Breaking a paradigm. That’s a modern corporate buzz phrase that essentially means approaching a situation or routine from a different perspective instead of the standard or typical way. In the parlance of dining out, breaking a paradigm means eating somewhere other than the “usual suspects.” That means getting out of your rut and visiting a restaurant you’ve never visited, especially one that no one has recommended to you.
Breaking a paradigm is eating at a restaurant like Saigon Far East, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants. Despite being around for nearly a quarter of a century, Saigon Far East is surprisingly not very well known. It wasn’t mentioned a single time by any of the 60 plus respondents to a “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town” discussion on the Duke City Fix’s “Chow Down in Burque Town” group which tends to be very well-versed on all matters culinary.
If you’ve ever visited Giovanni’s Pizzeria in its nondescript San Pedro shopping center, you may have noticed Saigon Far East on the northeast corner. Like its host timeworn shopping center, it has seen better days and indeed may have been quite stylish when it first launched in 1987 with its beckoning pagoda style roof painted over its door.
Being in a windowless building might account for why some see Saigon Far East as an ominous, maybe mysterious restaurant. It definitely doesn’t have the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate the Duke City’s restaurant scene. It doesn’t need any of that superficiality.
The restaurant’s interior is somewhat more appealing than its exterior facade. Chinese style lanterns illuminate the cavernous dining room and hanging plants suspended from the ceiling add color. The center of the large room is dominated by a pergola, a purplish, roof-less structure resembling an uncompleted porch. An adjacent room serves as a pool hall.
So who frequents Saigon Far East? It’s popular with employees of the Veterans Administration, Lovelace Hospital, Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Air National Guard–veterans like Carlos Apodaca and his fellow Guardsmen who eat there every drill weekend. It’s been my experience that veterans of the armed forces aren’t scared off by foreboding windowless buildings or by exotic cuisine. If you want to know where to eat, ask a well-traveled veteran.
When Carlos wrote to tell me about some of Saigon Far East’s treasures, I knew instantly one of my paradigms would be broken–a long overdue visit to that mysterious old restaurant on San Pedro. Carlos suggested that we leave our dining experience in the hands of Kim.
Kim, it turns out, is the restaurant’s caretaker. She has been running Saigon Far East since its owner Diane Nguyen passed away in 2008. A petite lady with boundless energy, Kim has an intimate knowledge of the menu and can be counted on for recommending something great (although I surmise that’s an easy task with a menu as broad-reaching.)
Broad-reaching means a menu replete with appetizers, entrees and desserts we haven’t seen at other Vietnamese restaurants. Considering Albuquerque has so many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, surprises are rare. Saigon Far East is full of surprises.
One of those surprises is ginger limeade, a refreshing beverage with the salubrious flavor of concentrated ginger. At many Vietnamese restaurants, ginger is only hinted at when ginger limeade is offered. At Saigon Far East, it’s the lime that plays a supporting role. This limeade is neither too savory or too sweet or even too tart, but if you’re a fan of strong, aromatic ginger, you’ll love this brackish-colored drink because it’s all about ginger.
Similar to other Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon Far East offers both fried (imperial) rolls and fresh spring rolls made with thin, translucent flour wrappers which are never fried. Both are available as vegetarian options. Among the spring rolls, the Happy Roll is a nice surprise. Although it sounds like a sushi roll, it’s essentially a traditional Vietnamese spring roll engorged with vegetables and shrimp. The surprise here is the inclusion of grilled beef.
The Imperial Rolls, a sobriquet bestowed by the French, are wholly unlike the simple, translucent spring rolls. They are wrapped in rice paper as opposed to the more conventional Chinese egg roll wrapper. One of the true signs of a Vietnamese Imperial Roll is that one of its ingredients is taro, a starchy root. Other ingredients include pork, shrimp and fresh herbs. Served two per order on a decorative lettuce leaf, they are quite good.
An even more pleasant surprise is the accompanying sauce. It’s wholly unlike most of the fish sauce generally offered with spring rolls which tends to be very sweet. While Saigon Far East’s rendition does have the characteristic sweetness, it is much more piquant with chili seeds floating on the vinegary mixture alongside julienned carrots. The sauce also doesn’t have the pronounced “fishy” taste of some nuoc mam.
Another appetizer sure to sate the discerning diner are the stir-fried green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce. The artful star-shaped arrangement of six New Zealand green lip mussels swimming in a piquant sauce speaks volumes about the restaurant’s plating. This is not only a delicious appetizer, it is a beautiful one as well. Minced cilantro, garlic, red pepper, scallions and ginger coalesce to enliven the bivalve mollusks with flavor as well as color and texture.
