Reinventing the banh mi sandwich is nothing new. Even in Cape Cod now you can get a new fangled banh mi made with cod meat. While all these reintrepretations of the banh mi are pretty good, the banh mi sandwiches at Di An Di in Greenpoint, Brooklyn are in a class of their own. They are offered during the restaurant’s lunch service and are tailor-made for these days of casual, take-out dining.Read More
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
The Mekong Delta is far, far away in Vietnam, which is why it was so surprising to see a piece of it in Richmond, one of the most Southern of cities. And in an unassuming strip mall of all places. But don’t be put off by the modest facade. Inside, Mekong Restaurant is serving some delicious Vietnamese cuisine this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
You can’t be a Vietnamese restaurant in the South without a bit of an identity crisis, and I mean that in a good way. The flavors have been slightly adapted for a Western palate, and the setting is certainly not traditionally Vietnamese. For starters, nearly half of the restaurant is devoted to Mekong’s impressive beer selection. Just how impressive is this collection? It was rated the top “Great American Beer Bar” on Craftbeer.com’s list. The last time I checked, beer wasn’t exactly a burgeoning industry in Vietnam. But I like this bicultural quirk, because it gives Mekong a lot of character and sets a lively, laid-back tone at the restaurant. The bartender is pretty generous with letting you sample the beers, and there’s so much to sample!
Like good Asians, we ordered a bunch of food to share family-style–the house special soft shell crabs, the grilled pork chop, the mixed-meat DIY summer roll platter aka “do nuong dac biet” and the sauteed Chinese bitter broccoli and mushrooms.
The soft shell crabs were phenomenal. They were some of the biggest ones I’ve ever had, and the meat in them was substantial. You know how sometimes soft shell crabs are tiny and fried to a crisp, so you feel like you’re just eating a piece of tempura? Not the case here. I could tear apart the crabs and see the flakes of flavorful white meat spilling out. The batter was light and subtle, and the sweet glaze with which they were served was a perfect accompaniment.
The make-your-own summer roll platter came out with four different proteins–grilled shrimp, beef, chicken and pork–as well as vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumbers, basil leaves and cilantro. They also came with a supply of rice paper wrappers, which could be replenished upon request. The next time around I’ll probably skip this and order ready-made spring rolls, since I generally suck at making my own.
The grilled pork chops were marinaded in that unmistakably Vietnamese blend of sugar and fish sauce. The juicy and sweet pork meat was tender, and the fried egg on top was a nice Western touch. The sauteed Chinese bitter broccoli was unexpectedly one of my favorite dishes. I’m biased towards stir-fried Chinese veggies in general, but these retained a nice crispness and the garlic sauce went very well with the broccoli.
It was sad to pack our bags and leave Richmond, because New York unfortunately is not home to a lot of great Vietnamese restaurants. Maybe I have to venture out to Queens or somewhere. But perhaps another Duke Dudes reunion next year might bring me back to the Mekong of the South!
6004 West Broad Street
Henrico, VA 23230