The seven-month-old Pho 79 shares a building with the lively and low-rent Motel 76. The building is on an industrial stretch of Candelaria, just east of I-25, and I have no idea what’s up with the 70s names. But I’m more than happy to roll with this and other quirky, no-frill charms about the 79.
A bright “Pho 79” banner, complete with a large map of Vietnam that’s readable from the street, covers the previous restaurant’s sign. Inside, only essential changes have been made to the former greasy spoon. For instance, rather than remove the diner-style counter and floor-mounted swivel chairs in front of it, the horizontal surface now holds fish tanks. Fans of African cichlids can sit and swivel while they admire three generations—in separate tanks, so their parents don’t eat them—of colorful fish. Cichlids are prolific breeders, and Pho 79’s owner, Tom, who grew up in Vietnam, gives baby fish to any customer who wants to raise them. Beyond the tanks, the only decorations are some fake plants, an eclectic series of paintings of, shall we say, Vietnamese maidens and a flag hanging on the wall with the word “Crawfish.”
This isn’t the Waldorf Astoria, but you wouldn’t want pho from the Waldorf anyway. It seems clear that the $6.50 for a bowl of pho doesn’t go toward paying for some unnecessary upgrade to the building like, say, a new tile floor. This is comforting to those who only care about what’s in the steaming bowl itself. It means management can use better ingredients and still make money. The broth at 79 is clear and rich; not gamey, greasy or overly aromatic.
The star of the pho is the tendon. It’s cut in a style I’ve been looking for all over Albuquerque since first experiencing it in Denver’s Pho Duy. Wide sections of tendon are sliced into thin, translucent cross-sections. The delicate sheets are prone to falling apart along their circular patterns, which sport varying degrees of color, ranging from dark islands of red meat to a glistening white quivering sea that surrounds them. The material differences across a given section of this tendon creates a spectrum of textures and flavor, with melted creaminess at one end and a gentle, chewy pushback at the other. With that most sublime of connective tissues and some rare beef in my bowl, I’m happy.
This isn’t the Waldorf Astoria, but you wouldn’t want pho from the Waldorf anyway.
There are pho-like noodle soups as well, in other broths and with other proteins than the beef-centric pho. The noodle soups come with a choice of rice or egg noodles, and they’re good enough, but no competition for the pho.
The vegetarian section of the menu suggests a love of vegetables in the kitchen, a common trait among Vietnamese chefs. The vegetarian pho dazzles with bright veg-tones of broccoli, carrots, zucchini and green onions. If you’re a non-vegetarian in the mood for vegetables, I recommend the veggie pho with beef broth rather than the one-dimensional veggie broth. And maybe have them throw in some tendon while they’re at it, too.
The spring rolls, which are not only vegetarian but vegan, are high quality, served with a peanut-based dipping sauce in which long shards of pickled radish and carrot are mixed.
The cabbage salad is my favorite vegetable dish on the menu. In addition to being served with tofu, it can also be ordered with shrimp or chicken. Underneath your choice of protein lurks a mound of shredded cabbage, garnished with mint, topped with fried onions and peanuts, and doused with a fish sauce-based dressing. It’s refreshing and crisp, and the chicken is chewy, in a good way, as if from a bird that actually had a life before becoming a flesh donor. The breast meat is steamed, sliced and laid atop the salad and daringly unseasoned. The dressing permeates the flesh soon enough.
Despite all of the fish swimming around the restaurant in tanks, aquatic species on the menu are somewhat rare, and the seafood noodle soup was one of the few disappointments. It was a lonely bowl in which some shrimp were kept company by pieces of peppery fish cake floating around.
If you are into shrimp, there are better choices, like the vermicelli bowl with lemongrass shrimp. The flavors complement each other so smoothly and sweetly, it’s almost difficult to discern where the lemongrass ends and the shrimp begins. All the vermicelli bowls at Pho 79 come with generous amounts of salad, heavy on raw cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon. In the vermicelli bowls with curry, the thick peanut sauce clings to the rice noodles like a buttery, caramel-colored mascara.
There are several house-made beverages worth ordering. The salty lemonade is a treat, especially if you’re feeling under the weather, but be warned: The salty sour flavor is bold, and the drink arrives completely unsweetened. I don’t sweeten it, but doing so would make it more palatable for many. The iced coffee should give Starbucks reason to reconsider opening a shop in the 70s neighborhood. Both drinks are available hot as well, but Tom advised me he thinks these beverages are best cold. Boisterous and full of smiles, Tom is a natural at chatting up his customers. I recommend following his advice when in Pho 79.
Shortly before press, we learned of a new development which explains that “crawfish” flag. A hundred pounds of those miniature freshwater lobsters were flown in just in time for Valentines Day. Most were sold before the day was over, but other shipments are coming, fresh from Louisiana. We dropped in the day of the crawdad debut, and the place was packed. A week later, more than 600 lbs. had sold.
For $9 you get a big plate—supposedly a pound but it looked like more—of crawdads. There is nothing accompanying this pile of crustaceans. No rice, salad or even silverware—which wouldn’t help anyway. Eating crawfish is manual labor in the literal sense: It’s done by hand. I watched Tom demonstrate his technique to a table of newbies. He broke the tail off backwards, pulled off the smooth shell above the abdomen, sucked out the juicy guts and fished out the tail meat.
The normal process of crawfish eating leaves behind a pile of empty shells and greasy, spent napkins. There are many eaters to whom such a sight makes them crave a cigarette in bed. And that subset of the population won’t be disappointed with the crawfish at Pho 79.
But when I go back—and I will—it will be for the tendon and raw beef pho. And, I have to admit, the ambiance.