Searching for Pho-land-ia on the UES

Vietnaam88
1700 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10128

So I have a confession to make. My name is Jon, and I’m a pho-aholic. Yes, I am plagued with this unquenchable desire to find delicious bowls of pho across the land. I yearn for overnight beef broth with just the right touch of fatty content, the perfect slurpable bowl of noodles, and, of course, lots of meat. Sometimes I’ll have a great bowl of pho in a fancy restaurant in Hong Kong, sometimes I’ll find it in a small neighborhood noodle shop in the city, and sometimes it will be in a strip mall in a sketchy looking neighborhood. No matter—if it’s delicious, then it’s where I want to be.

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I actually found this place through another Vietnamese restaurant in another part of NYC. Up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood near Columbia University, there is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eatery called Saiguette. At this joint, it’s taking tight quarters to a whole new meaning. There’s window counter seating for about four people—maybe 6 anorexic individuals, but the food is super legit. It is clearly meant to be a takeout and delivery hotspot, and it is. Their food is spicy, flavorful and feels very authentic. In fact, they were written up as a top pick for cheap eats and great Vietnamese food in NYC by Grub Street.

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While Saiguette is super small, with its own brand of fierceness, Vietnaam is their sister restaurant and basically Saiguette all grown up and rebranded for the Upper East Side. t resembles many Asian restaurants that can be found around New York City. There is a large dining room with many tables crowded together by a long booth, and other stand alone tables dotted around, with some sort of Asian inspired decoration to make it stand out. At Vietnaam, there is a beautiful bamboo divider wall between the kitchen and the dining room. It does make the restaurant feel unique, and also serves another purpose of separation of spaces. While the atmosphere might be different—and oh how I missed the squeeze necessity and precarious balance required for the small window stool of Saiguette, I got over that nostalgia quickly since I had a whole table to myself. What a luxury!

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Vietnaam offers a number of Vietnamese staples—from steaming bowls of pho to overflowing plates of vermicelli noodles to aromatic curry dishes or elevated banh mi sandwiches. Regrettably—actually totally not a hardship at all!—it requires multiple visits (or palates perhaps) to try everything that looks good on the menu. They help you out a bit with this by subtly (i.e. overtly) encouraging you to order extra food by making all food 10% off while dining in during lunch. Yesss! Don’t mind if I do, which I did.

Photo Nov 21, 7 11 09 PMThe Summer Rolls appetizer (Nem Chao on the menu), one of my favorites, were a solid choice. They were fresh and didn’t seem super cold, which was good. Often I’ll order some fresh or summer rolls and they are like ice—how long have you kept these in the refrigerator bro? Appetizer foul 😦 The summer rolls here, though, were fresh, with crunchy lettuce and a chewy and elastic rice paper wrapper. They were filled out nicely with a mix of veggies, vermicelli noodles, shrimp and lettuce—though I wish there was a bit more shrimp. The accompanying peanut hoisin sauce was delish; creamy, nutty, spicy and had a wonderful mouthfeel as it coated the roll. These also came with a second sauce—a more traditional nuoc cham sauce that was spicy and vinegary that highlighted the crisp lettuce and soaked deep into the roll’s filling. Wonderful way to start a meal.

Photo Nov 21, 7 18 02 PMIf going for the summer rolls and trying to be “healthy”-ish, then an order of Nem, or Vietnamese fried spring rolls, was absolutely necessary—if only to maintain proper food karma. The spring rolls were super crispy. As I broke through the crisp outer layer, the steaming hot filling of ground pork, shrimp, taro, glass noodles, mushroom and jicama that was both tender and firm filling filled my mouth. The skin was still chewy with a thick texture, and though they were fried the rolls didn’t feel too oily. They were served simply with some of the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce to give them a fresh finish, though for a couple of extra dollars you could add some cucumber, lettuce and herbs to the dish. I love how it’s so no frills—more authentic that way I think. They also cut these up into bite sized pieces, so easy to eat, which was good since it was a generous portion.

Photo Nov 21, 8 14 22 PMAnother favorite starter from Vietnaam, is the Laksa. Laksa is a curry and coconut milk based soup that is not exactly Vietnamese in origin, but actually from Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. In the last few years, it has become much more well-known and popular all over Asia, as well as the rest of the world. One reason that this soup rocks is that it is so comforting when done right—they do it right here! It feels like a warm Southeast Asian hug, and will warm you up from the inside out. The broth is creamy and a bit frothy with some tang from the lime, warming heat from the curry, an aromatic aroma and a sharper heat from the accompanying chili sauce. The chicken was cooked perfectly, though they do a shrimp version as well  (or even vegetarian or tofu if need be). They’re all delicious and this makes for perfect leftovers. Not your grandma’s chicken noodle soup!

