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.
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.
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: 27 March 2021
1st VISIT: 7 November 2020
# OF VISITS: 2
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