Though it ended in 1975, the Vietnam war was still very fresh in the minds of Americans when I enlisted in the Air Force two years later. Many of my senior colleagues had served in Vietnam and regaled me with tales of their adventures. It wasn’t man’s inhumanity to man they took away from the experience, but the goodness of people brought together by exigent circumstances. It is very telling of the high character of my colleagues that despite the ravages of war, they had fallen in love with Vietnam: its people, culture and its food. Several of my friends sponsored Vietnamese families fleeing the beleaguered nation.
One of my friends told me the beauty of Vietnam was best seen in the bright colors of its flowers, the innocence of its children and the femininity of women attired in ao dai, the form-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons. Two of the elements which best exemplify the beauty of Vietnam in my friend’s estimation were fully on display during my inaugural visit to the Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant on Fourth Street.
Attired in colorful ao dai which contours elegantly to their lithe bodies, Monica and Lisa, the delightful servers at Pho Hoa, seem to flow gracefully through the restaurant as they take and fill lunch orders. As my friend had described, the ao dail does accentuate the femininity and attractiveness of women who wear them. Physical pulchritude will only go so far, however. Monica and Lisa are also so friendly and attentive, they could well become as popular a draw to Pho Hoa as its cuisine.
The other element on display at Pho Hoa which embodies Vietnamese beauty is flowers. The word “Hoa” translates to English as flower. The top shelf on a room divider is replete with flowers, as bright and beautiful as nature can create. The restaurant itself is also bright and colorful with wasabi green and cranberry walls, hardwood floors and Vietnamese decorations festooning a very attractive restaurant.
The menu is fairly typical of Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. There are nearly 80 items on the menu, not including beverages. Vegetarian items are plentiful. With so many items from which to select, you’re well advised to ask Lisa and Monica what they recommend. Lisa guided me toward Pho Hoa’s spring rolls, a fresh rice paper roll filled with vermicelli noodles, mint, lettuce, shrimp and pork. Those ingredients are visible through the translucent rice paper. The spring rolls are served with a peanut sauce topped with crushed peanuts. It’s not as cloying as some peanut sauces tend to be and serves as an excellent dip for very good spring rolls.
Morgain Davison, a long-time friend of this blog and mom-to-be, asked me to eat some pho for her since pho can’t be found where she now lives. Morgain, this Pho Tai (rare steak noodle soup) is for you; only sharing a swimming pool-sized bowl of this luxurious, aromatic elixir with you could possibly have made it better. One of the secrets of using rare beef in pho is to make sure the heat of the broth doesn’t fully cook the rare beef. It ensures the beefiness of the flavor. Throw in some wonderful fresh veggies with tangles of perfectly prepared noodles and you’ve got a nutritious and delicious soup as good as any you’ll find in Albuquerque.
SECOND VISIT – 3 MAY 2013: Whenever I want validation of my opinion on the authenticity and deliciousness of a new Vietnamese restaurant, I turn to my friend Hu Vuu who was born in Vietnam and whose mother owns and operates a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. Hu has forgotten more about Vietnamese food than I’ll probably ever know. He accompanied me on my second visit along with our friends and colleagues Fancy Mortensen, Harold Lopez and Karen Ascoli, all three of whom have become very savvy on Vietnamese food courtesy of our friend Hu.
While my friends luxuriated on the comforting qualities of pho, my choice was spicy chicken lemongrass, one of the first of so many Vietnamese dishes to ensnare my affections. It’s a beautifully presented dish served on a triangular plate. Served on a large lettuce leaf is some of the highest quality, mostly white meat chicken you’ll find at any Asian restaurant. It’s tender and wholly devoid of any sinew or gristle. Lemongrass, the wondrous aromatically enticing herb, enlivens this dish as does chili, crushed peanuts, onions and julienne carrots and daikon. This may be the best rendition of chicken lemongrass in Albuquerque.
The menu includes five banh mi, the wonderful Vietnamese sandwich which is finally starting to catch on in Albuquerque. Three meats–grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken–are available as well as a vegetarian fried tofu sandwich and a fried egg sandwich. All sandwiches are served with pickled daikon, radish, carrots, cilantro, jalapeño and cucumber. The Banh Mi Trung Chien (fried egg sandwich) is the Vietnamese answer to the Egg McMuffin, only much better and certainly not just for breakfast. The canvas for this sandwich is an excellent nine-inch baguette with a characteristically crusty exterior. Eggs and pickled vegetables are much better than they sound, a true combination of contrasting flavors which go well together.
Pho Hoa is not just the only Vietnamese restaurant in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, it’s the only Vietnamese restaurant within miles of the heart of the North Valley. Launched in April, 2013, it has introduced many elements of the beauty of Vietnam to its guests.
6601 4th St NW Suite H
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 May 2013
1st VISIT: 19 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Rare Beef Noodle Soup, Avocado Shake, Spring Rolls, Banh Mi, Spicy Chicken Lemongrass