My brother in blogging Ryan Cook describes his first day in Vietnam: “So, my first stop in Vietnam was the capital, Hanoi. My honest first impressions… what the hell have I let myself in for. Seriously…The roads are chaos! The ride from the airport to the hostel was basically 40 minutes of holding my breath and cringing. How someone wasn’t killed in front of my eyes was a miracle! However, this is something you later don’t even bat an eyelid at after a day or two. Throughout the country, the roads are all complete lawless chaos…BUT it works! Everyone is so insane on the road, the chaos works. I did not see a single accident in my entire journey – thank God!”
“What the hell have I let myself in for” was precisely my sentiment each of the four times I visited Saigon Far East on San Pedro. That sentiment was expressed more colorfully by some of my dining companions, the few who mustered the courage to join me there. To put it kindly, Saigon Far East was situated in a rather “divey” location in an area frequented by “down on their luck” types. Though that area is officially designated the “International District,” a lot of people still refer to it as the “Combat Zone” because a disproportionate amount of the city’s crime–especially violent crime–occurs in that area.
Established in 1987 during kinder, gentler days, Saigon Far East was one of the city’s very first Vietnamese restaurants. From the onset, its location challenges were exacerbated because it was ensconced in a windowless building lacking a prominent street-facing storefront. Despite these challenges, the restaurant acquired a faithful following of loyal patrons–particularly employees of the Veterans Administration, Lovelace Hospital, Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Air National Guard. These stalwart diners frequented Saigon Far East for some of the very best Vietnamese food in New Mexico…and to be served by Kim.
If you’re wondering why a restaurant that shuttered its doors for good in October, 2020 would feature so prominently on a review of a “new” restaurant, Maya Angelou expressed it this way: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” Saigon Far East is where Saigon City came from. Where it’s going…well, the sky’s the limit. Saigon Far East didn’t just change its name. It relocated to a popular business and technology hub in a heavily trafficked area while retaining–even expanding–the menu that made it such a highly acclaimed restaurant.
As we approached Saigon City in its new 25 The Way home, we couldn’t help but comment about how much safer we felt in the modern business complex than we ever did approaching Saigon Far East. That feeling of safety gave way to awe and wonder at a striking dining room awash in color. Shawn, the restaurant’s effusive owner, could not have been prouder of and happier with his restaurant’s new home. More so, he relishes the opportunity to welcome guests who would not otherwise have enjoyed his culinary fare.
No matter how ominous and foreboding Saigon Far East’s surroundings may have been, any trepidation you may have been experiencing dissipated once you were welcomed by the lovely Kim, the face of the restaurant since 2008. A petite lady with boundless energy and mile-a-minute speech cadence, Kim has an intimate knowledge of the menu and can be counted on for recommending something great (although I surmise that’s an easy task with a menu as broad-reaching.) Seeing her at Saigon City, we were assured of a great visit, not just a great meal.
For our inaugural visit, we had the pleasure of dining with Jeff and Ana Chefetz, long-time friends of Gil’s Thrilling…and bearers of a last name some culinary professionals would kill to have. Jeff and Ana had visited Saigon City the previous Saturday and were eager to enjoy another terrific meal. With a multi-page menu listing well over a hundred items, deciding what to order is not an easy task (ergo you should ask Kim for recommendations). Several new items, including banh mi, are welcome additions. Sadly, durian shakes did not make the final cut.
During their premier visit, Jeff and Ana fell in love with the stir fry green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce, an old favorite of mine from Saigon Far East. Jeff especially enjoyed the basil and garlic sauce–so much that he talked his server into parting with a cupful of the enchanting elixir so he could use it on scallops the following day. It is indeed a magical sauce, one that elevates the mussels to rarefied air. Six slurpalicious mussels per order might not be enough for even the happiest of married couples. You’ll want six for yourself.
An episode of Friends in which Joey Tribbiani urinated on Monica’s jellyfish sting contributed to an inaccurate myth about jellyfish, the sting of which should be treated only with vinegar. Another myth is that jellyfish aren’t edible. Don’t ever tell Shawn, Kim or anyone at our table that jellyfish aren’t edible. Not only that, they’re delicious…or at least the way they’re prepared at Saigon City where you’ll find them in a dish featuring finely shredded jellyfish with shrimp in a finely boiled pork salad of carrots, daikon, onions and cilantro.
