In his 30s, curmudgeonly London food critic Jay Rayner who’s been called the “enfant terrible (literally “terrifying child) of the gastronomic scene,” came to the realization that he hated hangovers more than he hated being drunk. During a visit to a Vietnamese restaurant in London, he achieved an epiphany: “huge steaming bowls of a deeply aromatic beef broth called pho, bobbing with slivers of meat and wide rice noodles – would prove a perfect cure. The head pain would ease. The pitch and roll of the stomach would steady. A gentle, soft comfy cloud of well being would descend. And all this for not very much money at all.”
A 2017 article from the travel experts of Lonely Planet also believes pho is “an excellent hangover cure.” In fact, pho appears first on a list of personal tips on how to survive a hangover on the road. The article’s editor expounded further: “The broth rehydrates, the sodium gives you a little pick-me-up, and the freshly cooked beef adds protein in wafer-thin slices (which is all I can usually stomach in this state).” The article concludes: “Even an image of a steamy bowl of pho can cure that headache for you.”
For gastronomes the world over, an image of a steaming bowl of pho is among the most sensuous examples of food porn, every pixel eliciting a mouth-watering, olfactory-arousing response. As scintillating as an image of pho may be, slurping up the rich nuanced flavors that comfort the soul and cure hangovers is so much more pleasurable. Vietnam’s national dish has taken the western world by storm, so much so that Voice of America (VOA), the largest U.S. international broadcaster with an estimated weekly audience of more than 280 million people, believes “pho may follow the path of Italian pizza, Mexican burritos and Japanese sushi, other ethnic foods that have become part of U.S. mainstream culture.”
When you need to luxuriate in something soothing and delicious, few things in life are as as comforting and reliable as pho, the incomparable Vietnamese beef noodle soup. When, however, you need something more assertive and replete with personality, pho just won’t do. That’s when you turn to Bún bò Huế, a spicy beef noodle soup from the Central Vietnamese city of Huế. Huế style spicy beef noodle soup is to pho as stimulating is to bland. Heresy, you say. The truth is most pho does have a very consistent familiarity. Hue style spicy beef noodle soup, on the other hand, has more depth of flavor and is more unpredictable in terms of its heat and spice levels. It won’t just cure a hangover. It will eviscerate it.
My discovery of Bún bò Huế dates to the mid-1990s, preceding the epiphany Anthony Bourdain had about this very same dish. During a Parts Unknown visit to the Central Vietnamese city of Huế, the ever quotable raconteur who loved everything Vietnamese declared, “In my way of thinking, in the hierarchy of delicious, slurpy stuff in a bowl, Bún bò Huế is at the very top.” Then, as if to emphasize the point, he stressed, “I would definitely bring a date for [bun bo hue]. Because if she doesn’t like this, there’s no hope of a relationship. If she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, there’s blood and stuff in there,’ that would be a relationship-ender to me. I’m not kidding.”
In my quest to find the very best Bún bò Huế in New Mexico, some Vietnamese restaurants have even attempted to rebuff my attempts to order it. I’ve been told “it’s too pungent,” “you won’t like it” and even “it’s not for American tastes.” Only when I ask if it’s made with congealed pig blood and pork hocks do they begin to take me serious. Sometimes those very same Vietnamese restaurants find it very hard to believe I also order durian shakes and for the same reasons as my ordering Bún bò Huế. Considered the world’s stinkiest fruit, durian is one of the few foods Bizarre Bites host Andrew Zimmern finds off-putting.
6 February 2021: My crusade to find the very best Bún bò Huế in New Mexico may at last be (at least for now) over. There may be none better than the Bún bò Huế at Bamboo Grill which first opened its doors on 29 December 2019, scant weeks before the world shut down. Though pork hocks and pig blood curd are pricey add-ons, just the fact that they’re listed on the menu elevated my mood which then came crashing down after being told pork hocks and pig blood curd weren’t in stock because of Covid (apparently very few people were ordering them). Thankfully even without pork hocks and congealed pig blood, Bún bò Huế is still–in the words of Anthony Bourdain–“the best soup in the world.”
