If Talin Market is the center of Albuquerque’s galaxy of Vietnamese restaurants, May Hong is a far-flung planet. It's tucked into a strip mall on the southeast corner of Eubank and Montgomery, next to a tattoo parlor.
A rain forest of fake plants divides the dining room—in some places to the point that if you want your server’s attention, you’ll have to crane your head around the greenery. Paintings above the booths are intentionally off-centered in their frames. The dividers between the booths have built-in florescent lights that give a diluted pink glow to the dining room. The concrete floor in the hallway to the bathrooms appears to have been painted by Jackson Pollock.
May Hong packs an arsenal of soups—not just pho—into a menu that's unusually manageable menu for a Vietnamese joint. And it has its share of surprises, most of them good.
My favorite surprise was the spicy beef soup, bun bo hue. The thin broth was more unctuous than what's found in pho, with a lot more bite. In addition to evident chile heat, the soup contained the oddly astringent flavor of a Szechuan spice called “mountain pepper,” as well as others I couldn’t identify. The bouquet of spices flavored thin slices of raw beef and al dente vermicelli, added moments before my first slurps rang out. Pineapple pieces floated in the sweat-inducing broth, adding to its mysterious and potent mix of flavors. This combination may sound more dissonant than harmonious, but it worked. As is the case with all of May Hong’s soups, the side of herbs and sprouts that accompanied the steaming bowl was generous and fresh.
The bouquet of spices flavored thin slices of raw beef and al dente vermicelli, added moments before my first slurps rang out.
The spring rolls were fresh and plump. Stir-fried ginger mussels, nicely garnished with green onions, were addictive, and a plate of steamed veggies came dressed in an interesting jalapeño soy sauce. The delicious May Hong soup was noodleless but packed with broccoli, carrots, napa cabbage, fried onion bits, barbecue pork, shrimp and sliced fish cake—as well as fake crab, which unwrapped into its component sheets as the soup was stirred.
Clay pot catfish, despite my sincere desire to love it, was unlovable. The sweet, dark, molasses-
Also disappointing was the revelation that one of the more unique recipes on May Hong’s menu, vegetarian pho with a daikon-radish-based broth, has been discontinued. The broth was so delicate and fulfilling that I, an omnivore, would have slurped it without reservation.
In fact, if there's something I admire Vietnamese cuisine for, it's knowing how to appeal to omnivores. Look no further than May Hong’s tofu with tomatoes, a dish that offers tofu and a choice of chicken, beef, pork or shrimp in a sweet and mildly fishy red sauce. Accordingly, vegetarians will need to conduct due diligence with the restaurant's knowledgeable and honest waitstaff. Even May Hong’s goi chai salad, a mountainous masterpiece of shredded cucumber, carrot, cabbage, lettuce and onion with sprouts, peanuts and herbs, comes with a fishy dressing.
To a non-Heights dweller, it's hard to justify driving past the cluster of quality Vietnamese joints closer to home in the International District. But if find yourself in the northeast part of town, you need go no further than May Hong.
• Bun bo hue (spicy beef soup)
• Ginger mussels
• Goi chai (Vietnamese salad)
9800 Montgomery NE
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prince range: $2.75 (spring rolls) to $10.25 (catfish clay pot)
Vibe: Neon rainforest
Booze: Beer and wine
Plastic: MasterCard and Visa