Growing up on a relatively unsophisticated Northern New Mexican diet featuring such staples as beans, tortillas and chile could hardly be considered a training ground for gastronomic appreciation. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my mom’s cooking it was hardly with the realization that I was feasting on one of America’s very best regional cuisines. Frankly, in the 1960s, only someone with prescience would have thought New Mexican cuisine could eventually garner worldwide acclaim. My siblings and I actually thought we were deprived because we weren’t eating Wonder bread sandwiches, pizza and Big Macs.
Similarly, my friend and Intel colleague Huu Vu who grew up in Vietnam had no realization that the simple foods on which he was raised would someday be considered part of the world’s most delicious, artfully composed and healthy cuisines. To him and other citizens of impoverished Vietnam, food was sustenance, fuel to keep them going. Huu related to me that in Vietnam, you ate to live. You learned to stretch your meals with fillers such as rice. The vegetables and herbs (typically fresh mint, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts) which accompany pho (the superb Vietnamese beef noodle soup) weren’t just flavor additives. They were added to pho to make it go further…to fill hungry bellies.
Most people eventually come to the realization that the cuisine on which they grew up is special, and for many of us, no other cuisine will ever replace it as our favorite. My epiphany as to just how special New Mexican food really is came in 1977 when the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts. While you could hardly call fried clams, tuna subs and incomparable Italian food a “consolation prize,” they could not take that place in my heart that was exclusively reserved for New Mexican food.
My friend Huu was sixteen when he moved to San Francisco where a world of culinary exploration awaited. With an open mind and an inquisitive nature, he tried it all, but ultimately concluded that nothing was quite as wonderful as the Vietnamese food on which he grew up–and which his mother began sharing with the Golden Gate City when she opened up Le Cordon Bleu, a wonderful hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant I visited in 2001, about a decade before meeting Huu.
When Quoc Luu invited me to visit Kim Long, an uptown area Vietnamese restaurant he and his family opened in September, 2010, it was a foregone conclusion that Huu would accompany me on what would be the inaugural visit for both of us. I wanted Huu to refute or validate an audacious claim on Kim Long’s Web site: “There are many Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque that are not authentic. Because the only way to get authentic food is to cook it at home; we took the opportunity to capitalize on this market.” Huu’s educated palate and sense of smell can ferret out any pretenders quickly. With one spoonful of pho, he knows whether or not it’s made the traditional ways. He’s as much a stickler for authenticity in Vietnamese food as I am about the foods of my Land of Enchantment.
Alas, the east-facing signage belies its authenticity. That signage reads “Kim Long Asian Cuisine,” not a name many would associate with a Vietnamese restaurant. Having driven by it several times, Huu, in fact, thought it to be yet another in a seemingly endless parade of bad Chinese restaurants dotting the Duke City’s culinary landscape. That assumption is heightened by the twin dragons flanking the sign. As it turns out “Kim Long” is not the name of anyone in the Luu family, but a term which translates from Vietnamese to English as “Golden Dragon.”
As if further confusion is needed, the restaurant’s interior clearly indicates the previous tenant was an American restaurant of some sort. The black and white tiled floors seem more apropos for a fifties throwback diner while wall panels bordering the ceiling read “Grill,” “Deli,” “Sandwiches” and “Salads.” A large flat screen television hangs on a faux Anasazi style fireplace. A single songbird serenades the large dining room while an aquarium of colorful sea life adds an air of tranquility. The aspect most telling that this is a Vietnamese restaurant is in the hospitality and friendliness of the staff. Quoc, as it turns out, is a fellow Intel employee who toils on the night shift, not that he wouldn’t have been absolutely gracious and welcoming otherwise.
A few Americanized touches not withstanding, Kim Long is a paragon of authenticity. The Luu family has raised its own chickens, making organic poultry and home-grown eggs standard offerings. Quoc has bold plans for the restaurant, planning a menu expansion that will include banh mi, the fabulous Vietnamese sandwich. Unlike other Duke City purveyors of banh mi, Kim Long will bake its own baguettes. The aroma of freshly baked breads and the wondrous seasonings, herbs and spices used on other menu items will make the restaurant one of the city’s most olfactory arousing. “Olfactory arousing” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a term anyone would use for durian, the world’s “stinkiest” fruit. Durian exudes an aroma reminiscent of garlic and tropical fruit to those rare souls who enjoy it. Dissenters such as my stand-up comic friend Bill Resnik insist its malodorous emanations are more reminiscent of feet and perspiration. Kim Long’s durian shake is one of the best, most authentic I’ve had.
The menu features a few surprises neither Huu or I had seen in other Albuquerque Vietnamese restaurants. For instance, Huu pointed out that one of the ingredients on the egg rolls is taro, an ingredient prevalent in health-conscious California, but not in the Duke City. The egg rolls, served three to an order, are quite good–so good, in fact, that the Web site touts them as an example of the menu’s authenticity, indicating the recipe has been passed on from generation to generation. The taro influence is somewhat muted because taro tends to absorb the flavors of ingredients with which it’s paired.
Another surprise (for me) was something called a bloating fern-shaped cake with ground pork and shrimp, essentially a gelatinous rice-flower cake topped with chopped dry shrimp, dehydrated pork and scallions and served with undiluted fish sauce and potent chilis. This appetizer, served in ten small plates in dim sum fashion is a specialty of Hue in Central Vietnam. This dish has a very unique flavor and texture and is an absolute joy to eat though as I quickly found out, it’s not to be eaten oyster-shooter style. Following Huu’s lead, I liberally spooned on the undiluted fish sauce and ate it as I might eat jello. This is adventure eating and it’s a real treat.
