Cafe Da Lat’s Dining Room

The “About Us” section of Cafe Da Lat’s website boasts of “A long menu of standard and less common Vietnamese dishes.” There are items on Cafe Da Lat’s menu you won’t find at any other Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. It’s been that way since James launched May Hong, his inaugural Duke City restaurant more than a quarter-century ago. There were only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque back in 1995 and his was the only one in the Northeast Heights. Throngs of diners, especially at dinner, converged at May Hong to be fed well and made very happy by its captivating cuisine.

On Sunday, August 31st, 2003, James launched Cafe Da Lat on Central Avenue after selling May Hong to his sister-in-law. He named his new restaurant for Da Lat, one of Vietnam’s most well known vacation destinations. Da Lat is considered the unofficial “honeymoon capital” of Vietnam and it’s often referred to as “Le Petit Paris.” Considering a mini-replica Eiffel Tower sits at the city center, that sobriquet is only fitting. Da Lat is located on the greater Central highlands of Vietnam and at 1500 meters (~4920 feet) above sea level is one of the few cities in Vietnam surrounded by pine trees, just like James Nguyen’s adopted home of Albuquerque.

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Shrimp in Bacon: jumbo shrimp wrapped in fried bacon and topped with crushed peanuts

Curiosity-seekers will try the other Vietnamese restaurants and some will spread their business around to the ones considered worthy of their appetites, but invariably when you ask them which is the city’s very best, it’s Cafe Da Lat that comes immediately to mind for many of them. There are many reasons–not the least of which are James and the lovely Thu–that Cafe Da Lat gets the nod over formidable competition. For one thing, it’s one of the most striking Vietnamese restaurants in the city thanks to James’s complete refurbishment of the drab, dingy remnants of the previous tenant, the Little Saigon restaurant. Attractive upscale touches, a competitive wine list; rich, dark woods and subdued lighting add those subtle touches of class and ambiance to which most restaurants aspire.

Then there’s the menu: eighteen different appetizers (not to mention five additional tofu and vegetarian appetizers), four cup-sized soups and fifteen different swimming-pool sized bowls of pho and stew–and that’s just the first page. Just trying to narrow your dining choices is a tremendous challenge. The really great thing about Cafe Da Lat is that you can’t go wrong no matter what you order. You may not like (make that love) some items as much as you’ll like others, but there’s probably nothing on the menu you won’t dislike.

Baked rice cake

22 September 2021: The lime beef is fabulous! Nearly carpaccio-thin slices of seared steak are blanketed with refreshing mint and cilantro and crushed peanuts as well as grilled onion and invigorating spices. This is an appetizer for which it’s okay to use your fingers by using the razor-thin steak as a scooping device for the complementary ingredients. Provided with the lime beef is a bowl of nuoc cham (fish sauce), the quintessential Vietnamese condiment based on fish sauce. Cafe Da Lat’s nuoc cham is among the very best in Albuquerque, but that’s a common theme.

16 June 2007: Best in the city honors (at least among the Vietnamese restaurants that don’t specialize on banh mi) might also be accorded to the Banh Mi Thit (pictured above), popularly known as a Vietnamese sandwich and described on the menu as a hoagie. Banh mi is a Vietnamese word for bread and indeed, the French inspired baguette on which this sandwich is crafted, is worthy of adulation. At Cafe Da Lat, the Banh Mi Thit is engorged with small slices of pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, black pepper, onions and your choice of meat: barbecue pork, grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken or ground beef. No matter what your meat selection, you’ll enjoy the contrasting and complementary sweet, savory, piquant and tangy flavors as well as the textures.

Chicken Ginger Pho

24 January 2019: Aside from the enjoying the sheer deliciousness of a visit to Cafe Da Lat, it’s been a joy over the years to get to know James and to learn from him. James is passionate about the provenance of Vietnamese cuisine. So is fellow polymath Tom Molitor whom I met for lunch on a pleasant January afternoon. Tom is as conversant in Keynesian economics, Ayn Rand novels and epicurean pursuits (he’s a certified, award-winning sommelier) as most of us are about our children. Pay special attention to the comments he submits to Gil’s Thrilling… They’re thoughtful, well composed and replete with sagacity.

