It was the best of spring rolls, it was the worst of spring rolls.
During its two-decade-plus perch on Juan Tabo, the Vietnamese restaurant Huong Thao has reinvented itself multiple times. Sushi service has come and gone, the décor has been upgraded, and the spring rolls have been reconfigured and downsized to the point where they are no longer the size of California-style burritos.
All the while, what was once one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the whole city has seen its novelty steadily eroded by the new crop of pho houses that have sprouted as part of the War Zone Renaissance.
Huong Thao’s isolation in the Northeast Heights is a double-edged sword. Its considerable charms are probably not enough to draw too many folks past the competition and up the mountain. But if you happen to be out that way, it’s worth a stop. Seafood is a strength, which is funny, because the only thing fishier than seafood in the desert is seafood in the desert on the slopes of a mountain.
The seafood clay pot, for instance, had a delicate, black peppery sauce that I wished there was more of. Above sauce level, the vegetables were bright and not-quite crunchy. Juicy scallops, clean tasting shrimp and impossibly soft squid, silky as tofu, filled the clay pot.
Another great seafood dish is a family style hot pot, set up on your table above a little stove, alongside a platter of shrimp, squid, raw beef slices and a mountain of veggies, only some of which I recognized. The broth was a thinly veiled Thai-style tom yum. This was hardly a problem, as I’m a huge fan of that sour, acidic soup. The fact that there was more than a gallon of that simmering broth was just fine.
While I would not call this place fusion, the dishes do wander. In addition to that Thai style broth, one of my favorite dishes is the Chinese-style steamed bass with soy, scallion and ginger sauce. Only a scattering of crispy onions on top put a Vietnamese stamp on the dish.
The breaded crispy calamari comes topped with stir-fried lemongrass, jalapeños and onions, and is tremendously satisfying with beer.
Perhaps my favorite dish was a boring-sounding mung bean crepe. The bright yellow batter, made of mung bean and rice flour and coconut milk, is pan-fried to a deliciously pre-blackened state, filled with either shrimp, pork or tofu-veggie, and served folded like an omelet. The batter is mildly sweet and oddly satisfying, with almost a muskiness about it that made me wonder if the batter is fermented (it isn’t). In hopes of determining which permutation of fillings is superior, I tried many versions, but it was always the one I was eating that I liked best.
Seafood is a strength, which is funny, because the only thing fishier than seafood in the desert is seafood in the desert on the slopes of a mountain.
Pho doesn’t seem to be a priority here, although it’s decent, if a tad salty. And the noodles in my beef pho were kind of clumped together. Perhaps not surprisingly, the seafood pho was my phavorite (see what I did there?). Alas, all of the phos came with the smallest side salads I’ve seen in Albuquerque.
And the spring rolls … they were awesome. And they were terrible. During my first visit I was excited to try the New Mexico roll with green chile and avocado, but it was carelessly rolled, and the filling was pretty bland. I couldn’t taste the chile unless I mined it out. There were no herbs in the roll. And despite the kitchen’s obvious skill with things from the sea, the nước chấm dipping sauce had no feeling, and seemed to contain little more than fish sauce, water and a few shreds of carrot. This was a problem whenever nước chấm accompanied the food, from the otherwise awesome papaya salad to that splendid crepe. In fairness, where fish sauce is concerned, I might be in the minority in wanting more of that fishy feeling.
I returned for some shredded gluten spring rolls on a Friday night, and the place was nearly full. The rolls, as was the case with my first batch, were closer to the smallest in town than the biggest. But this time they were huge on the inside. When I bit into them, they literally exploded like popcorn from the pressure of the rolled contents. There were no noodles inside—thank God, because I hate that—but dense greenery and enough of that tasty shredded house-made wheat gluten to let you know it was there. If only it came with the nước chấm from Café Da Lat.
With so much inconsistency, you may wonder why I kept going back. But the truth is, I really like this place. Perhaps over the years it has developed idiosyncrasies that can be gotten away with in the relatively competition-free bubble of Northeast Heights. Through the course of its evolutions, Huong Thao has remained a quirky, neighborhood restaurant. Like a tool that only works the way it’s supposed to in the hands of its owner, this restaurant will give the most to those that know how to get it. Get the crepe. Get the seafood. Get the gluten. It will be good.