May Cafe and Saigon Far East go head-to-head in a Vietnamese restaurant battle.
By Steve “Mo” Fye
Albuquerque is lucky to have had an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants over the past 40 or so years – especially residents who like food from that area. Evidence is easily seen in the area we’re now encouraged to call the “International District.”
When I moved here in the late 1980s, it was still called the “War Zone.” In the 1990s, the May Café and Saigon Far East were the places to go for Vietnamese food. This was when Talin Market was a converted strip mall a half-block off Central at Louisiana, not the glitzy pan-Asian (plus global, plus regional) food mart.
Many Burqueños have learned how to pronounce Pho (it’s FUH). Then you have Bun: chopped greens and veggies, topped with rice noodles and a variety of goodies, pronounced “Boone” like Dan’l, but shortened, halfway between “boon” and “bun” in English.
So now we’ve established how to pronounce the dishes. Who has the best? There are literally three dozen Vietnamese restaurants in town, but I chose two I have tried and liked in the past.
Saigon Far East is on Kathryn just west of San Pedro. The restaurant has been there for more than 30 years and changed hands a bit over a decade ago.
May Café sits on the southwest corner of Louisiana at Central. It’s been open for nearly as long as Saigon.
Let the Food Fight begin.
The years have not been kind to Saigon Far East. The dining room is rundown and dated, and the food has suffered as well. The imperial rolls were seriously overcooked, as were the dumplings we are convinced came out of a box or bag. While the Pho had pretty nice flavor, the broth was thin and insipid. The rare beef in the menu description was cooked gray and almost indistinguishable from the brisket.
The Hu Tieu (rice noodle soup) is Pho’s porcine cousin. Rather than beef broth and various cow tidbits, it is a pork broth usually served with goodies from the pig as well as seafood. This was much better than the Pho, but still flawed: Pork broth should be rich and have deep flavor and texture. This wasn’t and didn’t.
Our server was friendly enough, but very slow – especially considering the place was nearly empty at 6:30 on a Saturday night. She brought our drinks and food out on a squeaking, rattling steel cart, which grated on our nerves perhaps more than the disappointing food.
While Saigon Far East is less expensive than most, the smaller portions and lower quality negate that factor.
May Café is still serving great food, with no loss of quality over the past two and a half decades. Both restaurants are in old strip malls, but the difference is like night and day: May Café’s dining room is clean and comfortable, with an understated elegance in décor.
Service was prompt and friendly.
The pork chop with over easy egg came with two big, thin-cut chops marinated in a medley of spices. Garnished with shredded pickled carrots and daikon, it was a winner over rice. It came with a side of clear chicken broth that carried hints of anise, garlic and ginger. The biggest quibble of the entire meal was that the egg was cooked nearly hard.
The bun with stir-fried chicken and curry was another hit. The slightly sweet yellow curry had a nice bite, but probably more onion than necessary to the western palate. I believe onion should be used as an aromatic and a flavor enhancer; it should not be used as a vegetable. That didn’t stop me from devouring the leftovers for lunch the next day. The Pho was just as I remembered it: deeply flavored broth redolent of herbs and spices, vermicelli noodles cooked just right and a variety of lovely beefy bits.
A dish I tried for the first time – and will absolutely have again – was the Vietnamese crepe with chicken and shrimp. Vietnamese cuisine was hugely influenced by the French, who were colonial rulers for nearly two centuries. The crepe was crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. It’s not quite a French crepe, not an omelet either – it’s more like a folded savory version of the Dutch baby or German pancake.
I honestly never expected a Food Fight comparison to come out so lopsided. May Café came out on top with a knockout seconds into the fight. We can hope the folks at Saigon Far East make some changes and return to their heyday of International District culinary excellence. Until then, you can find me under the lumberjack.
May Café: 265-4448, 111 Louisiana Blvd. SE, Suite A, maycafe.com
Saigon Far East: 255-7408, 901 San Pedro Drive SE, Ste. D
Steve “Mo” Fye is an instructional tech in the Culinary Arts program at Central New Mexico Community College. Some servers at local Vietnamese joints already know that he likes extra mung bean sprouts, hold the cilantro.