In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, numerology is very important. 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 across an entire culture. A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner. Espy a restaurant named Pho 66and the number 66 may well represent the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war. Restaurants named Pho 75 may well be honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell. Numerical repetition is also considered fortuitous. The City of Vision certainly counts the number eleven as a lucky number.
November 11th, 2011 at precisely 11 o’clock AM (11/11/11 at 11AM) saw the launch of Rio Rancho’s third Vietnamese restaurant when Saigon 2 Restaurant opened its doors on Southern Boulevard. The restaurant is situated in an 1,800 square foot space that’s about a thousand feet smaller than Saigon Restaurant, its elder sibling on San Mateo. Because the Rio Rancho restaurant is smaller, the menu is somewhat abbreviated–115 items instead of 145 items. Fish dishes are not be served in Saigon 2, but for the most part, the dishes prepared incomparably well at the original Saigon are also available in its sibling.
Owner Vicki Truong could well have named her first restaurant Pho 88 in honor of 1988, the year she left Vietnam or she could have named it Pho 2000 in honor of the year she arrived in Albuquerque and launched her first restaurant. She chose instead to honor the former capital of South Vietnam, now more often called Ho Chi Minh City. Since launching her first restaurant, she’s garnered a tremendous following among devotees of Vietnamese cuisine. She still spends most of her time at her original restaurant, entrusting her capable staff in Rio Rancho to uphold the high standards for which her restaurants are known.
Vicki does try to spend Sundays in her Rio Rancho restaurant, flitting between the kitchen and the dining room, addressing her guests as “honey” or “sweetie” and ensuring their comfort. She is one of the most personable restaurateurs in the metropolitan area and one of the very best Vietnamese chefs in New Mexico. The latter is especially surprising considering that when she first arrived in the States, she couldn’t cook. She learned how to cook at the Vietnamese restaurant in which she worked in San Jose, California. That makes her mastery of Vietnamese cooking a marvel.
27 September 2019: SaiGon is the only restaurant for which I’d list egg rolls as an absolute “must have” (typically, especially at Chinese restaurants, egg rolls might best be categorized as “must avoid.”) These cigar shaped treasures, served with a tangy fish sauce, are among the very best I’ve had anywhere. They explode with the flavor of perfectly seasoned ground pork and vegetables encased in a crispy, deep-fried yellow wrapper. Served six to an order, it might be advisable to request two orders to keep peace in the family. As with other appetizers, the greenery (cilantro, mint and Thai basil) isn’t there solely as plate decoration. Vicki expects that her guests will wrap just about their egg rolls on a lettuce leaf and add cilantro and Thai basil to taste–and if you don’t, she’ll certainly talk you into it.
If you ever espy a diner at one of the Duke City’s Vietnamese restaurants wrapping something that’s already wrapped (egg rolls) in lettuce, chances they picked up that habit at SaiGon under Vickie’s tutelage. It’s the way we now like them, but only at SaiGon where generous amounts of Thai basil and cilantro along with some of the very best fish sauce in town enliven the best egg rolls in town. The only drawback is dipping them into the fish sauce which can be a pretty messy proposition.
8 February 2023: Very much a “beefaholic,” my Kim’s very favorite entree, found in the “salted dishes” portion of the menu, is grilled onion beef, an order of which features six cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled white onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Every bite is like an adventure in culinary flawlessness with tastes that awaken and tantalize your taste buds. The beef rolls are thin (but not carpaccio thin) and have a more than subtle smoky sweet fragrance. You can eat these sans fish sauce or with fish sauce. They’re terrific either way. Best, as with all grilled items on the menu, your chosen protein doesn’t hit the grill until your order is placed, ensuring optimum freshness and flavor.
Another way to have the grilled onion beef is with steamed vermicelli fashioned into one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. At May Hong, these noodles are called patter noodles. The noodles are cut into squares about four-inches in diameter. This entree (#46 on the menu) is served with a bowl of lettuce, carrots, daikon, cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. Obviously, the intent is to use the lettuce as the outer wrap in which you layer the vermicelli noodles, grilled onion beef and vegetables into a lettuce roll to be dipped in fish sauce. It’s a messy option, but unbelievably good.
If you suffer from triskaidekaphobia (fear or avoidance of the number 13), you might not order the #13 beef noodle soup at Saigon 2. You’d be depriving yourself of one of the best pho dishes in the metropolitan area, a brimming, swimming-pool sized bowl of luxurious beef pho with rare beef, buttery rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and sundry herbs. Perhaps the only aspect of this soup more pleasurable than how it tastes is the aroma which precedes its arrival at your table. Steam wafts toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, a precursor to a soup that known to make grown men (at least this one) swoon.
27 September 2019: Your humble blogger might come across as a savvy culinary sophisticate today, but my formative years were defined by naivete and innocence. You just don’t experience much of the world growing up in a sleepy backwater northern New Mexico village. You already know about my first experience with pizza. It came courtesy of Chef Boyardee whose “pizza” came in a box with pizza flour mix in a hermetically sealed bag, a can of grated cheese and a can of “true Italian sauce from chef’s own recipe.” Lots of things came in a box when the ingredients to prepare those pre-packaged dishes weren’t to be found in Taos’s grocery stores some 25 miles away.
