Since we moved back to Albuquerque in 1995, perhaps no ethnic cuisine has caught the fancy of pernickety diners more than Vietnamese. Over the past ten years, a preponderance of Vietnamese restaurants have sprung up throughout the Duke City and most of them range in quality from very good to excellent. Vietnamese restaurants haven’t always been as highly regarded in Albuquerque.
Sure, the innovative (but now defunct) Abq magazine named May Cafe one of the “rest of the best” restaurants during its 1995 restaurant guide, but even five years later only one Vietnamese restaurant was listed on Zagat Survey’s Millennium Edition of the top restaurants in the Southwest. That restaurant was Huong Thao, regarded at the time as perhaps the city’s very best Vietnamese dining establishment.
Zagat Survey accorded Huong Thao a rating of “24″ which categorized it as “very good to excellent.” The restaurant was praised for its “delicious traditional foods” and was singled out for its “no-puff” policies back when smoking was still allowed in Albuquerque dining establishments.
In 2002, Huong Thao eked out a win over other highly-regarded Vietnamese restaurants in La Cocinita magazine’s (also now defunct) 2002 second annual critic’s choice awards. Garnering praise from an august body of panelists were the “herb-filled spring rolls” and “oh-so-crispy grilled pork.”
Huong Thao has long had a reputation as a Vegan-friendly restaurant, earning accolades from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.”
Over the years our visits to Huong Thao have been infrequent, in part because this Northeast Heights restaurant is the furthest east from our home of any Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque, but mostly because other Vietnamese restaurants have, over the years, surpassed it. Huong Thao remains a wonderful place for hardy soups and noodle dishes, but it seems to lack some of the pizzazz of its brethren. The addition to the menu of sushi has done little to enliven what is a consistent, albeit uninspiring, restaurant.
Huong Thao’s spring rolls are still the biggest in the city–two rice paper rolls per order engorged with shrimp (and or pork and tofu) and fresh vegetables. Aromatic basil doesn’t quite make up for the somewhat bland fish sauce that accompanies your order, but it comes close. The fish sauce lacks the sweet and piquant tastes that define the genre. Julienne vegetables are also sparse.
Despite diverse options, the banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich)–which you can have with your choice of barbecue pork, shredded pork, meat loaf, shredded gluten or barbeque gluten–is overwhelmed by the baguette. Huong Thao’s baguettes are delicious and unfailingly fresh, but they should complement vegetable and meat ingredients not dominate them.
Among the rice noodle dishes, the spicy lemongrass with stir-fried pork is a popular entree. Spicy is not an adjective we’d use on this dish, however, as it lacks the spiciness of similarly prepared dishes at other restaurants. It is served piping hot with perfectly prepared noodles and will warm the cockles of your heart.
1016B Juan Tabo, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2006
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings, Rice Noodle Bowl Grilled With Lemongrass and Sliced Pork, Stir Fried Egg Noodles With Pork