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Thai Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Vegan on Osuna, N.E.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
- William Shakespeare

Contrary to the Bard of Avon’s most famous sonnet, what something is named does matter.  It matters at least as much as what it is.   Some would say, in fact, that a name is everything.  If a steak restaurant was named Rotted Meat, it’s unlikely it would entice enough diners (much less pedantic critics) to ever discover it serves four-star gourmet quality cuisine.  Diners would stay away in droves and those intrepid enough to visit would likely find the suggestive nature of its name  greatly diminishes the deliciousness of the food.

A restaurant’s name is its identity.  The right name imprints a good and lasting impression on a restaurant’s customers.  It’s an effective way to draw first-time visitors to a restaurant, if only to satisfy their curiosity.  Choose the wrong name and your restaurant could be subjected to pejoratives and ridicule. Zagat’s, one of the most prolific print and online sources of user-generated restaurant reviews rounded up what they consider the worst restaurant names they could find — “silly, sexually suggestive, potty referencing and all.”

Dumpling Assortment: Red Chili Dumplings, Steam Curry Dumplings, Veggie Dumplings

The list was comprised of Asselina, an Italian restaurant in New York; Beaver’s Choice, an Arizona Scandinavian eatery; Big Wong, a New York City Chinese institution; Crabby Dick’s, a Mid-Atlantic seafood chain; Crapitto’s, a Houston Italian diner; Fu King, a Chinese restaurant in Florida; Goat Lips, a Florida deli; 9021Pho, a Beverly Hills Vietnamese restaurant; Phat Phuc, a Vietnamese noodle Bar; and Pink Taco, a Las Vegas taco restaurant.  It’s possible the double-entendre and scatology will appeal to the sophomoric among us–at least the first time we visit.  After that, return visits are unlikely if the food isn’t up to par. 

Rather than risk scaring potential customers away or worst, bringing in an “undesirable” crowd, most restaurant owners play it safe and give their restaurants fairly generic, but descriptive names that leave no doubt as to what type of food is proffered.  Albuquerque’s Thai Vegan restaurant, for example, will never be mistaken for a restaurant which serves steak and chops.  The name is clearly indicative of the type of food this restaurant serves.  What the name doesn’t come close to describing is just how good Thai vegan food can be under capable hands. 

Papaya Salad

At Vegan Thai, the capable hands belong to chef-owner Pat Phomnoi and they’re on display for all diners to admire. Closed-circuit cameras pointed at a very assiduous kitchen broadcast the chef’s every deft move as he simultaneously prepares multiple dishes. There’s no wasted motion in the chef’s experienced hands. Nor is there any animated interplay with his assistant as you may see depicted on television where screaming and chaos seem to dominate the kitchen.

Chef Phomnoi launched Vegan Thai in 2010 at the former site of Lotus Cafe, quickly winning over the hearts of many of its predecessor’s devotees and bringing in the niche demographic of vegans wanting high-quality Thai cuisine.  No matter your preference, Vegan Thai will win you over when you step into the restaurant and are immediately enveloped in the olfactory arousing aromas of spices and sauces.  If you had any doubts before walking in, the fabulous fragrances will dispel them as they waft toward you like a sensuous siren’s call.

Green Curry with steamed brown rice and tofu pepper steak

Thai Vegan will appeal to your visual sense as well.  The attractive dining room is adorned in gold trim with a gold symbol resembling a seahorse particularly prominent.  An aquarium teeming with goldfish seems strangely out of place though it does add to an already tranquil ambiance.  Service is friendly, attentive and employs tandem concepts.  The waitress who takes your order may not be the one to deliver it.  Whichever waitress is closest to you at any given time will be the one to refill your drink order or check up on you.

The menu is very similar to that of many Thai restaurants with a few surprises thrown in.  For example, the appetizers include not only edamame (soybean pods more commonly served in Japanese restaurants), but French fries, too.  Perhaps because of the commonality of the pairing, the menu also lists eight burgers–tofu burgers, legume veggie burgers, soy burgers, wheat meat burgers and wheat and soy burgers, all of which you can have with fries.  Many entrees are available with your choice of soy chicken, soy pepper steak or soy fish.

Mangoes with sticky sweet rice

Dumpling appetizers come six to an order or you can request an assortment of each of three types of dumplings: veggie, steam curry or red chili.  The dumplings are decoratively plated on a bed of lettuce, julienned carrots and purple cabbage.  The steam curry dumplings stand out largely because of the green curry sauce drizzled on top.  The red chili dumplings   have a crispy texture as if deep-fried.  The red chili is more cloying than it is piquant.  One of this appetizer’s best qualities is that when you’re done with the dumplings, you still have a salad well sauced with green curry and red chili.

The menu offers eight different salad options including larb (the national dish of Laos) and papaya salad.  The papaya salad is as beautiful to behold as it is a joy to eat.  A bed of lettuce is browned with julienned papaya and carrots, minced peanuts, cilantro and purple cabbage flanked by tomatoes.  Ordered at medium piquancy, there was no discernible hint of heat on an otherwise very tasty, very fresh papaya salad.

My waitress looked at me as if I had a death wish when I requested green curry at a “Thai hot” level, prompting me to question my own sanity.  I shouldn’t have.  The heat level was laughable–maybe one-tenth as piquant as the incendiary heat generated at Thai Cuisine.  That’s too bad because a little heat would have elevated the flavor profile of a pretty good green curry.  Even my Chicago born-and-bred better half thought the heat level to have been strictly “gringo.”  Stricken by a desire to experiment, I asked for the curry to be prepared with the soy pepper steak which will never be mistaken for the real thing, but shouldn’t be discounted either.

Our mangoes with sticky rice dessert was a bit of a let-down, too. Though the mangoes were in-season, fresh and juicy and the sticky rice was perfectly prepared, this simple but elegant dessert favorite lacked coconut milk, the ingredient which coalesces all flavors in this dish.

So, what’s in a name?  In the name Thai Vegan, there’s the promise of very good and very healthy Thai food prepared before your eyes in a very attractive milieu.

Thai Vegan
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-4610
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Green Curry, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Dumpling Assortment

Thai Vegan on Urbanspoon

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

Viet Rice on Urbanspoon

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

Jo's Place on Urbanspoon