin coat of melted butter will cut the sweetness ever so slightly.

Grilled cinnamon rolls

Grilled cinnamon rolls

Even without the Beef on Weck sandwich, there are plenty of reasons for repeated visits to Weck’s. It truly is a family restaurant which has earned the loyalty of long-time patrons by treating them like new customers whose repeat business they want.

1690 Rio Rancho Drive
Rio Rancho, NM
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 September 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Homemade Potato Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Cinnamon Rolls, Salsa & Chips, “Different Philly”

Weck's (Rio Rancho Drive) on Urbanspoon

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