Photo Nov 21, 7 25 18 PMFor the main event, and what I judge every Vietnamese restaurant by, is the pho (pronounced “fuh”). Nowadays, you can find multiple varieties of pho—shrimp, veggie, chicken and even some fancy types such as one made with a Porcini mushroom or duck base. They’re almost always tasty, and if you’re looking for a unique spin on the classic bowl of pho, I highly recommend the Mushroom Pho at Stock in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia or the Pho Bo Satee at Nha Trang One in NYC’s Chinatown. The mushroom pho is as hearty and comforting as a beef based soup, but lighter at the same time. It’s also super earthy from the mushrooms and manages to make the tofu in it taste delicious—a great vegetarian or vegan option. The pho bo satee from Nha Trang One is spicy from an infusion of peanut sate sauce. The sate gives it a wonderful depth of flavor and thickness to the broth. It also has that wonderful peanutty note that many people love about Thai dishes—think a rice noodle soup version of a beef sate appetizer.  Back to Vietnaam….I ordered the Spicy Pho, which I usually don’t do since I like to spicy up the bowl myself. The pho was spicy but still mild—I added additional sriracha sauce to mine. The chili oil used to spice up the soup gave it a vibrant red color, and left a slow, lingering heat that made my lips tingle by the end of the bowl. The broth itself was clean tasting, which means they did their homework and skimmed the fat, but also had a lovely unctuousness to it that we all secretly crave. The bowl was filled with lots of noodles and meat—fatty brisket, firm, but not rubbery beef meatballs, and thinly sliced beef eye round that is placed into the piping hot bowl of soup raw and cooks on its way to the table. This was a big bowl of pho, so it was worth the hefty $12 Upper East Side price tag. I’ve returned for many more bowls of pho.

Vietnaam is a hip, fun place to eat at if you’re on the Upper East Side. They give generous portions, quick service, tasty dishes. Is it the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had? Hmmm…hard to say, but it was definitely some of the best in NYC. Only thing missing was perhaps that certain “je ne sais quoi” that its sister restaurant, Saiguette, has as a hole-in-the-wall joint. Come to Vietnam if you’re ready for a grown up bowl of pho and other Vietnamese favorites..

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Working Lunch

The Kati Roll Company
49 West 39th Street
New York, NY 10018

Photo Jun 25, 2 27 39 PMOne of the first things I do when I move to a new office—or anywhere really—is scope out the scene. Ok, so for some people the scene might be cool bars to drink at, or clubs to get their dance party on, but to me the scene is all about the food! Are there any cute little ramen bars? Or a fabulous French bakery? Or a hot and spicy Thai restaurant? So when I stumbled upon The Kati Roll Company around the corner from my office, I knew that I had to try it out.

Photo Jun 25, 2 23 45 PMOriginally just a sole location in Greenwich village in 2002, The Kati Roll Company has grown to include multiple restaurants—3 in NYC and one in London’s Soho area—including one in Midtown West, which is where I dined.

Photo Jun 25, 2 23 42 PMAs I walked through the door I was hit by the aromas of chickpeas, ginger, onion, garam masala—very warm spices, and makes me imagine being in an open air market and automatically conjures images of various street foods, which is good because kati rolls are a very traditional Indian street food popping up more and more around the USA. The space was unassuming—a no frills, all about the food kind of place. There was Indian Bollywood music playing at some points of my visit, and sometimes pop music/Top 40 singles—only added to the atmosphere. My kind of spot!

So here are the basics. Each kati roll has the same base and is wrapped in warm paratha—an Indian flatbread. It’s not as puffy as the ubiquitous naan, but slightly more chewy and is flavored with ghee—Indian clarified butter. All of the rolls are also available with whole wheat roti as well. They have cheese rolls, veggie filings like chickpeas, potatoes etc. and meats galore—lamb, chicken, shrimp, beef—and you can order any of them everyday.

One nice touch is that they offer a sample of masala chai tea. The tea is much different than the Chai tea latte you’d get at Starbucks or The Coffee Bean. It has a strong black tea flavor and is very soothing with a thin consistency and an almost smoky aftertaste. It  would’ve also made a nice appertif, but hot tea on a hot summer day was a little much. Still, it was good.

