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Viet Noodle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Noodle on Montano in Albuquerque’s West Side

On April 3, 2013, University of New Mexico (UNM) Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs sent out a very simple and succinct tweet confirming the hire of head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal. The one-word tweet read simply “Noodles.”  Noodles, of course, is the sobriquet Neal received in high school on account of his tall and thin stature.  The hire was very enthusiastically received by both fans and players who were witness to the strong impact he had on the program as long-time assistant coach. 

Albuquerque has always been a Lobo basketball crazed city and it has embraced Noodles who guided his team to 27 wins during his first season as head coach.  While the UNM Lobo Club would like to believe that “Everyone’s a Lobo! Woof, woof, woof!,” there are a smattering of New Mexico State Aggie supporters strewn throughout the city.  There is also (and this will be hard for diehard Lobo fanatics to grasp) a large segment of the local populace who not only don’t like the Lobos, they don’t like sports.

The interior of Viet Noodle

Among the latter are people for whom a one-word tweet reading “Noodles” has an entirely different meaning than the hiring of a basketball coach.  To them noodles are a soul-satisfying comfort food the audible inhalation of which is heartily enjoyed whether those noodles are chilled or steamy hot.  Whether thin and translucent or thick and dense, noodles evoke warm memories of childhood (when we first discovered that food could be both delicious and fun) and of times when they nourished and comforted us.  When times get rough, noodles have always been there for us. 

Arguably the metropolitan area’s preeminent practitioners at preparing perfect  noodles are the 37 Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.   Most of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants are clustered in the International District, a section of Southeast Albuquerque stretching roughly from the state fairgrounds area to Kirtland Air Force Base.  There are two Vietnamese restaurants in Rio Rancho with the only other Vietnamese restaurant west of the Rio Grande being Viet Noodle in the Paradise Hills area.  It’s sandwiched between Spinn’s Burger & Beer (home to one of the city’s very best green chile cheeseburgers) and Little Caesar’s Pizza.

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

As the only game in this section of town, Viet Noodle has a captive market, but Duke City diners are a persnickety bunch.  If a restaurant doesn’t cut it, it’s not going to last long.  Viet Noodle has been going strong now for five years and there’s no surcease in sight.  On the day of our inaugural visit the number of sit-down diners was greatly eclipsed by to-go orders.  Friends who live in the area tell me that’s about par for the course for this popular eatery. 

Unlike many of the area’s Vietnamese restaurants, Viet Noodle’s menu is somewhat abbreviated, not a compendium listing over a hundred dishes.  Viet Noodle is also not a traditional sit-down restaurant in which you peruse the menu and a server takes your order.  Instead, you’ll place your order at a counter above which are posted lighted meal and beverage options.  Don’t mistake the concept for Vietnamese fast food.  It’ll take a few minutes for your order to be delivered to your table.  While you wait, you’ll want to take a gander at the colorful photographs festooning the walls of life in Vietnam.

Egg Rolls with Fish Sauce

Forget the perfunctory Pepsi products.  Viet Noodle has one of the most comprehensive beverage menus of any  Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque.  The most popular (and my early favorite) is the Iced Vietnamese Coffee, a concoction of sweetened condensed milk and strong black coffee poured over ice.  A number of smoothies and shakes are also available as are boba beverages.  Whether in tea or shake form, boba are gooey, gelatinous globules that seem to inherit the flavor of the drink (strawberry-banana is a good combination). 

There are fewer than fifty items on the food menu including a limited number of appetizers and several vegetarian options.  The most popular starters are egg rolls and spring rolls.  The egg rolls are tightly-packed, golden-hued rolls stuffed mostly with vegetables and served with a clear fish sauce for dipping.  Translucent rice paper wrappers envelop vermicelli noodles and vegetables on the spring rolls which are served with a Hoisin and peanut sauce.

Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

One of the most popular noodle entrees on the menu is vermicelli which you can order with tofu or with pork and egg roll.  It’s interesting that in Italian “vermicelli” translates to English as “little worms.”  While that doesn’t sound especially appetizing, vermicelli in the hands of a Vietnamese chef is a delicious combination of long and thin pasta, julienne carrots and daikon, cucumbers, lettuce, crushed peanuts and fish sauce added to taste.  The pork has the characteristic sweet and savory grilled flavor that makes Vietnamese style pork a very special entree. 

