In years of dining in Vietnamese restaurants, we’ve always marveled at the close-knit extended family structure evident in the daily operation of Vietnamese restaurants. Getting to know the wonderful families that run those restaurants, we learned how the lives of individual family members are almost always intertwined with an extended family structure that might include grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and second and third cousins.
In most of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurants, you’ll find family members working side-by-side to serve their customers. The welfare of the entire extended family unit is always more important than the interests of individual members (Mr. Spock would be proud).
It was no surprise to discover that Trang and Phong Nguyen, proprietors of Cafe Trang, are related to the Nguyen families that own and operate May Cafe, May Hong and Cafe Dalat–not that we wouldn’t have been able to tell from the great cuisine. Launched in the summer of 2005, Cafe Trang is a beautiful restaurant in the esthetic sense, at least equal to the classy Cafe Dalat in terms of upscale trappings. It is spacious with modern appointments throughout, a veritable feast for the eyes.
Similarly, the alluring aromas emanating from the kitchen are a tantalizing tease for your nostrils; there may be nothing as intoxicating to your olfactory senses as the mingling of herbs, spices, meats, vegetables and other sundry ingredients as masterfully done at a great Vietnamese restaurant.
Sixteen different appetizers (including eight different spring rolls) make it difficult to narrow down to one or two, the precursory experience to your entrees. A safe, albeit non-adventurous bet is the spring roll combo which includes two shrimp sausage rolls and two pork sausage rolls.
Unlike other spring rolls we’ve had in Albuquerque, the shrimp isn’t boiled; it’s shrimp paste and it melds in beautifully with what appears to be fried egg roll wrap stuffed among the other spring roll ingredients.
Aficionados of Vietnamese barbecue might opt instead for the BBQ pork spring rolls in which the uniquely wonderful grilled pork taste stands out. The spring rolls are accompanied by a bowl of sweet, tangy and slightly piquant fish sauce and a bowl of peanut sauce. Both sauces are terrific.
Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) present another appetizer (or small entree) option. Served on a toasted 12″ French baguette (flown in twice a week from California), these sandwiches are a thing of beauty, packed with your choice of cold-cut meats, pate, Vietnamese butter, pickled carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, cucumber, sliced jalapeno peppers all drizzled lightly with soy sauce. The meat ball banh mi is a sensational sandwich, but a more interesting offering is the #1 which consists of Vietnamese ham, pate, BBQ pork and head ham. Cafe Trang’s banh mi is second perhaps only to the banh mi at May Hong.
The indescribable freshness of the spicy beef lemongrass soup might remind you of taking a steamy shower with a herbal infused soap, a sensation that envelops you body and soul.
Spicy beef lemongrass broth is ladled over rice vermicelli noodles then topped with thinly sliced beef, sliced pork and ham hock and sprinkled with chopped scallions, cilantro, herbs and sliced onions. This concordant concoction comes with a plate of thinly sliced purple cabbage, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts and lime which you can add to the steaming broth. A dozen basil leaves or more and you’ve got one of the tastiest, freshest soups this side of Saigon.
Several rice vermicelli bowls are not only fresh and healthy, but absolutely delicious. Each prodigious platter comes with tender rice vermicelli noodles topped with your choice of grilled items (order the #41, a house specialty which includes BBQ pork, two jumbo shrimp, two egg rolls and two grilled pork sausages), bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon radish, scallion oil and chopped peanuts. The grilled jumbo shrimp were exceptional, as good as any “ala plancha” shrimp I’ve had anywhere, including Mexico.
If you prefer your vermicelli steamed, the #49 is the way to go. A prodigious platter of tiny steamed noodles formed together like a thin mesh is topped with barbecue pork, two jumbo grilled shrimp, one grilled shrimp sausage on sugar cane and two grilled pork sausages and accompanied with lettuce, herbs, cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled carrots and daikon radish. The trick is forming the noodles into “sandwiches” into which you pile on the sundry ingredients. It’s an absolutely uniquely Vietnamese specialty we’ve grown to love.
Another wonderful entree are the pan-fried noodle dishes with your choice of meat mixed together and stir-fried with a variety of fresh garden vegetables, including zucchini. Served in a family-sized platter, the crunchy noodles bond in delicious harmony with the other ingredients.
For dessert, Cafe Trang features several ice creams you won’t find at Baskin Robbins and they’re all marvelously invigorating: red bean, coconut, green tea and ginger ice creams are a perfect capper for a wonderful meal.
Albuquerque is blessed with a phalanx of wonderful Vietnamese restaurants tended to, for the most part, by close knit families that bring tremendous credit to their culture, not to mention bringing outstanding cuisine to a city which has welcomed them warmly. Cafe Trang is certainly a welcome addition.
Note: Several photos on this review are courtesy of Sergio Salvador. Please visit his Web site for more amazing photography.
230 Louisiana, Suite A
LATEST VISIT: 11 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Banh Mi, Spicy Beef Lemongrass Soup, Rice Vermicelli Bowl