For the uninitiated, a conversation about Vietnamese food often starts and ends with pho. The word “pho” is sometimes even used to mean Vietnamese food, though the saucy bowl of noodle soup to which that word refers encapsulates only a tiny percentage of the offerings at a typical American Vietnamese joint. But to the enthusiast, the word “pho” calls to the beef broth and fish sauce lovers of the world, and for all of you, Santa Fe’s newest strip mall destination is a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Ava.
Pho Ava, which is owned and operated by Tommy Nguyen and his wife, Jenny Huynh, is the sister restaurant to Pho Kim in the Solana Center; Pho Kim is owned by Jenny Huynh’s parents. But the two restaurants aren’t twins — while many of the dishes are virtually identical specimens of stateside Vietnamese restaurant classics (pho or noodle soup, fried rice dishes, vermicelli rice dishes), Nguyen brings a different palate and style to his cuisine.
“We went back [to Vietnam] and learned something new, and we came back and made it more like the food of southern Vietnam,” Nguyen says. The difference at Pho Ava is not drastic, but can be tasted in the sauces — southern Vietnamese cooking has stronger flavors, is a bit spicier and a bit sweeter. You can taste it particularly in the stir-fry sauces, Nguyen says.
Nguyen, who does all the cooking at Pho Ava, worked at a Japanese restaurant for 15 years in Albuquerque before he and his wife opened a Vietnamese place of their own there.
“We chose a bad location so we closed down,” Nguyen says. Pho Ava, located in the mini-mall on the corner of St. Michael’s Drive and Cerrillos Road (next to Planet Fitness, in the old Lan’s location), is their second restaurant. They currently commute from Albuquerque every day, though Nguyen used to do that anyway when his in-laws would ask him for help in the kitchen at Pho Kim.
Vietnamese restaurant menus look encyclopedic, with long lists of by-the-numbers dishes, but really, what you’re doing when you order is selecting your starch, your method of preparation (soup, curried soup, fried, for example) and then picking your meat(s) and vegetables — essentially the choose-your-own-adventure of Southeast Asian cuisine. Pho is generally taken to mean “soup” but really refers to the type of noodles in that soup, angel hair-fine white rice vermicelli noodles. The broth is made of (typically) beef stock and vegetables (although you can get yours vegetarian), and the bowl is topped with garnishes like green onions, bean sprouts and basil. A bowl of pho at Pho Ava will run you about $10-$12 depending on your meat (you can get it with rare steak, shrimp, brisket, meatballs or even beef tendon), but Pho Ava’s most popular pho, according to Nguyen, is the Pho Ava Noodle Special Soup ($21) which comes with lobster, scallops and shrimp.
But pho is not Vietnam’s, or Pho Ava’s, only soup. If you prefer, you can have hu tieu soup, soup made Phnom Penh style, which is a southern soup with Cambodian-Chinese roots that has pork broth as a base and can be served with egg noodles (the kind you typically find in ramen). Or try banh canh, soup with thick-cut Udon-style noodles, which you can get with fish cake (which looks like tofu but is really more like fish sausage).
Then there are the various fried noodles and fried rice dishes, the most impressive of which is com tay cam, stir-fried rice made in a clay pot.
“I tried it in Vietnam; the high-class restaurants had it. I’d never had it before,” Ngyuen says. “I thought it was a soup.”
For this dish, which is not necessarily a Vietnamese restaurant staple, garlic and spices are layered under rice, and all of that under vegetables and meat in a clay pot, which is then cooked over an open fire. The garlic cooks and infuses upward, and the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot has a crunchy texture a bit like Persian tadik.
In the warmer months, you might want bun, which is like a cold noodle salad, basically a bowl of dry vermicelli noodles served with grilled meats and garnishes like crushed peanuts, green and fried onions, bean sprouts, and pickles, to which you add liberal dashes of tangy fish sauce or com dia, which is a similar idea, but with rice. At Pho Ava, you can get yours with the usual shrimp, pork or beef (or egg rolls, which is amazing) or opt for bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp if you want to go a bit Guy Fieri with it. The com dia you can get with grilled Korean barbecue pork or a grilled pork chop and a fried egg.
And tucked into the corners of Pho Ava’s long menu are other Vietnamese and Southeast Asian treats, like stir-fried curried tofu, wonton soup and banh mi, a sandwich that encapsulates the French colonial era between two slices of bread, consisting of a rice flour baguette filled with grilled meat and fresh veggies and pickles. At Pho Ava, you can get it with grilled beef, pork, chicken or all three (or just vegetables, if you like).
So yes, start with pho. But by all means, keep going. On the back of the menu, almost like a reward for reading all the way through, you’ll find an assortment of frozen blended shakes, some made with flavored powder (like taro) and some with fresh fruit (like avocado, jackfruit and lychee). You can get them with boba, chewy little candy-like balls made of taro root which, like pho, can pack a strip mall parking lot full of enthusiasts all by themselves.
IF YOU GO:
2430 Cerrillos Rd.
Monday – Thurs, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday/Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.