The association that comes first to mind when you mention Vietnamese noodles is pho, the luxurious broth-based noodle soup centering on a broth base made from chicken, beef, or seafood.  The combination noodle soup (rare steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef ball) is a popular option.  Served in a swimming pool sized bowl, it’s replete with tangles of noodles, green onions, cilantro and the unique spices that give pho its addictive flavor profile.   My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, described Viet Noodle’s rendition of pho as “tasty with a nice aroma,” adding that “there is better pho in the Duke City, but not on the west side.”  It’s a spot-on assessment as always.  A few squeezes of sriracha will  give the pho more “personality.”

Combination Noodle Soup

Viet Noodle’s Web site boasts of the restaurant’s “strict commitment to quality” and “the highest standards for food, service, atmosphere and value.”  These are elements to which all restaurants should adhere, especially restaurants serving noodles, an entree that elicits nostalgic feelings of warmth and joy for many of us.

Viet Noodle
4411 Montano Road, N.W., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792 – 5252
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Combination Noodle Soup, Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

Viet Noodle on Urbanspoon

Mac’s La Sierra – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop on Route 66

But the Lights of Albuquerque, will soon be shining bright,
Like a diamond in the desert, like a beacon in the night.
And I wonder if she’ll take me back, will she understand?
Will the Lights of Albuquerque, shine for me again?
Jim Glaser: The Lights of Albuquerque

Imagine yourself a weary traveler motoring along a two-lane blacktop half an hour west of Albuquerque.  Moments ago, having espied a preternatural palette of colors on your mirror, you stopped to gaze in awe and wonder at the breathtaking sunset spraying the sky with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and purples.  Rejuvenated by the slow descent of the sun giving way to an ebony canopy speckled with twinkling stars, you resume your climb of Nine Mile Hill.  At its summit, you’re rewarded with one of the most inspiring sights in the west as the lights of Albuquerque come into view.  It’s a sight Elvis Presley enjoyed often during his travels across the country in his pink Cadillac. 

The year is 1952.  The closer you get to Albuquerque, the more prominent the neon-spangled lights become.  Vibrant neon signage cuts a luminous swath through the city, beckoning motorists with unique roadside architecture and welcoming motor lodges.  You’ll take in the sights tomorrow.  Now you’re parched and hungry.  Fortunately there are a number of promising restaurants on Albuquerque’s sprawling western expanse and you don’t have to leave the Mother Road to find them.  Just beyond the Western View Diner at which you’ve previously dined, you catch sight of a nascent newcomer with an interesting name and a fatted cow over its signage.  Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop it is.

Chips and Salsa at Mac’s La Sierra

Fast forward sixty-two years.  Motorists rarely take the exit from I-40 that traverses the length and breadth of Route 66 through the Duke City.  A visit to Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop would be a great reason to do so.  Now a venerable elder statesman among Albuquerque’s restaurants, Mac’s is one of the city’s oldest continuously operating eateries.  The reason for its success?  Award-winning author Sharon Niederman contends that “no friendlier place exists along the entire road.”  Friendliness and good food go a long way in Albuquerque. 

Mac’s La Sierra no longer has the pristine look and feel that pulled in so many motorists during the waning days of Route 66.  Peruse the parking lot and you’ll quickly notice that virtually every vehicle in the sprawling parking lot is festooned with license plates from the Land of Enchantment.  Finding an empty parking spot is a challenge.  That’s always a great sign.   An external sign will whet your appetite with the promise of “Steaks, Mexican Food, Breakfast All Day.”

Super Mac’s Combo: Three steak fingers, three taquitos, three chicken fingers,  French fries and guacamole

If the “seat yourself” sign is posted, you may have to visit every one of the restaurant’s three dining rooms (one of which is adorned with framed paintings of bullfighters) to find a vacant table.  Seating is in personal space proximity.  Mac’s La Sierra seems as popular with blue- and white-collar workers as it is with families and celebrities (including Steven Michael Quezada), many of whom are regulars who need not peruse the menu to know what they want.  Breakfast Specials, including two south of four dollars, include short steak fingers and eggs.  Steak fingers, a long-time specialty of the house, are deep-fried and coated ground beef shaped like a “finger.” 

