Growing up, I learned from very wise people/GI Joe that “knowing is half the battle.” Now, I finally know what they meant. They were talking about Vietnamese food in the New York. On the surface, finding a good spot for Vietnamese food in NYC isn't hard. But the key to a truly great meal is to know what you're looking for, which means you're going to need a basic understanding of Vietnamese food.
Whether you've tried a few banh mis and a few bowls of pho, or already know about dousing your food with nước mắm chấm, this primer should help you out.
Phở is probably the best-known Vietnamese dish. For starters, it’spronounced "fuh," not "fo" or or "feaux," you urban hilbilly. Originally a northern dish from outside of Hanoi, phở is rice noodles in a broth, with meats, greens, and onions.
Broth - The broth is what makes a phở good, and it needs to be light, but have a depth of flavor. Simmered beef bones, charred onions, ginger, cloves, star anise, coriander seeds, and other spices are what give a good pho its complex depth of flavor.
Meat - When it comes to meats, beef is usually what you're working with. The most common is phở tái (raw beef that is ‘poached’ in the broth) or phở chín (brisket that has been cooked with the broth). If you want to get adventurous, try out some other cuts like offal, tendons, and fatty bits. For a little bit of everything, order phở đặc biệt. Phở gà (chicken phở) is also very popular - the chicken broth tends to be a lighter option.
Garnishes - Any good pho should come with a fresh plate of herbs and other garnishes. Traditionally, you'll get cilantro, onions, green onions, a plate of bean sprouts, jalapeños, and limes. The table should also have hoisin sauce, Sriracha, and Nước mắm (fish sauce).
NYC can’t even hold a candle to Southern California when it comes to pho, but the Classic Beef Pho at Saigon Shack, Little Mo, and Pho Bang do a pretty solid job. We cover all of that in our guide to pho. *
Bánh mì, pronounced "bahn me", actually translates to "bread" in Vietnamese. But nowadays, bánh mì refers to a Vietnamese sandwich. A tasty product of French colonization, it mixes French and Vietnamese cultures into a delicious sandwich. And just like a good Philly Cheesesteak (#jimsonsouth), the bread can make or break the sandwich - ideallyit should have a nice thin crust and a light and airy inside. There are avariety of filling options - for the classic experience order a, đặc biệt, which translates to "special" in Vietnamese, and comes with Vietnamese cold cuts and pate. You can also go for grilled chicken, grilled pork, or veggie options. Expect your sandwich to be topped with butter or mayo, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, and đồ chua, which are pickled daikon and carrots.
I have two go-tos in Chinatown: Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli for the bánh mì nem nướng, a bánh mì with grilled and sweet glazed mince pork, and Paris Sandwich for the bánh mì gà (grilled chicken), which comes with bread baked fresh in house. For more on this front, consult our master guide to Banh Mi in NYC. *
Like all great ethnic cuisines, the Vietnamese best meals are usually cooked by a loving mother. A traditional Vietnamese meal consists of rice, a meat, a green, and a canh (a clear soup to be eaten with the meal). Navigating the menu and ordering can be a little daunting, but you can follow this formula to tackle it like a pro: order one meat item for every two people, 1 green for every four people, and one canh for the table.
When you're ordering at a restaurant family style, here are some basic terms to know:
Kho - Salty, sweet, and peppery, Kho is meat braised in a caramelized fish sauce. Thịt kho tàu, or pork belly, is the most common, and Cá Kho Tộ, fish cooked in a clay pot, is popular as well. This is Vietnamese comfort food.
Xào - This means to stir fry. Also a very popular choice on Vietnamese menus. Look out xào ớt, (stir fried with chili) or xào xả (stir fried with lemon grass), they are stand outs.
Nướng - This means grilled. Grilling is a very popular technique in Vietnamese cooking and you'll see this all over a menu. This is usually served with a Vietnamese Dipping Sauce.
Món chay - Vegetarian options. Although Vietnamese food is very fresh, the vegetarian options tend to be a bit of a let down in many restaurants. But if you're vegetarian, know that tofu and soy proteins are commonly found in this small section at the back of the menu.
Nước mắm chấm - Like ketchup to America. It’s a dipping sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or vinegar, and chilis. It's sweet, sour, spicy, fishy, savory all in one taste. It comes with almost every Vietnamese dish.
When ever my parents are in town, we always head down to Thai Son in Chinatown off of Baxter St. Its the closest thing we've have found to a good home cooked meal. And for the last 10 years, we get the same thing. For a family of four, we order a bánh hỏi bò lụi (grilled beef with lemon grass lettuce wraps), gỏi tôm (shrimp salad) to start. For dinner, we order a bò lúc lắc (marinatedsteak cubs), cá kho tộ (fish braised in a caramelized fish sauce cooked in aclay pot), canh chua tôm (sweet and sour tamarind soup with shrimp) and a raumuống xào tỏi (stir fried water spinach with garlic). *
Cơm đĩa / Bún
If you don't have time to have a full meal, or don't like sharing, cơm đĩa is for you. Cơm means rice and đĩa means plate, so: rice plate. The dish is served with grilled meat of your choice, and comes with Vietnamese dipping sauce, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and pickled daikon. As an alternative, try bun which is the same idea, but over rice vermicelli.
In the city, for a good cơm sườn nướng, grilled pork chop over rice, I always head down to Sao Mai in the East Village. Pho Grand in Chinatown also does a great bún thịt nướng.
Steven Huynh is a fashion director in constant search of a great meal and the perfect cocktail. Follow him at @theStevenHuynh.