Photo Jun 25, 2 40 15 PMThe person behind the counter told me that a basic, filling meal at The Kati Roll Company consisted of two rolls—three if you were really hungry. For mine, I ordered the Shrimp Masala Roll ($6.75) and the Unda Chicken Roll ($6). The shrimp roll was simple,  but delicious. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, moist from the coconut they are marinated in, and big. The masala spice blend was subtle in its spice and warmth, giving the wrap a wonderful earthiness. The roll itself was chewy, but not too thick with a nice char on the outside. There was a nice punch of tartness from the pickled shallots, and aromatic flavor from the onions. Overall, it was very tasty—the recipe was actually developed by  a former Top Chef Masters contestant!

Photo Jun 25, 2 40 18 PMThe Unda Chicken Roll was also great, but different from the shrimp. It was much bigger with a  layer of egg—unda referring to the addition of the egg—attached to inner bread layer of the roll. The egg wasn’t a very forward flavor profile, but mostly just gave the wrap more meatiness and heft. The roll was also slightly looser and not as tightly rolled as the shrimp roll. There were big pieces of barbecued white meat chicken that really filled me up. The similar masala flavors were present, but a bit more in the background. The flavors might not have been as bold, but it was very classic and filling.

Photo Jun 25, 2 25 44 PMOne of the highlights of many Indian meals—at least for me—is having a nice, cold Mango Lassi ($4). At The Kati Roll Company, the lassis, which they are famous for, are available in mango or berry are individually packaged in reusable bottles. They are made fresh everyday and absolutely delicious! The mango lassi was a wonderful yellow/orange, almost daffodil-like, color, and not too sweet. It was thick with a full body and mouthfeel, with deep mango flavor and a hint of tartness that coats the palate. I ended up drinking it after finishing the rolls and it was almost like dessert—so refreshing. Yummy!

Photo Jun 25, 2 27 02 PMThe Kati Roll Company is now one of my favorite lunch spots and great for a quick, out of the normal box meal. The best thing on the menu for me was the mango lassi, which I could have every day, but the shrimp masala roll was also delish. I can’t wait to try lots of other rolls from the menu as well. Lunchtime is on a roll!

Scrumptious Italian Sandwiches in Astoria

Il Bambino
34-08 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11106

My brother recently moved to Astoria in Queens, NY. Being the awesome, amazing and caring big brother that I am, I was helping him move some things into his new apartment, until we got hungry for some lunch. I think Astoria is a great neighborhood, and it’s a super hotspot right now. While it might have once only been known for Greek restaurants—of which there are still many—it is now a haven for artists, musicians, foodies and hipsters. All over Astoria there are gourmet eateries ranging in cuisine from spicy Thai cook shops, to brick oven pizzerias, gourmet grilled cheese, barbecue smokehouses, big beer gardens, Japanese ramen shops, and many, many more.

Photo Jun 20, 1 28 07 PMOne of these unique restaurants is Il Bambino, which opened in 2006. It is a cute, little hole in the wall place on the 31st Avenue block, specializing in old-school panini, and other Italian fare, with a second location in the West Village as well. It has a casual atmosphere with a big selection of panini and crostini, as well as salads, antipasto, and a special brunch menu on the weekends. It has an open kitchen in the front where there are multiple panini presses working at once sending out creative meat, cheese and veggie combinations. They use ciabatta bread that is freshly baked daily, local produce and handmade condiments. There’s also a great meat a mind cheese glossary available for perusal of those that aren’t familiar with some of the selections.

Photo Jun 20, 1 06 03 PMWe got there during the weekend lunch rush and luckily were able to snag a small table near the front. Everything on the menu looked amazing, and even though I was somewhat distracted by the giant salad being eaten by the woman next to me, we decided to save time and each went with a panini.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 47 PMThe Bacon Butty ($12) has a powerful and pungent blue cheese flavor. There is a good amount of moist, chewy bacon—it had the perfect texture and amount of smokiness that have some oomph to the sandwich. The combination of avocado, scrambled eggs and blue cheese made for a great combo, and the creaminess from the spicy mayo added a certain level of unctuousness to the sandwich as well. The hot bread was nice and crusty, with a wonderful crunch as it was bitten into. It was also a pretty big panini—perfect for a filling brunch or lunch.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 40 PMIn contrast to the Bacon Butty, which was slightly more traditional American, the Pass the Hash ($11) was very, very Italian. The eggs were cooked well and not dry at all. The garlic roasted potatoes provided some needed heft and the chorizo bumped up the meatiness of the panini. The whole sandwich had a great truffle flavor from the aioli that also perfumed the filling. The addition of Parmesan made the panini luxurious and really elevated the rather simple ingredients to something special, and tied it all together. The inside of the panini was creamy and contrasted with the crustiness of the grilled bread.Photo Jun 27, 1 27 15 PM