The menu is a veritable compendium of New Mexico coffee shop and diner favorites.  That means a good mix of New Mexican specialties as well as American favorites.  The breakfast specials are available from 6AM through 11AM, but you can have anything else all day long.  That includes a 12-ounce New York cut.  It’s a menu first-timers will want to study though a casual glance toward adjacent tables may be even more effective.  Green chile adorned burritos, tamale plates and enchiladas are obvious favorites.

Special Mexican Plate

6 November 2014: You won’t be seated long before an attentive and friendly server visits your table.  If, like me, your approach to New Mexican food is to precede your entree with an order of chips and salsa figuring you’ll be done with them before your entree arrives, Mac’s La Sierra will surprise you.  You won’t be too far into your chips and salsa before your entree arrives–and it’s piping hot, too.  Alas, the chips and salsa are too good to be rushed.  The rich, red salsa has a bite.  It’s a salsa to be enjoyed and respected.  The chips are light, crisp and not overly salty.

11 November 2014:  If you’re into threesomes, the Super Mac’s Combo is your hook-up.  Available as an entree or a generously sized appetizer, this prodigious platter includes three steak fingers, three taquitos, three chicken fingers, French fries and guacamole.  The steak fingers, a long-time restaurant staple, are lightly battered and well-seasoned.  The guacamole is so much more than mashed avocados.  it’s actually got a discernible though not overpowering heat.  Only the taquitos missed the mark, the meat inside the rolled taco shell being more than a bit overdone.

Tamale Plate

6 November 2014: Every first-time visitor should order the Special Mexican Plate, a cheese enchilada, taco, beans and rice all covered with your choice of red or green chile (or both) with sopaipillas on the side.  “Mexican” plate is a misnomer because this combination plate is New Mexican through and through.  The tamale is the most special item on this special plate.  It’s engorged with tender tendrils of red chile marinated pork enrobed in a sweet corn masa.  The hard-shelled taco is stuffed with ground beef and shredded cheese (none of the oft-annoying preponderance of lettuce and tomatoes).  You’re free to add the contents of a plastic squeeze bottle of salsa.  The enchilada and beans are top shelf quality, too.  Both the red and green chile have a nice bite and endorphin-enhanced addictive properties.  Everything is served steaming hot the way it should be. 

11 November 2014: There aren’t many restaurants whose menus include fried chicken so my Kim tends to order it whenever she finds it.   At Mac’s La Sierra there’s a 25-minute wait time for the chicken to be prepared.  It’s served with coleslaw, your choice of soup or salad and your choice of potato (baked, mashed or French fries).  Alas, the fried chicken delivered to our table was overly breaded and a bit rubbery (a sign it’s been overcooked).  While that may have been an anomaly, we probably won’t order it again considering the New Mexican food has been consistently good.

Fried Chicken

11 November 2014: Consider it heretical if you will, but it’s entirely possible to have too much red chile on an entree.  That’s the case with the tamale plate, three meaty tamales covered with your choice of red or green chile.  Here “covered” means practically deluged and overrun with chile.  While the chile is good and has a pleasant piquancy, it overwhelms the tamales, which despite being marinated in chile have a rather delicate flavor profile.  You’ll find yourself shoveling the chile onto the beans and rice so you can enjoy the tamales light on chile the way they should be.

6 November 2014:  The sopaipillas are light and puffy with airy pockets perfect for depositing honey. Alas, they’re served with squeeze bottles of “sopaipilla syrup” (which some taste bud deprived genius–probably from the government–figured would fool diners) instead of real honey.  If you do ask for honey, your server will gladly bring a number of small packets of honey, the type of which are annoyingly challenging to open.  Despite the challenge for ham-fingered diners like me, honey is still the only way to go.

Sopaipillas

Mac’s La Sierra is one of those rare restaurants which transcends time thanks to a time-proven formula of great food, great service and great value…just the way it was during the era of Route 66.

Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop
6217 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 836-1212
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2014
1st VISIT: 6 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Special Mexican Plate, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Super Mac Combo, Tamale Plate

Mac's La Sierra on Urbanspoon

Heimat House and Beer Garden – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Heimat House and Beer Garden, Serving European Food in the Northeast Heights

“We’re not normal people. We’re the Griswolds.”   Laughs abound in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, the 1985 movie which follows the antics of well-meaning blunderer Clark W. Griswold and his equally inept family.   In a television game show called “Pig In a Polk,” the Griswold family accidentally wins a trip to Europe where they leave a trail of destruction everywhere they go (who can forget when Clark knocked down Stonehenge by accidentally backing into it with a rented car?).

