Albuquerque’s rich and varied Vietnamese food scene has found new platforms in the container complexes and indoor food markets that have sprouted up around town recently.
It’s a logical match. Vietnamese street food, with its rich, fragrant phos and crunchy spring rolls, lends itself to the fast-casual takeout mode proffered at these halls of dining.
You can get bánh mì sandwiches and beefy bowls of soup at the container complexes Green Jeans Farmery and Tin Can Alley, and now the Sawmill Market has gotten in on the act with the arrival of Kulantro in April.
Kulantro, another word for the herb cilantro, stands on the spot recently vacated by the Japanese ramen stand Naruto. Kulantro’s owner Jason Doan was working at Naruto when he noticed the lack of Vietnamese offerings in the labyrinthine market. When the space opened up, he seized the opportunity and hired chef Diep Nguyen to build a menu.
Like most spots at Sawmill, Kulantro has a small menu, with only six regular items and a few seasonal specials. Protein options like brisket, pork, chicken, shrimp and tofu come served with traditional Vietnamese sauces over rice noodles or wrapped in rice paper. Prices run from just over $7 for a skewer of meat for to over $20 for the assortment of meats that makes up the Kulantro Platter.
The place was doing steady business when I visited during a recent weekday lunch hour. A couple of servers and a cook worked nimbly in the cramped space that stands right smack in the middle of Sawmill.
You get a pager after you order and the food comes out in a few minutes, just enough time to check out the seating options inside the hall and in the large patio out back. These days, the midday sun drives everyone either inside or to the numerous large picnic tables under a garage-like structure behind the patio.
Kulantro’s Pho ($12.80) offers a credible version of Vietnam’s most renowned street food. A pile of thinly sliced rare beef, brisket and sliced meatballs abetted the broth’s buttery richness, with added flavor from the sliced onions and cilantro. The clump of noodles just below the surface were suitably al dente. A mound of fresh basil, sliced jalapeños and bean sprouts brought fragrance, heat and crunch to the soup.
Kulantro’s Spring Rolls ($8.60) were notable mostly for their size, with each of the two pieces sporting the dimensions and heft of large burritos. The shrimp version had four pieces of shrimp faintly visible through the thin gummy rice paper. Most of the bulk came from vermicelli noodles, with fresh greens adding some crunch. The thick peanut sauce accompanying the dish was a bit lifeless and needed a boost from lime wedges and packets of Sriracha.
The theme of generous servings continued in a special edition of the Kulantro Noodle Bowl ($17.60) served with an egg roll, two grilled shrimp and a choice of protein. The egg roll, sliced into thirds, was crispy and faintly redolent of shrimp. Alongside it was a skewer absolutely jam-packed with pieces of moist, mostly white meat chicken charred from the grill. The two shrimp served on a shorter skewer were similarly well executed. Underpinning it all was a bed of vermicelli noodles and greens tossed in a tart dressing. There was enough for two to share. It’s served with a cup of nuoc cham, the sweet and tangy Vietnamese dipping sauce with a spicy kick.
I had hoped to try the Bao Sliders ($7.80) on steamed buns but they were out of stock.
Service was friendly, the wait times were short. Most of the dishes are gluten-free or can be made that way. There are vegan options too.
Kulantro extends the reach of Vietnamese cuisine to the Old Town area while filling a niche at Sawmill Market. It’s a good concept well executed.