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Saigon in Brooklyn? Pho Vietnam Goes Halfway There

Life has been crazy in recent weeks, and I haven’t found the time to post. As I write this, however, I am on a plane en route to Japan for a two-week trip, which should prove fertile ground for food adventures to fill this page. Before my brain and palate are consumed with thoughts and tastes of tofu, ramen, sushi and many other things I’ve never tried before, I want to go back and recount the Vietnamese dinner I shared a couple of weeks ago with a top-notch group of eaters at Pho Vietnam in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A friend told me he had eaten a meal with a large group at the restaurant a few weeks earlier, and his descriptions of the food gave me a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine. I rounded up the troops, including Dan Dan Noodle, Sgt. Pepperjack, Mascarpone, Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Auntie Pasti and my friends Ristretto and Grappa. We carpooled out to this small Vietnamese enclave in the depths of Brooklyn. The restaurant’s interior was completely generic—plain round tables ringed by supply-store metal chairs—and could have been the inside of any Vietnamese restaurant in any strip mall in America. The restaurant was packed when the first of us arrived, a decidedly good sign. We were soon seated at one of those round tables where we proceeded to comb the menu to compile a properly distributed smattering of dishes.

We started with the requisite salad rolls, also known as summer rolls, made from a rice paper casing stuffed with crunchy lettuce and tender shrimp. Dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce, these were tasty, but relatively standard fare. Spring rolls were fine, but perhaps even more unremarkable. Things got a bit more interesting when the banh xeo arrived. A Vietnamese style pancake filled with a medley of pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and green beans, these were satisfying and not too greasy. They were reminiscent of Korean pa jun or Japanese okonomiyaki, further evidence that every culture has its pancake. (Incidentally, these pancakes are also the perfect late-night-drunk/next-morning’s-hangover food, perhaps the real reason for their universality.)

Almost every time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I order the traditional beef noodle soup, called pho. I love pho so much that I can’t not order it. And since I had never eaten Vietnamese food with a group before, I had never found occasion to branch out much. Considering this, I wasn’t going to leave without trying the pho. We ordered one bowl of the no. 1, which typically tends to be the most replete with various cuts (and mystery compounds) of beef. True to form, this no. 1 contained so-called “six differences” brisket, navel, frank, omosa tendon and eye of round. The meat was tasty, but I found the broth a bit lacking in nuance. That’s probably because I typically load my own personal bowl up with sriracha, hot peppers and holy basil before chowing down. We also ordered a pho with beef balls, which were somewhat leaden and flavorless. On the rare occasions that I do order beef balls, I am always reminded of why I rarely order beef balls.

There were a few other unsuccessful dishes. Among these was the seemingly appealing grilled shrimp on tiny rice stick with lettuce, cucumber and mint leaves. The shrimp were mealy and bland, and the rice sticks were more like thin, dry rice crackers than what I had envisioned. Beef with lemongrass, green pepper, onions and chili pepper sounded equally promising, but it turned out to be a thoroughly forgettable plate of meat and vegetables in a gelatinous, one-note sauce.

Far better were the spring rolls with grilled pork and lettuce on rice vermicelli and the same dish made with beef. When blended together with the accompanying sauce, these became almost like a Vietnamese bibimbap, a perfect one-man feast for those not interested in pho. My favorite dish of the night was the curry chicken with rice noodles. Oil slicked and redolent of curry, it had the consistency of a soup but was also nice spooned over rice. I particularly appreciated the bone-in, skin-on chicken wings floating in it. Perhaps most impressive dish of the night was the crispy whole fried fish with Vietnamese sauce. The exterior was delightfully crunchy, and even the small bones of the wide-bodied fish were tasty when eaten with that crust. Inside. The white flesh was tender and flaky. Accented with a dash of sriracha and that salty Vietnamese sauce, this yielded a highly satisfying bite.

Pho Vietnam
1243 Ave. U
Brooklyn, NY 11229

Pho Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Jackson Diner: Not Your Mama’s Diner

When I think of a diner, I think of the shining silver beacons shaped like Airstream trailers that serve up encyclopedic menus of so-so food, (including the requisite Greek specialties) 24 hours a day from the roadsides of New England and the Mid Atlantic region. Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens is a lot of things, but it is definitely not a diner—unless, of course, your diner serves dal, samosas and tikka masala. Empanada Boy and I decided to go out to Queens to have dinner with our friend Vladimir Pudding last Saturday night. He’s staying temporarily in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood we had passed through on our way to La Guardia Airport, but never really visited. Pudding informed us that Indian food was the neighborhood’s claim to fame, so I did a little research and happened upon Jackson Diner. It’s a favorite of food pilgrims, and we had to see what made it worth the trek. If nothing else, I was sure it had to be better than the generic options in Little India on East 6th street in Manhattan.

The restaurant is a big, duskily lit, rust-colored, open room with all the charm of a high school cafeteria. We started off the meal with three tall Taj Mahal beers and then got down to the business of ordering. Most of the menu is devoted to Northern Indian dishes, but there was a little paper tab attached to the inside with a few South Indian options. We decided to try one of them, the pani poori, for an appetizer. These were little hollow balls of light flaky dough filled with cumin-seasoned chickpeas and other spices. The sauce that came with them was unremarkable, but I loved the bright heat of the mint chutney, the sweetness of the tamarind and jolt of the pickled onions, that had been delivered with crispy pappadums at the beginning of the meal. The addition of mint chutney to the poori provided a welcome accent.

Having whet our appetites with these morsels, we were ready for the main courses. We ordered bhaigan bharta (stewed eggplant), saag paneer (stewed spinach studded with blocks of soft cheese) and goat curry. When we told our server that we wanted them spicy, he asked: “Indian spicy?” Intrigued at this possibility, we decided to order the two vegetarian dishes at the American spicy level and the goat curry at Indian spicy. I made the mistake of tasting the goat curry first. It was delicious, with the extra blast of heat nicely cutting the smooth richness of the sauce and the meat, but my mouth was already too much aflame to taste the real difference between the two levels of spicy.

Even amidst the heat, I was still able to enjoy the superior flavors and nuanced spicing of the eggplant and the relative freshness and vibrancy that the spinach in the saag maintained. The cheese in the saag was also delightfully firm and tasted as though it had just been made. Plain naan and garlic naan made excellent scoops for stuffing ourselves silly with both of these dishes. But my favorite dish still has to be that goat curry. The Indian spicing really took the dish to a level I don’t think it could have achieved otherwise. It’s almost as though we Americans have been missing out on the real deal this entire time. Providing, of course, that those servers weren’t still holding back on the heat for a trio of gringos.

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St.
Queens, NY 11372

Jackson Diner on Urbanspoon