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 Easton 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.
7 November 2020: During their premier visit, Jeff and Ana fell in love with the stir fry green musselsin 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.
7 November 2020: 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.
7 November 2020: 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.
7 November 2020: 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.
7 November 2020: 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.
27 March 2021: There’s a rather persistent myth that holds it is impossible to eat quail every day for a month. While that myth has been dispelled on numerous occasions, to some people that myth is God’s truth–literally. The genesis of the notion that you can’t eat quail every day for a month is an Old Testament passage from Numbers 10:35 – 11:29: ” The children of Israel, having become tired of eating manna, demanded flesh to eat. God then gave them quail, but with this warning: “Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the Lord which is among you…”
Quail meat has long been considered quite the delicacy. It’s tender, juicy, and (at least to me) much more flavorful than chicken. Alas, it’s on the pricey side and not all that common save for at upscale fine-dining establishments–or a great Vietnamese restaurant such as Saigon City. One of the other problems with quail is that portion sizes tend to be rather small. The children of Israel would have to eat quite a few of them to get their fill. Saigon City’s honey-grilled quailis an exemplar of huge flavors, tiny food. Gnawing on the bony carcass yielded very little actual meat. What meat we were able to extricate was absolutely delicious, but left us wanting more. No matter how good it is, we don’t think we want to try eating quail for an entire month.
27 March 2021: Chef and television personality Eddie Huang believes “Soup dumplings, sitcoms, one-night stands–good ones leave you wanting more.” Considering all the hats he’s worn–author, chef, restaurateur, food personality, producer, and attorney–he probably enjoys one-night stands with dumplings while watching a sitcom. As summer approaches the Land of Enchantment, we’ve been increasingly on a soup dumplings-kick. Soon it’ll be too hot to eat soup…and yeah, we know that when you eat something hot, you body’s receptors take note and your brain tells your body it needs to cool down, and your internal temperature regulators kick in. We’d rather eat soup when it’s cold outdoors.
Saigon City offers two sizes of its wonderful dumpling soup, but even the smaller size is big enough to share. It’s replete with fresh and aromatic vegetables–scallions, cilantro, Napa cabbage and green onions–swimming in a delicious light broth with a handful of dumplings stuffed with pork. It’s comforting and savory with a simmer-all-day flavor that permeates the large, pillowy dumplings. This dumpling soup is exactly as you’d imagine Vietnamese comfort soup would taste. It’s one of the very best we’ve ever had.
27 March 2021: Culinary historians have no definitive answer as to the origin of vermicelli, a slender, long form of noodles. Some contend vermicelli has its genesis in Italy. Others will argue that vermicelli originated in China and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo. As if to differentiate vermicelli from both nations, Italians refer to vermicelli as a “pasta” while Asians categorize vermicelli under the broad heading of “noodles.” There are other differences, chiefly the ingredients from which vermicelli is fashioned. Throughout Asia, most pasta is made from rice flour while Italy favors wheat flour. Italian pasta tends to be prepared al dente while Asian noodle dishes can be prepared at several different textures.
When we visit a Vietnamese restaurant, my Kim gravitates toward the section on the menu offering vermicelli dishes. For fresh and invigorating flavors emanating from a deceptively simple dish, there may be nothing better. It all starts with a bed of vermicelli noodles which are topped with a handful of herbs and vegetables–pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro, cucumber–topped with the incomparable grilled marinated pork, crushed peanuts, fried imperial rolls with fish sauce drizzled atop the entire creation. Saigon City’s grilled pork has “best in the city” qualities while its imperial rolls are every bit as good as those at Saigon Restaurant(no relation). The fish sauce is served in the same type of decanter churches use for communion wine so you can apply as much of it as you want. Strike a balance between ingredients and fish sauce and you’ve got a dish sure to please.
