Breaking a paradigm. That’s a modern corporate buzz phrase that essentially means approaching a situation or routine from a different perspective instead of the standard or typical way. In the parlance of dining out, breaking a paradigm means eating somewhere other than the “usual suspects.” That means getting out of your rut and visiting a restaurant you’ve never visited, especially one that no one has recommended to you. If Gil’s Thrilling… had a mission statement it would be to introduce you to restaurants which break your paradigms.
For many diners, breaking a paradigm is eating at a restaurant like Saigon Far East, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants. Despite being around for more than three decades, Saigon Far East is surprisingly not very well known, perhaps because it lacks a prominent street-facing storefront (or maybe because some people still refer to the area in which it’s situated as the “combat zone”).
If you’ve ever visited Giovanni’s Pizzeria in the nondescript San Pedro shopping center, you may have noticed Saigon Far East on the northeast corner of an adjoining edifice. Like the timeworn shopping center in which it’s housed, Saigon Far East has seen better days and indeed may have been quite stylish when it first launched in 1987 with its beckoning pagoda style facade painted over its door. Being in a windowless building might account for why some see Saigon Far East as an ominous, maybe mysterious restaurant. It definitely doesn’t have the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate the Duke City’s restaurant scene. It doesn’t need any of that superficiality.
The restaurant’s interior is definitely more appealing than an exterior facade many would describe as “divey” (are you reading this Guy Fieri?). Chinese style lanterns illuminate the cavernous dining room while potted plants add an outdoorsy air. The center of the large dining room is dominated by a pergola, a reddish-purplish structure resembling an uncompleted porch. That structure lends an air of character unlike any you’ll find in any other restaurant across the Duke City. An adjacent room serves as a pool hall.
So who frequents Saigon Far East? It’s popular with employees of the Veterans Administration, Lovelace Hospital, Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Air National Guard–veterans like Carlos Apodaca and his fellow Guardsmen who eat there every drill weekend. It’s been my experience that veterans of the armed forces aren’t scared off by foreboding windowless buildings or by exotic cuisine. If you want to know where to eat, ask a well-traveled veteran (maybe someone like me).
In 2009, when Carlos wrote to tell me about some of Saigon Far East’s treasures, I knew instantly one of my paradigms would be broken–a long overdue visit to that mysterious old restaurant on San Pedro. Carlos suggested that we leave our dining experience in the hands of Kim, the face of the restaurant. Kim has been running Saigon Far East since its founding owner Diane Nguyen passed away in 2008. A petite lady with boundless energy and mile-a-minute speech cadence, Kim has an intimate knowledge of the menu and can be counted on for recommending something great (although I surmise that’s an easy task with a menu as broad-reaching.)
It’s the breadth and depth of that menu that prompted me to invite my friend and colleague Tuan Bui to join me at Saigon Far East on an unseasonably warm December, 2019 day. Although Tuan has lived in the Duke City since his family emigrated from Vietnam nearly three decades ago, he had not heard of or visited Saigon Far East. When I showed Tuan the compendium-like menu, he was gobsmacked at what he was seeing. That menu included items he hadn’t seen on any other Vietnamese restaurant menu in Albuquerque, items he had only had at his mother’s kitchen. He didn’t need to read further than the appetizers section to leap at the opportunity to join me.
I’m ashamed to say my Kim and I hadn’t visited Saigon Far East since 2009, an inexplicable ten-year hiatus from what is certainly one of the very best Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City. We…or at least I can’t use the excuse that we haven’t visited because it’s not a dog-friendly restaurant. From my office at the University of New Mexico, Saigon Far East is just a few minutes away. Whatever the reason (there’s no excuse sufficient), my return with Tuan was as Yogi Berra would say “deja vu all over again.”
13 December 2019: Although the metropolitan area has so many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, surprises are few and far in between. Saigon Far East is replete with surprises. They’re in virtually every page of the menu. One of those surprises is ginger limeade, a refreshing beverage with the salubrious flavor of concentrated ginger. At some Vietnamese restaurants, ginger is only hinted at when ginger limeade is offered. At Saigon Far East, it’s the lime that plays a supporting role. This limeade is neither too savory or too sweet or even too tart, but if you’re a fan of strong, aromatic ginger, you’ll love this brackish-colored drink because it’s all about ginger (and I’m a Mary Ann type of guy).
