It should have been a point-counterpoint debate for the ages. My ideologically opposed and perpetually squabbling friends Carlos and Hien were arguing about the concept of American exceptionalism. Carlos took the Reaganesque position that America is the shining city on a hill. “Everything about America is great,” he proclaimed. “We have the highest standard of living and pretty much the best of everything.” Hien mirrored Obama’s stance that America does not have exclusivity in believing itself to be exceptional. Much like the chasm that divides Congress, neither disputant would concede a modicum of merit in the other’s argument. When it seemed as if this argument would end in another stalemate, Hien pulled out his trump (no, not another reference to a President) card.
There’s one thing about America that isn’t exceptional,” he declared. “American fast food is terrible.” With that point having been made, Carlos, long an advocate of independent mom-and-pop eateries, capitulated. True to form, they then began an argument as to which American fast food franchise is the worse. Carlos singled out Taco Bell as a piteous parody of the Mexican and New Mexican food on which he was raised and in which he takes so much pride. Hien wasn’t as singularly focused in his criticism. In his estimation, all American fast food is terrible. “It’s unhealthy, high in saturated fats and calories and it tastes awful,” he argued. Having just recently returned from his native Vietnam, Hien then made his case by boasting about how poorly American fast food has been received in his homeland.
“In my hometown of Ho Chi Minh City (the largest city in Vietnam with a population of about ten-million), you won’t find a McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or KFC in every corner,” he began. “Everyone went to McDonald’s when it first opened (in 2014) because we’d heard and read so much about it, but curiosity quickly faded. Most of the menu features fried, high-fat, high-calorie foods. McDonald’s never incorporated local flavors and healthy ingredients into their food. Not only that, but you can get a banh mi for under two dollars and it’s much fresher, healthier and infinitely more delicious than a Big Mac.” Since that first McDonald’s launched in Vietnam, only fourteen others have opened. That’s hardly taking the country by storm. Similarly, Burger King has had to close several of its outlets as have other chains which dominate the American fast food market.
Contrast the poor performance of American fast food in Vietnam with the widespread acceptance and burgeoning popularity of Vietnamese food across the fruited plain and you have what might be termed as a culinary trade imbalance. America certainly got the better end of that deal. The Institute for Immigration Research estimated there were 8,900 Vietnamese restaurants in the United States as of 2014, and that number has been steadily increasing. Vietnamese restaurants across the fruited plain serve not only a Vietnamese-American community of almost two-million people, but an increasing numbers of Americans from all ethnic backgrounds. It seems the only people who don’t like Vietnamese cuisine are those who haven’t tried it.
Perhaps the one Vietnamese dish which has gained the most sweeping mainstream acceptance is pho, the traditional, slow-cooked soup many of us already consider a comfort food staple. Culinary cognoscenti believe pho could someday soon follow the path of pizza (Italian), tacos (Mexican), gyros (Greece) and sushi (Japanese) as ethnic foods that have become part of the fruited plain’s mainstream culture. When, not if, pho does ascend to this rarefied air, we can thank such restaurants as Rio Rancho’s Pho Garden for having made pho and other Vietnamese culinary delights so accessible and so delicious.
Pho Garden opened its doors in November, 2017, taking over the spot vacated by Pizza 9 in a small strip mall just recessed off Rio Grande Blvd. Pho Garden is Rio Rancho’s fourth Vietnamese restaurant. My friend Hien suggests perhaps the city should change its nickname from “City of Vision” to “City of Vietnamese Restaurants,” indicating most of the lettering is already in place. The restaurant is fairly small with fewer than a dozen tables in near personal space proximity. Step inside and you’ll likely be greeted by Khan, the effusive owner and a familiar face if you’ve frequented Que Huong, his previous Duke City restaurant venture.
Unlike at Que Huong and other Duke City Vietnamese restaurants with their compendium-like, multi-page menus (novels), Pho Garden’s menu is limited if you consider 75 items (not counting beverages) to be limited. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of how the menu is organized: appetizers, sandwiches (banh mi), beef-rice noodle soup (pho), Udon-style noodle, noodle bowl, rice dishes and house specialties. Beverages include the usual suspects including durian shakes. The smaller menu is befitting a small kitchen, but it doesn’t translate to smaller portions. Steaming bowls of pho ferried to your table are roughly the size of a swimming pool.
My Kim calls Vietnamese grilled beef rolls wrapped in grape leaf, a Vietnamese specialty offered at Pho Garden, “Vietnamese dolmas.” That there are similarities between the Greek dolma and the Vietnamese grape leaf rolls often surprises people. What shouldn’t surprise anyone is that these starter favorites are an absolutely delicious way to begin a meal at a Vietnamese restaurants. Entirely different than Greek dolmades which are more often stuffed with rice and herbs, Pho Garden’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased in a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf served with a sweet, spicy and tangy dipping sauce. They’re served five to an order.
As a naïve child, I probably learned as much about the world from watching Gilligan’s Island as I did in some of my grade school classes. Gilligan’s Island taught me about the versatility of papaya, a fruit theretofore unavailable in Northern New Mexico. Professor Roy Hinkley used glycerol from papaya seeds as an ingredient in a bomb. He used ferric nitrate from papaya root to create an antidote for a deadly mosquito bite. What Gilligan’s Island never taught me is how wonderfully delicious papaya salad is. It’s become one of my very favorite starters in Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. Pho Garden’s version is terrific with sweet, savory, tangy and piquant notes tantalizing and titillating our taste buds. We ordered the version with chicken on which cold-cut type chicken strips were laid out atop the salad with crushed peanuts forming a crown of sorts.
When you visit a restaurant whose name includes the name of the dish in which it ostensibly specializes, you’ve got to have that dish. While ordering pho at the Pho Garden was a no-brainer, deciding which of the more than thirty pho options to order was a much greater challenge. My Kim surprised me by ordering the rare steak and well done steak noodle pho. Before she captured my heart there’s no way she would have ordered something so primal sounding as rare steak. In truth, the thinly sliced steak doesn’t remain rare for long. It actually cooks within the steaming beef broth. And what a broth it is. It’s rich, delicious and as all great pho should, its presence is preceded by its aroma.
My first choice would have been the spicy Hue style noodle soup, but apparently it’s the favorite of other diners as there was none to be had. You could hardly call the combination beef noodle soup (rare steak, well done steak, beef tendon, tripe and beef meatball) a consolation price. It’s a carnivore’s choice with meats of varying textures and flavors. Beef tendon and tripe are among my favorite pho meats, but it was the beef meatball with its assertive seasoning that garnered most attention. Served alongside the pho is a plate replete with fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, jalapeños and lime.
The very name Pho Garden has connotations of freshness and deliciousness and indeed, this is one restaurant that lives up to its names. It’s so good my friends Carlos and Hien might not find anything about it to warrant an argument.
1751 Rio Rancho Blvd, S.E., Suite 106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Combination Beef Noodle Soup, Rare Steak & Well Done Noodle Soup, Grilled Beef Rolls with Grape Leaf, Papaya Salad with Chicken
RESTAURANT REVIEW #1019