While the term “Vietnamese cuisine” is broad and overarching, any attempt to pigeonhole this very diverse and eclectic culinary culture is a failure to consider its complexities and nuances. Even when culinary taxonomists compartmentalize Vietnamese cuisine regionally into “Northern,” “Southern” or “Central,” these wide-ranging generalizations fail to take into account the variations–often influenced by socioeconomic factors–that occur not only between villages, but often within small neighborhoods. James Nguyen, proprietor of Albuquerque’s Cafe Dalat is very cognizant of those variations. That’s why he takes it in stride when a compatriot visiting his restaurant contends “this isn’t like the Vietnamese food I grew up eating.”
Obviously, he says, they didn’t grow up with his mother’s cooking. His mother’s recipes are at the heart of Cafe Dalat’s menu, but like every successful restaurateur, he understands that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting. Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, over the years he has continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without. Every year James travels to Little Saigon in Orange County, California where he takes the pulse of innovative new trends in Vietnamese cuisine. When he discovers something he believes Duke City diners would enjoy, he figures out how to prepare it and adds it to his menu. On the rare occasion he uncovers a recipe he considers better than what Cafe Dalat offers, he’ll change his recipe.
The “About Us” section of Cafe Dalat’s website boasts of “A long menu of standard and less common Vietnamese dishes.” There are items on Cafe Dalat’s menu you won’t find at any other Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. It’s been that way since James launched May Hong, his inaugural Duke City restaurant about a quarter-century ago. There were only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque back in 1995 and his was the only one in the Northeast Heights. Throngs of diners, especially at dinner, converged at May Hong to be fed well and made very happy by its captivating cuisine.
On Sunday, August 31st, 2003, James launched Cafe Dalat on Central Avenue after selling May Hong to his sister-in-law. He named his new restaurant for Da Lat, one of Vietnam’s most well known vacation destinations. Da Lat is considered the unofficial “honeymoon capital” of Vietnam and it’s often referred to as “Le Petit Paris.” Considering a mini-replica Eiffel Tower sits at the city center, that sobriquet is only fitting. Da Lat is located on the greater Central highlands of Vietnam and at 1500 meters (~4920 feet) above sea level is one of the few cities in Vietnam surrounded by pine trees, just like James Nguyen’s adopted home of Albuquerque.
When James launched Cafe Dalat, he brought with him all the great recipes from May Hong and added some 15 or so other great entrees and appetizers, including some dim sum. His wife, in fact, returned to Vietnam for several months before Cafe Dalat’s launch to learn dim sum (not solely a Vietnamese specialty) from a dim sum master. Alas, Cafe Dalat isn’t nearly big enough to serve an extensive dim sum menu, but its 18 item appetizer menu offers nearly twice as many starter options as most Vietnamese restaurants in the metropolitan area.
Over the years, James has survived the national and local ebb and flow of economic, political and even infrastructural (can you say ART) upheaval. He’s also survived the onslaught of competition. Today, Yelp lists almost three dozen Vietnamese restaurants, most ranging in quality from “good” to “excellent.” In my estimation and that of other trusted epicures (hi Carey Smoot), Cafe Dalat continues to stand out. It is not only my highest rated Vietnamese restaurant in the city, it’s one of my highest rated restaurants in New Mexico in any genre. It’s better than many of the Vietnamese restaurants I frequented in the San Jose area. It’s better than Cyclo, a restaurant with a national profile in Chandler, Arizona
Curiosity-seekers will try the other Vietnamese restaurants and some will spread their business around to the ones considered worthy of their appetites, but invariably when you ask them which is the city’s very best, it’s Cafe Dalat that comes immediately to mind for many of them. There are many reasons–not the least of which are James and his lovely wife–that Cafe Dalat gets the nod over formidable competition. For one thing, it’s one of the most striking Vietnamese restaurants in the city thanks to James’s complete refurbishment of the drab, dingy remnants of the previous tenant, the Little Saigon restaurant. Attractive upscale touches, a competitive wine list; rich, dark woods and subdued lighting add those subtle touches of class and ambiance to which most restaurants aspire. Not even the acid etched graffiti on an east-facing window detract from the restaurant’s panache.
Then there’s the menu: eighteen different appetizers (not to mention five additional tofu and vegetarian appetizers), four cup-sized soups and fifteen different swimming-pool sized bowls of pho and stew–and that’s just the first page. Just trying to narrow your dining choices is a tremendous challenge. The really great thing about Cafe Dalat is that you can’t go wrong no matter what you order. You may not like (make that love) some items as much as you’ll like others, but there’s probably nothing on the menu you won’t dislike.
