Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Basil Leaf on Eubank Just South of Constitution

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed Popemobiles
through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East,
eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?
Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew,
the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?
I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Anthony Bourdain

Genesis 11 recounts a time when the entire world had a common language and dwelt as one people. Alas, hubris overtook the generations of survivors of the great flood who decided, with great unity of purpose, to build a city named Babel with a tower that would reach to heaven itself. Our omnipotent God knew this “stairway to heaven” was essentially a self-aggrandizing monument to the people themselves, calling attention to their own abilities and achievements instead of giving glory to God. Consequently, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not understand one another. He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the Earth.

Always busy…

Some Biblical scholars believe this event marks the point in history when God divided the Earth into separate continents. Whether or not you believe this Old Testament account, there’s no denying some good would ultimately came from such a division of humanity. That may be especially true from a culinary perspective. It stands to reason that a common language and proximal dwelling would limit the diversity of culinary thought and opportunities. Conversely, the more the population spread out across the wide expanse of climatic and topographical variation, the more diverse the culinary opportunities.

After A Meal at Basil Leaf Even Buddha Needs A Nap

Why then, in an increasingly connected and informed world, do so many people limit their culinary opportunities and refuse to deviate from their culinary comfort zones? It’s a matter long pondered by many of us who look upon Anthony Bourdain’s aforementioned sagacity as a marching order–those of us who want it all, who want to try everything at least once. Culinary bon vivants see the diversity of dining as an adventure, an experience to be cherished and repeated. It’s because we have this sense of adventure that we love the diversity proffered by such restaurants as the Basil Leaf on Eubank.

Heck without the culinary diversity resultant from topographical and climatic variety around the world we might not even have basil itself. Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs in the world, a richly aromatic, slightly spicy ameliorant to many of the best dishes proffered at all Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Also known as “hairy basil” and by its Thai name of “horapa”, it’s used in salads, soups, curries and as a garnish. The aroma of Thai basil is stronger and sweeter than its Italian counterpart and it has a peppery flavor slightly reminiscent of star anise. It’s no wonder so many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants across the country are named for this diverse and revered herb.

Pork Crepe

The Basil Leaf occupies one of those seemingly cursed restaurant locations in Albuquerque, a venue which has seen a number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants give it the old college try before succumbing to both economic malaise and absence of culinary adventurers. Perhaps the Basil Leaf has the familial pedigree to succeed where others have failed. Family members include Tony Trinh who owns and operates Relish, one of the Duke City’s most popular sandwich shops. Other family members own and operate Pacific Rim, the only Vietnamese restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The menu at Basil Leaf isn’t quite the voluminous compendium you’ll find at other Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. The menu is segmented by related fare: appetizers, beef noodle soup (pho), rice dishes, stir-fried noodles, vermicelli, kid’s menu, beverages and desserts, a rarity in Vietnamese menus. Unless you’ve got a predetermined notion what you’re in the mood for you’ll spend some time perusing the menu. It’s a terrific menu promising a culinary adventure in every bite.

The very best clay pot rice dish in Albuquerque

18 October 2014: For some reason, the Vietnamese crepe is listed as an appetizer. Whether deliberate or an anomaly, you’ll marvel at the size of this golden-hued (courtesy of tumeric) beauty. Resembling a well-engorged egg omelet, the half-moon shaped crepe takes up half the plate. The other half is covered by fresh, crisp vegetables: a shredded carrot and daikon salad, whole leaf lettuce and sprigs of basil. It’s much like the vegetable accompaniment for pho. The Vietnamese crepe, made from coconut milk and rice flour, is stuffed with savory ingredients: bean sprouts, white onions and green onions and is served with fish sauce and your choice of tofu, shrimp, pork or chicken. Though the crepe itself has a slightly sweet flavor, it’s rare that Vietnamese crepes are stuffed with sweet fillings or toppings. Pan-fried so they’re just slightly crispy, the crepes have a mild flavor profile for which the tangy, acidic, slightly piquant fish sauce is a perfect foil. At Basil Leaf, the Vietnamese crepe is an appetizer built for two, especially if you have any expectation of enjoying an entree, too.

18 October 2014: Alas, the best laid plans of gastronomes often go astray. After consuming the entire crepe, my plan was to sample a few bites of my entree then take the rest home for my Kim to enjoy. The Sizzling Clay Pot Rice dish had other ideas. It would ensnare me with its preternatural deliciousness and it wouldn’t let me go until nary a grain of rice remained on the clay pot. This is a dish which earns its name. It remained almost too hot to eat even after the Vietnamese crepe was a memory As you eat, the clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce of your choice of meat or tofu to caramelize and waft invitingly for the duration of your meal. For this reason, clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish.

