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Viet Rice: Southeast Asian panache
Friday, 16 April 2010
Photo: Wes Naman
Vietnamese fare and chic decor sparkle at West Side gem, Viet Rice
By Neal Anderson
If you’re thinking that the area off Central and Louisiana has a monopoly on top-notch Vietnamese restaurants in the Albuquerque area, you’re wrong.
While that giant, hard-to-miss lumberjack that looms over May Café guides you to those tried-and-true favorites, you can also look to the far West Side (Rio Rancho to be precise) for great Southeast Asian cuisine. Viet Rice proclaims, “We Know Rice” from its low-key strip mall location, but that would be an understatement. You’ll also find excellent seafood, refreshing pho (the popular beef noodle soup) and tasty spring rolls at very reasonable prices, and you’ll also be treated to friendly service. This was confirmed on a recent Saturday evening when my wife and I ventured over to the location near a Smith’s grocery store not too far from Intel.
First off, I love the look of Viet Rice’s petite, L-shaped dining room. It’s quite appetizing to behold. The dark lime-green and maroon walls are dressed up with contemporary lighting fixtures, and large black-and-white photos of Vietnamese life provide a visual feast. At the front of the room, there’s a flat-screen TV for die-hard sports fans, but it’s kept on mute and instead you’ll hear crooning from Vietnamese idols over the loudspeakers. So you’ll enjoy a dose of chic, but not so much that you’ll be overwhelmed by pretension. To get our meal started, we thought about the usual crisp spring rolls we’ve had on previous visits, but then we decided to be a little more adventuresome by ordering the Grilled Shrimp Wrap on Sugar Cane ($5.95). This hors d’oeuvre consists of grilled shrimp paste wrapped around two sugar cane stalks and is served on a bed of lettuce leaves and julienned carrot and daikon slices. It looks delicate, but it has a hearty, almost spicy flavor, and it can be either nibbled or taken off the sugar cane and enjoyed with the tangy, light dipping sauce. It also went well with the Tsingtao beer ($3.50) we shared. My only complaint? There were only two sticks. But it was nice that our entrees didn’t take too long to arrive.

Photo: Wes Naman
Sharing entrees is always the way to go when ordering Vietnamese food, and I was looking forward to trying the Rice Crepes. The heritage of French colonization bubbles up in contemporary Vietnamese food, creating an incongruous but delicious stew of diverse Asian culinary influences with a dollop of Gallic inspiration. 
Whether it’s the baguette and meats of its bahn-mi sandwiches or the fondness for dark, rich coffee, the French definitely made their imprint on Vietnam’s cuisine. And why should the crepe be exempt?

The Rice Crepe with Shrimp ($8) might arguably be called an omelet. The puffy golden eggs were lightly fried in oil, spread out flat and took up most of the plate, and the shrimp was expertly cooked along with the tender-crisp bean sprouts. It came accompanied by a generous helping of greens (lettuce, purple basil, mint and cilantro) and a shallow dish of fish sauce to rev up its subtle flavor.

I liked the creamy texture and the shrimp and bean sprouts dressed up by the spicy greens. The light oily flavor may not be everyone’s pick, but the greens do a good job of minimizing any aftertaste. And there is also have the option of ordering chicken or tofu if seafood’s not your thing.

Our other entree quickly joined the crepe on the table. The $11.95 Viet Rice Special (even though it’s a special, it’s listed on the menu) of scallops and rice can be ordered two ways: either with ginger or with spicy lemongrass and chile pepper flavoring. We picked the lemongrass and chile, and we were really taken with the subtle flavors of the sautéed scallops that had been delicately cooked with julienned slices of carrot and daikon, as well as celery sliced into delicate diagonal strips.

Photo: Wes Naman
There were even crispy curled brown bits in the sauce, and I was convinced these were little bits of delicious deep-fried pork. But our amiable server told us it was just little clumps of flour that had been sautéed along with the scallops and vegetables. I couldn’t help scooping up as many of them as possible.

The entree’s steamed rice came served alone on a separate plate, so it was nice to be able to serve up small portions. Although I have to confess, our resolve to save some for takeout quickly faded. Sometimes it’s just nice not to worry about overage in this age of super-sized restaurant portions and take-home cartons. The cups of hot green tea ($1) we enjoyed also made us slow down a little as we savored our dinner.

To conclude the meal, we asked our efficient server for her ideas. She recommended the flan or Fried Banana with Ice Cream ($4.50). The dessert menu also includes longan (a tropical fruit similar to the lychee) and jackfruit, but we went for the banana. The golden-brown slices surrounded a large scoop of vanilla ice cream and were topped by a pillow of whipped cream with a swirl of chocolate syrup.

Okay, it’s probably not too authentic of a way to end a Vietnamese meal. But this is a melting pot isn’t it? So I looked at it as an opportunity to combine lots of authentic Vietnamese taste with a little American indulgence.

Viet Rice  
1340 Rio Rancho Blvd, Rio Rancho, 505.892.7423
HOURS: 10:30a-9p, Mon.-Sat.; 11a-7p, Sun.
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