Kim Long’s spring rolls are yet another terrific appetizer–Vietnamese pork, shrimp, lettuce, basil and vermicelli noodles rolled in fresh rice paper. These met with Huu’s seal of approval as he lamented that some restaurants have stooped to using Chinese egg roll wrappers which are not of the quality he demands. The spring rolls (three to an order) are served with a Hoisin peanut sauce studded with julienne carrots and daikon. The invigorating freshness of the basil and the snap of perfectly prepared shrimp are my favorite qualities in spring rolls and these qualities are very much in evidence at Kim Long.
The appetizer about which Quoc is most excited is a fried flour cake with egg and green onion, a surprise considering it is a Chinese dish. The recipe for this treasured family dish is several generations old though it has yet to be passed on to Quoc or his siblings. It’s a secret recipe I want! At first glance, the cubes of fried flour look vaguely like fried tofu and even have a similar texture, but the flour cakes are redolent of a faint bacon-like smokiness and are absolutely delicious when coupled with a piquant sriracha-hoison sauce. The faint sensation of bacon is only fitting considering the fried flour cakes are served on a bed of what looks like scrambled eggs or more appropriately like the eggs used on fried rice. This is yet another terrific starter.
My friend Huu, like many Vietnamese people, can eat pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner with pho snacks in between. It’s his favorite dish, what he considers the benchmark for great Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a dish he makes often at home and still orders when he goes out. With one spoonful, he validated the authenticity of Kim Long’s pho. One telltale sign of authentic pho, he says, is whether or not the beef stock is made with bones, preferably leg and knuckle bones with the unctuous marrow which makes pho taste meaty and rich. The pho at Kim Long comes in a bowl the size of a small swimming pool. It’s served steaming hot with a bowl of vegetable and herbs.
My choice was the Hue-style Vermicelli soup, a spicy lemongrass noodle soup with beef. The beef, perhaps flank steak or eye-of-round, is sliced painfully thin and cut across the grain for a smooth texture. The soup also includes Bo Vien (Vietnamese style meatballs), an entire pig’s foot and even blood sausage. It’s not dumbed down for American tastes and is as flavorful as any soup in town. The fragrance of spices–cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel and star anise–is intoxicating, a perfect counterbalance for the refreshingly light ginger-like taste of the lemongrass.
While the Hue-style Vermicelli soup might well be the star attraction at many a Vietnamese restaurant, it’s not the best soup at Kim Long. That honor goes to the Pho Sate Kim Long, a rice noodle pho made with dried sate chili. The sate elevates this pho above other phos, imparting a potent spicy-smokiness that transforms an otherwise wonderful bowl of pho into a transcendent fiery flavored experience. It’s got a kick that’ll clear your sinuses, but it’s not just the heat that you’ll fall in love with. When combined with cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel and star anise, the sate is addictive.
Spices alone don’t a great pho make. The Pho Sate Kim Long includes thinly sliced rare beef, meatball, soft tendon and skirt flank as well as lemongrass and scallions. Tiny globules of marrow float on top of the soup, evidence of the pho’s authenticity. You can add as much as you’d like from a separate plate of cilantro, mint and bean sprouts. Everything you add contributes to a flavor profile as beguiling and perhaps second in deliciousness only to the transformative spicy beef stew at Cafe Dalat among all phos in the Duke City.
My second visit was as delightful as the first with an introduction to new flavors prepared in true and authentic ways, certainly in ways not prepared by other Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City. While other restaurants serve broken rice dishes, in many cases not even the broken rice is authentic. Broken rice is more expensive than standard rice so in some cases, the “broken rice” dishes are made with conventional steamed rice. Not so at Kim Long.
The broken rice is fashioned into a cube strategically placed at the twelve o’clock position on a square plate which is artfully decorated with an array of six different flavor components: Chinese fried rice, grilled pork, shredded pork skin, pork pie, shrimp and a fried egg. The broken rice is intended to be eaten with the fried egg served over easy so the yolk runs down onto the rice. With a little of the diluted fish sauce, it’s a delightful treat. From among the six flavors on the plate, the most surprising is the grilled pork, a bone-in pork chop grilled to perfection, not served as two to three-inch grilled pork strips as often served at other Vietnamese restaurants. The grilling influence is apparent in the light smokiness, but the savory, smoky flavor profile also includes a hint of sweetness I suspect comes from just a bit of brown sugar and fish sauce. In any event, it’s one of the best “pork chops” in Albuquerque.
Another Chinese-influenced dish on the menu is fried rice with Chinese sausage. If you’ve never had Chinese sausage, you’re in for a treat. Texturally it’s similar to some hard, dry pork sausage, but its sweet-salty-smoky flavor is what stands out. On the fried rice, it’s cut into small cubes, joining carrots, peas and bean sprouts. Only at Ming Dynasty will you find Chinese sausage fried rice as good as this one.
One of the most healthful and delicious of Vietnamese entrees is Vermicelli, thin and translucent rice noodles in a bed of small ribbons of lettuce, mint, cilantro cucumber, bean sprouts and onions surrounded by a generous portion of grilled pork and egg rolls. The vermicelli noodles, grilled beef and egg rolls are warm while the salad ingredients are cool, a contrast that works exceptionally well. Add the contents of the accompanying bowl of fish sauce only upon the salad because the grilled beef is absolutely perfect as is.
Kim Long has every right to tout its authenticity in preparing Vietnamese cuisine in traditional ways passed down from generation to generation. It has every right to lay claim to being one of Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese restaurants.
Kim Long Asian Cuisine
2325 San Pedro, N.E., Suite 1E
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2012
1st VISIT: 25 March 2011
# of VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Soup with Beef, Bloating Fern-Shaped Cake with Grinded Pork and Shrimp, Spring Rolls, Fried Flour Cake with Egg and Green Onion, Vermicelli with grilled pork and egg rolls, Pho Sate Kim Long