Among the elements which meld magnificently to create this bowl of heavenly deliciousness are thick, round rice noodles luxuriating in a broth prepared by slowly simmering various types of beef and pork bones and heaping amounts of lemongrass. The soup’s assertive personality is derived from fiery spices melded by frying together garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, paprika, fermented shrimp paste and tender lemongrass. Ground annatto seeds (which New Mexicans might recognize as achiote), are added later in the cooking process to give Bún bò Huế its characteristic red color. There is no better soup than Bún bò Huế and no better place in New Mexico to get it than the Bamboo Grill.
It’s been a long-time dream of mine to walk the streets of Saigon, Hanoi or Hue and imbibe the aromas of smoked meats emanating from a roaring charcoal brazier glowing red hot as a street hawker fans the flames to coax incomparable flavors from simple meats. In my dreams, the aromas of Vietnamese barbecue offer a seductive palette of odors with a medley of sizzling sounds. Rarely do we visit a Vietnamese restaurant without enjoying an appetizer or entree showcasing the beguiling caramelization produced by the combination of meat, fat, fish sauce, sugar and lemongrass, a salty-sweet caramel sauce that produces true meat candy.
6 February 2021: Ordering the Bamboo Grill Platter (skewers of grill chicken, pork, Angus beef, pork sausage, shrimp, grape leaf beef, and vegetables with scallion oil and toasted peanuts) is a realization of the flavor component of those dreams. Characteristically, the meats are thin and slightly chewy with charred, well caramelized edges throughout. The meats are basted and kissed with the salty-sweet caramel sauce that imbues Vietnamese grilled meats with irresistible properties. Sitting on a patio on a windy day as we did may be antithetical to walking the streets of Vietnam’s cities on an oppressively humid day, but with grilled food this good we took quick note of the weather then let aromas and flavors wash over us.
6 February 2021: On the rare occasions when diners at Vietnamese restaurants are looking for an alternative from the ubiquitous, almost compulsory pho, a terrific option is Wonton Soup (five Wonton dumplings, onions, scallions, fried shallots, sesame oil, in pork broth). Wonton soup is a Cantonese dish that’s become rather popular in Vietnam, too. What’s not to love? Few soups are as comforting and delicious. Bamboo Grill’s wontons are fashioned into a squashed, wrinkly purse shapes somewhat larger than most soup dumplings. Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious, worthy of the wonderful broth. Because she loves noodles so much, my Kim asked for them to be added. Good call.
6 February 2021: While some diners judge Vietnamese restaurants by their pho, my Kim judges them by their bun (rice vermicelli noodles). At Bamboo Grill, oversized bowls of vermicelli are loaded with thin vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber and carrots, and can be customized with mixtures of pork, shrimp, beef, chicken and sliced egg rolls. My Kim likes a stripped down version–grilled pork and vermicelli noodles. The grilled pork is garnished with finely chopped nuts and cilantro then topped with thin nuoc cham (fish sauce). It’s a very good (albeit minimalist) dish as good as any noodle dish in Albuquerque.
6 February 2021: Bamboo Grill has an excellent selection of banh mi, the wonderful Vietnamese sandwich. Each banh mi is garnished with cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeño and a house sauce served in a toasted hoagie baguette. Available options are fried tofu, grilled pork, grilled chicken, grilled beef and grilled shrimp. Every bit of these six-inch beauties is bursting with flavor in combinations that may just make you forget about American sandwiches. My early favorite is the pork sausage banh mi. The pork sausage is imbued with an alluring aroma resultant from the caramel marinade and grilling process. It’s a bit fatty, an exemplar of fat being a flavor.
