Saigon Far East – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saigon Far East on San Pedro
Saigon Far East on San Pedro

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.

Breaking a paradigm is eating at a restaurant like Saigon Far East, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants. Despite being around for nearly a quarter of a century, Saigon Far East is surprisingly not very well known. It wasn’t mentioned a single time by any of the 60 plus respondents to a “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town” discussion on the Duke City Fix’s “Chow Down in Burque Town” group which tends to be very well-versed on all matters culinary.

Saigon Far East
A beautiful and functional pergola at Saigon Far East

If you’ve ever visited Giovanni’s Pizzeria in its nondescript San Pedro shopping center, you may have noticed Saigon Far East on the northeast corner. Like its host timeworn shopping center, it has seen better days and indeed may have been quite stylish when it first launched in 1987 with its beckoning pagoda style roof 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.

Two Happy Rolls
Two Aptly Named Happy Rolls

The restaurant’s interior is somewhat more appealing than its exterior facade. Chinese style lanterns illuminate the cavernous dining room and hanging plants suspended from the ceiling add color. The center of the large room is dominated by a pergola, a purplish, roof-less structure resembling an uncompleted porch. 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.

Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce
Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce

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.

Kim, it turns out, is the restaurant’s caretaker. She has been running Saigon Far East since its owner Diane Nguyen passed away in 2008. A petite lady with boundless energy, 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.)

Imperial Rolls from Saigon Far East

Broad-reaching means a menu replete with appetizers, entrees and desserts we haven’t seen at other Vietnamese restaurants. Considering Albuquerque has so many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, surprises are rare. Saigon Far East is full of surprises.

One of those surprises is ginger limeade, a refreshing beverage with the salubrious flavor of concentrated ginger. At many 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.

The beauteous Kim delivers pho to our table
The vivacious Kim delivers pho to our table

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 it sounds like a sushi roll, it’s essentially a traditional Vietnamese spring roll engorged with vegetables and shrimp. The surprise here is the inclusion of 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.

Honey Roasted Quail
Honey Roasted Quail

An even more pleasant surprise is the accompanying sauce. It’s wholly unlike most of the fish sauce generally offered with spring rolls which tends to be very sweet. While Saigon Far East’s rendition does have the characteristic sweetness, it is much more piquant with chili seeds floating on the vinegary mixture alongside julienned carrots. The sauce also doesn’t have the pronounced “fishy” taste of some nuoc mam.

Another appetizer sure to sate the discerning diner are the stir-fried green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce. The artful star-shaped arrangement of six New Zealand green lip mussels swimming in a piquant sauce 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 flavor as well as color and texture.

Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce
Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce

The French influenced yet another traditional Vietnamese appetizer, honey-roasted quail–two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail. 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 like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails the partaker. It invigorates the senses and tantalizes the taste buds.

Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)
Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)

The most popular soup is pho (pronounced pha or phuh), a soup of beef and rice noodles. It’s become so popular among non-Asians that the Campbell Soup Company is introducing a commercially prepared pho aimed at mainstream eateries. Pho promises to continue to grow in popularity as an ethnic food trend.

American tastes which gravitate toward the piquant 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.” This rice noodle pho rare features slices of paper-thin eye round that cook directly in the hot spiced soup. It is the perfect pick-me-up, a pho on par nearly as good as the best Cafe Dalat and May Hong have to offer (although nothing can compare with the spicy beef stew at Dalat and May Hong).

Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork
Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork

This soup is rich and fragrant, sweet and savory, piquant and intensely beefy with a comforting balance of vegetables and thick noodles. There’s a burst of flavor with every spoonful. The pho is accompanied by the usual herbal trimmings (mint, basil, cilantro and bamboo sprouts) and one surprise–banana blossoms. If the quality of its broth is the true measure of greatness in pho, the fresh herbal accompaniment is like the proverbial cherry on top, the only possible way to improve on near perfection.

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 wintery 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.

Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice
Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice

Stir-fried rice noodles are not only tasty, they’re fun to eat as they’re reconstituted by the sauce with which they’re served. Case in point, Saigon Far East’s stir-fried rice noodles with barbecue pork in a garlic and ginger sauce. The noodles start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and they reacquire the soft noodle texture so typical in soups. Scallions, onion and cilantro provide a sweet and savory balance while the barbecue pork is just plain deliciousness.