There are fifteen items on the appetizer menu alone, a half-dozen of which you won’t find on any other menu in the area. Sure you can have the de rigueur spring- and egg-rolls, but why not live dangerously and instead try flaked tangerine and shrimp salad, shredded banana blossom and chicken salad, shredded jelly fish with shrimp and finely boiled pork salad or honey-roasted quail? These were the items which most excited my friend Tuan. It no longer surprises him that the weirdest or most rare appetizers are those which most strike my fancy, too.
13 December 2019: Considering how much credit is given to the French for the deliciousness of Vietnamese cuisine, there are many examples of Vietnamese cooks doing it their own way…and (arguably) doing it better. Take for example how mussels are prepared in Vietnamese restaurants and the way they’re prepared in their French counterparts. Instead of the heavy reliance by French restaurants on wine-based sauces, restaurants such as Saigon Far East are more apt to use a melding of traditional Asian ingredients that balance flavors between sweet, savory, sour and piquant. Instead of sopping up a good French sauce with bread, with Vietnamese sauces you’re more apt to sop them up with lettuce…and they’re so good, you’ll definitely want to sop up this sauce.
Saigon Far East’s stir-fried green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce are rất đẹp (that’s Vietnamese for “tres magnifique”). The artful star-shaped arrangement of six New Zealand green lip mussels swimming in a sauce balancing flavors, colors and textures speaks volumes about the restaurant’s plating. This is not only a delicious appetizer, it is a beautiful one as well. Minced cilantro, garlic, red pepper, scallions and ginger coalesce to enliven the bivalve mollusks with an addictive multi-varied flavor profile.
13 December 2019: To my knowledge, Saigon Far East is the only Vietnamese restaurant in town to offer shredded banana blossom and chicken salad. If you’re not acquainted with banana blossoms, there are only two things you really need to know: they do come from the same plant that produces bananas and they’re a delightful addition to any salad. They do, however, taste more like artichokes than they do like bananas. In their shredded form, they’re crunchy and delicious. Saigon Far East tosses them with julienne carrots, onions, cilantro and crushed peanuts. The accompanying sauce is muy picante, courtesy of just a few Thai bird peppers (6 to 40 times as piquant as jalapeño). Thankfully, the sauce is also sweet, sour and salty. This salad is a revelation and an exemplar of fresh flavors working very well together.
Similar to other Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon Far East offers both fried (imperial) rolls and fresh (spring) rolls made with thin, translucent flour wrappers which are never fried. Both are available as vegetarian options. Among the spring rolls, the Happy Roll is a nice surprise. Although its name sounds more appropriate for a sushi roll, it’s essentially a traditional Vietnamese spring roll engorged with vegetables and shrimp. The surprise here is the inclusion of anise and cinnamon-kissed grilled beef. The Imperial Rolls, a sobriquet bestowed by the French, are wholly unlike the simple, translucent spring rolls. They are wrapped in rice paper as opposed to the more conventional Chinese egg roll wrapper. One of the true signs of a Vietnamese Imperial Roll is that one of its ingredients is taro, a starchy root. Other ingredients include pork, shrimp and fresh herbs. Served two per order on a decorative lettuce leaf, they are quite good.
13 December 2009: The French influenced yet very traditional Vietnamese appetizer, honey-roasted quail features two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail which aren’t nearly as sweet as its name would imply. This is the epitome of finger-licking good. That’s due, in part, to the delicately small quail itself, which by virtue of its size has to be held by both hands even as you nibble tiny bites of the sinewy flesh. A slice of lime is squeezed onto small plate of spices (salt, pepper, garlic and more) to provide a unique dipping sauce which impacts a wonderful flavor to the quail.
Sensational soups are a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine and it seems all the best soups are celebrated on Saigon Far East’s multi-page menu. Vietnamese soups showcase a rich, flavorful broth in a swimming pool sized bowl big enough to feed a small family. The broth is an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails the partaker, each successive sip increasing your happiness level. Vietnamese soups invigorate the senses and tantalize the taste buds.
