Tin Can Alley, the newest of the city’s shipping container-based food halls, opened a year ago amid a brief lull in the pandemic. I was there shortly after opening day, and the sight of all the people turning up to enjoy the food hall’s varied offerings prompted me to suggest to a friend that COVID-19 was winding down.
Nostradamus I am not. Cases skyrocketed in the fall, forcing another shutdown. All told, it took more than a year for some degree of normalcy to return to the restaurant business.
Remarkably, nine of Tin Can Alley’s 10 original tenants have survived the long
fallow stretch. Only Cocoa Flora, a café that served salads, sandwiches and artisanal chocolate, is gone, although its catering arm lives on.
There was a mellow, lazy summer energy to the place when I revisited it recently. A modest number of customers drifted around the high-ceilinged atrium, while upstairs, lots of solo diners and drinkers worked on laptop computers.
Roy Solomon developed Tin Can Alley along the lines of his Green Jeans Farmery near the Big I. The list of tenants, almost identical to that of Green Jeans, offers a good variety of choices, from everyday comfort food such as pizza and burgers to more exotic offerings such as the South and Central American cuisine of Guava Tree.
I was there to try Pho Kup, the Vietnamese takeout concept from Dipo Alam. The Indonesian-born Alam is the creative force behind the Paletta Bar chain and Spring Rollin’, a small restaurant on the West Side that specializes in egg rolls and spring rolls.
Albuquerque has a wealth of fine Vietnamese restaurants, but none matches the ease of the Pho Kup experience. The small menu features pho in two sizes: the 32-ounce “Minor” for $8.99 and the 64-ounce “Major” for $10.99. There are a few options for noodles and broth and five proteins, including rare steak, meatballs, smoked brisket, chicken and tofu. Among the handful of veggie/herb add-ons are usual suspects, including cilantro, basil and bean sprouts.
You can order online or at the counter. For eating in, you get a number, and the food is brought to you. The ground level is noisy and a little cramped, so climbing up to the spacious second floor is advised. The patio on the west side has a great view of Albuquerque’s dormant volcanoes.
Spicy beef lemon grass is the most electrifying of Pho Kup’s broths. I had mine with udon noodles and smoked brisket. Underneath the broth’s surface, colorful with red splotches of chile oil and wilted basil leaves, lurked paper-thin slices of meat, metallic and smoky, and pearly white, fat udon noodles. The broth’s heat was noticeable but far from intolerable, the salt level muted. Perfumed with basil and cilantro, it clears your sinuses, fills your belly and brings on a cooling sweat.
Pho Kup offers several gluten-free and vegetarian choices. One such option, thin rice noodles and tofu in a vegetarian broth ($8.99), was comforting, if less dramatic than the spicy beef lemon grass, with a discreet salt level that let the flavors of vegetables and aromatics come through.
Along with the pho, there are banh mi sandwiches and a few appetizers. The fried New Mexico egg rolls ($5.50) arrive as three cigar-sized rolls standing in a wire basket alongside a cup of sriracha. The rolls, shatteringly crisp, all but obscured the cheesy green chile filling.
Also served in a wire basket, the sriracha lime chicken wings ($6.95) wore a thick, fiery red coating that delivered even more heat than the spicy lemon grass broth. The three drumsticks and three wings had a decent amount of meat on them, but the coating muted any crispness left over from the frying.
Drinks include sodas and cans of Foco coconut juice ($3.50), a slightly sweet Vietnamese import with gelatinous pieces of coconut in it that paired well with the spicy foods. There are no desserts, but Nitro Fog Creamery is next door if you want some first-rate, expensive ice cream.
The youthful staff was friendly and well-informed. The food was brought up to me in about five minutes.
Dipo Alam is bringing pho to the masses, just as he did with paletas and spring rolls. Pho Kup’s laser focus and reasonable prices make it a convenient place to get your fix.