Bamboo House, a Chinese restaurant on Juan Tabo, was once my go-to spot for Christmas Eve dinner. Besides providing plenty of leftovers for the days ahead, it allowed my wife’s family to carry on the tradition of Jewish people eating Chinese food on the night before Christmas, a practice that traces its roots back to New York City in the 1930s.
Bamboo House’s closure cast us adrift. We tried new places with varying degrees of success. Last year, a planned visit to Sushi Xuan Asian Grill on Tramway was aborted when we saw a line of patrons extending along the sidewalk outside the door.
There was no such problem when I recently visited Huong Thao, a Vietnamese restaurant on Juan Tabo not far from where Bamboo House once stood. The dining room was sleepy on a cold Saturday night, with only a few parties eating in and one guy picking up takeout.
Huong Thao, named for its original owner, is one of the older Vietnamese restaurants in town. It occupies the west side of a weary old strip mall that’s also home to a massage parlor, a thrift store and cannabis dispensary.
The menu has familiar Vietnamese dishes like pho, clay pot rice and bánh mì sandwiches, along with a few unique offerings like a Huong Thao Special ($14.95), in which you get all the tools to make your own spring rolls.
I wasn’t feeling that ambitious, so I ordered an appetizer of New Mexico Spring Rolls (two for $5.95). The thin, gummy rice paper barely contained the filling of lettuce, rice noodles, avocado and green chile. With its generous serving size and fresh ingredients, it set the tone for the rest of the meal, even if the green chile was lacking in any zing.
For the second appetizer I chose a Mung Bean Crepe ($9.25) from the gluten-free menu. The crepe batter is made with rice flour and finely-textured mung bean flour. Coconut milk adds richness and turmeric provides the brilliant yellow color that makes the whole thing look like an omelet. Packed with shrimp and thinly sliced pork, it was quite filling for an appetizer, and great when torn into pieces and dipped into the sweet and tangy nuoc cham sauce.
Entrees pair proteins with rice in stir-fries, bowls or broth. Rice in Clay Pot ($9.95) is a rustic dish of shrimp and fried rice topped with a thinly-sliced lemongrass chicken breast. Cooking in the pot imparted moisture and concentrated the rich sauce of ginger and caramel, making for a sticky, sweet and salty dish that was perfect for a winter’s eve.
Our two other entrees came from the gluten-free menu, which promises no wheat or soy.
The bright colors and fragrant herbs of Hung Thao’s gluten-free Noodle Bowl ($9.50) epitomize the pleasures of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a three-course meal in a takeout box, with shrimp, peppers and carrots over rice noodles and a dusting of crushed peanuts to add texture and nuttiness. The sauce was nicely understated, and the portion was enough to feed two.
The takeout version of gluten-free Rice Noodle Soup ($9.50) is a build-it-yourself proposition. You choose between chicken, beef or vegetable broth, and the herbs and veggies and rice noodles are packed in separate bags. I had mine with thin slices of beef in beef broth and found it hearty and satisfying, with ample beef flavor in the broth. It’s another good value that can be shared.
The food was ready about 20 minutes after I called. Everything was packed in a rather unwieldy box and, despite the server’s warnings to be careful, I ended up depositing about three-quarters of my avocado shake ($4.95) on the floor of the front seat of my car. There was just enough left to tell you that it was an effectively minimalist presentation, icy and only slightly sweet.
Fortunately, the Jasmine Milk Tea ($4.50) survived the trip. Flowery and creamy, it served as a decent consolation prize.
Hung Thao has established a stellar reputation, even in a city with many top-notch Vietnamese places. Based on my visit, the reputation is well deserved.
Huong Thao Vietnamese Cuisine
LOCATION: 1016 Juan Tabo Blvd. NE, 505-292-8222
HOURS: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; closed Monday
BEER AND WINE