Once you love it, you love it forever.”
~ Anthony Bourdain
Most of us have never been to Vietnam. It’s possible, maybe likely, that most of us will never make it to Vietnam…at least not in a corporeal state. That’s an important distinction because for years, we’ve already been visiting Vietnam. We’ve been magically transported to Vietnam every time Anthony Bourdain visited. Bourdain had the rare ability to develop intimate connections with the cultures and people he encountered in his travels then translate those connections into expressive and relatable narratives. He was a gifted raconteur whose rare honesty, lack of pretense, irreverent sense of humor and self-deprecating humility came across so endearingly empathetic. His evocative descriptions of exotic foods and cultures expanded our imaginations and allowed us to marvel and wonder about the world we know so little about. Because of him, many of us fell in love with Vietnam. Not its food. We already loved that. Because of Bourdain, we fell in love with the Vietnamese culture and its people.
During one of his many memorable visits to Vietnam, Bourdain gushed, “It’s so delicious, I feel like an animal.” That’s a sentiment many of never even thought to express though at some elemental level, it explains exactly how we, too, feel when eating Vietnamese food. Few foods evoke such a sheer sensory, hedonic response as Vietnamese cuisine does. Its sensory cues–based on sight, smell, taste and texture—are irresistible. Few of us stop to think that like the cuisine of many Asian cultures, Vietnamese food is underpinned by ancient philosophies emphasizing the balance between five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Vietnamese cuisine is a harmonious interplay of flavors, colors, aromas and textures. This sensational symbiosis makes every meal an invigorating and memorable experience. It brings out the animal in us.
It’s only fitting that my inaugural visit to Viet’s Pho was with Alonna Smith, a Philadelphia expat now living in Albuquerque. Alonna is much closer to Bourdain’s formidable orbit than I am, having published two books: The Philadelphia Food Companion and Lancaster County: The Best Fun, Food, Lodging, Shopping and Sights. Her current project, an online compendium on Indian food, is an ambitious undertaking I’m very much looking forward to reading. For several weeks we had been planning to meet for lunch only to be beset by schedule conflicts and other commitments. Alonna is a kindred spirit, a bold culinary adventurer and proud dog parent. Like me, she is still reeling by the untimely passing of Anthony Bourdain, an inspiration to both of us.
Alonna related that the Duke City has many more Vietnamese restaurants than Philadelphia, marveling that Albuquerque has somewhere around forty Vietnamese eateries to the City of Brotherly Love’s eight or so. We were both excited to visit Viet’s Pho, the metropolitan area’s newest entry into a dynamic Vietnamese culinary community. I knew we’d hit it off immediately after she suggested we order different entrees and share everything, generosity characteristic of most gastronomes. She never mentioned the seeming grammatical faux pas of the restaurant’s name, an unsnobbish act I found especially Bourdainesque.
Launched in April, 2018, Viet’s Pho has already garnered a 4.5 star rating on 106 Yelp reviews (as of this writing). Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp, described it as “easily one of the most affordable, flavorful Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque, bordering on 5-star.” He lavished his highest praise on the “best in the city” grilled pork. The Alibi‘s rapaciously talented and now erstwhile food editor Robin Babb (like Howie and me, a Souperbowl 2018 judge) told readers that Viet’s Pho “serves hospitality and huge portions.” Great food, warm hospitality, huge portions…Viet’s Pho can’t miss!
Located in the familiar space that served as the home to Ko Palace for nearly three decades, Viet’s Pho is the inaugural family-owned and operated venture for Wendy and Bao, both of whom previously worked as servers at nearby Viet Taste. Highly indicative of the type of service they provided is the volume of regulars who have followed them to their new restaurant. They brought that customer orientation with them to Viet’s Pho. During our hour-long visit, our servers first demonstrated Job-like patience as Alonna and I lingered in perusing the menu in between getting to know one another. They then demonstrated the endearing qualities to which all servers should aspire–attentiveness and friendliness, an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu and best of all, the wisdom not to hover when guests are deep in conversation.
A few vestiges–specifically glass murals depicting fierce dragons and docile pandas–of Ko Palace remain. More prevalent as a decorative touch is wallpaper showcasing clusters of bamboo which Vietnamese esteem as both a symbol of vitality and a utilitarian material. Thankfully, there were no remnants of the space’s previous tenant on the menu, aptly described by Howie as “going on for days.” Both Alonna and I came in with a tabula rasa attitude, that is we were both blank slates open to being inscribed upon by something alluring that caught our eyes. Many items caught our eyes. The menu is a virtual compendium of all that is great and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine.