An artistically arrayed plate featured a mound of the jellyfish, shrimp and boiled pork salad is partially encircled by six shrimp chips (which resemble packing material) and small plates of finely minced peanuts and nuoc mam cham (fish sauce). Much as we might have done with Ritz crackers, we heaped the salad onto the shrimp chips, sprinkled on some peanuts and liberally doused the chips in the fish sauce. It would have made a delightful party starter. By itself the jellyfish would have been rather bland, maybe with just a tinge of saltiness. In concert with all other ingredients on this salad, it’s just another element in a composite of deliciousness.
While just about every Vietnamese restaurant offers both deep-fried imperial rolls and fresh spring rolls. Saigon City lists five different rolls, two of which are fried. Almost invariably, our preference at Vietnamese restaurants is for spring rolls in spring and summer and deep-fried imperial rolls in fall and winter. During this visit, we were mistakenly served spring rolls, but they were so good we couldn’t complain. Two translucent rice wrappers encased rice vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, shredded lettuce and grilled pork. The ingredient shining most brightly was the grilled pork marinated in a sweet-savory ambrosia then grilled to a smoky, caramelized consistency.
My Kim’s entree selection, as it often is at Vietnamese restaurants was a stir-fried noodle dish in the shape of a crispy, crunchy bird’s nest. Stir-fried doesn’t mean a long, luxurious bath in hot, calorific oil. Instead, the pre-fried noodles are flash fried–just momentarily immersed and quickly extricated from the oil then served with fresh garden vegetables (only white and green onions for my vegetable-adverse bride), grilled pork and a sauce that reconstitutes the noodles. For me, until those noodles are reconstituted the dish is akin to eating crispy, crunchy shoestring fries, but my Kim loves the experience of watching and tasting the transformation of the noodles. It helps, of course, that the grilled pork is delicious meat candy.
Letting a dreary day dictate my entree, there was only one choice for me–a comforting, soul-warming swimming pool-sized bowl of beef stew. This is one of those dishes that transcends culinary cultures. In fact, you might find it reminiscent of caldo de res, the traditional Mexican beef soup made with juicy, fall-apart pieces of succulent beef shank and satisfying hunks of flavorful veggies all jostling for space in a delicious broth. The vegetables on Saigon City’s version are carrots, onions, scallions and one seemingly out-of-place large lettuce leaf. Unlike caldo de res, this stew unabashedly showcases tripe. On its own the tripe has a mild flavor, but it absorbs the flavor of the broth very well and it’s the broth that makes this stew so delicious. Redolent with lemongrass, star anise and cinnamon, it’s swoon-worthy. So are the noodles that make this stew wholly unique.
Saigon City offers three dessert entrees: corn pudding in coconut milk, bananas in coconut milk and mung bean in coconut milk. The common elements in all three is, of course, coconut milk, the rich, viscous liquid brimming with the sweet, floral, nutty flavor of coconut. Coconut milk is prevalent in many Southeast Asian desserts. Our favorite of Saigon City’s three is the corn pudding in coconut milk served warm. This cozy dessert made with sticky rice, coconut milk, and corn isn’t quite as sweet as you might expect with savory notes from the corn sneaking through.
Saigon City retains all the elements–a comprehensive menu of delicious items, superb service from Kim and an energetic owner committed to providing an excellent dining experience–which made its predecessor one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in New Mexico. If you avoided Saigon Far East because of its location, it’s time to head on over to Saigon City.
4320 The 25 Way Suite 300
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Stir Fry Green Mussels in Basil and Garlic Sauce, Shredded Jelly Fish With Shrimp and Finely Boiled Pork Salad, Spring Rolls, Stir Fry Crunchy-Soft Egg Noodles with Green Onions and BBQ Pork, Beef Stew, Corn Pudding In Coconut Milk, Banana in Coconut Milk