Ginger Catfish with Vegetables

Aside from rice, this dish contains broccoli, Vietnamese sausage, mushrooms, cashews, cilantro and green onion along with your choice of pork, tofu, shrimp, beef, chicken or a combination thereof. To the pork goes my highest recommendation. It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a sweet-savory-tangy marinade that renders the pork’s edges a reddish hue. Only the Chicken with Chinese Basil in Hot Pot at China Luck is in the rarefied company of this fabulous hot pot dish.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Basil Leaf a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Combination Sizzling Clay Pot Rice as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

5 October 2017: For years, the transformative ginger catfish at the much missed May Hong served as a benchmark, a dish that serves as a standard by which other ginger catfish are measured and judged. In my experience, only sister restaurant Cafe Dalat serves a comparable ginger catfish. At both May Hong and Cafe Dalat, a whole catfish–head and all–is used (you’ll find some of the best meat in the cheeks). Basil Leaf’s version is quite a bit different than my two favorites. Instead of a sauce the color of luminous, fluorescent Day-Glo or maybe French dressing served atop the catfish, Basil Leaf will give you a small cupful of a yellowish sauce. Sure it’s ginger, but it doesn’t have as much kick and flavor as at my benchmark restaurants for this dish. Additionally, even though the menu indicates “whole” catfish, as the photo shows, it’s actually served decapitated. Served on the side are steamed mixed vegetables.

Chicken Salad

2 September 2023: On one wall hangs a framed picture of Buddha, eyes closed, hand cradling his sleepy head.   He has that serene look of contentment.  Basil Leaf has that effect on diners.  Its portions are more than generous.  They’re family-sized plates filled to the brim with fresh ingredients and delicious combinations.  At most Vietnamese restaurants it’s not uncommon for us to order two appetizers and two entrees.   We typically take home about half of what we order–enough for a full meal the following day.  Order two appetizers at Basil Leaf and you might have enough take-home for an entire week.

During our September, 2023 visit, our appetizer choices were a pork crepe and a chicken salad (mango, avocado, cucumber, tomato and crispy wontons, served on green leaf lettuce with peanut sauce).  Either one would have made a full meal.   We were able to finish the pork crepe, but barely made a dent on the chicken salad.  This chicken salad is wholly unlike any we’ve ever had.  It’s served on the large sized pho bowl which is ten inches around and about four inches deep.  It’s a beautifully composed salad overflowing with fresh, delicious ingredients.  The peanut sauce (pretty much the same stuff served at Thai restaurants) provided sweet and savory notes.  The crispy wontons lent a delightful textural contrast to the green grocery fresh vegetables.  The mango was in season and wonderfully sweet.  For a salad we expected to barely make a dent on our appetites, this colossal salad proved too much–but also too delicious, too fresh, too spectacular.

Combination Bowl

2 September 2023:  My Kim’s usitatus (“usual” before Babel) entree at Vietnamese restaurants has become a combination bowl (3 grilled shrimp, grilled pork or chicken, 2 eggrolls, pork sausage).  Basil Leaf’s version is unlike others she’s enjoyed across the Land of Enchantment.  Not surprisingly it’s much larger, both as a whole and in individual ingredients.  Carrots and daikon aren’t julienned to thin strips, but sliced into thicker shreds.  Egg rolls are full-sized not quartered.  A sole sausage is about the size of what you might see on a sandwich (and indeed would make for a great sandwich). A tangle of vermicelli noodles rests under a canopy of shredded lettuce and refreshing basil.   The combination bowl is served with fish sauce somewhat lacking in piquancy.  My Kim’s favorite combination bowl remains Saigon City’s, but Basil Leaf’s version is a close second.

2 September 2023:  Tuan Bui, my friend and colleague at the University of New Mexico has long shared the nuances and subtleties of Vietnamese cuisine with me.   Other facets of Vietnamese cuisine–balances of flavors, seasoning, freshness, deliciousness–are readily apparent.  Tuan points out things I may not have known about subtle ingredients or preparation techniques.  To say I value his opinion is a vast understatement.  Tuan is a mentor and teacher to me.  When we visit Vietnamese restaurants we tend to eschew pho in favor of Bún bò Huế, the butt-kicking beef noodle soup from the Hue region of Vietnam.  Tuan’s very favorite Bún bò Huế comes from Basil Leaf.

Large Bowl of Spicy Lemongrass Beef Soup

During a Parts Unknown visit to the Central Vietnamese city of Huế, Anthony Bourdain, the ever quotable raconteur who loved everything Vietnamese declared, “In my way of thinking, in the hierarchy of delicious, slurpy stuff in a bowl, Bún bò Huế is at the very top.” Then, as if to emphasize the point, he stressed, “I would definitely bring a date for [bun bo hue]. Because if she doesn’t like this, there’s no hope of a relationship. If she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, there’s blood and stuff in there,’ that would be a relationship-ender to me. I’m not kidding.”  My Kim won’t even try Bún bò Huế, but ending our 38-year relationship isn’t even a passing thought.