Okay, maybe you’ll dislike the durian shake, made from what is considered the stinkiest fruit in the world. Most Americans consider durian malodorous and they might be right. It’s an acquired taste, one of which I’m proud to boast I have. Even if you don’t like durian shakes, there are other rich, creamy and fruity cold concoctions on the menu–strawberry shakes, jackfruit shakes, fresh coconut juice, the incomparable Vietnamese lime aid and even an avocado shake (like sweet guacamole you ingest with a straw).
19 November 2011: The appetizer line-up is like a “who’s who” of the very best Vietnamese appetizers ever assembled all in one menu. If you love spring rolls or egg rolls, Cafe Dalat’s are among the very best in the city, but even better are other appetizer alternatives, including some interesting starters you might not associate with Vietnamese cuisine. One example is the shrimp in bacon, called Mariscos Costa Azul in Mexican mariscos restaurants where they’re served. Cafe Dalat’s rendition is topped with crushed peanuts and served with fish sauce. Bacon with anything makes for a great combination. You’ll love these.
16 June 2007: The lime beef is fabulous! Nearly carpaccio thin slices of seared steak are blanketed with refreshing mint and cilantro and crushed peanuts as well as grilled onion and invigorating spices. This is an appetizer for which it’s okay to use your fingers to use the razor-thin steak as a scooping device for the complementary ingredients. Provided with the lime beef is a bowl of nuoc cham, the quintessential Vietnamese condiment based on fish sauce. Cafe Dalat’s nuoc cham is among the very best in Albuquerque, but that’s a common theme.
16 June 2007: Best in the city honors (at least among the Vietnamese restaurants that don’t specialize on banh mi) might also be accorded to the Banh Mi Thit (pictured above), popularly known as a Vietnamese sandwich and described on the menu as a hoagie. Banh mi is a Vietnamese word for bread and indeed, the French inspired baguette on which this sandwich is crafted, is worthy of adulation. At Cafe Dalat, the Banh Mi Thit is engorged with small slices of pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, black pepper, onions and your choice of meat: barbecue pork, grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken or ground beef. No matter what your meat selection, you’ll enjoy the contrasting and complementary sweet, savory, piquant and tangy flavors as well as the textures.
1 December 2007: One of the things that may surprise you about Cafe Dalat is that something with a simple name hold an adventure in complex flavors and deliciousness. Take the rice cake for example. Anyone who’s been in a diet is familiar with the tasteless cakes of puffed rice. Cafe Dalat’s baked rice cake (pictured above) features a shrimp enrobed in a yellowish pastry made from a mixture of flour, coconut milk and basil. It is meant to be wrapped in lettuce and dunked in fish sauce and is even better than it looks.
24 January 2019: Even on a sweltering summer day, it’s nearly impossible for me to pass up Cafe Dalat’s spicy beef stew, my very favorite soup anywhere in Albuquerque. It’s like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails me. This soup is brimming with flavor and served steaming in a swimming pool sized bowl. It’s flavored with fifteen different spices, giving it a piquant, spicy and savory taste. It also receives a slight tang from pineapple chunks. Its savory flavor is derived from thinly sliced eye round and beef brisket, its piquant punch from lemongrass and Asian chiles. The round rice noodle is thick and always perfectly prepared. If the ingredients and flavor sound familiar, that’s because it is indeed a variation on Bun Bo Hue, the soup from Central Vietnam that is winning legions of converts.
24 January 2019: Aside from the enjoying the sheer deliciousness of a visit to Cafe Dalat, it’s been a joy over the years to get to know James and to learn from him. James is passionate about the provenance of Vietnamese cuisine. So is fellow polymath Thomas Molitor whom I met for lunch on a pleasant January afternoon. Thomas is as conversant in Keynesian economics, Ayn Rand novels and epicurean pursuits (he’s a certified, award-winning sommelier) as most of us are about our children. Pay special attention to the comments he submits to Gil’s Thrilling… They’re thoughtful, well composed and replete with sagacity.
Like me, Thomas had always thought that by strict definition the term “pho” applies to rice noodle beef soup. By stringent standards, soups made with chicken, pork and seafood are technically not pho. James explained that there is one exception: Chicken ginger. The reason has to do with the commonality of ginger, an ingredient not often discernible in pho. You could have knocked us over with a feather when James taught us something new…again. Provenance and ingredient composition aside, the chicken ginger pho is an exceptional elixir replete with personality and flavor. For the most part, there’s just enough ginger to let you know it’s there, but every once in a while you hit upon an endorphin rush generating sliver of amped up ginger. That’s when you know you’ve happened upon greatness. The chicken is cut into thick, chunky, mostly white meat pieces.
