The East Village’s Wave of Vietnamese Food
The great wave of Vietnamese restaurants that washed across the East Village late last year left casualties in its wake. Witness, for example, the high-water mark around the bleached bones of Chao Chao—known briefly for its slick cocktails and its live d.j.—stranded on the shores of Avenue A, with a “For Rent” sign in the window. Thankfully, like seeds scattered by the storm, others have survived, thriving in what Eater has called a “great new era for Vietnamese food.”
Each of the new restaurants makes an appeal to New York’s cravings for authenticity, offering variously “traditional” or “quintessential” dishes, albeit in obligatorily hip settings. Madame Vo, on East Tenth Street, is loud and searingly bright, and bristles with life. The flavors are as brazen as the lighting, and many dishes burn with chili—after a while, you don’t know what to do with the piles of peppers garnishing the softshell crab. Not that this bothers the trendy couples crouching over marble tables laden with bowls of pho and garlic noodles, recording every moment of their meal for their friends.
A bit farther south, Hanoi House also aims to transport diners to a simulacrum of Vietnam. On a recent evening, a waiter informed a couple that the establishment had run out of trout. Luckily, they were about to be edified: “Seafood in Vietnam is traditionally served with scallion oil and peanuts,” a waiter explained, recommending, instead, a dish of clams and congee, which also came with the oil-and-peanut seasoning, yet managed to taste sprightly and oceanic. In fact, most of the food here is light and carefully flavored. Take, for example, a summer roll, in which pieces of cucumber float on an impossibly aerated slate of pork sausage.
Where Madame Vo is bright, Hanoi House revels in shadows. With the right Insta-filter, you can just about capture the Vietnam of Catherine Deneuve in “Indochine,” the dark wood and slatted shutters calling to mind an opium den in the early twentieth century, though with a strictly reggae soundtrack, and sans the colonial violence. At this restaurant, however, sixteen-hour-stewed pho is the drug of choice. The steaming, perfectly balanced broth is remarkably light and simply trance-inducing. Follow the waiter’s advice, add a few slabs of oxtail on top, or a marrow bone, and feel yourself dissolve into the evening. (Entrées at Madame Vo, $14-$24; Hanoi House, $13-$28.)
This content was originally posted on The New Yorker.