“When helicopters were snatching people from the grounds of the American embassy
compound during the panic of the final Vietcong push into Saigon,
I was sitting in front of the television set shouting, ‘Get the chefs! Get the chefs!’”
Calvin Trillin, American writer, New Yorker Magazine
It’s unlikely Trillin, a humorist renown for his love of food, was entirely serious about his seemingly callous reaction to the poignant imagery of thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing their besieged city. In his own inimitable way, he was using his sardonic wit to express appreciation for the exotic cuisine he loves so much. In fact, he considers the influx of Asians into American restaurant kitchens divine intervention of a sort: “God felt sorry for us because we lost a war to such a small country as Vietnam and sent the Vietnamese to us–where they were really needed.”
Three decades after the evacuation of Saigon, the Travel Channel’s articulate bon viveur Anthony Bourdain, wrote about Saigon: “I think I’ve gone bamboo…I’ve gone goofy on Vietnam, fallen hopelessly, hopelessly in love with the place.” For Bourdain, that’s rare, unfettered praise. Most viewers recognize that Bourdain’s approach to his culinary adventures is antithetical to the burbling style of Rachel Ray who visits only the most sanitary, hip and happening restaurants then anoints everything that touches her toothsome mouth as “yummo.” Bourdain doesn’t sugarcoat anything, exposing his featured fare’s warts and blemishes yet somehow finding deliciousness in the experience and describing it with the honesty that has made him an iconic personality.
Bourdain champions the experience of dining in Saigon’s makeshift street markets in which kitchens are ad-libbed by inventive cooks. The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located. Though many tourists fear the Vietnamese version of Montezuma’s revenge, the incidence of food-borne illness is relatively low.
Alas, we’re not going to find improvised street markets in Albuquerque’s International District or anywhere else in our fair city and not even a fun shopping day at the Talin Market World Food Fare can match the experience of a day of dining in a Saigon open air market or a soiree at a side street “cafe.” Fortunately the Duke City is home to several very good to outstanding Vietnamese restaurants, a concentration of which are centered in the city’s southeastern section. A number of outliers (May Hong and Saigon come to mind) make Vietnamese cuisine proximal to most neighborhoods east of the Rio Grande.
In June, 2010, the Northeast Heights welcomed a new, yet seemingly familiar, Vietnamese restaurant. It’s no coincidence that the lime green signage at Viet Q resembles the color pallet at Viet Taste, a popular strip mall eatery near Coronado Mall. The ownership of both Viet Q and Viet Taste is related, but that’s not the only semblance. Step inside Viet Q and you’re in the lap of upscale stylings, starting with a pergola you walk under to enter the dining room. Lighting is subdued and the spacing between tables allows for some privacy. Framed photographs depicting the curvature of sultry women accentuate the ambiance.
Viet Q purports to be the most upscale Vietnamese restaurant in town. To that end, service is very personable and attentive. Every meal begins with a complementary papaya salad, a very nice touch. Green papaya is shaved into thin slices with julienned carrots then drizzled with a sauce of soy, coconut milk and sugar topped with sprigs of cilantro and crushed peanuts. This is an addictive salad showcasing fresh, crispy vegetables and a sauce that’s both sweet and piquant, deliciously so. It’s very similar to the papaya salad offered at many Thai restaurants, but we enjoyed it more–so much more that in future visits, we’ll order the appetizer portions which are made with shrimp or chicken.
Unacculturated diners visiting a Vietnamese restaurant for the first time tend to do a double-take when they see grilled beef wrap grape leaf on the menu, wondering if they stepped into a Greek restaurant. Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Q’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased is a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf. It’s served with a light, slightly piquant and not too sweet fish sauce. Five pieces to the order might inspire rapacious drooling.
As Bourdain fans know, he considers pho, a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup, his favorite comfort food, claiming that he would “jerk a butter knife across his best friend’s throat” for a bowl of pho. Fortunately the portion size for pho at most restaurants is about the size of a small swimming pool, so a bowl of pho is usually large enough for two to share. If you’re not hungry enough for a large bowl, the appetizer menu comes to the rescue with two small portioned soups–a meat ball soup and a wonton soup.
The meat ball soup is a warm elixir for whatever ails you, so warm and good you’ll long for the cold bite of winter so the soup can warm you up. The broth is delicious with cilantro and red onions floating atop to amend the flavor profile. The meat balls are quite dissimilar to the meatballs you might associate with an Italian spaghetti dish. These meat balls aren’t wholly spherical, but rather sliced like thick sausage on a pizza. Come to think of it, texturally the meat balls resemble a sliced Italian sausage. In any case, they’re delicious and there are plenty of them on the soup.
One of Bourdain’s favorite restaurants in Vietnam adds an entertaining touch to the dining experience. When a claypot rice dish is ready to serve, the claypot is broken open and the rice is tossed across the room. Smashing claypots can be heard every few minutes. The practice is probably too cost prohibitive and probably prohibited by the city’s Environmental Health Department, too, so you won’t hear smashing crockery at Viet Q. What you will hear is hungry diners ordering this very popular entree. There’s a good reason for this.
There are two claypot rice entrees on the menu–a rice dish with your choice of meat (pork, beef, shrimp) and a combination claypot rice dish with the aforementioned three choices plus squid. The combination claypot rice dish is the dish for adventurous diners who don’t mind mixing seafood with meat. The rice is sweet and delicious, the rice at the bottom of the dish sporting a nice caramelized texture. Fresh vegetables–sugar snap peas, broccoli and more–blend well with fresh, well-prepared seafood and meat for a flavor combination that will keep diners happy.
The stir-fried egg noodle with pork dish evinces why Viet Q’s signage includes “Vietnamese Grill.” The grilled beef is delicious, tinged with the fragrant smokiness imparted by grilling. The egg noodles are perfectly prepared as are the vegetables. A light, slightly sweet broth is a flavorful addition to an excellent noodle dish.
Experientially, a meal at Viet Q is wholly unlike the unique experience of dining at a Saigon street market, but it does provide comfortable seating, excellent service, a varied menu and entrees that will having you coming back.
Viet Q Vietnamese Restaurant
6205 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Stir-Fried Egg Noodle with Pork, Hot Claypot Rice Combination, Meat Ball Soup, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves, Papaya Salad, Durian Shake