Follow the Arrow For Vietnamese-Asian Fusion Cuisine

“Nom nom.” It sounds innocent enough. Parents–yes, including parents of four-legged fur babies–utter it in baby talk intonations to get our children to eat something, especially when that something is “good for them” but doesn’t actually look or taste good. Nom nom was, of course, the favorite expression of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster as he ravenously devoured a plate or six of cookies, a fusillade of crumbs flying from his chewing mouth. Grade school teachers use nom nom as an example of an onomatopoeia, a word that imitates a sound. My friend Michael Gonzales, the dynamic owner of Rio Rancho’s Cafe Bella uses it to describe great new restaurant finds. English majors recognize it as an expression used to convey pleasure at eating or at the prospect of eating. It’s also a verb meaning “to eat something, typically with great enjoyment.”

See anything wrong with the term nom nom? Though it may never grace Gil’s Thrilling… in a descriptive manner, I don’t see anything wrong with it either. So, if it sounds innocent and innocuous enough, why does the Huffington Postrank the word nom nom with “moist” as “the worst offender of words when it comes to food or the English language in general.” How can it possibly creep out anyone that much? While the Huffington Post declares “when it comes to the use of nom nom, and our bubbling hatred for it, we almost feel like we don’t have to explain ourselves,” explain themselves they do. “Nom nom is what the Cookie Monster says. And while we have a soft spot for this cookie glutton, he wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box. So why in the world would we want to start talking like him? Worse, “In our opinion, the use of the phrase nom nom is as offensive as partaking in baby talk. You just shouldn’t do it.“

Boxing Bear Brewery, Home of Cafe Nom Nom

At least the Huffington Post didn’t spew its rancor without positing constructive alternatives–“a bazillion (or 39) other words you can use in its place: ambrosial, appetizing, choice, darling, delectable, delicious, delightful, delish, enjoyable, enticing, exquisite, fit for king, good, gratifying, heavenly, luscious, lush, mellow, mouthwatering, nectarous, nice, palatable, piquant, pleasant, rare, rich, savory, scrumptious, spicy, sweet, tasteful, tasty, tempting, titillating, toothsome, well-prepared, well-seasoned, yummy and even divine.” As with nom nom, all of these words are innocuous enough, but you can bet someone somewhere will take umbrage with one or more of them. That’s the age in which we live.

After my inaugural visit to Albuquerque’s Cafe Nom Nom in its inaugural location (Monte Vista and Central), I actually tried out some of those alternative words for the delightful Vietnamese fusion restaurant which had just captured my affections: “Cafe Nectarous. Cafe Palatable. Cafe Titillating. Cafe Toothsome.” Nah, none of those fit. Cafe Nom Nom does. It’s entirely possible an utterance or two of “nom nom” or some derivative thereof escaped my mouth as I thoroughly enjoyed the deliciousness set before me. Despite contentions to the contrary, it’s unlikely the Huffington Post would have expressed similar satisfaction with one of their anointed bazillion alternatives.

Boxing Bear Brewery on Alameda and Coors, Home to Cafe Nom Nom

Cafe Nom Nom opened its doors in June, 2018 at Nob Hill’s five points intersection of confusion and chaos that is Monte Vista, Central and Girard. It occupied the space which previously housed Kitchen Se7ven and Kaktus Brewery Tap and before that Amore Neapolitan Pizzeria and is Bailey’s on the Beach. Its neighbors included the transcendent The Shop and Taco Bell. Cafe Nom Nom didn’t have the most eye-catching signage. In fact, it was downright difficult to read. Much more prominent was the signage for Studio N, a hair salon next door. Somehow, intrepid foodies managed to find it and the initial buzz was scintillating.

Cafe Nom Nom is the inaugural restaurant venture for Studio N owner and “celebrity stylist” Nam Tram who did all the carpentry work–including counters and tables–for his rustic little restaurant. The interior’s look and feel paid tribute to his mother’s homeland, displaying traditional Vietnamese attire and a conical leaf hat. There were three flat screen televisions positioned so that diners have a vantage point to at least one. A small, sun-shielding dog-friendly patio was available at ground level, but the expansive rooftop patio was the place to be. It offered exquisite city views as well as spectacular sunset panoramas.

Applewood Smoked Prime Rib Banh Mi

When Cafe Nom Nom shuttered its doors in 2019, we hoped we hadn’t seen the last of the unique Vietnamese-Asian fusion cuisine conceived by its founder-owner.  In 2021 those hopes were realized when we started seeing Nom Nom on Wheels regularly parked at Ex Novo in Corrales.  Not too long thereafter, we espied signage indicating Cafe Nom Nom had a kitchen at the Boxing Bear Brewery on Corrales.  We learned Cafe Nom Nom offered its unique cuisine Thursday through Sunday from noon until closing time.  The online take-out menu from Selflane is replete with the quirky culinary deliciousness with which we had fallen in love at Cafe Nom Nom’s initial location.

