In the middle of the pack
Vietnamese restaurants have proliferated in Burque faster than Starbucks over the last couple of years. More than ever, local phở fans have plenty of options for where they can slurp their rice noodles, and with more choices comes the need for each place to set itself apart.
Phở Nguyen (if you're a Vietnamese pronunciation newbie, say "Fuh Win"), located in the same stripmall storefront once occupied by the casual Japanese eatery California Witches, is among the newest phở spots to join the pack. But I didn’t get the impression that they lead it. The atmosphere and service were soundly in the middle-of-the-road, and I noticed nothing especially extraordinary about the food to recommend it over any of the others.
I had one of my hallmark “big ol' lunches” on a quiet weekday. I was curious to see how much the actual facility of Phở Nguyen has changed since the space's previous incarnation. The new owners kept the same California Witches furniture and basic dining room setup, changing only the color of the walls to soft brick-red and mocha, and replacing the wall art with framed needlepoint scenes of Vietnam.
The two waitresses assigned to me, Tuyet and Trang, were enthusiastically friendly but underinformed about the salient details of the menu—they had to make a few trips back and forth to get answers to my basic questions. I was amused by their faces when I asked about the pennywort drink listed on the menu.
“Ugh!” said Trang. “Worse than wheatgrass.”
Their brevity was appreciated. And vindicating—my experience with canned pennywort beverages put it somewhere near sugared swamp muck. I ordered a lotus salad ($6.75) and steamed pork buns ($3.95 for an order of three) to start, and spicy prawns ($10.95), spicy eggplant ($6.25), mushrooms and tofu ($6.50), and a bowl of the house special phở ($6.75).
The cold salad combined crisp lotus stems, daikon radish, sliced carrot, cilantro, basil, mint, sliced shrimp and nước chấm sauce. It was refreshing and very good. In contrast, the pork buns were dissapointing. They had a generically mass-produced taste and the filling was gelatinous, in part because it wasn't heated all the way through.
The prawns were smaller than I would have liked, but they were covered in a nice, gingery sauce. I speared a piece with my fork only to discover the shell had not been removed. Pulling the meat from the shells quickly got messy and seemed to waste most of the yummy sauce that clung to its discarded armor.
My eggplant was tasty enough but needed more spicy brown sauce to set it off. The tofu was so heavily fried, I felt like I was chewing on chunks of a rubber shower mat. Since it's in the name of the restaurant, I looked to the beef phở to be the pinnacle of the meal instead. Tripe was shredded into the soup’s matrix of noodles—a neat trick that cut back on the gamy taste of larger chunks—and the broth and herbs were fine. But the soup was onion-heavy and noticeably skimpy on the meat.
Chè Thai ($3.25) is a typical offering in the realm of Vietnamese desserts, like tropical fruit parfait drenched in a sweetened milk. Phở Nguyen’s delicious drink-like concoction contained little cubes and strips of grass jelly, coconut jelly, mango, jackfruit, logan fruit, boba and sweetened chickpeas. Each bite contained an interesting array of textures, and the translucent, shiny green color of the grass jelly looked very pretty against the sides of the tall glass.
Dessert was a bright spot at the end of my meal, but as far as Vietnamese lunches go, I’ve had better. And that's what it this boils down to: The competition right now for Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque is intense, and more established digs have set the bar pretty frickin’ high. It's getting by just fine now, but one of these days Phở Nguyen will have step up its game or risk being eaten by the rest of the pack.