In the “gobble and go” pace of contemporary American life, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what you ate during your last meal, much less recall the sensory experience of that meal. When that happens to true gourmands, they will actively seek a memorable dining experience in which all five senses are invoked. One of the best restaurants in Albuquerque in which to have such a sensory experience is Viet Taste which opened on April 4, 2007. Even more than most Vietnamese restaurants, Viet Taste exemplifies comprehensive eating, the most sublime form of Vietnamese cooking and eating. This style of eating involves all five senses.
In comprehensive eating, you eat with your eyes first. It’s important that all dishes be attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and Vietnamese wait staffs have a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance should give diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks.
The nose follows. Each dish must arouse the olfactory senses with a balance of pleasant odors: fish or meat, vegetables and a sauce. With dishes such as grilled pork, the alluring aroma of smoke permeates the pork as fat drips onto the flames. While chewing, diners should be attentive to the texture of the ingredients and feel the softness of the noodles. Al dente herbs, bean sprouts, nuts, carrots and peanuts provide crispness to a meal and allow diners to hear their crunchiness.
Finally, there’s the sensation of taste which it might be argued, you can’t experience at all if you subscribe to the American gobble and go dining lifestyle. Each dish must have its own distinct signature and it must be easy for the diner to discern the differences in taste in dishes that may have a similarity in flavors, but have their own subtle properties. A dish will often have all of the five flavors–salty, sweet, hot, bitter and sour–but with balance. None should dominate.
As a practitioner of the comprehensive style of cooking, Viet Taste may have no equal in Albuquerque. It may also be unequaled for ambience with a decidedly upscale look and feel that seems to incorporate many elements of feng shui. Bamboo accents are prevalent as is contemporary art, much of it black and white photography which incorporates light and shadow to frame subject matter in emotion stirring ways. Some of the walls are the color of an avocado shake while others are nearly a charcoal grey color. Lighting is subtle.
If the ambience seems familiar, you’ve probably dined at Viet Rice in Rio Rancho. Like its Rio Rancho sibling, Viet Taste was founded by Huong Thi Pham who has deep roots in the community. His brother is the owner of Que Huong, a long-time Vietnamese restaurant on Central Avenue. While there are similarities between Viet Rice and Viet Taste, the newer sibling has a much larger (should I say, more comprehensive) menu. It’s the type of menu you peruse through slowly, studying all your dining options even though you know that whatever you have will likely be terrific.
A great way to start is with an appetizer of grilled beef wrapped in grape leaf. Grape leaf is typically associated with Greek food, but it is also quite prevalent (although not in Albuquerque) in Vietnamese food as well. Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Taste’s version features anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased is a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf and served with Nuoc Mam, the incomparable fish sauce. Five pieces to an order might inspire rapacious drooling.
The stuffed grape leaf is presented on a lovely bed of assorted vegetables, all crispy and fresh. They make a fine salad with a dressing of Nuoc Mam. A little bit about Viet Taste’s Nuoc Mam–it is some of the very best in Albuquerque, so good you might want to drink it, so precious you won’t spill a drop. It is pungent, sour, savory and fruity all at once.
Another appetizer option is Banh Mi, known in some American circles as a Vietnamese sandwich. Viet Taste offers several sandwich options: grilled pork, chicken or beef as well as meatballs and even a beef stew sandwich. Each sandwich is served on a toasted baguette, a bread first introduced by the French when they colonized Vietnam as a part of French Indochina.
The menu has a wide selection of pho (beef noodle soup) as well as rice noodle, egg noodle and Udon style noodle soups. There may be nothing in the world as comforting and sustaining as a bowl of steaming hot soup and at Viet Taste, each bowl is roughly the size of a small swimming pool.
Noodles are plentiful in Vietnam and on Viet Taste’s menu. Most start off dry, but are reconstituted with hot water for use in soups or stir-fried dishes. Some noodles are translucent, some are broad and some are thin. It will take some practice before you can discern the sometimes subtle differences in noodle styles.
You can even have crispy egg noodles with your choice of seafood, beef, pork or chicken and vegetables. While they may start off as a nest of dry noodles, the addition of vegetables, meat and sauce quickly reconstitute them into soft noodles that slide into your mouth. An avowed aficionado of noodles, the most endearing to both my palate and soul, might just be Vietnamese style vermicelli-style noodles. Vermicelli is actually an Italian word for a very fine round noodle and the word literally means “small worms.”
Vermicelli noodles are thinner than spaghetti and are a staple in Vietnam. Perhaps the best way to eat vermicelli is as a noodle bowl, called bun in Vietnam. Traditionally these thin noodles are served at room temperature or slightly warm with warm toppings (such as anise blessed pork or beef) and cool garnishes such as daikon, shallots, crushed peanuts and lettuce.
One of the very best bun dishes in Albuquerque is Viet Taste’s noodle bowl with spicy lemongrass and grilled pork. It’s one of the few menu items designated on the menu as spicy and it derives that heat element from about half a spoonful of Sriracha sauce. More than most Vietnamese dishes which come to mind, this dish also embodies comprehensive eating in every way. The aroma of grilled pork is as if prepared outdoors in a small hibachi with fat dripping from the pork and sizzling into a smoky haze which permeates the meat.
Beverage options include cool, refreshing shakes: avocado, coconut, soursop, jackfruit, durian, strawberry, mango and pineapple.
Picture perfect plating, contrasting textures, invigorating aromas, and delicate, light, yet complex flavors–this is what your five senses will experience with a meal at Viet Taste, already one of Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese restaurants in a city which has several great ones.
5721 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 July 2007
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Grilled Beef Wrap Grape Leaf, Spicy Lemongrass With Pork Noodle Bowl, Crispy Egg Noodle Stir Fried Combination