Kevin: What am I looking at here?
Donna: It’s pho.
Kevin: It’s what?
Kevin: Well pho looks like a clogged sink. What are those chunks floating around in there? What is that?
Donna: It’s chicken. You love chicken.
Kevin: Do they make this outside? What is this? <pulls up a single basil leaf>
Donna: Seasoning. Just try it.
Kevin: <slurps up spoonful and contemplates flavor>
Donna: Is it good?
Kevin: <holds up finger and slurps up another spoonful; slaps palm on table>
Kevin: Hold the pho-one. This is insane! This existed this whole time and you don’t tell me about it?
Donna: Yeah and wait til you try the beef.
Kevin: <look of utter surprise> This comes in beef?
~ Kevin Can Wait
If you’ve ever introduced an unadventurous dining companion to the wonder of utter deliciousness that is Vietnamese cuisine, you can probably relate to that little snippet from the CBS comedy series Kevin Can Wait. Kevin exemplifies the culinary neophyte who is reluctant to try new foods, especially those which might be considered exotic or strange. Life’s travels and travails haven’t afforded them the opportunity to experience and enjoy such foods, so it’s up to us, their more culinarily acculturated friends, to help expand their horizons by introducing them to foods they would not otherwise brave.
We know that such introductions must be gradual and carefully orchestrated or we risk losing them. For the most unadventurous among them, we begin with baby steps–perhaps relating the similarities between Vietnamese cuisine and Chinese food, a contention we can prove easily by ordering egg rolls. Surely, even the most culinary circumspect among us have tried Chinese food. Similarly, we can inaugurate their taste buds to Vietnamese fried rice or dumplings, again by comparing them to their Chinese counterparts. We can appeal to their sense of the familiar, explaining that pho is very much like the soups they enjoy out of a can–only much better (just ask Kevin).
What you absolutely cannot do if you hope to gain a convert is tell them about or introduce them to the more “exotic” ingredients which are part and parcel of the Vietnamese culinary culture. You wouldn’t for example, order pho for them if its ingredients include tendon or even rare steak. Never mind that we love those ingredients, newbies would be traumatized at the very notion of trying them. You certainly wouldn’t–even on a dare–ask them to try a durian shake. Durian, as regular readers of Gil’s Thrilling… know is considered the world’s smelliest fruit, it’s malodorous emanations being off-putting to all but a few. Even many Vietnamese people find its unique bouquet offensive.
Whether you’ve been eating Vietnamese food for a long time or you’re a relative novitiate, there are numerous excellent-to-outstanding Vietnamese restaurants throughout the metropolitan area sure to win you over. Just before the advent of 2017, another one–Lime Vietnamese Restaurant–began its foray into the Duke City dining scene. Lime has an impressive pedigree, its culinary lineage including such Albuquerque stalwarts as Que Huong, one of the city’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants; Viet Taste in Albuquerque; and Rio Rancho’s Viet Rice. Because the recipes at these restaurants have a common genesis, if you like these three, you’ll like Lime.
What’s not to like? Well, for one thing, it’s located at the former home of long-time favorite May Hong. Yes, my friends, May Hong has shuttered its doors and served its last bowl of pho, an event which warrants flying an apron at half mast. Gone are the familiar timeworn booths and dated wasabi-colored walls. In their place is a completely revamped restaurant, one with modern accoutrements and masculine wood accents throughout. Lime is one of the more attractive Vietnamese restaurants in town. . Its menu is very attractive too, offering a number of dishes not commonly found in other Vietnamese restaurants. What it’s not is a compendium of Vietnamese dishes, offering perhaps half as many dishes as May Hong once did.
7 January 2017: There are only eight appetizers on the menu, but these are an elite eight. It’s been our quest since experiencing the transformative papaya salad at An Hy Quanto find a version as amazing. Though most we’ve had since are quite good, they’re not in the same rarefied air. That goes for the papaya saladat Lime. It’s got the usual suspects of ingredients—shredded green papaya, julienned carrots, crushed peanuts, pork, cilantro, green onions, Thai chili and lots of lime juice. It’s a very invigorating salad with a nice balance of tanginess from the lime and heat from the chilis. The shredded green papaya is fresh and crisp with a mild, almost cucumber-like flavor only sweeter. The crushed peanuts lend a textural contrast and provide just enough saltiness to be discernible.
7 January 2017: Que Huong and its restaurant tree throughout the metropolitan area have long been known for grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves— marinated ground beef (with minced garlic, ginger, cilantro and scallion) wrapped in grape leaves and charbroiled. Yes, that does sound like a Greek dish, but it’s most assuredly Vietnamese in preparation style and flavor. Charring the leaves imparts a unique smoky flavor (with charcoal notes) and texture you can’t duplicate. The grape leaves are served with a small bowl of fish sauce which lends sweet-tangy notes to the cigar-shaped grape leaf treasures. Crushed peanuts are used for garnish, but lend just a bit of salt. This is a magnificent starter.
7 January 2017: I’m often asked where to find the best pho (beef noodle soup) in Albuquerque, but feel almost unqualified to answer. For the most part, instead of ordering the more conventional pho, this gastronome likes to spice things up a bit by ordering a restaurant’s spicy lemongrass soup. It may fall under the Pho menu, but to my taste buds it’s so much more exciting and vibrant. The version at Lime is replete with rare steak, well-done steak, beef meatball and tendon. It’s an excellent version, one of the very best in Albuquerque. Lime is more generous with its meat than most other Vietnamese restaurants in town, but not at the expense of flavors. The lemongrass hits all the right notes and may even clear out some congestion, but mostly it’s just delicious and comforting.
