ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Once in a while, I wonder how many local restaurants are left that have so far escaped my sleuthing. Spots will appear on my radar with good recommendations; when I finally visit, it turns out some of these places have been around for 10 years or 20 years or even more.
Pho 79, interestingly, is only about a year old, but it seems hidden in plain sight along the Interstate 25 corridor and adjacent to a time-worn motel. Even the interior feels plucked from the 1980s diner theme book, with tables that leave you feeling like they might have been mismatched, even if they weren’t, and the sense that it didn’t matter, anyway, because the restaurant was just plain enjoyable.
Find Pho 79 just east of the interstate on Candelaria. It used to house a greasy spoon for many years, which explains the decor, before transforming with minimal changes. Even the sign outside is a banner just hung right over the old name. Stepping inside, give an appreciative glance to the huge fish tank teeming with African fish of all colors and sizes, then have a seat to scan the menu, full of prices that seem lifted out of the 1990s. Skip the Vietnamese coffees – there are far better in town – for other beverages that might strike your fancy.
Appetizers start with a salad that seems ready to catapult one directly into summer – the Shredded Chicken Salad ($5.50), with a tangle of cabbage in light dressing, topped with slices of chicken breast and fried peanuts and onions. Versatility is built into this salad as a light meal or appetizer – your choice. Another warm weather welcome can be found in cool Spring Rolls ($3) ready to dip in a salty-sweet peanut sauce. Share your appetizers, for the entrees to come are portioned to sate hunger.
In Vietnamese cooking, rice is the king of starch mountain, appearing in its grain form as well as thin vermicelli, fine angel hair and fat ribbon noodles with agreeable chew. The latter is best appreciated in the Deluxe Stir Fried Noodle dish ($6.95), replete with a combination of shrimp, chicken, beef and pork, everything touched with a savory sauce that begs for just one more bite over and over again.
Fans of pho will be pleased to try the delicate broth in any of the Pho noodle bowls ($6.50), but I’ll admit a fondness for any that showcase Pho 79’s perfectly cooked tendon as part of the aromatic soup.
Folks who appreciate rice noodles but perhaps not big cauldrons of soup should go for a Bun noodle bowl ($6.50-$6.95), a warm pile of vermicelli topped with an assortment of goodies from chicken to beef to veggies and even chopped egg rolls. Mix it all up, top with spicy chili paste, and have at it until it’s time to ask for a to-go container – with these portions, that’s almost a given.