In person at Boxing Bear is the best way to enjoy a meal from Cafe Nom Nom.  Not only does the brewery offer a capacious Dude-friendly patio, its dining room is an attractive venue, service is on-the-spot and adult libations flow freely.  Cafe Nom Nom operates independently from the brewery.  You’ll place your order and pay for your meal on a point of sale system positioned on a lectern just in front of a door to the kitchen.  Either Chef Tram or Taylor, the personable and talented sous chef and Tram’s culinary collaborator will make themselves available in the event you have questions.  Your order will be delivered to your table in short order.

Cucumber Salad

Chef Tram told us he closed the original instantiation of Cafe Nom Nom because he and his bride had just had a baby (which he jokingly described as a blond, blue-eyed Asian) and he just didn’t have enough staff to manage all his business enterprises.  Mind you, this was  2019, a year before the Cabrona virus shut down the entire planet.  He’s not only bounced back, he’s better than ever.   How good is that? My friend Howie “The Duke of the Duke City” Kaibel, erstwhile community director for Yelp (and future governor of the great state of New Mexico) had this to say: 

Over one month back I contacted the owner of this food truck, Nam, wondering how to find him. He was parked outside of Ex Novo Brewery in Corrales and business was “worse than slow”, so he offered to make a house call — while you should not anticipate a similar offer, you need to know about Nam’s character, he’s wonderful. And his food… it’s Vietnamese Foodie/Fried/Fresh/Fire Fusion. Peep the photo of my Bánh Mì Burger with Garlic Aioli, it was loaded, beef perfectly pink, more than a handful. Ditto with the BBQ Pork Steamed Buns, a fantastic dinner that fed two people. If you’re in the presence of this food truck, get ready for an adventure.”

Spicy Szechuan Noodles With Scottish Salmon

Befitting its food truck operation, Cafe Nom Nom doesn’t have a gigantic menu, offering only a smattering of items in several menu sections: Appetizers, Noodles, Sandwiches, Sides and Rice Bowls.  If you’ve ever loved Vietnamese cuisine you’ll recognize each item on the menu and will probably be tempted to order several items.  Give in to those temptations.  What you don’t finish at the restaurant you can always take home to enjoy later.

14 January 2022: Not every item will be a complete copy of the same item at a more traditional Vietnamese restaurants, but the differences are definitely exciting.  Take the banh mi, for example.  Nestled in a fresh baked 6-inch toasted French bread hoagie, you’ll find “crisp green leaf lettuce, succulent cucumber, plump Roma tomatoes, fresh Thai basil, mint, cilantro, red onions, green chile kimchi, Sriracha aioli and black sesame seeds” along with your choice of protein: bulgogi beef, applewood smoked prime rib, sauteed hand-crafted tofu, sauteed shrimp or baked Scottish salmon.  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of vegetables, sauces and protein.  Our choice was the applewood smoked prime rib, thinly shaved slices of pure meat candy.  As with all outstanding banh mi, this sandwich offers a balance of flavors–savory, tangy, smoky and sweet.  It’s probably twice the cost of most banh mi in Albuquerque, but it’s worth the splurge.

Street Cup Noodle with Bulgogi

14 January 2022: Vietnamese cuisine began outdistancing Thai cuisine in our affections when the latter lost its sense of balance to suit American tastes, skewing heavily toward very sweet.  Even items such as cucumber salad became nearly cloying.  It was refreshing to find that Cafe Nom Nom’s version of cucumber salad won’t decay your teeth.  We figured that out when we saw it was called umami cucumber salad on the menu.  Umami and sweet aren’t usually mentioned on the same flavor profile.  The name alone will tell you this isn’t candied cucumber.  Pickle-thin slices of fresh, moist cucumber studded with sesame seeds and chile and perked up with a tangy dill sauce.  It’s a cucumber salad everyone should love.

14 January 2022: Wow!  That’s the very first adjective that comes to mind to describe the Szechuan Noodles(sliced noodles invigorated with an incendiary homemade spicy Szechuan sauce along with shiitake mushrooms, red onions, Chinese baby broccoli topped with the house mix of cilantro and mint and black sesame seeds).  The Szechuan sauce is dynamite, an incendiary treasure that enlivens everything on the plate.  This is a dish for fire-eaters, those of us who believe pain is a flavor.  The sliced noodles are ridged somewhat like lasagna noodles though much thinner.  They’re very slurp-worthy.  Every vegetable on the dish is perfectly prepared to a crispy, fresh al dente texture.  Though other proteins are available, the Scottish salmon proved a wonderful foil to the fiery noodle dish.  Wow!  Wow!  Wow!