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.

Young tofu in ginger
Young tofu in ginger

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.

Perhaps the very best dessert at Saigon Far East isn’t even on the dessert menu. It’s a dessert Kim may recommend if you’re particularly effusive about the ginger limeade. It’s a dessert that showcases the versatility of ginger. Young tofu swims in a steaming hot broth of ginger and sugar to form one of the most fragrant and intriguing desserts we’ve had. It’s sweet, savory and salubrious, like the very best medicine you’ve ever had. How very typical of this surprisingly good restaurant.

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
(505) 255-7408
1st VISIT: 31 January 2009
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2009
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Happy Roll, Ginger Limeade, Stir Fried Green Mussels, Pho, Stir Fried Noodles

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,100 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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13 Comments on “Saigon Far East – Albuquerque, New Mexico”

  1. I always like Saigon Far East. A couple of nights ago, we ate here and I had the duck soup, which was really fantastic. Not at all fatty, but very flavorful and might be the best thing I’ve ever gotten in a Vietnamese restaurant. Eat there even a few times and Kim will remember you.

  2. The Ginger-Limeade is “brackish-looking”, meaning it’s not clear, aka not transparent, but it certainly does not taste brackish… but as Gil mentioned it IS heavily ginger’d but quite quite enjoyable. I’ve recently returned more often for lunch just to enjoy a glass of ginger-limeade with my lunch.

    The chicken-wing appetizer was delicious as well, and the Pho bowls, as well as other main dishes are quite tasty. Not quite ready yet to try the soup that says “one taste will make you sweat…”.

    Definitely try the Happy Rolls. They will make you happy…. 🙂

    The restaurant is a bit hard to find as it’s a bit west of San Pedro on Kathryn, but it’s worth the trip. You can park in either the front or the back (more parking in back it seems…). Note that it is CLOSED on Wednesdays.

  3. Have you been to Sushiya yet, Gil? Best new restaurant in Albuquerque in 2009. Juan Tabo and Candelaria in the space where Porky’s Pride used to be. I’ve eaten sushi everywhere in town (literally…I am a big guy) and this place is the best.

  4. Tried it after reading your review. Loved the Honey Roasted Quail and the Mussels in Garlic and Ginger Sauce–the sauce was wonderful. The happy rolls didn’t really excite either me or my dining companion. Neither of us could detect any shrimp or meat in them but the sauce that came with them was a delight. We’ll be back to try more stuff.

  5. I have eaten here for years and everyone I introduce to it becomes a regular customer. Come more than once and the server will remember your drink! Great food, great place and very good prices!

  6. This place is great, I have been eating here for about three years now – their chicken wing appetizer is to die for, and the entrees are great!

  7. I too miss Diane. She introduced me to Vietnamese food, always remembered what my usual order was. I can still see her running between the kitchen and the dining tables, pushing her stainless steel cart with boundless energy. Will have to go back.

  8. I miss the lady who used to own the restaurant (she passed away a few years ago). Her dishes were AMAZING. The new owners have a nice menu, but its just not the same. Just tastes different. Good though.

  9. Gil, I am salivating thinking about that ginger tofu dessert…. I love, love, love soft fresh tofu.

    Do you know if they make the tofu in-house from scratch (or know of anyone in the metro area that does)?

  10. Gil reviews it, we go.

    We went for Saturday lunch. We were the only ones there. A little cool inside. The appetizer we chose was the Happy Roll. Grilled meats inside a spring roll. Exceptional. The best spring rolls we have ever eaten.

    I got the Hu Tieu Sate. After a couple of spoonfuls, it was no longer cool inside. Delicious.
    My wife got the Tho Rice Noodle Soup. Another delicious soup. It had the most flavorful broth. Much better than other restaurants.


  11. Thanks for telling us about this older restaurant — I had wondered about it, but didn’t know much about Vietnamese food.

    “The center of the large room is dominated by a purplish, roof-less structure resembling an uncompleted porch.” From your picture, that pergola looks like an attractive structure to define space and hang plants from.

    The ginger lemonade was salty? That’s what “brackish” means — a saltiness between that of fresh water and seawater.

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