12 June 2018: First up were spring rolls (Goi cuon) which are available with shrimp, chicken or pork. The Duke City default seems to be shrimp so it was a refreshing change to order pork spring rolls (gasp, even the idea sounds almost heretical). As Howie sagely declared, the grilled pork may just be the very best in the city. The pork is marinated in a mix that includes fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and sundry ingredients that meld preternaturally well to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. The aroma and flavor of thinly sliced pork in thin, nearly transparent rice paper wrappers is reminiscent of grilling outdoors in a small hibachi with fat dripping from the pork and sizzling into a smoky haze which permeates the pork. Sure there are other ingredients (vermicelli noodles, Thai basil, lettuce) in the thick, cigar-shaped rolls, but that pork stands out and imprints itself on your taste buds and memories. So does the dipping sauce, a terrific blend of hoisin sauce, peanut butter, chili paste and more.
12 June 2018: Alonna’s selection was a pork and shrimp rice flour crepe (sliced pork, whole shrimp, bean sprouts, and white onions), a crescent-shaped beauty resembling a folded pancake. Interestingly, Banh Xeo, the Vietnamese name for this dish, actually translates to “sizzling cake” and in many circles, is referred to as a Vietnamese pancake, not a crepe. Alonna quickly discerned a sweetness courtesy of coconut milk while I marveled at the slightly pungent, early flavor and fluorescent yellow of the turmeric used in the preparation of the crepe. The crepe is served with a fish sauce with real personality and bite. It proved an outstanding choice, comparable in deliciousness to my “best of the city” choice at Basil Leaf.
12 June 2018: Even had my beloved May Hong not closed in 2016, Viet Pho’s spicy lemongrass (your choice of chicken, pork, beef or shrimp stir-fried with onions, celery and bell pepper and available on bed of rice or noodles) might be the best in the city. While lemongrass itself has very little “spiciness,” it replete with citrusy, slightly sweet and a slightly pungent notes that elevate every dish in which it’s used. The spicy lemongrass with noodles dish is replete with a pleasant piquancy, some of which comes from the accompanying fish sauce, the remainder of which comes from chili and chili oil. We’ve already established that the grilled pork is in rarefied air. So, too, is the stir-fry, done masterfully by someone who obviously knows how to control the intense heat inherent in flash fry cuisine. Served with either noodles or rice, this is a magnificent dish.
10 September 2019: Having enjoyed the lemongrass dish with noodles during my inaugural visit, it seemed to make sense I’d like the lemongrass dish with rice just as much. What’s that the proverbial “they” say about assuming. The truth is, I liked the lemongrass dish better with rice than with noodles. As with the noodle dish, you’re offered a choice of chicken, pork (my choice), beef or shrimp stir-fried with onions, celery and bell pepper. What made the rice version superior is how well the pork is grilled–almost to the point of caramelization. The caramelized pork is a textural foil for the fresh, sweet onions; slight bitterness of the green peppers and the surprisingly spicy notes of the celery. This may be the only dish in memory for which I’d call for even more celery.
10 September 2019: It’s become almost de rigueur for Vietnamese restaurants to offer at least one banh mi. At Viet’s Pho, it’s referred to by its Americanized name, Vietnamese Sandwich which is available with your choice of grilled meat (pork, beef, chicken, meatballs, beef wrap or a combination thereof) with sundry fresh vegetables (cucumber, pickled daikon, cilantro, julienne carrots) on a baguette with a golden sheen. As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between protein, slaw and sauce. Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses. You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi. This is a good one!
10 September 2019: My Kim’s tastes in Vietnamese food have long gravitated toward grilled pork in which pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. One of her favorite ways to enjoy grilled pork is with patter noodles which don’t really seem to be noodles at all. In fact, they seem to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. The grilled pork is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles with a bit of cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Viet’s pho’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it’s something like this dish.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Viet’s Pho is to proclaim that I believe Anthony Bourdain would have loved it. I began this review with a tribute to Vietnam’s biggest advocate and champion. In the days since his untimely passing, it seems everyone in the culinary community has penned a similar paean to him. The very best I’ve read comes from my friend Hannah Walraven who’s now living in Wisconsin. It’s too good not to share:
“I read his books, I watched his shows. I admired him and also had plenty of complaints about him. I appreciated some of the ways he presented the world and I disdained other ways. B and I had plenty of criticisms that I would never have dared to say to his face, no matter how brave I think I am. He didn’t know me and never would have. But here’s what hurts the most: that guy was in pain and he just tried to keep going. He was shooting his show. He left behind an 11-year old kid. Someone who obviously and clearly loved him found his body. He was the first to describe himself as a miserable bastard and yet he tried (sometimes against his own will it seems) to make the world better. He tried to make americans better in some small way. That’s so much more than so many people do. I’m so sad. I’m so sorry he was in pain. I’m so sorry for his loved ones. And I’m sorry for us, that another one of the helpers is gone. This crushing world is so crushing, I’m starting to see how only kindness and empathy matter, that being loving and honest and open are subversive acts. I love you guys, please please be well and let me know if you need anything I can give you.”
4208 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 10 September 2019
1st VISIT: 12 June 2018
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pork Spring Rolls, Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Bowl, Chicken and Shrimp Rice Flour Crepe, Spicy Lemongrass with Rice, Banh Mi