Applewood Smoked Prime Beef Boa Tacos

14 January 2022:  For my Kim, the Street Cup Noodledish (Shanghai eggplant, Chinese baby broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, yellow squash, bean sprouts, green chile kimchi, pickled red onion, black sesame seeds and the house cilantro-mint mix with her choice of protein) was equally enchanting without the heat she can’t handle.  It’s akin to feng shui on a plate, the arrangement of ingredients and colors seemingly designed to make your mouth water.  As with the Szechuan noodle dish, every vegetable was as good as it could be and each long, thin noodle strand as satisfying as when you first learned how much fun slurping up noodles could be.  The bulgogi wasn’t overly sweet as Americanized “Korean barbecue” sometimes tends to be.  My Kim might not take to the streets for a noodle dish this good, but she’d happily send me.

14 January 2022: The menu boasts “If you love our BBQ steamed buns, then you’re going to love our twin bao tacos as we steam them first and fill them with pickled red onion, pickled carrots and daikon radishes with hoisin and topped with cilantro or tan sesame seeds and offered with your choice of protein.”  As Muhammad Ali would say “it’s not bragging if you can back it up.”  That’s precisely with Cafe Nom Nom does.  You will love these twin bao tacos.  Our protein of choice was the applewood smoked prime rib, thinly sliced beef perfection.  The bao have a chewy texture and smell and taste like fresh bread.  Bao may never replace corn or flour tortillas, but as a vehicle for tacos, they’re pretty darned good!

Applewood Smoked Baby Back Barbecue Ribs

21 January 2022:  Vietnam may not offer classic barbecue in the style to which the Western palate has grown accustomed, but savvy diners know Vietnamese smoked meats are incomparable in their own right. Often the aroma of smoked meats emanate from a roaring charcoal brazier glowing red hot flames are fanned to coax incomparable flavors from simple meats.  Spices on Vietnamese smoked meats deliver more of a kick than American barbecue sauce while charcoal conveys an assertive personality wholly different than woods.  The process isn’t “low and slow” in any sense, but the results are absolutely delicious

We weren’t sure what to expect from a Vietnamese fusion menu special featuring applewood smoked baby back barbecue ribs.  It was nothing like meats grilled on charcoal braziers.  Save for the sauce, in fact, these baby backs could have been grilled by an American pitmaster.  Chef Taylor explained that the ribs are smoked on Chef Tran’s home smoker and that the sauce is a mix of hoisin, garlic, gochujang, maple syrup and other ingredients.  It’s a winning sauce that melds beautifully with the applewood smoke.  The smoke makes its presence felt without being overpowering.  The pork has a bit of “give.”  It isn’t “fall off the bone,” often a sign a meat has been smoked for too long.  The baby backs are served with your choice of apple coleslaw or salad.

Dumplings

21 January 2022: Chinese New Year, celebrated on February 1 this year, signals the beginning of the Year of the Tiger.  Dumplings are widely considered the most important course of the traditional Chinese New Year Eve dinner.  Top China Travel explainsThe reason Chinese people eat dumplings is because of their shape like the ancient silver and gold ingots which symbolize wealth.  People say that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year time, the more money you will make next year.” 

Cafe Nom Nom wants to make sure you make a lot of money in 2022, offering tempting dumplings you’ll want to order time and time again.  Best of all, you can have the regular nom nom pot stickers (pork and veggies with a side of lemongrass sauce) or you can order them “angry” with a housemade angry sauce.  My Kim and I shared a half order (three) of each (you can guess who wanted them angry).  Jalapeños are also provided in the event you not only want them angry, you want them vengeful.  You won’t even be angry when the angry sauce is all over your hands.  It’s truly finger-licking good. 

Saigon Street Quesadilla (Half of It Eaten Before I Remembered to Photograph It)

21 January 2022:  Vietnam meets New Mexico in Cafe Nom Nom’s Saigon Street quesadilla (a giant 14-inch tortilla filled with hot melted Cheddar cheese, Hatch green chile kimchi, red onions, fresh jalapeños, bean sprouts, Sriracha and hoisin, baked to a crisp and fluffy perfection, topped with housemade Sriracha aioli and sprinkled with a cilantro/mint mix and black sesame seeds).  The fusion of two diverse culinary cultures just works.  The Saigon Street quesadilla is a revelation!  It’s about the size of half a pizza and just explodes with flavors as well as personality–especially with the right protein (such as the lemongrass chicken).  There’s plenty of heat in this behemoth, but even more deliciousness.