The family foray into Germany was no less fraught with hapless humor. In a German village, the Griswolds burst in on “Fritz and Helga”, a bewildered elderly couple whom they mistakenly believe are long-lost relatives.  Though language barrier issues prevent any mutual dialogue, the Griswolds never quite seem to grasp that all conversations are one-sided and avail themselves of all the hospitality–including large bowls of sausage and sauerkraut with plenty of German rye bread–befitting family ties.

The interior of Heimat House

Like Clark W. Griswold (who’s intensely proud, but blissfully ignorant of his Germanic heritage), many New Mexicans haven’t cut through the sauerkraut and remain unaware of the diversity and deliciousness of German cuisine.  Ask your friends and colleagues what dishes comprise German cuisine and they’ll probably answer “sausages, sauerkraut, potatoes and rye bread.”  These stereotypes have long been reenforced by movies such as European Vacation and television comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes.   In fact, Hogan’s Heroes was probably  responsible for many of my generation being afraid to try German food, especially the dreaded sauerbraten. 

In the world’s culinary stage, the cuisine of Germany may not be as recognizable or popular as the cuisine of its neighbors France and Italy, but compared to the cuisine of Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary), it’s made significant inroads, even in New Mexico.  For nearly two decades, Duke City diners were graced by the wit, beauty and culinary talents of Dagmar Schulze  Mondgragon who served wonderful German food at her eponymous restaurant.  A Polish restaurant in the northeast heights was short-lived in the 1980s and to my knowledge, the cuisine of Hungary hasn’t been featured at any restaurant in Albuquerque.

Wurst Plate with Sauerkraut

Shortly after health issues forced Dagmar to bid a fond auf Wiedersehen to the Albuquerque restaurant scene, (but sadly not in time for Oktoberfest) the Heimat House and Beer Garden opened its doors on October 25, 2014.  Located at the familiar location which previously housed Liquid Assets, the Independence Grill, Los Compadres and a number of other restaurants, the Heimat House bills itself as a “modern German restaurant” which will also feature a number of Polish and Hungarian dishes. 

The Heimat House inherited the dark, masculine woods look and feel of an authentic Teutonic tavern from previous tenants, but it won’t be mistaken for any of them.  A curio cabinet near the entrance displays German collectibles such as Hummel figurines, Christmas nutcrackers, and beer steins.  The beer garden incorporates elements of an outdoor patio, indoor atrium and the interior bar.  The restaurant’s sound system pipes in not only the familiar bassy oompah and accordion beat of German music, but other music designed to put you into a festive mood.

Vadgombalves (Hungarian Mushroom Soup)

Perhaps the best descriptor of German, Polish and Hungarian food is “comforting” as in stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods (CNN Travel named Germany’s deep-fried potato pancake as one of the world’s ten greatest comfort foods).   For my friend Bob of the Village People (BOTVOLR), the comfort food properties of Polish and German food in particular evoke memories of enjoying these foods in his youth.  Bob visited Heimat House shortly after it opened, knowing that there would be “start-up” issues, the type of which all new restaurants seem to experience during the “feeling their way around” period.  Bob’s descriptions of his meal were so enticing that we visited two days later. 

Predictably, our inaugural visit was fraught with kinks to be worked out.  None of those kinks detracted from what turned out to be a very satisfying, very pleasant dining experience, one we’ll want to revisit soon.  Because neither potato pancakes or pierogies were available, it gave us the opportunity to try other dishes we might not otherwise have ordered.  The most grievous faux pas was not serving a great German rye bread or perhaps a broetchen, but this, too, is forgivable because plans are in place to correct this gaffe.  Heimat House’s baker, who’s already preparing the restaurant’s decadent desserts, will soon be baking breads using dough from Albuquerque’s Swiss Alps Bakery.

