This week’s guest post is from travel writer and marketing expert, Amy Morton. She moved to New Mexico from Los Angeles a few years ago.
Yes, New Mexico.
I’ll confess. When I relocated from Los Angeles to the East Mountains of Albuquerque in December 2009, I thought I would be saying sayonara to really great Asian food. In particular, I was prepared to mourn Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai food. Happily, I was wrong – and to prove it, I’d like to share three places that rival the best Vietnamese food I ever had in California.
But first, let me tell you a little bit about that.
Little Saigon, Orange County, California
Shortly before I moved, I spent a day eating my way through Orange County’s Little Saigon. Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, Orange County (“the OC”) is home to the largest Vietnamese population in the US, and Little Saigon, a roughly three-square-mile area spanning the towns of Westminster and Garden Grove, is home to more than 4,000 Vietnamese-owned businesses. The Asian Garden Mall on Bolsa Avenue (Little Saigon’s main drag) is the epicenter, and everything radiates from there.
The highlights of this glorious, belly-busting day included Lee’s Sandwiches, the most famous purveyor of banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches); Thanh Son Tofu Factory, which serves up tofu and soybeans in hundreds of different ways; and Brodard Chateau, an upscale restaurant known for its amazing grilled pork spring rolls. If you’re ever in Southern California, drive an hour south from Los Angeles or an hour and a half north from San Diego and take your own gastronomic tour of Little Saigon. See if you too don’t become rabid about Vietnamese food.
Lan’s Vietnamese, Santa Fe
After my day in Little Saigon, as well as many outstanding Vietnamese meals in Los Angeles, you can see why I thought it might be downhill from there. But that all changed when a new friend tipped me off to Lan’s Vietnamese in Santa Fe. “It’s the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had…anywhere,” she said. That got my attention. So did the fact that this friend was known to eat both lunch and dinner there in the same day.
Intrigued, I went to Lan’s for the first of more than a dozen visits (and counting). It was clear from the beginning that Chef/Owner Lan Tran does things a little differently, which is exactly what makes Lan’s so standout in my opinion. Not only does she cook everything herself, but she has strict food philosophy. Nothing is cooked above 275 degrees, nothing is cooked all together in the same dish (she believes there should be at least one cold item in every dish), and everything must have lots of fresh, organic ingredients. In fact, she says she moved to her current location in the College Plaza strip mall off Cerrillos Road so she could spend more on quality ingredients and less on rent.
While some online reviewers have commented that Lan’s is not “authentic Vietnamese,” I would argue that it’s authentic Vietnamese reinvented. There is an explosive freshness in every dish, thanks in part to liberal garnishes of organic herbs, nuts, veggies and sprouts. “She must have a garden out back!” I said on my first visit, as I sampled the terrific lamb wontons topped with mint and basil. You can see from The New Mexican’s review of Lan’s that others share my delight in this signature appetizer.
But frankly, you can try any dish at Lan’s and see what I mean. There are many delicious vegetarian options, including the tofu dumplings, but if you’re a carnivore, I can tell you that every meat dish I’ve had – from sliced beef to short ribs – has been incredibly tender and flavorful. And yes, you can thank the slow cooking at lower temperatures for that.
Banh Mi Coda, Albuquerque
Café Trang is a very good Vietnamese restaurant located directly across the parking lot from one of Albuquerque’s top treasures, the amazing world food Mecca that is Talin Market. (Check their “Saigon” aisle for a wealth of imported Vietnamese food items.) While you can’t go wrong with any classic Vietnamese dish at Café Trang, you can also go very right by venturing next door to the Banh Mi Coda, the easy-to-miss sandwich shop from the same family behind Café Trang.
Here, you’ll find 11 types of banh mi, perhaps the tastiest legacy of France’s colonial period in Vietnam. Traditionally, it’s a delectable meat filling (pork is the most common) topped with a potpourri of garnishes (pickled carrots, daikon radish, cucumber and cilantro) and served on a French baguette lathered with rich Vietnamese mayo. It’s easily the most crave-worthy thing in Vietnamese cuisine for me, and the fact that Banh Mi Coda charges just $4.50 for a 12-inch, made-to-order banh mi doesn’t hurt.
I highly recommend the grilled pork (#6) as your starting point, but the lemongrass beef (#10) and grilled chicken (#5) are close seconds. I also have fallen hard for their pate chaud (“hot pie”), a savory Vietnamese pastry that will leave your fingers buttery and happy. Don’t miss their unique Southwestern version, which is filled with green chile and chicken pate. Finally, there’s one more thing you have to bring home for dessert, since you’ll already be full at this point. It’s their addictively sweet, green-hued pandan waffle, which you can eat by itself with no toppings. (You won’t need any.)
StreetFood Asia, Albuquerque
While StreetFood Asia serves more than Vietnamese – in fact, they feature the best street food from China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam – I have to include this new and happening Nob Hill restaurant in my infatuation list. Chef/Owner Tai Tok, who hails from Malaysia, has succeeded is bringing a wider audience to an array of authentic dishes that many of us would never encounter. Case in point: the bird’s nest below.
Okay, it’s not called that, but it’s sure what it looks like, no? It’s actually the Saigon Street Crispy Noodles, with wok-fried egg noodles topped with shrimp, calamari, fish cake, assorted veggies and a tasty oyster sauce. The key is to let the sauce fully soak in so that it lubricates every bite. You can also add some house-made Saigon Street Garlic Chili – one of four fiery sauces on every table – if you like a little burn. Wash it all down with a flight of sake or a specialty tea from The New Mexico Tea Company.
As you can see, my Vietnamese food cravings are being satisfied in New Mexico in ways I never imagined. Best of all is the fact that there are still more Vietnamese places to explore after a year and a half. Of all the eye-opening revelations since the move, this has been one of the giddiest. New Mexico may be known for carne adovada, sopapillas and green chile stew, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that’s all that shines here.
A freelance writer based in the East Mountains of Albuquerque, Amy Morton crafts web content, newsletters, marketing materials, taglines and more for corporate clients around the country. She also writes about travel, lifestyle and the quest for your “geographical mate” on her blog, Oh the Places You’ll Go.
If you have favorite New Mexico dining spots featuring Vietnamese food, we’d love to hear about them.