4 March 2022:  It goes without saying that a websites which proclaims “we have a penchant for good food and fine drink and we aim to find – and devour – everything in our path” would be one of my very favorite guilty pleasures.  Never mind that The Underbelly’s mission is to “bring to you the best food and drink Northern Ireland has to offer.”  These proud Irish can really write!   An enthralling treatise on ramen, for example, began by asking “What makes for quality food that unites humans together?”  And answering: “The answer is soup! Soup is the ultimate food. It’s embedded in every culture. In France, where restaurants were invented, their kitchen stocks were called ‘restoratives’, which is where the word ‘restaurant’ comes from. They were soup houses, quite literally.”

Red Curry Ramen

The feature included a quote from renowned raconteur, social activist and television legend Anthony Bourdain: “Anytime I’m eating spicy noodles in a bowl I’m happy.”  You’ve got to love The Underbelly’s formulaic approach to storytelling–quotes, history, background.  I may have to try that.  What YOU have to try, especially if you,  too, love spicy noodles in a bowl is Cafe Nom Nom’s red Thai curry and coconut milk ramen with lemongrass chicken.  It was the special of the week during our March, 2022 visit.  Chef Taylor told us weekly specials are introduced on Wednesday and sometimes sell out by Friday.  I got the last one.

All too often Thai restaurants in the metropolitan area tend to serve curry so sweet it could be a dessert.  Cafe Nom Nom’s rendition is far more balanced than most.  In fact, the coconut milk (one of the contributors to the cloying nature of some curries) barely announces its presence, allowing other flavor profiles (particularly piquant and savory) to compete for the rapt attention of your taste buds.  A tangle of chewy ramen noodles might inspire loud slurping which will make you grateful that seating is well-spaced.  A plentiful portion of lemongrass chicken with slightly lemony, slightly gingery notes rounds off one of the best curry dishes we’ve had in quite a while.    

Salsa and Chips

4 March 2022: One of the weekly specials that sold out before our Friday visit was the Hawaiian 5oh5 pork burger with a spicy pineapple chutney.  Because my Kim was heartbroken over not being able to enjoy what potentially could become a favorite, Chef Taylor (ever the gentleman) brought us a generous portion of that spicy pineapple chutney and chips.  There’s deliciousness in the simplicity of a minimalist chutney made from no more than four or five ingredients (red pepper, red onion, cilantro, jalapeño, pineapple).  It’s not especially piquant, but boy is it addictive.  Cafe Nom Nom should bottle and sell this chutney.  

4 March 2022: As a culinary culture, the United States has nothing on China.   Chinese buns and bread alone have been around for more than 1,600-years.  Over the years as the world continues to shrink and the foods of other cultures become more prominent across the fruited plain, one of the most popular increasingly mainstream Chinese dishes is baozi (bao for short).  Bao, of course are soft, fluffy pillows of milky and slightly sweet steamed buns filled with tender meat, poultry or fresh vegetables.  Okay, maybe “filled” may be a bit of an exaggeration.  Bao is akin to a surprise gift deep in the recesses of an elaborate package.  That package, in this case, is the soft steamed bread.  It’s wonderful on its own.  Stuffed with pork, it’s transcendent.    

14 January 2022: There were no desserts on the menu though Taylor indicated he and Tram are working on a warm dessert and a cold dessert.  After our inaugural visit, Taylor must have thought we didn’t eat enough because he brought us both a dish of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and topped with black sesame seeds and mint.  We’ve had mint chocolate chip ice cream dozens of times, but Cafe Nom Nom’s creation blows them out of the water.  Cut up sprigs of mint and black sesame seeds provide a wonderful contrast to the sweet ice cream and caramel.

Unique Vanilla-Mint Ice Cream

Cafe Nom Nom is back!  For that we’re very happy.  Chef Tram and an intriguing menu of rotating favorites (or soon to be) promise to keep us happy and coming back for more.

Cafe Nom Nom
10200 Corrales Road
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 603-7674
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 4 March 2022
1st VISIT: 14 January 2022
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Applewood Smoked Prime Rib Banh Mi, Cucumber Salad, Spicy Szechuan Noodles With Scottish Salmon, Street Cup Noodle with Bulgogi, Applewood Smoked Prime Beef Boa Tacos, Vanilla-Mint Ice Cream, Barbecue Baby Back Ribs, Steamed Bao, red Thai curry and coconut milk ramen with lemongrass chicken
REVIEW #1251

By Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly six million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on more than 1,200 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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