Vietnamese immigrants arrived in Albuquerque in the 1970s and quickly established a rich, varied dining scene in the International District and the older neighborhoods of the Northeast Heights.
It took awhile for that scene to migrate across the river, but today the Vietnamese food options in Rio Rancho and the West Side rival the east in depth, if not breadth.
Recent years have seen inventive spin-offs like the egg rolls made in a Chipotle-like assembly line at Spring Rollin’ on Coors and Montaño, or the fusion offerings at Café Nom Nom, a food truck that until recently had a base inside Boxing Bear Brewery on Corrales.
Of course, strip mall-sitdown spots still make up the bulk of the area’s Vietnamese restaurant community, and that community recently added a new member with the arrival of Pho Nho on Coors near I-40.
Pho Nho opened in August at the former home of a Red Brick Pizza outlet in a strip mall on the north side of Coors. It shares the row of storefronts with a Wing Stop, a vape shop and a Pizza 9. The location near I-40 makes it accessible for much of the city and a convenient pit stop for travelers along the interstate.
The entrance is set behind a spacious fenced-off patio. Inside is clean and stylish, with bright orange chairs contrasting with the dark wood wall paneling. A cluster of lamps that resemble geodesic domes hang from the ceiling. Most of the tables are lined up in a two long rows, with a few four-tops around the perimeter and counter seating on the window. Along the back was something I hadn’t expected to see in a fast-casual Vietnamese place: a veritable wall of wine bottles. The server told me they are just decoration until the place gets its liquor license.
Glossy, multipage menus are held in spiral bound notebooks set out on the tables. Not surprisingly, rice noodles soups make up the bulk of the offerings. Prices for bowls range from $12 to $22. Large bowls are only $2 more than the regular size. The priciest item on the menu is a Satay Oxtail Hotpot that serves two people for $45.
Seemingly every part of the cow turns up in Pho Nho’s remarkable array of beef options. There are ribs, oxtail, brisket, beef cheek, marrow and tripe. A side of Bone Marrow Soup ($5) was served in a stainless steel bowl that helped keep the contents warm. It had an oily, thick mouth feel with the merest hint of salt. The broth was crowded with gelatinous, buttery pieces of marrow. It’s an attractive option for those watching their sodium intake, but it paled in flavor to the pho.
Speaking of pho, the Oxtail Noodle Soup ($16), also served in a stainless steel bowl, featured a single oxtail rising up from the broth like a volcanic island. Hunks of tender meat and fat hung off the bone. The broth had ample beef flavor and saltiness and the flat noodles were al dente. The soup comes with a plate of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeños and limes, along with the usual assortment of tableside condiments to add spice and flavor into the broth.
My friend, already a veteran of the place, was very happy with his order of Brisket Noodle Soup ($12). The slices of brisket were piled in the middle of the bowl over a generous serving of flat noodles.
The menu offers up five different banh mi sandwiches based on different combinations of cold cuts. Each are available in six- and 12-inch versions. The priciest option, the Banh Mi Dac Biet ($8), combines steamed pork, shredded pork and skin and Vietnamese ham with mayonnaise. This is not your typical thin-sliced American ham, pink with nitrites. Instead, you’ll find pale, thick slabs of finely ground pork that yield easily to the bite that taste slightly of fish sauce. The bread, made in house, was exceptional, a thin, shatteringly crisp shell around a warm, soft center. It’s a very good sandwich that you should approach with caution, as the jalapeños lurking inside carry a lot of heat.
The small drinks menu features coffee, tea and some unusual options like salted plum lemonade. I wanted to try the ever-elusive Sugarcane Drink ($7), a mainstay of Asian restaurants around here, but it was not available. Instead, I had a Vietnamese White Coffee ($7), a multilayered confection with condensed milk at the bottom, strong Vietnamese coffee in the middle and a layer of foam on top. As good as it looks in layers, mix it with the spoon before drinking or the condensed milk will plug up the straw.
There were three servers working the dining room, which was pretty busy while we were there. The food came out within 10 minutes.
The depth and breadth of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese food never fails to amaze. It’s probably the top ethnic cuisine in the city, and Pho Nho adds to that embarrassment of riches.