There are perhaps thousands of examples throughout the Duke City of immigrants whose path to the American dream involved rising above humble origins and surmounting extraordinary circumstances to achieve success. Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that many of them arrived in America as refugees from war-torn nations with nary a modicum of English.
One such example is Liem Nguyen, who along with wife Kim founded the May Cafe in 1992, a scant nine years after arriving in Albuquerque through a church resettlement program. Speaking almost no English, Liem, then 22 years old, enrolled in Highland High School as a ninth-grader. He didn’t know how to drive, shop at the supermarket or even catch a bus. He slept in a closet in a tiny apartment he shared with several other immigrants.
Among the city’s very first Vietnamese restaurants, May Cafe wasn’t an immediate success save within the tight-knit Vietnamese community craving the tastes of home and among the servicemen at Kirtland Air Force Base who had been stationed in Vietnam and fell in love with the cuisine. It took a while before the widespread acceptance by a trepidatious general public of the alluring and theretofore mysterious flavors of Vietnam. It helped tremendously when in its annual restaurant issue, the long-defunct Abq Magazine listed the May Cafe as a handful of second-tier restaurants just below the magazine’s anointed ten best.
The May Cafe is situated on Louisiana just south of Central. The most conspicuous sign that you’ve arrived is a 27-foot tall fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan just behind the restaurant. Weighing more than 2,000 pounds and wielding an axe as long as a compact car, the giant lumberman has been perched on a customized steel beam 25 feet above the ground for more than four decades. Anywhere but in Albuquerque the behemoth statue might seem out-of-place, but here it’s become a beloved local landmark.
Beloved local landmark is also an apt description for the May Cafe which has earned every peoples’ choice and “best of” award possible during its twenty plus years of serving the Duke City. Most recently, in 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine bestowed a “Hot Plate” award on the restaurant’s popular pork chop dish, signifying its selection as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Despite competition from more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants strewn throughout the metropolitan area, the May Cafe remains one of the most highly regarded and popular independent restaurants of any genre.
The menu reads like a compendium of all that is delicious and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine. The menu boasts “our food is made from the best ingredients, freshest vegetables and meats.” The proof is in the tasting and that’s where the May Cafe shines. You’re not likely to find any appetizer or entree that doesn’t elicit exclamations of “wow!” or “yummo” if you’re a Rachael Ray clone!
One of the Cafe’s most popular starters is the grilled onion beef, a specialty available as an entree at SaiGon Restaurant. An order features five cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled spring onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Vietnamese grilling imparts a slight smoky char imprint on beef with a fragrance promising deliciousness in every morsel. The deliciousness comes from a melding of such spices as star anise and cinnamon which prove a perfect foil for the full-flavored onions. The grilled onion beef is served with the Cafe’s renowned fish sauce which adds sweet-savory-tangy notes to the beef.
Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are almost antithetical to their American counterparts. On the latter, sandwich aficionados want ingredients, particularly meat, piled high and spilling over. With banh mi, it’s all about a balance of delicate, complimentary flavors. You’ll probably never find a Dagwood-sized banh mi and if you did, it probably wouldn’t be very good. May Cafe’s banh mi combines barbecue pork, beef or chicken with daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, julienne carrots, cucumber slivers in an airy baguette. The baguette is key. It can’t be dense and thick or it might dominate the flavor profile. In perfect combination with the ingredients it cocoons, the baguette is a repository for the perfect sandwich.
When fellow Vietnamese cuisine aficionados often ask what my favorite pho in the Albuquerque area is, I’m almost unqualified to answer. Rather than pho, if a Vietnamese restaurant offers a spicy beef stew, that’s what I’ll order. There are three Duke City restaurants which offer phenomenal spicy beef stew: Cafe Dalat, May Hong and the May Cafe. Aside from the fact that the proprietors of each are related, the common element among the three spicy beef stews is intense flavor–not intense spiciness if your definition of such is piquancy, but the spiciness born of spice combinations redolent with flavor. May Cafe’s version is the color of brackish water and can be prepared with your choice of noodles: rice, egg or vermicelli. What singles out this spicy beef stew from among its brethren is the beef which is carne adovada tender and absolutely delicious. The broth is replete with flavor so good it might make you swoon.
My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls the May Cafe’s Singapore Noodles “perhaps the best I have ever had.” I beg to disagree with my esteemed friend. The word “perhaps” doesn’t belong in the sentence. This is the very best bowl of Singapore Noodles I’ve ever had. With a make-your-mouth-happy level of piquancy, the curry-based dish with tangles of vermicelli noodles and ultra-fresh vegetables is one of those rare dishes so good it would be the only thing you’ll ever order. That is if the menu wasn’t already replete with other dishes that good.
As with many of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurants, the May Cafe provides excellent value, proving gourmet quality cuisine doesn’t have to be expensive in order to be very good.
111 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2013
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Vietnamese Sandwich, Singapore Noodles, Spicy Beef Stew