13 December 2019: American tastes which gravitate toward soups with personality will absolutely love Saigon Far East’s Hu Tieu Sate, a spicy bowl of rice noodle soup which the menu promises “will make your mouth water and your body sweat as soon as you taste it.” What the menu fails to mention is that it will give you both an endorphin rush and a release of oxytocin (the “love hormone”). You’ll definitely fall in love with this soup, one of the most delicious bowls this side of Saigon. This rice noodle soup features slices of paper-thin eye round that cooks directly in the hot spiced soup. A garnish of cucumbers, tomatoes, crushed peanuts and basil will mollify the anger of the chili just a bit so if you like to perspire while you eat, just move them aside.
13 December 2019: It’s a toss-up as to which soup is more incendiary, the Hu Tieu Sate or the Bun Bo Hue, (a combination of sliced, well-cooked beef, slowly cooked pork hock served with fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, lime, Vietnamese herbs and shredded banana blossom). Bun Bo Hue is to pho what Dr. Jekyll is to Mr. Hyde. In other words, it’s got personality and assertiveness, the byproduct of a combination of lemongrass, fermented shrimp paste, sugar and chili oil. It’s got a heat level not found in pho. Consider it desecration if you will, but both Tuan and I actually prefer Bun Bo Hue to pho. Saigon Far East’s version is a bit sweeter than most, but the contrast with the incendiary heat is a pleasant surprise (there’s that word again).
Another terrific soup, one replete with an astounding number of ingredients is an egg noodle soup (#M1 on the menu) named Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong. It’s Saigon Far East’s special combination bowl of prawn shrimp, BBQ pork, fish ball, crab and quail egg in a tasty clear broth. Instead of a side bowl with the aforementioned herbal trimmings, the herbs are already on the soup. You can have this soup prepared to your exacting specification of spiciness, up to and including the level of pain. It’s a delicious soup, absolutely perfect for wintry days. It comes with an “Asian Donut” which is wholly unlike anything you’ll ever see at Krispy Kreme. If anything, it tastes more like a sopaipilla than any dessert donut. Because the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, the donut comes in handy for dipping into the ambrosiatic broth.
So are the vermicelli noodle bowls all served with fresh shredded lettuce, cucumber, basil and bean sprouts garnished with carrots, peanuts and grilled onions. Meat or seafood options include a marinated, sliced BBQ grilled pork which blankets the wide bowl in which this entree is served. The BBQ grilled pork is more savory than sweet as it should be. You can douse this dish with as little or as much fish sauce as you’d like. It’s an entree that combines Vietnamese staples such as noodles, vegetables and sauces in a surprisingly interesting and delicious manner.
Saigon Far East offers several fried rice options including a Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice that combines shrimp, pork, beef, chicken, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, chopped green onion, peas and carrots. Fine ingredients all, but none quite as flavorful as Chinese sausage. If you’ve never had fried rice with Chinese sausage, you owe yourself a trip to Ming Dynasty where it’s made to perfection. No fried rice in town comes close, not even one replete with ingredients.
13 December 2019: Did I mention that Saigon Far East is a repository of surprises? Among them is a menu that lists four desserts (most Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque don’t offer even one dessert). Though we wanted to try them all, Tuan and I had only two. His choice was the mung bean in coconut milk, a popular street food and restaurant dessert option in both Vietnam and Thailand. It’s available either hot or cold. Tuan must have really enjoyed it as he finished it before I was halfway done with my corn pudding in coconut milk dessert. Corn is one of those versatile vegetables that is equally delicious sweet or savory. It shines when paired with coconut milk.
If you’ve found yourself in a rut and want to try something refreshingly different and delicious, go east–to Saigon Far East.
Saigon Far East
901D San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2019
1st VISIT: 31 January 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Happy Roll, Ginger Limeade, Stir Fried Green Mussels, Pho, Stir Fried Noodles, Shredded Banana Blossom and Chicken Salad, Hu Tieu Sate, Bun Bo Hue, Stir Fry Green Mussels in Basil and Garlic Sauce, Corn Pudding in Coconut Milk, Mung Bean in Coconut Milk