1 December 2007: For sheer comfort, however, the restaurant’s best stew is probably the banana beef stew (pictured above) which contrary to its name has nothing to do with fruit. This stew is made with banana shank, a boneless cut of beef with a lining of fat for flavor. It is simmered slowly in a five-spice broth and served with your choice of rice or egg noodle or vermicelli or bread. The bread is warm, yeasty baguettes perfect for sopping up the flavorful broth. This stew truly has properties that uplift the soul.
16 June 2007: Mothers everywhere will tell you there’s nothing better than a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup when you’re under the weather. Vietnamese mothers and chefs make the very best chicken noodle soups anywhere. One of the very best on Dalat’s menu is a pho brimming with wontons filled with ground pork, barbecue pork and a thin egg noodle swimming in a chicken broth along with onions and scallions. The paper-thin wrapping skins are barely resilient enough not to fall apart in the steaming broth, but when you do break into them you’re rewarded with a delicious ground pork seasoned with anise. The broth is rich and luxurious, so good it might make you wish you were ailing.
16 June 2007: Over the years we’ve sampled just about every entree James has offered either at May Hong or at Cafe Dalat, but he’ll occasionally surprise us with something new. A 2007 addition to his novel-sized menu is an eggplant and pork entree (pictured below). This entree is constructed with sliced eggplant and ground pork stir fried in a sauce that seems to be equal parts tangy, spicy and sweet, a combination that only the most skillful cooks are able to consistently get absolutely right. Cafe Dalat gets it right! Eggplant, in particular, is one of those items which if made incorrectly can leave an inky and bitter aftertaste. Dalat’s rendition is tender, each slice absorbing the flavors of the sauce.
Ask James if his restaurant serves the type of food served in Vietnam and he’ll openly tell you he serves the type of food only the affluent can afford in his native country. It’s the type of food served in restaurants most citizens can’t afford to visit. Like most Vietnamese families, the Nguyen family diet consisted mostly of vegetables, fish and bread. James fondly remembers the catfish pond and vegetable garden in his family’s back yard and to this day prefers the simplicity of a limited diet to American extravagance. It’s not, however, as though a fish and vegetable diet ever became mundane. Vietnamese cooks are very inventive and became experts in the use of flavorful sauces, many of which have made their way to his restaurant.
4 October 2011: One such example is the catfish in ginger sauce, a whole catfish which is perfectly prepared–crispy on the outside and lovingly tender on the inside. A slightly piquant but mostly sweet ginger sauce the color of Day-Glo glazes the catfish. The fish itself is bony and caution must be exercised when you eat it, but it’s so good, you’ll work around the bones and pick off ever bit of the flaky, tender and delicious fish. This is an inspired entree!
1 December 2007: So, too, is Cafe Dalat’s rendition of cube steak (pictured below), as delicious a beef entry as I’ve had at any Vietnamese restaurant anywhere. It’s better, in fact, than many a prime steak I’ve had. Cubes of eye of round steak are marinated in a sublime mix of lime and spices then stir-fried to an unbelievably tenderness and served with stir-fried green pepper and caramelized onions.
1 May 2015: One person’s bizarre is another person’s delicacy. In April, 2015, Albuquerque’s NewsCastic outlet published a list of “13 bizarre things on ABQ menus.” Among the baker’s dozen was the caramel catfish at Cafe Dalat. While not taking umbrage with the categorization of caramel catfish as “bizarre,” owner James Nguyen confirmed that the dish is absolutely beloved by Vietnamese people and that it’s usually paired with sour soup. What’s not to love? This is a terrific dish. Now, if you’ve got visions of candy caramel enrobed catfish, you’re in for a surprise. After sugar has been caramelized, fish sauce is added and the concoction is stirred until the sugar is completely dissolved. Shallots, chili and ginger are then folded in. The result is a rather thin and very intriguing sauce with powerful flavors, perhaps the least obvious being sweetness. This is a caramel sauce unlike what you might imagine.
19 November 2011: American tastes which lean toward grilled meats will quickly become enamored of Cafe Dalat’s grilled pork in which pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. One of the best ways to have it is with patter noodles which don’t really seem to be noodles at all. In fact, they seem to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. The grilled pork is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Cafe Dalat’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it’s something like this dish.
All dishes at Cafe Dalat are attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and this restaurant has a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks. It tastes even better!
Other Vietnamese restaurants may come and go, but Cafe Dalat will stand the test of time because it consistently prepares and serves the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.
LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2019
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Spicy Beef Soup, Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Grilled Pork with Patter Noodle, Banana Beef Stew, Rice Cake, Cube Steak, Caramel Catfish