7 January 2017: My Kim finds comfort in rich, buttery noodles in any form. One of her favorite ways to enjoy Vietnamese noodles is in pattie form where noodles actually take on an almost cheesecloth-like appearance. Lime’s vermicelli patties with pork and beef exemplifies what she loves about noodles that aren’t necessarily conventional. Served along with this dish are broad lettuce leaves which are intended to be used as wrappers for the noodle patties, pork and beef. Dipped into the accompanying fish sauce, this seemingly strange “sandwich” is surprisingly good. It helps that the pork and beef are imbued with both sweet, anise-kissed and smoky, charcoal flavors.
26 November 2021: It’s well established that the two biggest culinary influences on Vietnamese cuisine are the culinary cultures of China and France. The French occupation of Vietnam began in the 1880s and ended with the Geneva Agreement of 1954 which declared Vietnam’s independence. Today, France’s influence is still deliciously evident in such foods as the banh mi. Thankfully, the French influence on the cuisine of Vietnam did not extend to the use of the “mother sauces of French cuisine.” That’s not to say Vietnamese dishes aren’t ameliorated with sauces. They’re just not the rich, creamy sauces used in French cuisine.
As Vicky Pham declares on her wonderful blog, “What makes Vietnamese cuisine so unique and delicious is the smorgasbord of dipping sauces we have just for about everything. From the mild peanut sauce to the more exotic pungent fermented fish dipping sauce, there’s always a sauce that complements a dish.” She goes on to list ten popular Vietnamese dipping sauces “we simply can’t go without.” Perhaps the best known among American diners is Vietnamese fish sauce (Nuoc Man Cham) which is ubiquitous in such delicious starters as egg rolls, spring rolls and sometimes dumplings.
An authentic Vietnamese fish sauce is sweet, sour, spicy and maybe especially pungent. It’s a quality many of us who crave authenticity in our dining experience look for. We didn’t find it in the fish sauce served with the egg rolls served at Lime. In fact, we had to ask what the sauce was. It lacked the assertive personality, especially the pungency, of fish sauce to which we were accustomed. Our server admitted the sauce is adulterated to remove some of that pungency. In other words to “Americanize” it? We didn’t like the “dumbing down” of our fish sauce and believe the excellent egg rolls deserve better. So do diners.
26 November 2021: A similarly lackluster sauce is served with Lime’s dumplings (available either fried or steamed). Served six per order, the dumplings are quite good. We prefer ours fried in which a crispy, golden base is formed by searing. After being seared, water is added to steam them, a double-frying method known as the “potsticker method.” This is the process that makes dumplings so crispy and deliciously endearing. Sauce, of course, shouldn’t be an absolute necessity, but a good sauce really enhances the flavor of an already good dumpling. Sadly we didn’t experience that at Lime.
26 November 2021: The roots of Vietnam’s curries stretch across Asia back to the Indian subcontinent, courtesy of the French occupation of both Saigon in Vietnam and Pondicherry in France. In addition to the redistribution of raw ingredients between the two seaports, approximately 6,000 people migrated from India to Vietnam. Though much of the Indian population left when French occupation ended, their culinary legacy remains in Vietnam. Vicky Pham lovingly describes Vietnamese curry as…”not too pungent in spices. It’s not too aromatic that it’s overpowering and it’s not too thick. It’s simply a warm and delicious bowl.”
Lime’s menu offers curry with rice or with noodles. Go for the curry noodle bowl, a tangle of slurp-worthy rice noodles topped with your protein of choice (pork, shrimp, beef or chicken) and crispy fresh vegetables (red and green peppers, carrots, white onions, zucchini and celery). The curry is very much as Vicky Pham described it: “not too pungent in spices, not too aromatic that it’s overwhelming, not too thick.” It’s a very good curry, as comforting a comfort dish as you’ll find in Vietnamese cuisine.
26 November 2021: One of the dishes common to Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine is a grilled pork and dumpling soup. This is the type of soup that surely must have inspired the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series of best-selling books….or at least this quote by Judith Martin: “Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup? Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give a hearty sustenance and cheer? Who warms you in the winter and cools you in the summer? Yet who also is capable of doing honor to your richest table and impressing your most demanding guests? Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don’t catch steak hanging around when you’re poor and sick, do you?”
It wasn’t exactly a blustery winter day when my Kim was craving the warmth and comfort of a great soup. Lime’s grilled pork and dumpling soup is a soup for all seasons, even an unseasonably warm November night. In yet another example of Mars and Venus, my Kim loves oodles of noodles, the more the better, and her burly husband is besotted with broth. The only thing between the noodles and the broth were generous slices of roast pork, oversized dumplings and a few scallions. It’s the best of all worlds, a delicious, soul-satisfying elixir.
Having succeeded a veritable Albuquerque institution in a location long familiar to Duke City diners, Lime Vietnamese Restaurant has a tough row to hoe. Longevity, the type of which May Hong achieved, is assured only to those rarefied restaurants who can prove themselves consistently over time. Based on our inaugural and second experience, Lime has a chance.
Lime Vietnamese Restaurant
9800 Montgomery, N.E., #2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 November 2021
1st VISIT: 7 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Vermicelli Patties with Pork and Beef, Papaya Salad, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves, Spicy Lemongrass Soup, Egg Rolls, Fried Dumplings, Curry Noodle Bowl, Wonton and Roasted Pork Soup