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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

A Princely Pho at Nha Trang Palace

Last weekend was deceptively cold in New York City, and I had to spend part of it doing our taxes. The only thing that could penetrate these doldrums was a steaming hot bowl of pho. Empanada Boy and I have eaten numerous bowls of pho in Chinatown at Thài Són and places like it, but we wanted to try something new. Apart from banh mi and Italian food, Park Slope’s ethnic offerings tend toward the bland and Americanized. I’ve noticed only one restaurant serving pho, and it was made with chicken. Where are the tendons, tripe and fatty brisket of my fantasies? For the Park Slope resident seeking pho, the answer is found just a few subway stops south on 8th Avenue in Sunset Park— the Chinatown of Brooklyn. After a bit of research, we headed off to Nha Trang Palace, a Vietnamese restaurant whose pho came highly recommended by the crazy chatroom participants at Chowhound.

Based on what I saw in the couple blocks from the N train to the restaurant, Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue had nowhere near the bustle of the Chinatowns of Manhattan or Flushing. People were waiting outside one dingy looking bar for the bus to Atlantic City, and there was a Japanese place that look fairly decent. A number of other shops were closed for the night. The decor inside of Nha Trang looked pretty much like every other pho place I’ve ever been: one mirrored wall, a couple large, round tables and numerous smaller square ones, a sign made of florescent paper with the specials scrawled across it in English and Vietnamese and a few gold-embellished Vietnamese wall hangings. EB and I were seated right away and set about ordering. We started with the Goi Cuon (pardon my lack of Vietnamese orthography), a summer roll, which was supposed to have shrimp and pork wrapped into its rice paper wrapping. We only detected shrimp, but we liked them nonetheless, especially after they were plunged into chunky peanut sauce.

Then we selected from the list of pho combinations. There are 20 in all, including a couple pork, seafood and, yes, chicken options. EB went with no. 3, the Dac Biet, a “special big bowl,” which included “six difference” brisket, navel, frank (?), omosa (tripe), tendon and eye of round. The six difference brisket is brisket cut from different parts, variously emphasizing meat, cartilage, fat, etc. I ordered no. 4, Tai Nam, which on paper had most of the same things, minus the frank, and had plain brisket instead of six difference. As it turned out, both bowls of soup looked and tasted just about the same. That was fine by me (although, I never did figure out what frank is…) because the bowls of aromatic soup laden with cilantro and slices of still-pink brisket was just what the doctor ordered. The tendon, simultaneously chewy and melt-in-your-mouth, is still my favorite element, but I was a big fan of the omosa. I’m not typically a huge tripe person, but this kind is slightly chewy and almost noodle-like in its thinness (see photo). I slurped it up.

While Nha Trang Palace certainly does not offer the world’s best pho, it upholds the standards of the dish quite adequately. I would rate it on par with the aforementioned Thài Són. In fact, when I got home and did some research, I learned that there is a Nha Trang Centre in Chinatown, right near Thài Són. To complicate the comparison even further, a little deeper digging revealed that Nha Trang and Thài Són have the exact same pho menu— I mean copied down to the last word. Is there a company out there that sells pre-made pho menus? How will I ever know which is better? Does it even matter? Pho is such an emotional food that one bowl might taste better depending on the level of my need for it at that very moment. And knowing that respectable pho exists just a few stops down the N line from my house in Brooklyn is fine comfort indeed.

Nha Trang Palace
5906 8th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Nha Trang Palace on Urbanspoon