Pho for the fun family
In recent years, Albuquerque has been home to at least four Vietnamese restaurants with “Saigon” in its name. Those familiar with Vietnamese cuisine won’t be surprised, as its pool of restaurant names, by some unwritten decree, remains curiously small. So many contain the word “Pho” you’d think it was a synonym for Vietnamese food, rather than a bowl of soup.
Case in point: Pho Saigon occupies an East Central strip mall space that used to be home to another restaurant named ... you guessed it ... Pho Saigon. The couple who own the new place are veterans of the scene: The husband helmed the previous Pho Saigon kitchen, while the wife cooked at Saigon Restaurant on San Mateo. Less than two months into business, their food is confident and polished.
One such dish consisted of fried quail that was served quartered on a large square of sticky rice. Next to the plate was an artfully arranged bowl containing a lime wedge and a mixture of salt and pepper, along with another bowl of sweet-and-sour sauce. Each component of the quail dish shone through, and the combination was simple brilliance.
The seafood dishes are also especially strong. Salt-and-pepper squid was pan-fried in butter to a light crisp, then served flanked with onions and bell peppers. On the decadent side, steamed bass with ginger and green onion is a dish you’ll find on the menus of good Chinese restaurants—in fact, Best Lee’s and Budai do it well. But I prefer Pho Saigon’s rendition. The fish’s buttery flavor and firm white flesh conspired with the sauce to give a flavor reminiscent of Japanese hamachi. And I appreciated an over-the-top abundance of freshly grated ginger. The bass can also be ordered lightly fried, coated in a panko-like crisp.
The fish’s buttery flavor and firm white flesh had a flavor reminiscent of Japanese hamachi . And I appreciated an over-the-top abundance of freshly grated ginger.
Many of the most interesting options, including some of the above, are on the menu’s back page, listed as “family-style” dishes available only after 5 p.m. They're not for folks in a hurry. Every time we ordered one, about 10 minutes later someone would inevitably wander in, order pho, receive it, eat it and head for home before our food arrived. If you’ve got time, however, the family-style plates deliver in both size and quality.
The “F8”—a crispy fish resembling a toothless piranha smothered in tomato sauce—was good enough to justify the half-hour wait. The tomato sauce was bright red and chunky, made with tomatoes that started off whole 30 minutes earlier. And the Thailand spicy-and-sour hot pot, ordered vegetarian, was cooked at our table on a portable burner. The simmering sour broth held a rainbow of bell peppers, two kinds of mushrooms, bac ha (elephant ear stalk, related to taro) and other veggies. The mixed vegetable-
A ladle would have been nice as well, as filling my bowl with a soupspoon got old pretty quickly. Graduating to a tea cup seemed to catch my waiter’s attention, and an appropriate serving utensil quickly appeared. But there wasn’t an equally subtle form of sign language to remind the boys I’d ordered coconuts to drink. They seemed well-intentioned and sincere—they just had a habit of practicing their dance moves or playing with their cell phones while the water glasses remained empty.
If price or wait time are issues—or if you just want some pho—then by all means, this pho is worthy. The broth was fragrant but not overpowering when the herb salad and sauces were added. Pieces of tendon were creamy and slices of steak had a nice texture.
A Vietnamese sour soup, filled with vegetables and tofu, was evidence that this place should keep vegetarians happy. Sweetened with pineapple chunks, the broth had a cumin-like flavor. As with all Pho Saigon’s tofu dishes, the tofu had a crisp skin and soft interior. Slices of that spongy bac ha soaked up the complex red broth, which was full of tomatoes, browned onions, sprouts, basil and celery.
Service or no service, I’ll take outstanding food like this any way I can get it—even if the young wait staff is as green as the chefs are seasoned. But if you’re too high-maintenance to roll with some bumps in the road, you better give this place a few more months to figure it out. Me, I won’t be waiting.