The French influenced yet another traditional Vietnamese appetizer, honey-roasted quail–two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail. This is the epitome of finger-licking good. That’s due, in part, to the delicately small quail itself, which by virtue of its size has to be held by both hands even as you nibble tiny bites of the sinewy flesh. A slice of lime is squeezed onto small plate of spices (salt, pepper, garlic and more) to provide a unique dipping sauce which impacts a wonderful flavor to the quail.
Sensational soups are a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine and it seems all the best soups are celebrated on Saigon Far East’s multi-page menu. Vietnamese soups showcase a rich, flavorful broth in a swimming pool sized bowl big enough to feed a small family. The broth is like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails the partaker. It invigorates the senses and tantalizes the taste buds.
The most popular soup is pho (pronounced pha or phuh), a soup of beef and rice noodles. It’s become so popular among non-Asians that the Campbell Soup Company is introducing a commercially prepared pho aimed at mainstream eateries. Pho promises to continue to grow in popularity as an ethnic food trend.
American tastes which gravitate toward the piquant will absolutely love Saigon Far East’s Hu Tieu Sate, a spicy bowl of rice noodle soup which the menu promises “will make your mouth water and your body sweat as soon as you taste it.” This rice noodle pho rare features slices of paper-thin eye round that cook directly in the hot spiced soup. It is the perfect pick-me-up, a pho on par nearly as good as the best Cafe Dalat and May Hong have to offer (although nothing can compare with the spicy beef stew at Dalat and May Hong).
This soup is rich and fragrant, sweet and savory, piquant and intensely beefy with a comforting balance of vegetables and thick noodles. There’s a burst of flavor with every spoonful. The pho is accompanied by the usual herbal trimmings (mint, basil, cilantro and bamboo sprouts) and one surprise–banana blossoms. If the quality of its broth is the true measure of greatness in pho, the fresh herbal accompaniment is like the proverbial cherry on top, the only possible way to improve on near perfection.
Another terrific soup, one replete with an astounding number of ingredients is an egg noodle soup (#M1 on the menu) named Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong. It’s Saigon Far East’s special combination bowl of prawn shrimp, BBQ pork, fish ball, crab and quail egg in a tasty clear broth. Instead of a side bowl with the aforementioned herbal trimmings, the herbs are already on the soup. You can have this soup prepared to your exacting specification of spiciness, up to and including the level of pain. It’s a delicious soup, absolutely perfect for wintery days. It comes with an “Asian Donut” which is wholly unlike anything you’ll ever see at Krispy Kreme. If anything, it tastes more like a sopaipilla than any dessert donut. Because the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, the donut comes in handy for dipping into the ambrosiatic broth.
Stir-fried rice noodles are not only tasty, they’re fun to eat as they’re reconstituted by the sauce with which they’re served. Case in point, Saigon Far East’s stir-fried rice noodles with barbecue pork in a garlic and ginger sauce. The noodles start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and they reacquire the soft noodle texture so typical in soups. Scallions, onion and cilantro provide a sweet and savory balance while the barbecue pork is just plain deliciousness.
So are the vermicelli noodle bowls all served with fresh shredded lettuce, cucumber, basil and bean sprouts garnished with carrots, peanuts and grilled onions. Meat or seafood options include a marinated, sliced BBQ grilled pork which blankets the wide bowl in which this entree is served. The BBQ grilled pork is more savory than sweet as it should be. You can douse this dish with as little or as much fish sauce as you’d like. It’s an entree that combines Vietnamese staples such as noodles, vegetables and sauces in a surprisingly interesting and delicious manner.
Saigon Far East offers several fried rice options including a Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice that combines shrimp, pork, beef, chicken, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, chopped green onion, peas and carrots. Fine ingredients all, but none quite as flavorful as Chinese sausage. If you’ve never had fried rice with Chinese sausage, you owe yourself a trip to Ming Dynasty where it’s made to perfection. No fried rice in town comes close, not even one replete with ingredients.
Perhaps the very best dessert at Saigon Far East isn’t even on the dessert menu. It’s a dessert Kim may recommend if you’re particularly effusive about the ginger limeade. It’s a dessert that showcases the versatility of ginger. Young tofu swims in a steaming hot broth of ginger and sugar to form one of the most fragrant and intriguing desserts we’ve had. It’s sweet, savory and salubrious, like the very best medicine you’ve ever had. How very typical of this surprisingly good restaurant.
If you’ve found yourself in a rut and want to try something refreshingly different and delicious, go east–to Saigon Far East.
Saigon Far East
901D San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 31 January 2009
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Happy Roll, Ginger Limeade, Stir Fried Green Mussels, Pho, Stir Fried Noodles