We’re entering a great new era for Vietnamese food. Hard on the heels of the opening of a revamped and more ambitious Bunker at the Bushwick and Williamsburg border, the East Village now hosts two new Vietnamese restaurants, Hanoi House (119 St. Mark’s Pl., 212-995-9010) and Madame Vo (212 E 10th St, 917-261-2115). Along with harbingers like Nightingale Nine that debuted in Carroll Gardens in 2013 and Bricolage that opened in Park Slope in 2015, these restaurants are serving regional Vietnamese dishes new to the city’s restaurants as well as reverent embroidery on long-familiar ones. Taken with the hundreds of old-school Vietnamese restaurants around the city, these openings confirm that New York is enjoying a Vietnamese food renaissance.
The crux of this culinary revolution is pho (pronounced “fuh”), a magical beef noodle soup that originated in small towns southwest of Hanoi. It’s a soup we’ve been enjoying in slightly different form at least since the end of the Vietnam War, when refugees began leaving South Vietnam in boats and helicopters. They brought with them a version of the soup fussier than the North Vietnamese original — it turns out there are several regional variations of the soup. Our previous standard, a version native to Saigon and the Mekong Delta, came with a jumble of ingredients in its depths, as well as multiple sauces, with green herbs, chilis, and sprouts on the side, as if the soup needed to be extensively customized to be fully enjoyed.
The version associated with Hanoi is simpler, based on a broth of long-boiled beef bones that can be stunning in its richness and noodles made from particularly fragrant strains of rice. In the North, the noodles are so important that a version exists that omits the broth entirely. Hanoi pho is most often served for breakfast or lunch, from strolling street vendors and at outdoor stalls.
Pho is also the centerpiece of the menus at Hanoi House and Madame Vo, so I decided to drop by both places and make a comparison. Would they be significantly different from the pho New York has been enjoying for upwards of 40 years?
Just off Tompkins Square, Hanoi House has a tropical vibe, with distressed wood fixtures, hanging lamps, plants, and recycled white tiles. In the evening it’s dark and cozy, seating about 40 along a bar that abuts a kitchen nook, and at small tables scattered around the bar. A small raised room at the rear holds two additional tables. The pho is characterized as “Hanoi style,” and the menu boasts that the broth is simmered for 16 hours and contains filet mignon and beef brisket. For an additional $2.50 and $3, you can also have oxtail and a marrow bone tossed in the broth. A friend and I requested both.
When the soup arrived steaming, the broth was dark, rich, and delicious, and danced with tiny oil droplets. Unlike most of the previous pho we’d tasted in the city, the broth was not laced with cinnamon, five-spice powder, or other sweet spices; it was purely beefy. While the filet was kinda meh, the brisket was great and so were the fat-ringed oxtails. Sticking out of the broth like the prow of a sinking ship, the bone marrow was picturesque, but added little. On the side were two homemade dipping sauces, one made of charred garlic, the other a chili vinegar like the familiar nuoc cham found at our longstanding Vietnamese restaurants. Though these sauces are for dipping meats, they can also be added to the broth.
The next day found us at Madame Vo. Located on East 10th Street among a passel of Japanese restaurants (the space was formerly a sushi parlor), the premises is deep and narrow. Seating about 50 at tables and along a bar in front, the ambiance here is more modern, with a red cyclo (Vietnamese bicycle rickshaw) in the front window, and photos of Vietnam and colorful oil paintings of tropical foliage lining the walls. The menu claims the beef broth is simmered for 24 hours, outdoing Hanoi House by six hours. The $16 bowl, dubbed “the Madame Vo,” includes flank steak, bone marrow, and rubbery beef balls — the latter an ingredient particularly favored in South Vietnamese versions. An additional $3 buys oxtail, too.
The pho that arrived sported a nice dark beef broth, but it was not as flavorful as the one at Hanoi House. The bowl had all sorts of foliage in the bowl, including cilantro and green onions, while sprouts, basil, and jalapenos were served on the side. A couple of saucers were tendered for what happened to be commercial hoisin and sriracha. Indeed, the presentation was very much like the versions we already have in town, representing more the Mekong Delta-type pho than the Hanoi style we find at Nightingale Nine, Bunker, and now, Hanoi House.
Let me emphasize there was nothing wrong with Madame Vo’s pho — indeed, I find the beef balls a big plus. But it lacked the emphasis on pure beefy savor that hallmark pho at Hanoi House, and the elegant simplicity that characterizes Hanoi-style pho. The noodles were firmer and less gooey at Hanoi House, too. Score one for Hanoi House.