Like me, Tom had always thought that by strict definition the term “pho” applies to rice noodle beef soup. By stringent standards, soups made with chicken, pork and seafood are technically not pho. James explained that there is one exception: Chicken ginger. The reason has to do with the commonality of ginger, an ingredient not often discernible in pho. You could have knocked us over with a feather when James taught us something new…again. Provenance and ingredient composition aside, the chicken ginger pho is an exceptional elixir replete with personality and flavor. For the most part, there’s just enough ginger to let you know it’s there, but every once in a while you hit upon an endorphin rush generating sliver of amped up ginger. That’s when you know you’ve happened upon greatness. The chicken is cut into thick, chunky, mostly white meat pieces.

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Grilled Pork Over Patter Noodle

16 June 2007: Over the years we’ve sampled just about every entree James has offered either at May Hong or at Cafe Da Lat, but he’ll occasionally surprise us with something new. A 2007 addition to his novel-sized menu is an eggplant and pork entree (pictured below). This entree is constructed with sliced eggplant and ground pork stir fried in a sauce that seems to be equal parts tangy, spicy and sweet, a combination that only the most skillful cooks are able to consistently get absolutely right. Cafe Da Lat gets it right! Eggplant, in particular, is one of those items which if made incorrectly can leave an inky and bitter aftertaste. Da Lat’s rendition is tender, each slice absorbing the flavors of the sauce.

Ask James if his restaurant serves the type of food served in Vietnam and he’ll openly tell you he serves the type of food only the affluent can afford in his native country. It’s the type of food served in restaurants most citizens can’t afford to visit. Like most Vietnamese families, the Nguyen family diet consisted mostly of vegetables, fish and bread. James fondly remembers the catfish pond and vegetable garden in his family’s back yard and to this day prefers the simplicity of a limited diet to American extravagance. It’s not, however, as though a fish and vegetable diet ever became mundane. Vietnamese cooks are very inventive and became experts in the use of flavorful sauces, many of which have made their way to his restaurant.

Cafe Da Lat’s rendition of cube steak

1 May 2015: One person’s bizarre is another person’s delicacy. In April, 2015, Albuquerque’s NewsCastic outlet published a list of “13 bizarre things on ABQ menus.” Among the baker’s dozen was the caramel catfish at Cafe Da Lat. While not taking umbrage with the categorization of caramel catfish as “bizarre,” owner James Nguyen confirmed that the dish is absolutely beloved by Vietnamese people and that it’s usually paired with sour soup. What’s not to love? This is a terrific dish. Now, if you’ve got visions of candy caramel enrobed catfish, you’re in for a surprise. After sugar has been caramelized, fish sauce is added and the concoction is stirred until the sugar is completely dissolved. Shallots, chili and ginger are then folded in. The result is a rather thin and very intriguing sauce with powerful flavors, perhaps the least obvious being sweetness. This is a caramel sauce unlike what you might imagine.

19 November 2011: American tastes which lean toward grilled meats will quickly become enamored of Cafe Da Lat’s grilled pork in which pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. One of the best ways to have it is with patter noodles which don’t really seem to be noodles at all. In fact, they seem to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. The grilled pork is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Cafe Da Lat’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it’s something like this dish.

Crispy Catfish with Ginger Sauce

All dishes at Cafe Da Lat are attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and this restaurant has a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks. It tastes even better!

Other Vietnamese restaurants may come and go, but Cafe Da Lat will stand the test of time because it consistently prepares and serves the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.

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CAFE Da Lat5615 Central, N.E.Albuquerque, New Mexico(505) 266-5559Web Site  | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 21 September 2021# OF VISITS: 11RATING: 25COST: $$BEST BET: Spicy Beef Soup, Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Grilled Pork with Patter Noodle, Banana Beef Stew, Rice Cake, Cube Steak, Caramel Catfish, Crispy Catfish with Ginger Dipping Sauce, Egg Rolls, Lime Beef