Mission Cantina’s Vietnamese Breakfast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but why is it also the most boring? Like can you really get all that excited by different variations of eggs and toast? Which is why I appreciate the Vietnamese breakfast offering at Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien’s Mexican restaurant in the LES. I’ve been pretty hard on Bowien and his seemingly inauthentic, experimental fusion cooking, but I have nothing but love for the Vietnamese menu.

a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce

Bowien’s cooking normally emphasizes bold flavors, but the Vietnamese breakfast shows a little more restraint at times. The chicken pho, for instance, featured a broth that was very clean and light, with some hints of lime and cilantro. It’s different from the more robust, more infused beef-based broths that you might get at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, but I personally liked this understated version, and I thought it was appropriate for featuring a leaner type of protein. They also use wider rice noodles in their Hanoi-style pho, which I found interesting only because I’ve never seen this type ever used before in the bowls of pho I’ve come across. I don’t think there’s any sort of flavor trade-off from using wide vs. narrow noodles, although I’ve noticed that you have to be a little more strategic about how many of these you grab, because even one single strand can take up too much room on your soup spoon.

chicken pho, hanoi style
chicken pho, hanoi style

For a true power breakfast, look no further than the duck porridge. This is a bowl of congee that immediately commands your attention from the first bite, more indicative of the punchy style that Bowien is known for. Sometimes porridge rice can be extremely bland, a blank slate that relies on the accompanying seasonings to dress it up, but the version here comes fully loaded with flavor, ensuring a nice and salty, savory base. The key here is to swirl everything around so that you get a little bit of the egg yolk and the heavenly bits of duck meat all in the same bite. It also comes with a side of fried shrimp toast, a golden, crispy slab of bread covered in this insanely delicious briney and salty spread that had me take a moment to acknowledge how good this was, and another when I dipped it into the porridge. If a bowl could ever cure all ails, this one definitely would.

duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle

It’s interesting how the vibe of Mission Cantina itself changes during morning service versus dinner. It has a very relaxed, off-duty energy about it, like as if the restaurant itself was hungover from last night’s fiesta and needed to recover with some hearty Asian food. You still have that same 90s R&B playing in the background, but on a much lower volume so that those bump and grind tracks become more like lullabies. I think this is why the Vietnamese concept succeeds where the Mexican doesn’t, because the emphasis is really just on making food that’s tasty and satisfying, as opposed to layering on bells and whistles that fall short. The limited and focused menu gives the kitchen the ability to execute things very well. So forget the late night tacos, sleep in and wake up early to a fantastic Vietnamese breakfast. 

Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St (between Stanton and E. Houston St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2233
Breakfast served from 9-11 am. Walk-ins only, getting a table not a problem.

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

Hunkering Down at Bunker Vietnamese

Bunker - menu

Ridgewood, Queens. Sounds like it’d be really far, like one of those places that aren’t reachable by city transit. It’s not even Flushing, Queens, whose familiarity makes it seem closer in distance somehow. I’m the kind of person who thinks any place requiring more than 5 subway stops or a transfer is “out of the way,” so initially I wasn’t too keen on taking the L train to Ridgewood to eat Vietnamese food at a place called Bunker. But according to NY Mag, this is the best new cheap eats joint in the city, and whenever something proclaims itself as the best my immediate inclination is to test the validity of this claim in person, so off to Ridgewood I went.

The subway ride was pretty quick, but the 10 minute walk from the Jefferson stop to Bunker was not the most scenic. To be blunt, we walked past a series of ugly industrial buildings and warehouses. Sometimes the roads were littered with broken glass and trash. Remember that episode of Girls when they go to a warehouse party in Bushwick? Ridgewood looks a lot like that, minus the party part.

Bunker - storefront
hunkering down in front of bunker

Bunker has a kitschy, resort vibe that reminds me of small local restaurants in Hawaii and Bali. I liked the chill and casual atmosphere, but at times the restaurant was run a little too much in grassroots fashion.  Water was from a self-serve cooler, the table was not set with plates and utensils, there was no A/C, a large 12-person table occupies most of the restaurant, and they ran out of several items at the peak hour of dinner service. The one grassroots aspect that I liked was the BYOB, but otherwise I felt like I was part of a coop where it wasn’t my day to cook, but it was my day to set the table.

We heard great things about the crab spring rolls, the shrimp and bacon egg crepe, the lemongrass pork loin with egg and the tomato fried rice. Luckily they didn’t run out of any of these so we could stick to our original dinner game plan. We also ordered some fresh watermelon juice to help us cool off while we waited for the food (Bunker was trying to simulate Balinese conditions a little too realistically, in my opinion).

Bunker - watermelon juice
fresh watermelon juice

I loved the spring rolls–they were perfectly golden and crispy, and the crab and vermicelli noodle filling was solid. They were a tad greasy, but what else would you expect from deep fried spring rolls? The side of lettuce and mint leaves, as well as the fish dipping sauce, helped cut the grease.

Bunker - crab spring rolls
crab spring rolls

The shrimp and bacon egg crepe (listed as “traditional banh xeo” on the menu), on the other hand, I was on the fence about. I think I expected something more along the lines of a traditionally soft crepe, but the banh xeo at Bunker was more like a stiff, free-standing taco shell. I would have preferred a softer version, because it was a bit awkward breaking off rigid pieces of the crepe and trying to wrap it over the bean sprouts. Flavor-wise, it probably could have used some more seasoning. It was good but not particularly memorable.

Bunker - traditional banh xeo
traditional banh xeo – crispy vietnamese crepe with shrimp, bacon, eggs, bean sprouts and lettuce
Bunker - traditional banh xeo close up
close up of this crazy crepe

The garlic tomato fried rice was another one of my favorites. The fried rice was so flavorful and comforting, I finished this side dish before even making a dent in the pork dish (listed as “suon nuong xa“). The pork meat used in the suon nuong xa was a little too fatty and again wasn’t all that flavorful. I didn’t think combining it with the fried egg, rice and fish sauce enhanced the dish at all. It tasted very much like a basic, homestyle pork dish, something that your housemate quickly serves up for a potluck.

Bunker - garlic tomato fried rice
garlic tomato fried rice
Bunker - grilled lemongrass pork loin fried egg and rice
suon nuong xa – grilled lemongrass pork loin with fried egg and rice

I was pretty stuffed and also extremely hot by the end of the meal, so I didn’t really feel like lingering for dessert. But I’m glad I toughed it out and had some of the refreshing and delicious coconut tapioca pudding. Cold tapioca pearls in cream is an effective remedy for beating the cruel humid heat.

Bunker - coconut tapioca pudding
coconut tapioca pudding

If Bunker were in the neighborhood, even in Chinatown, I would definitely come back multiple times. But is it worth the destination trip? Not really. It wasn’t even that cheap for the two of us–the final bill came out to about $30 a person, and we didn’t even order that much and we brought our own beers. I thought the trip out to Ridgewood was a fun adventure and liked discovering the little storefronts along our walk from the subway to the restaurant. But I have to honestly say that I won’t take the L train past Bedford Ave anytime soon.

Bunker Vietnamese
46-63 Metropolitan Ave
Ridgewood, NY 11385
(718) 386-4282