Some things aren’t the same without friends - like an escape room. Do that alone and you might just get stuck inside some 1920s-themed detective office for three hours by yourself. The same is true for the best dishes at Phuc Yea. The Vietnamese noodles and curry here require teamwork, and this Upper East Side restaurant isn’t a place you want to dine solo or come with someone who only wants a bao bun and a green tea. This is a place you should come with people who are down to drink cocktails and split an absurdly large bowl of pho with you.
Portions aside, Phuc Yea has the kind of atmosphere perfect for a dinner with multiple friends where you get drunker than you originally planned. It looks like the part of a restaurant normal people aren’t allowed into - a dim bunker that’s only accessible if you pull a specific book off a shelf. Luckily it does not feel that way. There is no pretentiousness in the air - which might be because it’s difficult to look cool when you’re slurping from a small jacuzzi of noodles and broth. But also because the service is always friendly, and despite the secluded feel, it’s generally full of laid-back people who aren’t concerned TMZ might be waiting to ambush them outside.
The food is mostly Vietnamese with some Cajun, Thai, and Latin influence thrown in. And there are some really great things to eat here that aren’t served in bowls big enough to use as a motorcycle helmet, like the fried tubes of shrimp and pork called crispy imperial rolls, or the edamame hummus. But even that comes with rice crackers you could probably kite surf with.
The “For The Table” section of Phuc Yea’s menu is where things get very fun. That pho is the size of Lake Okeechobee, and stops all conversation upon hitting the table like a cop walking into a high school house party. There are three different versions, each of which comes with chicken thighs and wings, a massive smoked short rib, or a 32-ounce pork shank that teeters over the edge. Luckily it’s served with a ladle and little bowls, so your group won’t have to hover around the pho like animals gathering around a watering hole. The veggie curry is also a big bowl situation, except rather than scraping meat from a dinosaur bone, you’ll be fishing chunks of broccoli, tofu, and crispy plantains out of an extremely tasty coconut curry.
These dishes not only taste good, but they become a sort of bonding experience for your table - a challenge as surprisingly fun as breaking out of a 1920s-themed detective’s office with help from a few friends. Sure, you could forgo that help, order these things alone, and enjoy a six-month supply of leftovers. You could also make a reservation at an escape room for one. But it just won’t be as fun.
There are a lot of flavors happening in this little bowling ball of egg noodles: garlic butter, oyster sauce, and parmesan cheese are all hiding somewhere inside. Thankfully, rather than fighting each other, they get along so wonderfully that you might forget to breathe while you’re eating this.
Instead of having to free the edamame from its bean prison, you get to scoop a pureed version of it up with big crispy rice crackers. This is better than most regular versions of hummus we’ve eaten. We should be turning more things into hummus.
This banh cuon is like a Salvador Dalí painting. Look at it from a distance and it just looks like a wonderful lump of rolled rice noodles. But look closely and you’ll find all the tiny individual elements that make this thing awesome: ground pork, bird’s eye chili, wood ear mushrooms, and dried shrimp.
We love how crunchy these little rolls are, and they come with mint and lettuce wraps, which help cut through all that fried, savory stuff inside. Also, save that nuoc cham dipping sauce and recycle it on anything else you order.
You have to take a very deep breath to list all the ingredients in this pho: a 32-ounce pork shank, shrimp, pork cracklings, bok choy, bean sprout, and noodles. It is huge and overwhelming and about as subtle as a freight train. But thankfully it not only tastes good, but feels like taking part in some sort of challenge on a pho-based reality competition.
This is another dish that can feed three people pretty easily. It’s a huge bowl of perfectly sweet coconut curry. And each ladle you heap onto your plate is going to come with some combination of broccoli, tofu, bok choy, crispy plantain, or - best case scenario - all of the above.
If it has crispy in its name, it’s probably going to be good here. And this Cuban staple with Vietnamese flavors is no different. You can make your own lettuce wraps with these crispy pork cubes or you can just dunk them in that nuoc cham dipping sauce you’ve hopefully been hoarding.