Photo Jun 27, 1 28 35 PMThose two panini were super filling and so delicious that a couple of weeks later we decided to pick up a panini to share as an afternoon snack—alright, I’ll admit…a big snack!—and it was the best takeout ever. The Porchetta ($11) panini was definitely made for the carnivorous at heart. Porchetta is a boneless pork loin that is stuffed with herbs, garlic, then rolled and roasted with the skin still on to keep then meat moist and delicious. In the Porchetta panini, the meaty pork loin was fatty with juice gushing out of the meat. It was topped with a fresh and spicy slaw that was definitely helpful in cutting through the rich, fatty meat. The pickle slaw were a nice surprise hidden in the middle of the panini, and the rosemary aioli also gave the sandwich a nice earthiness and deep woody flavor. The bread soaked up the pork juices and it was mouthwateringly delicious.

Photo Jun 20, 1 27 57 PMIl Bambino is the perfect spot for some lunch, brunch or anything in between. It has a ton of great Italian panini available and great beers and wines to pair with them. While the restaurant might be small in size, it makes up for it with big played and bold flavors. Buon Appetito!

Authentic Thai Spice in Hell’s Kitchen

Pure Thai Cookhouse
766 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10019

I love spicy food. It’s a fact of life, and I’m always on the hunt for a new dish to satisfy my heated cravings. For me though, even better than a dish that makes me sweat, is a plate of food that also brings flavor to the party.

Photo Mar 21, 6 57 43 PMPure Thai Cookhouse is a small, hole in the wall restaurant in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood styled after a historic Thai shophouse. Pure is the sister restaurant to Chef David Bank’s Land Thai Kitchen, located on the Upper West Side. While Land is also known for its spicy dishes and heat, it features more traditional Thai meals. Pure specializes in dishes found from Thai street vendors, as well as farm dishes or rural and market dishes throughout Thailand. The food at Pure is super authentic, and takes you on a culinary tour of the many regions of Thailand. While it only has about 20 seats, this place is packing people in for its bold flavors, great service and unique spin on Thai eats. This is a great place to take a date, some friends or even your parents for elevated Thai food.

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The Chicken Curry Puffs ($8) appetizer might have seemed to be pretty standard fare, but were anything but ordinary. The filling was made from moist caramelized chicken, earthy onions, and tender sweet potato. Although the sweet potato gave it a touch of sweetness, the filling was also flavored with warming spices that gave it a mild touch of heat. The chicken was aromatic, and had an almost creamy consistency from being braised and helped along from the potato starch. The puffs had a perfectly flaky crust, that was slightly chewy with crisp edges. The plate came with four good-sized pieces and garnished with a tangy cucumber relish. The relish not only cut through the heaviness of the dish, but also helped cool it down.

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The Ratchaburi Crab and Pork Dry Noodles ($11/$13 lunch/dinner) is a favorite of mine. The egg noodles are handmade from a secret, family recipe, and you can really taste the difference from those that come in a box. The noodles are dressed with a mild sauce flavored with fish sauce, palm sugar, rice wine vinegar and lime. It’s tangy, sweet, sour, salty and pungent.  The lump crab meat is flaky and delicate, and there’s a lot of it to soak up excess sauce. The pork was slight salty—in the best possible way—with a pleasant chewiness that makes it almost “chashu”-esque, similar to the delicate pork belly found in a bowl of ramen. The yu choy and scallions gave the bowl a wonderful crunch and textural contrast to the other soft components. The sauce is mild enough and the perfect vehicle to spice up with the chili and sauce garnish basket placed on the table. Be careful though, you don’t want to overwhelm the vibrant taste of the noodles with too much heat.

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If you’re in the mood for something more stir-fried or curry style, the Wok Chili Turmeric with Beef ($11/$13) is absolutely delicious. Flavored with kaffi­r lime leaves and thai chilis, the heat is very prevalent in this dish. I ordered it Thai spicy since I love it super-spicy and the beef can definitely handle the heat of the turmeric chili sauce. The asparagus and string beans provide a nice crunch, as well as a sense of freshness to the saucy plate. The chili marinade makes the beef very tender and keeps it from getting dry. The turmeric in the sauce gives it a lovely orange color, and a backbone of warmth. The side of rice is essential to this dish to not only sop up extra sauce, but also to take the edge of heat off of the dish. A generous portion of jasmine rice is included for no extra charge, but for an extra $1 you can get sticky rice. I like to use my fingers to grab pieces of rice and dip it into the excess sauce.

