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–even when that signage fronts that of low-rent Motel 76. To be brutally honest, Pho 79 does not have the most alluring curb appeal. In fact, it’s downright homely.
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.
At the risk of being accused of “lookism” Pho 79 may be an ugly duckling from the outside and no amount of image positivity will change that fact. It’s also not exactly a graceful swan when you step inside. Though immaculate and inviting, the lime green walls are just a bit off-putting. It’s when you sample Pho 79’s culinary fare that a beautiful swan emerges. Compared to menus at other Duke City area Vietnamese restaurants, Pho 79’s menu is relatively sparse. Nonetheless, the two page menu offers enough options to make most savvy Vietnamese food aficionados very happy.
8 March 2014: Several items are no longer on the menu with which Pho 79 launched in 2013. That includes durian shakes, the refreshing beverage made from the world’s most malodorous fruit. Still, 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.
11 November 2022: When my friend and colleague Tuan Bui and I get together for a meal at one of our favorite Vietnamese restaurants, we invariably scour the menu for Bún bò Huế, a spicy beef noodle soup from the Central Vietnamese city of Huế. Our November, 2022 visit to Pho 79 was his inaugural visit. Predictably, neither of us was long-faced for too long at the absence of Bún bò Huế. That’s because we espied Spicy Deluxe Pho (Phở đặc biệt Sate) on that menu. This spicy and wonderfully fragrant dish is bursting with aromatics such as lemongrass, garlic and shallots all simmered in a beef broth and served over egg or rice noodles. “Sate” is pronounced the same as Thailand’s “satay,” but is wholly different. In Vietnam, sate sauce is a chili sauce made with red chilis, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp or fermented shrimp paste, and sugar. The sauce is spicy and used for marinades, bbq sauce, soup flavorings, and more. You can see chili flakes swimming in the rich broth. You can taste the potency of that chili with every spoonful.
8 March 2014: Sixteen different phos grace the menu. Carnivores might gravitate to the combination 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.
11 November 2022: Two of the specialties of the house at Pho 79 are oxtail and back ribs. You can add either or both to any pho. Tuan and I tried to get our friend and colleague Adrian Abeyta to order both, but he had his heart set on pho with tendon and rare steak. It’s hard to attribute “cowardice” to his reluctance to order oxtail and back ribs when he ordered tendon. Tendon isn’t often a choice of non-Asians. Though it has a pronounced beefy taste, its gelatinous texture and pork belly-like mouthful can be off-putting to some diners. Not to Adrian! He enjoyed every slurp and spoonful. I would argue that it would have been even more enjoyable with oxtail and back ribs and will prove it during a future visit.
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. There is, however, no mistaking that banh mi is a Vietnamese term for “sandwich.” By any word or standard, banh mi are delicious.
11 November 2022: Pho 79 offers four banh mi: combination grilled meat sandwich (pork, chicken and beef), grilled meat sandwich (beef, pork or chicken), BBQ pork sandwich and a tofu sandwich. Each is prepared on a soft, chewy six-inch baguette and is stuffed with all the characteristic banh mi toppings: shredded carrots, julienne daikon, cilantro and cucumber. I brought two home for Kim’s lunch and dinner. She loved the grilled pork banh mi most of all. The grilled pork is bursting with grilled barbecue flavor. Because some of the pork is caramelized, it offers a delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors. This is a delicious banh mi
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.
2007 Candelaria, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2022
1st VISIT: 8 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Chicken Dumplings, Spring Rolls with Grilled Pork, Well Done Steak Noodle Soup, Combination Grilled Meat Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Rare Steak & Beef Tripe Phở, Spicy Deluxe Pho