There are perhaps thousands of examples throughout the Duke City of immigrants whose path to the American dream involved rising above humble origins and surmounting extraordinary circumstances to achieve success. Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that many of them arrived in America as refugees from war-torn nations with nary a modicum of English.
One such example is Liem Nguyen, who along with wife Kim founded the May Cafe in 1992, a scant nine years after arriving in Albuquerque through a church resettlement program. Speaking almost no English, Liem, then 22 years old, enrolled in Highland High School as a ninth-grader. He didn’t know how to drive, shop at the supermarket or even catch a bus. He slept in a closet in a tiny apartment he shared with several other immigrants.
Among the city’s very first Vietnamese restaurants, May Cafe wasn’t an immediate success save within the tight-knit Vietnamese community craving the tastes of home and among the servicemen at Kirtland Air Force Base who had been stationed in Vietnam and fell in love with the cuisine. It took a while before the widespread acceptance by a trepidatious general public of the alluring and theretofore mysterious flavors of Vietnam. It helped tremendously when in its annual restaurant issue, the long-defunct Abq Magazine listed the May Cafe as a handful of second-tier restaurants just below the magazine’s anointed ten best.
The May Cafe is situated on Louisiana just south of Central. The most conspicuous sign that you’ve arrived is a 27-foot tall fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan just behind the restaurant. Weighing more than 2,000 pounds and wielding an axe as long as a compact car, the giant lumberman has been perched on a customized steel beam 25 feet above the ground for more than four decades. Anywhere but in Albuquerque the behemoth statue might seem out-of-place, but here it’s become a beloved local landmark.
Beloved local landmark is also an apt description for the May Cafe which has earned every peoples’ choice and “best of” award possible during its twenty plus years of serving the Duke City. Most recently, in 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine bestowed a “Hot Plate” award on the restaurant’s popular pork chop dish, signifying its selection as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Despite competition from more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants strewn throughout the metropolitan area, the May Cafe remains one of the most highly regarded and popular independent restaurants of any genre.
The menu reads like a compendium of all that is delicious and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine. The menu boasts “our food is made from the best ingredients, freshest vegetables and meats.” The proof is in the tasting and that’s where the May Cafe shines. You’re not likely to find any appetizer or entree that doesn’t elicit exclamations of “wow!” or “yummo” if you’re a Rachael Ray clone!
9 February 2013: One of the Cafe’s most popular starters is the grilled onion beef, a specialty available as an entree at SaiGon Restaurant. An order features five cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled spring onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Vietnamese grilling imparts a slight smoky char imprint on beef with a fragrance promising deliciousness in every morsel. The deliciousness comes from a melding of such spices as star anise and cinnamon which prove a perfect foil for the full-flavored onions. The grilled onion beef is served with the Cafe’s renowned fish sauce which adds sweet-savory-tangy notes to the beef.
9 February 2013: Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are almost antithetical to their American counterparts. On the latter, sandwich aficionados want ingredients, particularly meat, piled high and spilling over. With banh mi, it’s all about a balance of delicate, complimentary flavors. You’ll probably never find a Dagwood-sized banh mi and if you did, it probably wouldn’t be very good. May Cafe’s banh mi combines barbecue pork, beef or chicken with daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, julienne carrots, cucumber slivers in an airy baguette. The baguette is key. It can’t be dense and thick or it might dominate the flavor profile. In perfect combination with the ingredients it cocoons, the baguette is a repository for the perfect sandwich.
14 June 2017: The history of Vietnam is one of colonization by conquering nations. Centuries of colonization fashioned what ultimately evolved into Vietnamese cuisine, distinctly different from the cuisine of any intervening conquerors. Vietnamese egg rolls are on example. While they bear some resemblance to their Chinese progenitors, preparation and flavor are entirely different from the Chinese version. Vietnamese egg rolls are smaller and more crispy, wrapped and lightly fried in rice paper and filled with seasoned bits of vegetables and served with the ubiquitous nuoc mam sauce. Nuoc mam is considered the Vietnamese alternative to soy sauce, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a distilled and fermented fish extract used to season many dishes. Both the egg rolls and nuoc man sauce at the May Cafe are terrific.
9 February 2013: When fellow Vietnamese cuisine aficionados often ask what my favorite pho in the Albuquerque area is, I’m almost unqualified to answer. Rather than pho, if a Vietnamese restaurant offers a spicy beef stew, that’s what I’ll order. There are three Duke City restaurants which offer phenomenal spicy beef stew: Cafe Dalat, May Hong and the May Cafe. Aside from the fact that the proprietors of each are related, the common element among the three spicy beef stews is intense flavor–not intense spiciness if your definition of such is piquancy, but the spiciness born of spice combinations redolent with flavor. May Cafe’s version is the color of brackish water and can be prepared with your choice of noodles: rice, egg or vermicelli. What singles out this spicy beef stew from among its brethren is the beef which is carne adovada tender and absolutely delicious. The broth is replete with flavor so good it might make you swoon.
9 February 2013: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls the May Cafe’s Singapore Noodles “perhaps the best I have ever had.” I beg to disagree with my esteemed friend. The word “perhaps” doesn’t belong in the sentence. This is the very best bowl of Singapore Noodles I’ve ever had. With a make-your-mouth-happy level of piquancy, the curry-based dish with tangles of vermicelli noodles and ultra-fresh vegetables is one of those rare dishes so good it would be the only thing you’ll ever order. That is if the menu wasn’t already replete with other dishes that good.
14 June 2017: Ginger or Mary Ann? Oops, wrong ginger. In this case, ginger definitely wins. The May Cafe’s version of ginger catfish (crispy catfish in ginger sauce is one of the most surprising dishes you’ll find in Albuquerque. Fish, for all that is said about them, have a rather “blandish” flavor profile while ginger is an assertive, peppery spice that will wake up your taste buds. Fish and ginger go wonderfully together. The ginger sauce is the color of luminous, fluorescent Day-Glo or maybe French dressing, but it has a flavor you won’t soon forget. That’s because it imprints itself on your taste buds with piquant, savory, sweet and just slightly sour sensations. Surprisingly it is a perfect complement to the meaty catfish which is fried to perfection. Though the catfish skin is crispy, the fish is light and flaky and not “fishy” in the least.
As with many of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurants, the May Cafe provides excellent value, proving gourmet quality cuisine doesn’t have to be expensive in order to be very good.
111 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2017
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Vietnamese Sandwich, Singapore Noodles, Spicy Beef Stew, Ginger Catfish, Egg Rolls