No Fuss, Homestyle Vietnamese at V-Nam Cafe

When I stood across the street from the V-Nam Cafe entrance, I wasn’t impressed. In front of me was a sketchy, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that looked like a storefront for drug trafficking. It wasn’t any better inside–the fixtures looked like they were from a Chinese restaurant in the 70s, and a cheesy golden Buddha only enhanced this effect. Although Buddha was grinning, I was frowning, as I had a bad feeling about my lunch.

As you can see, I totally made the mistake of judging a book by its cover, because the food at V-Nam Cafe was actually pretty awesome. This is soulful, homestyle Vietnamese cooking at its finest–no frills, no fuss, just traditional favorites prepared in a straightforward manner.

The banh mi with pork pate was hands down my favorite–sinking my teeth into the crispy baguette and making contact with the tasty, sweet pork and crunchy, pickled vegetables was the best thing ever. Once in awhile I’d get a piece of pepper that would provide a surprising but welcome heat. This banh mi is so much better than the many thoughtless, Vietnamese sandwiches I’ve tried in the city. There’s a lot of balanced flavors and great textures that aren’t hindered by new-fangled experimentation or a robotic, check-the-box preparation of standard ingredients..   .

v-nam - banh mi pork pate
banh mi – traditional pork sandwich

There’s nothing like hot soup on a cold day, and the vegetarian pho definitely hits the spot for those times when you just need to warm yourself up. I was impressed by how flavorful and hearty the soup broth was. Vegetable-based broth can be bland, watery and one-dimensional, a sorry alternative to a robust broth exploding with flavors from a pork or beef bone, but the pho veggie broth definitely held its own against the meat competition. The broth was light but not without savory depth, and the chunky pieces of vibrant bok choy and sweet tofu made for a satisfying and filling meal. 

v-nam - pho veggie
pho veggie

The portions here are huge, and we could barely finish the two entrees, much less a generous serving of clay pot ginger chicken rice. This is something you should definitely save room for. Eating tender pieces of chicken on a bed of rice marinated in its own delicious fat is a simple pleasure of life that all people should enjoy. If you’ve ever been to the hawker stalls in Singapore and filled up on a tasty plate of Haianese chicken, then you should expect the same simple and comforting flavors in the clay pot ginger chicken rice.

v-nam - clay pot ginger chicken rice
clay pot ginger chicken rice

My amazing lunch at V-Nam Cafe was a testament to how we should really push ourselves to try something new. Yes, not every risk will payoff, but when it does, it pays off big. Had I stuck to my usual lunch rotation, and had I shamefully dismissed V-Nam Cafe because of outer appearances, I would have never discovered the best pho and banh mi in the area.

V-Nam Cafe
20 1st Ave. (between 1st and 2nd St.)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 780-6020

Let’s Do Lunch: Bánh Mì at Xe May Sandwich Shop

Xe May - Storefront

Remember when Baoguette opened its sandwich shop in 2009, and suddenly high-end, Americanized Vietnamese bánh mìs were all the rage? Sadly, Michael Hyunh’s empire seems to be crumbling, as the St. Mark’s location has closed down, and earlier this year Hyunh said that he was leaving New York for good.

Luckily Xe May picks up from where Baoguette left off by serving not only bánh mìs but Vietnamese tacos as well. The sandwiches cost around $6-$7, which is pretty reasonably priced for a substantial, high-quality sandwich in the city. If you are one of those bánh mì purists who grew up with a large Vietnamese population nearby and refuse to pay more than $4 for a sandwich, then this place is not for you. Xe May’s Vietnamese-American flavor pairings and whimsical design are certainly not trying to target that market. It’s targeting people like me who find Subway unacceptable but want something more interesting than ham, cheese or turkey, and it serves that customer pretty well.

I ordered the “Hog” bánh mì, a sandwich filled with grilled pork, scallion oil and fried shallots, as well as the classic trappings of cilantro, pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers and chili mayo. I thought the baguette used for the sandwich was perfect–it was toasted to a golden brown, nicely crispy on the outside but perfectly soft and chewy on the inside. Sometimes baguette sandwiches are a bit unwieldy because the crust is too tough or the bread itself is way too thick, but the proportions on this baguette were perfect. The pork was well seasoned and slightly sweet, and the pickled, crispy vegetables were a nice complement to the meat. This is definitely entering the lunch takeout rotation.

Xe May - sandwich
went the whole “hog” with this delicious bánh mì

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the love for the tacos. The biggest problem was the tortilla–it was so stale and the exact opposite of fresh. The fillings were actually decent, but I was so distracted by the mediocre, store-packaged quality of the corn tortilla that I don’t remember and don’t care which taco was my favorite. If there’s some way Xe May can maybe pan fry the tortillas beforehand or incorporate something fresher in the mix, then these might have potential. But in their current state they aren’t acceptable. Stick to the sandwiches, and you’ll be a-ok.

Xe May - tacos
lemongrass chicken, beefsteak and lamb tacos

Xe May Sandwich Shop
96 St. Mark’s Place
New York, NY 10009
(212) 388-1688