Da Lat is one of Vietnam’s most well known vacation destinations, serving since the turn of the century as the vacation spot for affluent Vietnamese and foreigners. Considered the unofficial honeymoon Mecca of Vietnam, it is located on the greater Central highlands of Vietnam and at 1500 meters (~4920 feet) above sea level is one of the few cities in Vietnam surrounded by pine trees, just like James Nguyen’s adopted home of Albuquerque.
That’s one reason James named his latest restaurant venture after the beautiful city of Da Lat. James opened Cafe Dalat on Sunday, August 31st, 2003 after nearly ten months away from the Duke City dining scene. Formerly the proprietor of May Hong, he has brought with him all the great recipes from May Hong and added some 15 or so other great entrees and appetizers, including some dim sum. His wife, in fact, returned to Vietnam for several months before Cafe Dalat’s launch to learn dim sum from a dim sum master. Every year James travels to California, the progenitor of new trends in Vietnamese cuisine, to see if there are any new dishes or trends he can bring back to Albuquerque.
Alas, Cafe Dalat isn’t nearly big enough to serve an extensive dim sum menu, but it is certainly one classy restaurant and has surpassed May Hong and Saigon as my highest rated Vietnamese in the city and one of my highest rated in New Mexico in any genre. It’s easily on par (maybe even better) than Cyclo, a nationally regarded Vietnamese restaurant in Chandler, Arizona and it’s better than many of the Vietnamese restaurants I frequented in the San Jose area. In 2004, Weekly Alibi readers selected Cafe Dalat as the very best Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. Two years later, it earned a four-star rating from the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin. Competition is increasingly formidable, but Cafe Dalat continues to outshine its competition.
Since James launched Cafe Dalat on Central Avenue, several other Vietnamese restaurants have sprung up across the city. In fact, the Duke City area (including Rio Rancho) now has more than two dozen Vietnamese restaurants, most serving very good to outstanding food. Curiosity-seekers will try the other Vietnamese restaurants and some will spread their business around to the ones considered worthy of their appetites, but invariably when you ask them which is the city’s very best, it’s Cafe Dalat that comes immediately to mind for most of them.
There are many reasons–not the least of which are James and his lovely wife–that Cafe Dalat gets the nod over formidable competition. For one thing, it’s probably the most striking Vietnamese restaurant in the city thanks to James’s complete refurbishment of the drab, dingy remnants of the previous tenant, the Little Saigon restaurant. Attractive upscale touches, a competitive wine list; rich, dark woods and subdued lighting add those subtle touches of class and ambience to which most restaurants aspire. Not even the acid etched graffiti on an east-facing window detract from the restaurant’s panache.
Then there’s the menu. Eighteen different appetizers (not to mention five additional tofu and vegetarian appetizers), four cup-sized soups and fifteen different swimming-pool sized bowls of pho and stew–and that’s just the first page of the menu. Just trying to narrow your dining choices is a tremendous challenge. The really great thing about Cafe Dalat is that you can’t go wrong no matter what you order. You may not like (make that love) some items as much as you’ll like others, but there’s probably nothing on the menu you won’t dislike.
Okay, maybe you’ll dislike the durian shake, made from what is considered the stinkiest fruit in the world. Most Americans consider durian malodorous and they might be right. It’s an acquired taste, one of which I’m proud to boast I have. Even if you don’t like durian shakes, there are other rich, creamy and fruity cold concoctions on the menu–strawberry shakes, jackfruit shakes, fresh coconut juice, the incomparable Vietnamese lime aid and even an avocado shake (like sweet guacamole you ingest with a straw).
The appetizer line-up is like a “who’s who” of the very best Vietnamese appetizers ever assembled all in one menu. If you love spring rolls or egg rolls, Cafe Dalat’s are among the very best in the city, but even better are other appetizer alternatives, including some interesting starters you might not associate with Vietnamese cuisine. One example is the shrimp in bacon, called Mariscos Costa Azul in Mexican mariscos restaurants where they’re served. Cafe Dalat’s rendition is topped with crushed peanuts and served with fish sauce. Bacon with anything makes for a great combination. You’ll love these.
The lime beef is fabulous! Nearly carpaccio thin slices of seared steak are blanketed with refreshing mint and cilantro and crushed peanuts as well as grilled onion and invigorating spices. This is an appetizer for which it’s okay to use your fingers to use the razor-thin steak as a scooping device for the complementary ingredients. Provided with the lime beef is a bowl of nuoc cham, the quintessential Vietnamese condiment based on fish sauce. Cafe Dalat’s nuoc cham is among the very best in Albuquerque, but that’s a common theme.
Best in the city honors might also be accorded to the Banh Mi Thit (pictured above), popularly known as a Vietnamese sandwich and described on the menu as a hoagie. Banh mi is a Vietnamese word for bread and indeed, the French inspired baguette on which this sandwich is crafted, is worthy of adulation. At Cafe Dalat, the Banh Mi Thit is engorged with small slices of pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, black pepper, onions and your choice of meat: barbecue pork, grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken or ground beef. No matter what your meat selection, you’ll enjoy the contrasting and complementary sweet, savory, piquant and tangy flavors as well as the textures.
