From Top to Bottom
Exploring the menu at Viet Taste
There is a cheerful glow in the dining room, and a feeling that most of the people in the dining hall have been here before. They are enjoying their food, or are about to be, and they know it. The 20-odd tables are arranged efficiently just to the cozy side of crowded. It feels happening, but not cramped. The scene is classy but casual, with more bamboo in the dining room than most Tikki Bars. The walls hold paintings of village-scapes and portraits, carefully lit to cast sunburst halos around the frames.
On the surface, Viet Taste appears to cater to American tastes. The papaya salad is about as light on the fish sauce as I’ve encountered in ABQ—it might not even have a drop. The pho is fragrant and rich, but not at all gamey. Every item on the bamboo-clad menu is peanut-free, and its order seems cleverly designed to separate the adventurous gastronauts from the meathead who wandered in looking for Chinese food—and satisfy them both. It is at once the kind of newbie-friendly Asian restaurant you would take a relative to in order to introduce them to the cuisine and a haven for the discerning, pho-consuming public to have their needs met promptly and with five stars. The menu has a daring side as well, which I was able to find, reliably, at the end of every menu section in which I indulged.
“Please don’t order that,” he said. “Non-Asians don’t tend to like it. It’s too fatty.”
I took that as a challenge and ordered it.
Number 32, noodle soup with special beef stew, brings up the rear of the “Rice Noodle and Egg Noodle Soup” category. It was the first order I’d attempted to place from the back of a Viet Taste menu section, and my server attempted to intervene. “Please don’t order that,” he said. “Non-Asians don’t tend to like it. It’s too fatty.”
I took that as a challenge and ordered it. It was, indeed, a thick, fatty broth with melted carrots and numerous chunks of cartilaginous, tender beef, which I imagined to be cut from near the joints of the bones that are boiled in making the pho. The flavor was indeed pho-like, but stronger, more concentrated and intense. As with all of the noodle soups I tried at Viet Taste, the garnish salad was beautiful and big.
While the challenging choices seem to be hidden at the bottom of the menu sections, the tamer options tend to be found leading off each category. At the top of the appetizer menu, for example, are spring rolls and egg rolls. The bottom of the list is where you will find the exquisite beef stew sandwich.
The sandwich arrived on two dishes. One was a bowl of hefty meat chunks partially submerged in a thick gravy that was spiced similarly to the special beef stew. On a separate plate was a plain, toasted, six-inch baguette, sliced lengthwise. The chunks of meat, oxtail perhaps, or sinuous cuttings from the long bone joints, were buttery soft, crisscrossed with melted tendon and other connective tissues. The velvety sauce contained the flavor profile of pho, but in a more crude, immediate manner. You crunch down on errant coriander seeds. A full star anise pod floats by. It’s a pho curry, thickened with melted gristle and probably other things.
I ripped off pieces of hot baguette and wrapped them around chunks of pho curry. The curry merges happily with the steaming, moist interior of the bread, forming a dank aura of flavor held together by the toasted crust. For $6.50, this dish is both a complete steal and a complete meal.
The beef stew sandwich and special beef stew deliver concentrated versions of the classic pho profile. The pho itself is relatively thin and dilute, more of a smooth, hydrating penetrant than rough, greasy lubricant. It’s flavorful, but no one flavor stands out. It’s a flawless bowl of pho, but my favorite item on the beef noodle soup list was the final option, bun bo hue, the spicy stepbrother of pho.
More penetrating than pho, bun bo hue is spicy in every way. It includes copious amounts of red chile and a tangle of mysterious and fragrant herbs, roots and stalks, chiefly lemongrass, which simmer in the red and yellow broth. The soup packs a cleansing wallop, setting every pore and membrane agush, and will make you sweat in summer and winter alike.
While my focus is drawn to the meaty, greasy, lusty side of the menu, vegetarians are well cared for at Viet Taste. The tofu papaya salad, which can also be ordered non-veg, with chicken or shrimp, is composed of thin, crisp shreds of green papaya, carrots, and little else besides the grand slabs of tofu. The shrimp and chicken salad is built on a crunchy, chewy vinaigrette of jicama and carrot, which they will also serve as a veggie version.
There were three different colored bean products, one of which, the blue one, looked distinctly gummy bear-like. Like the others, it tasted conspicuously dry and bland. But thanks to an unmixed combination of shaved ice and coconut cream—a sweet, creamy somethin’-somethin’ that dripped and melted into the mealy bean stuff—it came together just right.
Zoning out over a project like a sweet 3 bean drink affords the opportunity to look around and take in the ambience. There is more bamboo in that room than in most tiki bars. Wide bamboo logs form a mock grove at the north end of the space. Thin bamboo forms a thatched roof over the cash register counter, clad in medium-gauge bamboo. The walls hold paintings of village-scapes and portraits, which are carefully lit to cast sunburst halos around the frames.
I also witnessed four sizzling clay pots delivered to a happy table. It was number 71, my server informed me, rice in hot clay pot (with choice of protein). It was the last item in the “Rice Dish” category, and looked the part. I tried it myself, and it delivered.
But the second-to-last entry, fried rice with country-style steak, was just as good. Cubes of tender, seasoned beef were artfully arranged upon lightly fried rice, along with ripe tomato slices and other garnishes.
As the end of each section was consistently delivering the kind of edgy food I was looking for, I looked to the final section (before the drinks) of the menu for the grand finale.
This was a short list dubbed “Home Style Special.” The second-to-last on the list, number 100, is deep-fried salted and pepper shrimp. Order this, even if you don’t like fried food. Even if you don’t like shrimp.
You get a choice of peeled or skins-on for extra crunch. We went with extra crunch. The shrimp were battered with what appeared to be rice flour, fried in a kind of clump, and topped with a stir-fried mixture of green onions and jalapeños that pretty much took this dish over the top. The gritty salt crust added to the crunch, the dust of black pepper contributed to the spice, and it all came together magnificently. I’m not much of a shrimp eater, and yet I could not stop eating these.
The salted and pepper shrimp were even more spectacular than the beef stew sandwich. But if you’re looking for value, that bowl of that pho curry remains the best use of $6.50 in town.
There’s a lot of value to be found on that menu, which makes it well worth the occasional wait. Alibi readers chose Viet Taste as their favorite Vietnamese restaurant last year, and after a few visits I can see why.
5721 Menaul Blvd NE
Hours: Mon-Sat: 10am-9pm Closed Sunday