At Basil Leaf, Bún bò Huế appears on the menu as the English friendly “spicy lemongrass beef soup.”  It made me happy that our server didn’t react at all when I ordered it with  congealed pig blood and pork hocks.   That means there are other “crazy white people” who aren’t afraid of trying everything.  My Kim threatened to withhold kisses if I actually ate the pork blood.  Let’s just say I didn’t get lucky last night.  My luck was in discovering a phenomenal spicy lemongrass beef soup, maybe the very best I’ve had.  It’s got all the qualities that made me a convert years ago.  It’s got lots of personality and not solely from heat.  It’s got a good balance of flavor notes.  The pig blood has a delightful mineral (iron) flavor that brought a few smiles to my face (and “yuck” faces to my Kim’s).  The pork hock had plenty of  rich, delicious meat and fatty tendon.  I managed to finish maybe twenty percent of my bounty which means maybe two more meals of my new favorite Bún bò Huế.

Mangoes With Sticky Rice

2 September 2023:  Dessert menus at Vietnamese restaurants are fairly rare.  By no means are desserts unpopular in Vietnam.  Usually post-prandial treats are cool and refreshing, meant to temper the oppressive heat and humidity.  Basil Leaf’s menu lists three desserts, the most popular of which is mangoes with sticky rice.  More commonly associated with Thai restaurants, mangoes with sticky rice are one of the best desserts in the universe.  As with many Asian desserts, it offers a balance of flavor profiles–the refreshing sweet tanginess of the mango, the sweet saltiness of the rice and the richness of coconut milk.

Basil Leaf is the type of restaurant good enough to convert even the nay-sayers who rarely stray outside their culinary comfort zones. Moreover, it’s the type of restaurant culinarily adventurous diners love best for its authenticity and oh, those basil-enhanced taste explosions.

Basil Leaf
1225 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-2594
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 September 2023
1st VISIT: 18 August 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vietnamese Crepe, Clay Pot Rice, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Spicy Beef Lemongrass Soup, Chicken Salad, Combination Noodle Bowl,

7 thoughts on “Basil Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Mixed results.

    Spring rolls with grilled chicken are among the best I have had.

    Lemongrass soup with catfish is a winner.

    Stir-fried veggies with pork is average.

    Green coconut cake is nothing to write home about. Much better at Sweetea.

    On your scale, I grudgingly rate Basil Leaf a 20.

  2. Visited this place for lunch yesterday.
    My husband’s stir fry noodle was fine he said, but my tofu veggie with brown rice was extremely greasy. Tofu and veggies were swinging in the sea of oil. I told and showed it to a waitress, but she didn’t seem to understand the problem. So I did the same to another one, and she said I could ask “less greasy” next time. Okay…

  3. Finally a review I can agree with! (It’s been awhile; the past few that I tried were misses for me). This place rocks! The clay pot was amazingly tasty, chicken was tender, veggies were perfectly cooked, and the whole thing stayed piping hot the whole time. The spring rolls were fresh…pho was delicious – giving our usual place a run for it’s money. The ban mi was huge and very flavorful…appreciated the twist on the usual ingredients. The place is a little tight on space, but overall a great dining experience. I will definitely be back!

  4. We went by last night. I had been once a few months ago and just had a Shrimp and Pork Papaya Salad in a futile attempt to maintain my trim boyish figure. I liked it but was certain that this was far from the best Basil Leaf had to offer.
    Last night the ever adventurous Child Bride had Hủ Tiếu/Mì Xào with pork primarily because it was the closest thing to what she ALWAYS orders at Huong Thao with chicken simply because she has eaten it many times before and never died. The chicken version is the only thing I had ever eaten at Huong Thao or any other Vietnamese restaurant and hated. I had gotten to where I refused to split leftovers with her and she always admitted that anything I ordered was always better. I thought last nights was a big improvement but she likes the hated chicken version better.
    I had the Sizzlin’ Claypot Rice with Pork-wonderful. It even reminded me of some versions of the Korean Bibimbapdeboop.
    We each stuffed on half of our orders and had breakfast with the rest. She loved my Clay Pot Rice. We will be back.
    Gil, I am impressed that anybody could eat an entire Vietnamese Crepe and the clay pot at one sitting. Kim should be upset that you brought none home.

  5. I lived minutes away from this place, and ate there roughly once a week. Next time you’re there, try the spring rolls with pork and shrimp. SO good.

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