In just a few decades, Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurant scene has grown from its International District origins to cover virtually every corner of the metro area. The cuisine’s fresh herbs, textural contrasts and healthful preparation have clearly struck a chord with locals.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Basil Leaf in the Northeast Heights. Open since 2010, the restaurant recently completed an expansion and renovation of its location on Eubank near Constitution. The drop ceiling is gone, and the place is less cluttered and more serene, even during a weekday lunch hour when almost every table is occupied. Prices have inched up in recent years but are still largely in line with those of other Vietnamese places and represent a good value considering the generous portions.
Basil Leaf’s menu doesn’t break any new ground, but it does deliver exemplary versions of classic Vietnamese dishes. The greens and herbs in the spring rolls ($5), for instance, are fresh and bright. In the shrimp and pork combo, the meats, sharing half the roll each, provide heft and backbone for the vermicelli noodles. The rich, sweet peanut sauce that accompanies the rolls was fine, but not as good as a mix of Sriracha and soy sauce that provided more contrast.
Basil Leaf turns out stellar crepes, known as bánh xèo or “sizzling cake” in Vietnamese for the sound the batter makes when it hits the pan. Rice-flour-based batter is cooked until it starts to caramelize and then folded over bean sprouts, white and green onions and your choice of protein. The chicken version ($6.50) includes thin, flat strips of white meat. To eat it, you break off a piece of the crepe, wrap it in some greens and dip it into fish sauce spiced with chili peppers. This one bite shows off the mix of flavors and textures that makes Vietnamese cuisine so memorable.
Entrées of rice plates, stir-fried noodles and noodle bowls start around $8 and climb from there based on the proteins you add to them. The combination noodle bowl ($12.50) comes with three grilled shrimp, strips of grilled pork and slices of pork sausage atop a pile of vermicelli noodles and lettuce. The stars of the plate are Basil Leaf’s exceptional egg rolls, with their crisp, flaky wrappers and flavorful ground pork and cabbage filling.
The ingredients in the clay pot rice with beef ($9.50), are steam-cooked, keeping everything moist without adding fat. The fragrant dish is built on a base of caramelized sugar and fish sauce and served piping hot in a black pot on a circular wooden serving tray. Broccoli, cilantro and a mashed-up, very spicy red chili pepper brighten the bowl, and the tender, almost wispy slices of beef nesting under the rice make for a fine exclamation point to the meal.
Basil Leaf has avocado shakes, Thai iced teas and other drinks and shakes familiar to Vietnamese menus. It also offers a domestic and imported beers for $2.95 to $3.50 and bottles of wine in the $15 to $20 range.
Service was brisk and courteous; the food came out as it was ready and was all on the table within 15 minutes.
As it nears its 10th year in business, Basil Leaf has grown into a well-oiled machine that lives up to its reputation.