When the temperature dips and the Land of Enchantment’s ubiquitous winds howl with a vengeance, savvy diners revel in the knowledge that they can luxuriate in the familiar warmth of a steaming, swimming pool-sized bowl of aromatically alluring pho. Few things in life are as comfortable as snuggling up with a simple and no frills bowl showcasing a rich, spicy, nuanced broth with tangles of rice noodles, fresh herbs and vegetables and a veritable meat fest (rare steak, tendon, brisket, meatball). It’s the single best way to warm up from the inside-out on a bitterly cold day.
With nearly forty Vietnamese restaurants gracing the Duke City, diners have no shortage of purveyors to frequent for this preternaturally pleasurable elixir. The signage on eight of those restaurants includes the term “Pho,” a term which has been known to evoke a reaction akin to Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell. It can get pretty embarrassing if you start salivating when you espy “Pho”emblazoned on a restaurant’s signage.
Whether or not Pavlov’s disciples are consulted prior to the launch of a new Vietnamese restaurant, the frequency of the term “Pho” on the marquee is telling. If you’ve traveled extensively, you may have wondered why the term “Pho” followed by a number is so commonplace. Often these numbers are considered lucky–and not necessarily culturally. A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner. Good fortune smiled upon Duke City diners in 2013 when Pho 79 opened its doors. Adjacent to the timeworn 76 Hotel, Pho 79 is indeed named because 79 is a lucky number to the owner. Moreover, it’s good luck to diners seeking pho and some of the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.
It was doubly fortuitous for us in that we shared our inaugural meal at Pho 79 with our friends, prolific pod-casters Hannah and Edward who had also dined there the previous evening. Compounding our luck was true pho weather (blustery and overcast with wind), a day perfect for basking in the intoxicating fragrance and flavor of Vietnam’s favorite food. Prefacing the odoriferous delights was the malodorous bane to many diners, a durian shake. Considered the “world’s stinkiest fruit,” durian is a matter of personal preference. Even our server considers durian rank and off-putting and was surprised I would enjoy it so much.
8 March 2014: The malodorous (for others) durian shake may be the only item on the menu that’s not imbued with ambrosial qualities. Even the chicken dumplings are redolent with olfactory arousing properties. There are five dumplings to an order and they’re served with a simple soy sauce and rice wine vinegar dipping sauce. Lightly fried, the dumplings are stuffed with ground chicken and minced vegetables.
8 March 2014: Spring rolls are a marvel of transparency. Thanks to a translucent rice paper, the grilled pork, lettuce, cucumbers, and vermicelli noodles are available for your inspection. Not that you’ll study them for long because they’re too enticing for contemplation. The solitary pork strip, grilled in the inimitable Vietnamese way that makes pork taste like candy, is the star ingredient unless you call the peanut sauce an ingredient. The peanut sauce (crushed peanuts, julienne carrots and daikon) is simultaneously sweet and savory. You might want to eat it with a spoon, but should save it for your spring rolls.
8 March 2014: For a few months in 2014, Pho 79 offered crawfish imported from the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Boiled in a slurry of seasonings, garlic cloves and liberal amounts of Cayenne, they were as Cajun and as good as the crawfish we ate by the boatload when we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A whole pound of crawfish per order seems more generous on your plate where each of the red-hued “mud bugs” seems larger than life. Alas, as with crawfish of all sizes, it takes a lot of work to extricate a relatively small amount of “meat” from the crimson crustacean.
It’s not solely Cajuns who enjoy sucking crawfish heads. That’s how you extract the salty, spicy juices from the boil as well as a very rich, very flavorful yellow “fatty” substance which Cajuns prize most. Hardcore Cajuns actually pinch the head a little as they suck. It’s how you can savor every last morsel of that unctuous yellow fat. After witnessing Edward’s sucking skills, I’m convinced he’s a Cajun–at least at heart.
8 March 2014: Pho isn’t the only perfect Vietnamese dish for a blustery day. A good curry also possesses those warming qualities we crave when chilled to the bone. Pho 79 offers curry with both noodles and rice. The very first thing you’ll discern about the spicy curry vermicelli bowl is the aromatic bouquet that precedes its arrival. This entree literally announces itself to your nostrils before you notice the beautifully artistic presentation: fine vermicelli noodles, julienne carrots and daikon, fresh vegetables and your choice of chicken, pork or beef slathered with a sweet-piquant-pungent curry topped with crushed peanuts. The curry is magnificent, among the very best Vietnamese curries we’ve had. The vegetables–carrots, zucchini and more–are crisp and garden-fresh. One word of caution: don’t empty the ramekin of fish sauce onto the dish. Let the curry shine on its own. It’s a rarefied curry.
8 March 2014: Eight different phos grace the menu. Carnivores might gravitate to the deluxe beef noodle soup which includes a beefy horn of plenty with beef tendon, rare lean beef, well done steak and beef meat balls. Each of these beef components are available on other pho dishes as is beef tripe. While beef tripe and tendon would have been my choices, my Kim opted for a safer well-done steak. The pho is incredibly delicate, a beauteous amalgam of noodles, beef and onions swimming in a beef broth made from bones. The flavors emanating from spices (star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom) pair with other ingredients to make this the perfect for anytime soup.
4 November 2015: One of the telling culinary and cultural differences between American cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine is the importance the latter places on dishes Americans might consider secondary or supporting. Study a Vietnamese menu and you’ll see a number of dishes categorized under the heading “Rice Dishes” and “Noodle Dishes.” A dish could conceivably include Almas caviar ($25,000 an ounce) and seared foie gras and it would still fall under either the “Rice” or “Noodle” dish section of the menu.
If you’re Vietnamese, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the Rice Dish with Curry quite as much if it didn’t have rice. Americans on the other hand, use the rice to sop up the curry and mix it with the perfectly al dente stir-fried vegetables. Some of us wouldn’t even mind if the rice wasn’t there at all. That’s because the curry and vegetable (broccoli, squash, carrots, onions) are swoon-worthy delicious. Vietnamese curry isn’t nearly as sweet as Thai curry nor as pungent as Indian curry even though its genesis is India. It tends to be more “stew-like” than other Asian curries and is imbued with a bouquet sure to please. Pho 79’s version of Rice with Curry is among the best of its kind to be found in Albuquerque.
There are no other Vietnamese restaurants in the immediate proximity of Pho 79, but the staff and owners of this wonderful Vietnamese restaurant treat all guests as if there’s a lot of competition trying to corner the pho market in the area. This aim to please restaurant has earned our respect and admiration. It’s one of the Duke City’s very best.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 November 2015
1st VISIT: 8 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Crawfish, Chicken Dumplings, Spring Rolls with Grilled Pork, Well Done Steak Noodle Soup, Spicy Curry Vermicelli Bowl, Rice Dish with Curry