Shrimp was among those foods so strange and exotic to us that they may as well have come from Venus. Obviously flash-frozen seafood wasn’t flown to the “Peñasco International Airport” on a daily basis, so the only seafood to which my mom was able to introduce us came from the frozen food section and featured such labels as “Mrs. Paul’s” and “Gorton’s.” Not knowing any better, my five brothers and sisters thought the breaded fried shrimp with a ketchup-like sauce was pretty good. It wasn’t until visiting my Uncle Fred, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, in Albuquerque that we were introduced to delicious decapod that wasn’t fried and breaded. Not only that, he created this incendiary cocktail sauce with enough horseradish to water our eyes. It sure opened my eyes to the possibility of shrimp.
The notion of ever again having fried, breaded shrimp seemed as likely as me rooting for the despicable New York Giants until my Kim espied tempura prawns on the appetizer menu. It had been decades since my lips wrapped themselves around shrimp that hadn’t been boiled, grilled or even “cooked” with citrus juices (ceviche). At the very least, the tempura prawns were several orders of magnitude better than any shrimp bearing the label Mrs. Paul’s or Gorton’s. Not only were these enormous prawns not an oxymoron of the term “giant shrimp,” they had a sweet, briny delicious quality and the tempura sheathe didn’t create a bready aftertaste. Alas, the overly sweet plum sauce proved unworthy of the butterflied prawns. Better was the fish sauce. Best would have been Uncle Fred’s cocktail sauce.
27 September 2019: Culinary cognoscenti believe the term “wonton” comes from “wahn tan” which literally means “swallowing clouds” because of the way these savory dumplings look when floating in soup. Though their genesis is Chinese, wontons are prominent in the cooking of several Asian nations, including Vietnam. Saigon 2’s won ton egg noodle soup is a delicious surprise, as much for the size of these dumplings as for their deliciousness. These look like wontons on steroids, stuffed generously with a pork and mushroom amalgam. Shrimp and pork strips are the featured proteins on this savory, steamy elixir, but discernible herbaceous notes are also apparent.
27 September 2019: Clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish. Remove the cover with which it arrives and steam wafts upward, delighting your olfactory receptors with delicious notes. The clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce of the grilled chicken to caramelize and waft invitingly for the duration of your meal. The chicken has a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a sweet-savory-tangy marinade that renders the protein’s edges a golden hue. You may have to scrape off some of the caramelized rice at the bottom of the pot, but it’s worth the effort because this is the sweetest and best part of the dish.
8 February 2023: Lemongrass, an herb with a lemony scent grown in tropical climates throughout Southeast Asia is a common ingredient in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Lemongrass lends its citrus-like aroma and zing to many dishes. Imparting the flavor of lemon with hints of ginger, it actually has the same essential oil as lemons. In fact, it’s sometimes even used in herbal teas to impart a lemony flavor. Fresh lemongrass can have floral and minty notes as well. When we first discovered lemongrass chicken at May Hong, it quickly became one of my favorite dishes.
Saigon 2 offers lemongrass chicken with rice or with noodles and a side of fish sauce. The dish contains a single chicken thigh with an almost glazed and charred spatchcocked appearance, several “fingers” jutting out from the thigh. As with all grilled dishes on the menu, the thigh doesn’t touch the grill until an order is placed. The grilling process imparts a nice caramelization that seals in moistness and the flavor of a sweet, savory, tangy marinade of lemon juice, ginger, garlic, fish sauce and of course, chopped lemongrass. It’s a wonderful marinade that gives the moist, tender chicken wonderful and diverse flavor notes.
2 April 2023: Aficionados of Vietnamese cuisine have made pho the closest thing to a “mainstream” dish across the fruited plain and beyond. In fact, according to Google data compiled between 2004 and March 2021, phở has grown in popularity by 830%, an astounding gain. By comparison, during the twelve months preceding March, 2021, bún bò Huế received only 1.3% of the searches pho received. Why the disparity. Some would say the two Vietnamese soups are “siblings,” albeit one (bún bò Huế) the kid with a lot of “personality” who doesn’t necessarily care about being mainstream.
Both are rich and delicious soups with deep layers of flavor. Both are typically paired with tender slices of beef and pork, then topped with lots of fresh herbs. The deep differences start with the addition of shrimp paste, congealed pork blood, banana flowers and sate, a spicy chili condiment. Ironically, “bún bò Huế” means Huế beef noodle soup, but it can have just as much or even more pork than it does beef. Saigon 2’s version is terrific, a very piquant version with just enough funkiness to make it interesting. It’s only a matter of time before masses discover the deliciousness of bún bò Huế, the Vietnamese beef (and pork) soup with so much personality it may blow you away.
2 April 2023: It’s much more likely that bún bò Huế will achieve mainstream status well before durian shakes do. That’s because the dining public don’t generally enjoy foods redolent with deep musky aromas reminiscent of sewage, stale vomit, spoiled cheese and body odor. At least that’s what detractors say durian tastes and smells like. Saigon 2 has joined many Vietnamese restaurants in no longer offering durian shakes, my very favorite Vietnamese beverage. Thank goodness such cool, refreshing drinks like coconut shakes and avocado shakes (both with or without boba, the popular tapioca balls) still remain on the menu. Both are good, but they’re no durian!
There are Vietnamese cuisine aficionados who will tell you the only restaurant equal to or better than Saigon 2 is the original Saigon. Both have made visitors believe in luck and it’s all good.
Saigon 2 Restaurant
2003 Southern Blvd Suite, S.E., 105-106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 February 2023
1st VISIT: 18 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Egg Rolls, Rare Beef With Rice Noodle Soup, Special Clay Pot with Grilled Chicken, Tempura Prawn, Won Ton Egg Noodle Soup, Lemongrass Chicken