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.. .
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.
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.
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.
20 1st Ave. (between 1st and 2nd St.)
New York, NY 10003