Photo Jun 19, 7 09 54 PMThere’s so many great dishes to choose from on the menu at Pure Thai Cookhouse to satisfy everyone–from a Thai spice novice to a expert noodle slurper. Make sure to check out Pure, and also its sister restaurant Land Thai Restaurant a couple of miles uptown for a meal that will make your face sweat and your taste buds tingle!

Comfort Food with a Malaysian Twist

Malaysia Grill

224 W 104th Street (Between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave), NYC
Malaysia Grill – Google Maps
It might be easy to miss this place, since it almost resembles a hole in the wall, but you’ll want to try this hidden treasure on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The decor reminded me of an old-school ramen shop with lots of wood paneling, and several small tables. You might have to wait a few minutes from a table since the place is not that big, but it’s worth the wait. The food, and amazing aromas in the dining room, are what it’s really all about here.
Curry Mee Noodle Soup with chicken
Curry Mee Noodle Soup with chicken
We started with the Curry Mee Noodle Soup ($8.25), which we got with two bowls to split, and the Roti Canai ($3.50) appetizer.  Both dishes were delicious. The curry broth coated your tongue with a pleasant layer of fattiness, and had a great viscosity. It came with a combination of (homemade?) egg noodles, as well as delicate rice noodles. Both were cooked well—not an easy feat to accomplish. The broth also had subtle coconut and intense curry flavors that warmed you up—perfect for the tail end of Winter weather. This soup was definitely asking for a nice squeeze of lime juice though. In addition, the chicken was cooked nicely in the broth, and I’m planning on trying the shrimp version next time.
Roti Canai
Roti Canai – Malaysian pancake with curry chicken dipping sauce
The Roti Canai consisted of a Malaysian/Indian style pancake flatbread, which was thin and a perfect vehicle for scooping up the spicy chicken curry sauce that served as a dip. The pancake itself was crispy on the edges with a doughy consistency throughout so it didn’t fall apart from the, at times, heavy curry. It also came with some pickled vegetables as a garnish that didn’t seem very necessary on the plate. At only $3.50 for the dish, this is a major deal and a delicious way to start the meal.
Chow Kueh Teow noodles (#22)
Chow Kueh Teow noodles (#22)
The next dish to come to the table was the Chow Kueh Teow ($8.95)–flat rice noodles with shrimp, squid and vegetables–a Malaysian specialty. The plate arrived with a big portion of chow fun-esque noodles, but the noodles were more angular with a firmer texture, though not in a bad way. The delicate baby shrimp were cooked perfectly, and the squid was not overcooked and retained its meatiness, but seemed to be an odd choice in the dish. Scallops might have fit in better. The noodles lacked enough spice or tanginess to elevate the squid. Luckily there was some sambal (a very spicy Asian chili paste with a bright red color, sometimes made with the addition of garlic, lemongrass or lime) on the table to mix in.
Chicken Rendang
Chicken Rendang
The final dish to arrive was the Chicken Rendang ($9.95) that came (recommended) with coconut rice. The Chicken Rendang consisted of succulent pieces of boneless, dark meat chicken with an aftertaste of lemongrass mixed with heat, but a mild mouthfeel. The meat was melt-in-your mouth tender and the sauce was a beautiful dark red color that was offset by the bright pickled vegetable garnishes. In this dish, the pickled veggies were a welcome addition to act as a cooling agent as the heat built on your tongue. The gravy was reminiscent of an earthier tikka masala sauce, with strong notes of lemongrass. The ground onions gave it a very aromatic flavor, especially mixed with the lingering heat. The coconut rice was a solid side, especially as it complemented the coconut in the sauce, but it was nothing special in comparison. The dish also featured pieces of potato, with the skin on, and just on the edge of overcooked, as well as eggplant, which was super soft and tender. The eggplant lived up to its spongy reputation, and absorbed a lot of the spiciness. The eggplant and Rendang gravy could have made a delicious vegetarian dish all on its own. However, the plate could have stood to lose the blanched string bean and tomato garnish. Otherwise, this dish was awesome!
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Overall, the meal was fantastic in terms of taste, smell, aesthetics and value. You should make it a point to stop by this place anytime you get a hankering for some comforting Malaysian dishes.