27 March 2021: Saigon City’s menu provides detailed descriptions of its dishes, some of which include a bit of history. For example, the menu indicates Hu Tieu Trieu Chau actually originated in China, but when introduced in Vietnam, quickly became one of the most popular soups in the country. Don’t dare describe Hu Tieu as a “pho.” While both Hu Tieu Trieu Chao and pho are both made from rice noodles, Hu Tieu noodles are thinner and chewier. And while beef is the meat used in pho, the protein of choice in Hu Tieu is pork, shrimp and crab. While pho may be the preferred soup in Hanoi, Saigon and the Mekong Delta region favor Hieu Tieu. It stands to reason Saigon City would serve an outstanding bowl of the soup so popular in its namesake Vietnamese city.
As further described on the menu, the Hu Tieu Trieu Chau at Saigon City is “a tasty and truly flavorful bowl of soup carefully prepared with a combination of awesome broth, prawn shrimp, Peking duck, quail egg, fish boil and crab. Served with Asian donut.” Saigon City had me at Peking duck though every other component was nearly as enticing. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Andrea Nguyen described Hu Tieu as “a riot of colors, flavors and textures that’s hard to corral.” It may be hard to corral, but it’s easy to luxuriate in its deliciousness. It’s an absolutely wonderful soup, a terrific alternative to pho. The “Asian donut,” by the way is a cylindrically shaped donut with an airy and soft hollow interior and savory (not sweet) flavor. It’s served with a pleasantly piquant chili oil, a superb accompaniment to the Hu Tieu.
17 April 2021: The Oxford Dictionary defines an imperial roll as “noun. North American. (In Vietnamese cookery) a snack or appetizer typically made from minced pork, chopped shrimp, and sliced vegetables, rolled up in rice paper and deep-fried. It also explains that its origin was in the “1970s; earliest use found in The New York Times.” What the dictionary doesn’t explain is whether the genesis of the name is Vietnamese or something contrived by the New York Times. Those of us fascinated with the provenance of foods are left to wonder why the name “imperial roll.” It’s something I’ve pondered since the 1990s when I spent quite a bit of time in San Francisco.
While I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, I did leave the Golden Gate City wondering where the term “imperial roll” really originated and why that name was bequeathed to what is essentially an egg roll. It’s likely the term is a back-handed reference to the French occupation of Vietnam, but who knows. It’s very easy to concede that an imperial role is an egg roll better than you’ll find in most Chinese restaurants. In Albuquerque, the best we’ve found has been from Saigon Restaurant with no contenders coming close. During our April, 2021 visit to Saigon City, we finally found a restaurant whose imperial rolls are on par with those of Saigon Restaurant (no relation).
As at Saigon Restaurant, Saigon City’s version of an imperial roll is deep-fried so that a crispy cigar-shaped wrapper gives way easily to luscious fillings that leave diners very happy, especially when dipped into the restaurant’s fish sauce (some of the very best in the city). At only two per order, you’ll probably want two or three orders just to keep peace in your family. If spring rolls are your preference, the bi cuon (finally cooked shredded pork and pork skin roll) are among the best you can find. The pork is imbued with the same seasonings and smoky flavor of the grilled pork while the crispy pork skin roll lends a textural contrast. As with the imperial rolls, an already good thing is made even better with that fantastic fish sauce.
17 April 2021: Not all of Saigon City’s vermicelli dishes are of the type that most westerners would consider a salad. You know–vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, cucumber, bean sprouts, a protein or two all tossed with a tangy sweet and sour fish sauce. Saigon City also offers Bun Cari Vit (curry duck with vermicelli noodles served with fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, lime and Vietnamese herb vegetables). This is a magnificent soup slash stew replete with fresh vegetables and unctuous duck. An icon depicting a chili next to the entree’s name on the menu denotes it’s one of Saigon City’s most piquant dishes. We had no idea just how piquant it actually was until our first spoonful left us both sputtering. It also left us wanting more, that capsaicin rush you get from hot foods. This is one of the very best curry dishes in town.
