From Banana Beef to Elephant Ears
Café Da Lat’s wondrous soups outpace competition
If you’re on the hunt for pho, there is no shortage of places in town where you can find a decent bowl. Café Da Lat, on Central between San Mateo and Louisiana, is one of them. The pho there is good, bold-flavored and fragrant, and pho is typically my go-to dish when dining Vietnamese. And yet, while the pho there can hang with Albuquerque’s finest, Café Da Lat is a rare Vietnamese restaurant where I would pass it over. The menu at Café Da Lat is long and diverse, replete with noodles, curries, crepes and even frog legs. But the soups, in my opinion, are its finest offerings. And of these, the pho is perhaps the most pedestrian.
At the top of the list is a lineup of creamy rice soups, so-called not because they contain dairy products, but because they’re made with a base of rice that has been cooked to the point of disintegration into a cream-like porridge. They come with your choice of proteins, my favorite being duck and pork with salted duck egg. It’s a fascinating dish. The egg, blackened by the preservation process, is chopped into pieces that are scattered about the soup and has a fungi-like texture. Scallions and herbs complete a flavor that is both simple and complete, and supremely satisfying. It makes you yearn for a rainy day, so it can be enjoyed to its fullest.
Another fantastic soup, unique to Albuquerque as far as I know, is the banana beef stew (menu item E1), named after the banana-shaped shank from which the meat comes (it doesn’t contain real bananas). It comes in a pho-like presentation, including noodles and a side salad, and contains soft chunks of carrot and sweet potatoes. The tough shank meat is cooked until tender, just chewy enough to play hard to get, with tendon and sinew cooking into a decadent, fat-like gelatin.
While Café Da Lat’s pho can hang with Albuquerque’s finest, it’s a rare Vietnamese restaurant where I would pass it over.
Then there is the bun bo hue, spicy beef soup (E3). This one graces several menus around town, although Da Lat’s has its own signature flavor, with chunks of pineapple and “15 spices,” according to the menu. The spices coalesce so seamlessly it’s hard to tease them apart, though I detected Szechuan pepper and galangal root. It’s served with round noodles and a pho side salad that even includes jalapeños, which were unnecessary. It was spiced enough without them that the sweat was flowing.
There is also a menu of noodle soups in a chicken broth that is as satisfying as chicken broth can be, though less complex and mysterious than some of the other soups. And a category of egg noodles soups with wontons. And a list of vegetable and tofu soups.
The only soup that didn’t do it for me is the sour soup, which can be ordered vegetarian, fish and seafood. It comes in a hot pot, as tom yum often arrives in Thai restaurants, and bears a passing resemblance to that tart and sour soup. But these sour soups contain pineapple and a strange, spongy vegetable that my server called “elephant ear,” as well as an herb she couldn’t identify that tasted vaguely like caraway. After my first bite, I was intrigued and wanted another. After the second, I wanted more creamy rice soup. Some people probably love the sour soups, but not me. And with so many other brothy options on the menu, I’ll be seeking my hydration elsewhere.
In addition to its stellar soups, Café Da Lat has an ambiance that’s a notch above most of the competition. You wouldn’t know it from the outside. In fact, you might not even think it’s open, as the tinted windows keep the place dark inside. Even when the lot is full, the small boxy restaurant rarely seems crowded. The walls are adorned with framed art. Low-hanging lamps give an intimate feel to each table. Soulful Asian pop music is piped in, and a surprisingly large wine list completes the elegant feel. The house merlot goes down as smooth as the music.
The menu is long, and there are many bright spots outside of soup. Brightest among these is a tofu salad (V7) that demonstrates the level of respect the kitchen has for vegetables. They are fresh and at their best. I’ve seen versions of this salad all around town, and this is hands-down the best. Shredded cabbage mixed with shreds of carrot and cucumber, with cilantro and basil leaves mixed in among slices of brown-skinned tofu, with a nuoc cham-based dressing.
Said nuoc cham, the ubiquitous fish sauce that accompanies many Vietnamese dishes, is a notch or two better at Café Da Lat than elsewhere. The taste has more dimension and isn’t as fishy as other renditions. When I finished an appetizer of peppery, batter-fried calamari (A9), for example, I found myself scanning the table for something else to dip into it and settled on the remnants of a banh bao (A3), or dim sum pork bun, a steamed doughy ball filled with sweetened pork bits. The doughy bits soaked up a respectable amount of nuoc cham, and when the buns ran out, I resorted to sipping it.
Low-hanging lamps give an intimate feel to each table. Soulful Asian pop music is piped in ...
In addition to the dim sum, there are other dishes that have a Chinese feel to them, including the fantastic eggplant and pork (N3). Another is the pork chop in the J1, grilled meat rice dish. According to our server, that chop won an award when Da Lat’s chef prepared it on “Top Chef.” It’s a tasty pork chop, seasoned with five spices. I liked it, but most any of the soups would out-place it if I were judging the contest. Top of my list: creamy rice soup and a two-way tie for second between banana beef stew and the bon hue.
And for dessert, a flan (T3) felt like a nod to New Mexico but was also a legacy of the French colonization of Vietnam. Whatever this flan’s origin, it was truly inspired with a touch of coconut milk and a living texture. From start to finish, Café Da Lat is my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. And I hardly ever even order the pho.
5615 Central NE
Hours: 10:30am to 9pm Monday through Saturday
The Alibi recommends: Creamy rice soup with duck egg and pork, spicy beef soup, banana beef stew, eggplant and pork, tofu salad