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.
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.
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!
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.
The 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.
If 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.
Another 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!
For 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..