Albuquerque's Vietnamese population became established in the ’70s, thanks to Air Force marriages and a State Department resettlement program that brought approximately 3,000 South Vietnamese to New Mexico. Today, one in three Asians in Albuquerque is Vietnamese. And so we have an abundance of Vietnamese cuisine in the Duke City, a very fortunate thing for all of us.
Vietnamese food has benefited from the influence of some of the word's greatest cuisines, including Thai, French and Chinese. In fact the national dish of Vietnam, pho (pronounced kind of like “fur”), is thought to be named after the French dish pot-au-feu (or "pot on the fire"). Pho is such a signature dish that many Vietnamese restaurants incorporate the word into their name—as does Pho Viet, on Gibson near Louisiana.
Pho Viet is a no-nonsense eatery, simply adorned with pictures of Vietnamese women and a poem—an ode to pho—on the wall. The friendly family who staffs the restaurant includes a mischievous toddler who wears a gold chain and prefers fist-bumps to high-fives.
The massive menu takes a few minutes to digest. And it’s nearly certain to include things you’ve never heard of—like vinegar beef, a fish-saucey salad of sliced, pickled beef and veggies that’s quite good. Those well-versed in Vietnamese will recognize broken rice (which comes in many forms here, like a small but tasty curry chicken dish) and pickled lemonade (too sour and salty for my taste, but pickled lemonade experts may disagree).
Some more familiar suspects are to be found as well. A bowl of beef pho with tendon, tripe, brisket and raw steak hit my pho-spot bulls-eye. The broth, as it says in the poem on the wall, was comforting and fragrant. Sliced thin, the rare meat quickly cooked in the steaming soup. Chunks of tripe were nice and chewy—and not for the faint of heart, as tripe resembles a strange sea creature—and the tendon was flavorful and creamy, like a nonfat piece of fat. On the side, the usual “salad” topper of bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, lime wedges, and sprigs of basil and cilantro also included an aromatic leaf I’d never seen before described as “thorn leaf.” Fans of this classic Vietnamese soup won’t be disappointed.
A splendid chicken-and-shrimp salad was quite large—dressed in a tangy-sweet-spicy-fishy sauce, the salad’s proteins were supported by fresh herbs, crispy onions, and shredded cabbage and carrots, and flanked by crispy shrimp puffs. Stuffed into a six-inch crusty baguette, the bánh mì sandwich layered on every kind of pork product known to man (Vietnamese ham, shredded pork, grilled pork and ground pork), plus shredded veggies and herbs, and rice noodles. That’s right—this was a rice noodle and bacon sandwich. And it was good. A small bowl of wonton soup was fragrant with roasted garlic and scallion slivers, as doughy little wontons floated in the salty broth. One of our favorite dishes was a rice vermicelli bowl with lemongrass pork. The noodles and spicy pork rested on a cool base of raw cucumber and lettuce, and they were dressed in a light but rich peanut sauce.
On the vegetarian side, veggie spring rolls were a surprising disappointment from a kitchen that seems to value the vegetal virtues—there was little more than lettuce and rice noodles inside the rice paper wrap (though a green onion stem was folded into the length of the paper). A rice-flour crêpe filled with mung beans and sprouts didn’t do it for me flavor-wise, but the crêpe itself was impressive: large, golden, crisp and eggy. I suspect some of the meat-filled options are probably worth investigation.
Dessert is a strong suit at Pho Viet. The grass jelly and tapioca in coconut milk featured multicolored tapioca balls and cubes of tea-flavored gelatin drenched in coconut milk and a sweet orange syrup. It was a visual spectacle that was also really fun to eat. Warm silken tofu with raw ginger in sweet syrup was also a treat for the mouth. Though it looked vaguely like brains in a skull, it was a ginger lover’s paradise.
Pho Viet is worth a visit for both its familiar and exotic takes on Vietnamese cuisine. And whatever you do, save room for dessert.