8 May 2021: Serious Eats contends that “Frozen dumplings can be flavorful, satisfying, and almost indistinguishable from fresh ones, especially when you cook them properly. Then again…they can also suck. You know what I’m talking about—those sad, bland, plastic-skinned, mushy paste-filled specimens that give dumplings a bad name.” Add “piteous salt-bombs and droopy fall-apart copycats” and you’ve pretty well synopsized our experienced with store-bought frozen dumplings. Sure they’re convenient and require just a modicum of skill to prepare, but we’d much rather pay for hand-made dumplings pleated and pinched to perfection.
Not surprisingly Saigon City serves some of the very best dumplings in the state: six per order pillowy parcels of savory stuffing sheathed in thin dough and pan-fried to smoky, mouth-watering, crescent-shaped deliciousness. The dumplings are offered with a soy-based sauce in which we’d ordinarily drench the dumplings, but the house fish sauce is so much better. Just ask and the gracious and energetic Kim will ferry over a decanter of the stuff to your table. You might just find yourself purchasing a container to take home. As with the dumplings, store-bought fish sauce just doesn’t cut it.
8 May 2021: There may come a time when I actually order pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, but that day may be far off. Especially if the menu offers Bún bò Huế, a spicy beef noodle soup from the Central Vietnamese city of Huế. My friend Tom Molitor traveled to Huế several years ago and had the opportunity to enjoy this enchanting elixir at its locus originis. Like me Tom is a fearless diner who relishes authenticity. With Bún bò Huế that means a generous pork hock (like the one pictured below) and congealed pig’s blood. Saigon City’s rendition includes the former, but Kim confirmed that the latter just can’t be found in this weird time of pandemic recovery. Still, this is a good version of the soup which long ago supplanted pho in my heart.
13 June 2021: It may seem dichotomous that cultures from some of the world’s hotter climates enjoy extremely piquant foods (unlike Northern European cultures of yore). You need look no further than traditional Latin American, Indian, African and Southeast Asian food to get my point. Ironically, cravings for painfully piquant foods seem to increase during the hottest summer months. Science (and common sense) has shown that spicy foods cool you down. Initially your forehead may sweat, but relatively quickly you’ll feel better. The scientific term gustatory hyperhidrosis (also known as gustatory sweating) explains why. When eating piquant food, your body temperature increases in its attempt to match the outside temperature. This results in an increase in blood circulation and sweating. Sweat helps the body cool down by producing fluid that evaporates from our skin. A sauna produces a similar effect although the process is different.
One of Southeast Asia’s most potent, piquant and pleasing cooling agents is papaya salad, a dish enjoyed in such wellsprings of humidity as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. There are similarities in the papaya salad of each nation, but the subtle differences are what make each version absolutely delicious–especially during balmy summer days. Among the differences is the variation in the flavor profiles of sweet, sour, piquant and pungent. Saigon City’s version is brash and daunting even before you add the Thai chili emboldened fish sauce. They may be small, but those chilis pack napalm in every bite. A bowl of crushed peanuts is provided, probably to quell the fire on your tongue. Also accompanying this papaya salad are several shrimp chips (resembling Styrofoam packing material). Use them to construct papaya salad sandwiches for a surprisingly delicious twist.
13 June 2021: During one particular episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show on the Travel Channel, the world-reknowned chef and raconteur actually pondered whether or not he could someday make Vietnam his home. Fittingly the episode was titled “Vietnam – There’s No Place Like Home.” For many viewers one of the culinary revelations Bourdain introduced was banh xeo (sizzling crepes). Fittingly the word “banh” translates to “cake” in English, and “xeo” is the sizzling sound the crepe makes when being fried in a pan! Bourdain described the dish as “a wonderful mutation of the classic” (referring to the French crepe).