One of the things that may surprise you about Cafe Dalat is that something with a simple name hold an adventure in complex flavors and deliciousness. Take the rice cake for example. Anyone who’s been in a diet is familiar with the tasteless cakes of puffed rice. Cafe Dalat’s baked rice cake (pictured above) features a shrimp enrobed in a yellowish pastry made from a mixture of flour, coconut milk and basil. It is meant to be wrapped in lettuce and dunked in fish sauce and is even better than it looks.
Even on a sweltering summer day, it’s nearly impossible for me to pass up Cafe Dalat’s spicy beef stew, my very favorite soup anywhere in Albuquerque. It’s like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails me. This soup is brimming with flavor and served steaming in a swimming pool sized bowl. It’s flavored with fifteen different spices, giving it a piquant, spicy and savory taste. It also receives a slight tang from pineapple chunks. Its savory flavor is derived from thinly sliced eye round and beef brisket. The round rice noodle is thick and always perfectly prepared.
For sheer comfort, however, the restaurant’s best stew is probably the banana beef stew (pictured above) which contrary to its name has nothing to do with fruit. This stew is made with banana shank, a boneless cut of beef with a lining of fat for flavor. It is simmered slowly in a five-spice broth and served with your choice of rice or egg noodle or vermicelli or bread. The bread is warm, yeasty baguettes perfect for sopping up the flavorful broth. This stew truly has properties that uplift the soul.
Mothers everywhere will tell you there’s nothing better than a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup when you’re under the weather. Vietnamese mothers and chefs make the very best chicken noodle soups anywhere. One of the very best on Dalat’s menu is a pho brimming with wontons filled with ground pork, barbecue pork and a thin egg noodle swimming in a chicken broth along with onions and scallions. The paper-thin wrapping skins are barely resilient enough not to fall apart in the steaming broth, but when you do break into them you’re rewarded with a delicious ground pork seasoned with anise. The broth is rich and luxurious, so good it might make you wish you were ailing.
Over the years we’ve sampled just about every entree James has offered either at May Hong or at Cafe Dalat, but he’ll occasionally surprise us with something new. A 2007 addition to his novel-sized menu is an eggplant and pork entree (pictured below). This entree is constructed with sliced eggplant and ground pork stir fried in a sauce that seems to be equal parts tangy, spicy and sweet, a combination that only the most skillful cooks are able to consistently get absolutely right. Cafe Dalat gets it right! Eggplant, in particular, is one of those items which if made incorrectly can leave an inky and bitter aftertaste. Dalat’s rendition is tender, each slice absorbing the flavors of the sauce.
Ask James if his restaurant serves the type of food served in Vietnam and he’ll openly tell you he serves the type of food only the affluent can afford in his native country. It’s the type of food served in restaurants most citizens can’t afford to visit. Like most Vietnamese families, the Nguyen family diet consisted mostly of vegetables, fish and bread. James fondly remembers the catfish pond and vegetable garden in his family’s back yard and to this day prefers the simplicity of a limited diet to American extravagance. It’s not, however, as though a fish and vegetable diet ever became mundane. Vietnamese cooks are very inventive and became experts in the use of flavorful sauces, many of which have made their way to his restaurant.
One such example is the catfish in ginger sauce, a whole catfish which is perfectly prepared–crispy on the outside and lovingly tender on the inside. A slightly piquant but mostly sweet ginger sauce the color of Day-Glo glazes the catfish. The fish itself is bony and caution must be exercised when you eat it, but it’s so good, you’ll work around the bones and pick off ever bit of the flaky, tender and delicious fish. This is an inspired entree!
So, too, is Cafe Dalat’s rendition of cube steak (pictured below), as delicious a beef entry as I’ve had at any Vietnamese restaurant anywhere. It’s better, in fact, than many a prime steak I’ve had. Cubes of eye of round steak are marinated in a sublime mix of lime and spices then stir-fried to an unbelievably tenderness and served with stir-fried green pepper and caramelized onions.
American tastes which lean toward grilled meats will quickly become enamored of Cafe Dalat’s grilled pork in which pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. One of the best ways to have it is with patter noodles which don’t really seem to be noodles at all. In fact, they seem to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. The grilled pork is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Cafe Dalat’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it’s something like this dish.
All dishes at Cafe Dalat are attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and this restaurant has a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks. It tastes even better!
Other Vietnamese restaurants may come and go, but Cafe Dalat will stand the test of time because it consistently prepares and serves the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.
5615 Central, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 8
BEST BET: Spicy Beef Soup, Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Grilled Pork with Patter Noodle, Banana Beef Stew, Rice Cake, Cube Steak