27 February 2021: Only from a truly warped mind would a plea for a specific appetizer be expressed by evoking a 1994 pop ballad by Madonna named “Take a Bow.” That was my ploy in pushing for the bao sliders, fluffy, soft steamed buns stuffed with savory fillings (steamed banh bao, pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeño, cilantro and cabbage served with your choice of protein–fried tofu, grilled pork sausage, grilled chicken, grilled pork, grilled beef, pork belly or grilled shrimp–and a house sauce) then folded over like a sandwich. My salesmanship paid off. We did indeed take a bao–two of them. Banh bao aren’t usually as large as the Bamboo Grill’s bao sliders which are sort of, kind of patterned after American sliders. In other words, they’re diminutive versions of what would ordinarily be a bigger sandwich if bao were ever served in sandwich form.
The bao sliders are terrific thanks to the soft, steamed bun canvas enveloping the same fresh, crispy ingredients you’d find in a banh mi. Similar to banh mi, the sliders are a terrific way to start a meal. Other than being constructed on a steamed bun instead of a warm baguette, the biggest difference is the sauce made from teriyaki, soy sauce and other ingredients which combine to create an absolutely delightful sweet-savory and just slightly piquant flavor enhancer. If you’re wondering,banh bao was an adaptation from Chinese steamed buns, but without the fillings that are inside of the Vietnamese version.
27 February 2021: While papaya salad is a signature dish in the neighboring nations of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, food historians believe this dish originated in Laos. We’ve enjoyed versions of papaya salad from each of the aforementioned nations and have yet to find a version we didn’t love. Unlike the leafy, predictable and often boring salads of other culinary cultures, the papaya salad of Southeast Asia teases your taste buds with a tantalizing combination of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour elements.
Bamboo Grill’s version of papaya salad is made from grated green papaya tossed with tomatoes, chili, lime juice, garlic, crushed peanuts and fresh herbs served with poached shrimp. With its hints of mint, anise, and pepper, basil lends a lively, fresh and invigorating flavor profile we hadn’t previously experienced in a papaya salad. The basil provided an interesting and delicious contrast to the lip-pursing lime juice, acidity of the tomatoes and piquancy of the chili. The poached shrimp, something else we hadn’t previously experienced on a papaya salad, lent a slightly oceanic flavor.
27 February 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.
Bamboo Grill offers seven versions of clay pot rice: vegetarian tofu, chicken, pork, Angus beef, shrimp, combination (chicken, beef, pork and quail eggs) and seafood combination (shrimp, imitation crab, squid, clams and mussels). The combination clay pot rice dish is superb. This is a dish which earns its name, remaining almost too hot to eat but too tempting not to attempt to do so. The clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce to arouse your olfactory senses even as the rice caramelizes and wafts invitingly for the duration of your meal.
27 February 2021: The Vietnamese version of Chinese Lo Mein and Chow Mein is ‘crispy egg noodles, one of my Kim’s very favorite dishes. While they may start off as a nest of dry noodles, the addition of vegetables, meat and sauce quickly reconstitute them into soft noodles that slide into your mouth. Ever the minimalist (and maybe a bit of a vegetable hater), my Kim enjoys them most with grilled pork and onions. She prefers the crispy noodles when they’re reconstituted, but plucks out the wok-fried noodles and eats them as she might chips. Crispy egg noodles are too much work for me unless they’re soft, squishy and soaked in the sweet-savory sauce.
There are probably many things the Bamboo Grill does better than other Vietnamese restaurants in New Mexico. In our first two visits we uncovered several of them and look forward to even more delicious discoveries during future visits. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jason, our amicable server during our visits. In perpetual motion, Jason tends to the needs of every table with an amiable nature and broad smile. He instantly became one of our very favorite restaurant personalities, a trusted advisor and the restaurant’s ambassador who’s guided us through remarkable culinary adventures.
Bamboo Grill Vietnamese Cuisine
7202 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 February 2021
1st VISIT: 6 February 2021
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pork Sausage Banh Mi, Bún bò Huế, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, Wonton Soups, Mixed Grill Skewers, Bar Sliders, Crispy Egg Noodles with Grilled Pork, Combination Clay Pot Rice, Papaya Salad