Though we’ve enjoyed banh xeo (half-moon Vietnamese pork and shrimp crepe with sweet onion, bean sprouts and mushrooms) on many occasions, Saigon City was the first to introduce me to the dish the way it’s supposed to be prepared. Honestly, every other version we’ve had has more closely resembled an omelet than a crepe even though omelets are made from beaten eggs and banh xeo is made from basic blend of rice flour, turmeric, and other ingredients. It’s easy to imagine the sizzling sound on the pan in which it’s made. The crepe is as crispy as well-fried potatoes with all the crusty pieces around the edge. Puncture the crisp exterior and inside you’ll find a delicious mix of Vietnamese vegetables, fresh shrimp and grilled pork. With or without the enlivening properties of the incendiary fish sauce, this is a banh mi Anthony Bourdain might have enjoyed.
13 June 2021: One of the most surprising discoveries we made upon moving back to New Mexico from Mississippi was that Albuquerque had a handful of Vietnamese restaurants as good (or better) than those we had enjoyed for eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. May Hong was our favorite. My Kim fell in love with a dish featuring patter noodles which didn’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. Suffice to say she’s searched for patter noodles as wonderful as those at May Hong with an enthusiasm similar to the Laginas in their quest for the famous Oak Island treasure. Her search may well be over.
Saigon City’s Banh Hoi Dac Biet (steamed tiny cooked rice noodle with a combination of grilled shrimp, grilled pork, deep-fried imperial roll and Saigon charbroiled shrimp on a sugar cane) is as good as she’s ever had. Yes, even as good as May Hong’s version. The steamed rice noodles are prepared in the patter noodle fashion she enjoys so much. With the deft touch of a necromancer she fashions the patter noodles into little “sandwiches” stuffed with grilled pork, wrapped in a large lettuce leaf and dipped into the fiery fish sauce. It’s somewhat messy, but the combination of grilled pork and fish sauce leaves an “I may never wash these hands again” quality. The most interesting part of this dish is the Vietnamese sugar cane shrimp (chao tom). Essentially it’s shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane, both grilled. It’s a delicious component of a wonderful combination plate.
10 July 2021: Although aluminum and cast-iron pots as well as rice cookers may be faster and more convenient ways of preparing rice, the Vietnamese tradition of preparing rice on a clay pot remains very popular in Vietnam. Clay pot rice has long been one of my very favorite dishes for two primary reasons: the rice is served in the vessel in which it’s prepared and it arrives at your table with wisps of steam wafting upward; and because the rice at the bottom of the pot becomes caramelized and crispy. You practically have to scrape it off with a fork or spoon.
Reading the menu’s description of Com Xao That Cam (a combination plate of prawn shrimp, sliced beef flank steak, grilled BBQ pork, sliced and boneless chicken sautéed with assorted vegetables served with steamed rice in a clay pot), my eyes immediately seemed to target “clay pot” and I assumed this would be a conventional clay pot rice dish. While the rice on this dish does collect at the bottom of the pot, it doesn’t caramelize on account of a very piquant soy-Thai chili sauce. The rice remains moist throughout, but it may be a while before you get there. You first have to make your way through assorted vegetables–bak choy, red and green peppers, pea shoots, broccoli–and a seafood-meat melange. It’s an effort well worth the undertaking. Every bite is a reward for your effort, a delicious one you’ll enjoy.
7 November 2020: 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.
17 April 2021: Kim, our peripatetic and hyper-energetic server introduced us to a dessert item not on the menu. She described it as a banana fritter and indicated is is one of the most popular of all Vietnamese street foods. Within the warm, comfy confines of a deep-fried dough shaped oddly like an egg roll is just a hint of banana–not an entire banana or even sliced bananas. In fact, it appeared as if the banana was spread onto the top part of the fritter. That was good enough for us. Too much fried banana can become mushy and off-putting. Seeing us enjoy this dessert so much, several other tables followed suit and placed an order for their own banana fritters. Let’s hope it catches on and becomes standard on the dessert menu.
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
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2021
1st VISIT: 7 November 2020
# OF VISITS: 6
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, Dumpling Soup, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork and Imperial Roll, Mi Tieu Chau, Dumplings, Bun Bo Hue, Vermicelli with Duck, Banh Hoi Dac Biet, Bánh xèo, Papaya salad, Com Xao Thấp Cam