Currywurst with French Fries

Satirist H. L. Mencken once noted that “there are more different sausages in Germany than there are breakfast foods in America, and if there is a bad one among them then I have never heard of it.”  Stereotypes be damned, when you visit Heimat House, you’ve got to try the sausage which is procured from the Duke City’s Alpine Sausage Kitchen.  The Wurst Plate is a terrific appetizer featuring two types of sausage served with a mound of sauerkraut.  Neither of the finely blended sausages are especially spicy, but a small dab of German mustard will give you all the punch you need.  The sauerkraut doesn’t have the lip-pursing tang some ascribe to German sauerkraut, but it’s not bad. 

Four different soups, including an intriguing Dill Pickle Soup which BOTVOLR enjoyed, adorn the menu. The Hungarian Mushroom Soup is the type of soul-warming, deeply satisfying, robust and creamy soup that cures all ills.  It’s brimming with woodsy mushrooms and translucent white onions in a rich, buttery mushroom stock.  The sliced mushroom are deliciously meaty and earthy; they’re clearly the starring attraction of a very good soup.  If your experiences with mushroom soups are associated with Campbell’s labels, you owe it to yourself to try the real thing.

Konigsberger Klopse (Meatballs in Sour Cream Sauce With German Noodles, Cucumber Salad and Beet Salad

During their holiday season visit to Los Angeles in 2013, my friends über podcaster-bloggers Hannah and Edward considered the currywurst the best meal they had in the City of Angels.  Currywurst is a Germany meets India meets America dish which has exploded onto the European culinary scene where it’s especially popular as a street food option.  In recent years, currywurst has even begun to ensnare even American affections.  What’s not to love?  The three essential elements of the currywurst create an addictive flavor when combined.  Germany’s contribution is the wurst (sausage).  The curry is Indian and the tomato ketchup is an American invention.  It’s the ketchup and curry powder combination that gives this entree a rich, spicy flavor and perhaps has a nostalgic effect on diners (hot dogs with ketchup anyone?).   The currywurst is served with cubed French fries which you’ll lovingly dip into that delicious curry ketchup. 

Konigsberger Klopse, an alliterative Prussian entree that resonates with rich flavor is yet another comfort food entree you’ll appreciate more as the seasons transition to colder climates.  Essentially meatballs (or meat dumplings) in a sour cream sauce, this dish has a flavor profile quite unlike Swedish meatballs.  The meatballs inherit a salty intensity from capers and (perhaps) anchovies (as called for in many traditional recipes).  The sour cream sauce lends a creamy, rich tartness.  At Heimat House, this dish is served with German noodles and a cucumber salad.  The cucumber salad is impregnated with dill and sour cream.  For an interesting contrast, order the beet salad, too.  The beet salad has a sweet-and-sour quality courtesy of the light tartness it gleans from vinegar.

Deutsch Schokoladenkuchen (German Chocolate Cake)

Hogan’s Heroes might have you believe strudel is the only German dessert there is.  In truth, German desserts are very diverse and sinfully delicious.  Surprisingly, the most famous “German” dessert of all didn’t actually originate in Germany; it originated in the United States.   German chocolate cake is actually named for Samuel German, the man who created German’s Sweet Chocolate for the Baker’s Chocolate brand.  The Heimat House version of German chocolate cake is moist and decadent with sweetened coconut and chopped pecans spread between three layers and on top.  The chocolate itself has notes of cocoa and butter.  German chocolate cake belongs in the pantheon of great German desserts, even if it’s not really German. 

One of my very favorite German entrees is Rouladen, essentially a meat that has been rolled around a filling.  It didn’t surprise us to see Roulade (which translates to roll) on the dessert menu.  The Hungarian Raspberry Cream Roulade is a light and creamy slice of heaven served with housemade whipped cream. This is a very popular and very traditional Hungarian dessert favorite which Duke City diners will enjoy, too.

Malna Piskotatekeres (Hungarian Raspberry Cream Roulade)

The Heimat House and Beer Garden celebrates all that is great about Germanic cuisine, a broad swath of deliciousness that frankly hasn’t received the respect and adulation it deserves.  Here’s betting Duke City diners embrace the Heimat House and incorporate German cuisine into their rotation of favorites.

Heimat House and Beer Garden
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 814-0014
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 1 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Currywurst, Hungarian Mushroom Soup, Meatballs in Sour Cream Sauce With German Noodles, Beet Salad, Cucumber Salad, German Chocolate Cake, Hungarian Raspberry Cream Roulade

Heimat House Restaurant and Beer Garden on Urbanspoon