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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Vietnamese Fusion in Downtown Seattle

Stateside
300 East Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

IMG_4796IMG_4786It was the end of my first official day at the International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, and I was too lazy to walk very far from the hotel or cab it to the international district, and needed a break from the rich and heavy seafood that Pacific Northwest is known for—though it was delicious! I found Stateside, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and made a reservation for later that night. I was seated at a high top table with bench seating on one side and a view of the rest of the restaurant, and look out onto Pike Street through he large glass windows. The space was very hip with a great downtown location, and you would never know this was a Vietnamese restaurant without looking at the menu. Stateside is known for its unique and modern fusion approach to traditional Vietnamese flavors, while also incorporating bits and pieces from Chinese and French cuisines. You won’t find any pho here, but rather dishes like crispy duck or mushroom fresh rolls bursting with fresh herbs, chili cumin crusted pork ribs that melt in your mouth, heirloom tomato salad dressed with rice wine and black garlic, and more. The place was crowded and hopping, and I’m glad I thought to make a reservation ahead of time. The uphill walk built up my appetite, and the smells of fish sauce and lemongrass as I walked through the door made my mouth water.

IMG_4787I started out by ordering a cocktail because that’s just what I do on vacation. No judging! The Viet Milk Punch ($11), which had recently moved to the dessert instead of cocktail menu is a modern twist on the classic sweet iced coffee drink available at many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. It features cold brewed coffee—it’s Seattle, isn’t coffee appropriate?—condensed milk, egg white and dark rum. The condensed milk made the drink sweet, but not over the top, and the rum helped mellow our the sweetness and the egg white gives it a lovely frothiness. It was served in a pretty petite wine glass, and definitely fits on the dessert menu. Either way, it was delicious and a refreshing way to start the meal.

IMG_4789The Chili Cumin Pork Ribs ($13) seemed to be very popular on Yelp, and came highly recommended by the waiter, so made an appearance for the appetizer course. The ribs, of course, came with wet naps—how classy! lol—which just added to the charm of the place. Right away, the smell of chili came wafting from the ribs. The meat itself was practically falling off the bone, and had an intense smoky flavor from the almost whole cumin seeds. The slightly charred meat was garnished with scallions and herbs with a nice spice level—didn’t even have to ask for it to be spicier—and they were surprisingly meaty. These are not your mama’s spare ribs! Towards the bottom end of the rib is a fat cap that basted the rest of the meat—it made it so succulent and delicious.

IMG_4788Along with the ribs I had the Crispy Duck Fresh Rolls ($9)—a twisted mashup between a fresh summer roll and a crispy spring roll. The rolls were served with a mild dipping sauce made from a blend of oyster sauce, soy sauce and scallion oil. The rolls were filled with shiso leaves, Thai basil, spearmint, vermicelli noodles, and crispy duck. The roll is then flash-fried. As you bite into it you get the crunch of the duck skin, the chewiness of the fresh roll wrapper and noodles, the sweet herbaceousness of the basil, and the refreshing many flavor fo the shiso leaves. The sauce wasn’t too salty and balanced from the sweet oyster sauce and spicy scallion oil.

IMG_4792For the main event, I had my eye on one dish and with another recommendation of the waiter, I got the Bun Cha Hanoi ($19). This dish took a classic Vietnamese noodle bowl to the next level. It came in three separate bowls that I was encouraged to mix together and enjoy. Pork sausage patties that were super moist with great grill marks were served in a delicious broth made with caramelized fish sauce that flavored and tenderized the meat. The broth had an amazing umami flavor—I could drink it. Throughout the sauce there were small pieces of pork belly that provided a nice texture contrast with slight crisp on outside corners of the pork. The lemongrass shavings and palm sugar in the sauce also helped soak up fish sauce caramel so it wasn’t too salty, but there were plenty of “salt bombs” in the best way. The noodles were garnished with  scallion oil and a ton of fresh herbs that perfumed the whole dish. The third dish was a plate of pork and shrimp imperial rolls that were crispy on the outside and meaty inside. I tossed a couple of these with the sauce and noodles, and the rest I dipped into the broth. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the menu and very nice. He brought me a Fresno chili sauce (made from Fresno chili peppers, water, oil, vinegar, garlic, ginger, scallion and a bit of sugar) to go with the imperial rolls that really made them pop. This dish was not only filling, but also so creative. Yum yum!

IMG_4795After an already filling two courses, the question was this: dare I go for dessert? I was on vacation, so the answer was of course: yes. The Vanilla Goose Egg Custard ($8) had an aroma of Jackfruit when I lifted bowl to my nose, which might have come from the inner layer of the fruit inside the dessert. The top layer of the bowl was a tuile cookie in the shape of a Thai flower. A tuile is a thin, crispy wafer like cookie that’s originally from France and named after the shape of a tile. The cookie has a very slight sweetness to it that reminded me of a fortune cookie. I used my spoon to crack down through the crunchy layer and encountered a layer of Jackfruit, which is prevalent in Southeast Asia, and has a mild taste between a melon and a peach. Underneath the fruit was a layer of the goose egg custard, which was soft with an almost yogurt-like consistency, but slightly richer than everyday custard or pudding. It was nice to end the meal with a light dessert, since the rest of  it was so heavy. It actually reminded me of a breakfast parfait that I’d order with yogurt, fruit and vanilla. Some of the other desserts like the Vietnamese Coffee or Tea with Condensed Milk Creamsicles sounded delicious and uber-creative, but I had already had my Viet Milk Punch. Next time I’ll definitely try them though.

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