It is often my pleasure to welcome food writers from elsewhere to New York, and arrange to conduct them on culinary tours. In many cases these jaunts cover the subject the writers specialize in, cramming many restaurants into a few hours of concentrated eating. Thus it was that I recently took Northern California-based Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook on a tour devoted to the Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s her fifth cookbook with Ten Speed Press, along with Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and The Banh Mi Handbook. Freelance photographer Ariana Lindquist came along.
Our goal was to try as many versions of pho as time allowed, from carefully researched versions to more innovative and experimental versions of pho. We started out on a cloudy day at noon in Bushwick and ended up in the East Village for dinner, having zig-zagged 12 miles by foot and subway, pausing once to tour a community garden, where pink peonies and purple irises were in bloom.
We began with Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen founded by chef Johnny Huynh, grandson of a Vietnamese immigrant to the neighborhood. The fast-casual spot with a brief menu of pho and banh mi is nestled near the Myrtle/Wyckoff stop on the L with a single communal table squeezed into what had been a former appliance-repair shop. We managed to wedge ourselves in and ordered a single $14 bowl of pho served with a vegetarian broth that’s the base for all versions of the soup here. Meats are added with a customer’s order, with the beef pho the star that includes the wonderful, Texas-style smoked brisket — and plenty of it.
“The broth is lovely,” Nguyen noted, “and the charred crust of the barbecue really adds to the flavor.” One of her requirements for pho broth is clarification, which is on display in our bowl. We were less amped about the inclusion of baby bok choi since it’s not often served in the soup, in part since it’s closer to raw here and hard to chew. The mushrooms worked better, adding a woodsy flavor.
A long walk to the northwest verge of Bushwick brought us to the newly transplanted Bunker in a neighborhood where trucks rumble through dusty streets past factories and warehouses. Inside, the interior channeled the outdoor pho cafes of Hanoi, with hanging food signs in Vietnamese, colorful, mismatched furniture, and a summer-in-the-tropics vibe.
The broth in the beef pho (there were also chicken and vegan versions) lacked complexity, Nguyen said, and it didn’t get better when oxtail was thrown in as a $4 option on a $17 base price. She also observed that the sliced beef was too fine-textured and bland, and marveled at a price that’s nearly double the cost of pho in the Bay Area where she lives.
She liked the cha ca la vong that we also ordered, a dish of turmeric-fried catfish that got nearly all the details of the Hanoi classic right. In a dish that includes lettuce, rice noodles, and sauces with the fish, it also contained dill, which seemed unusual but is often a feature in Hanoi versions, she said.
We walked back to the L train stop at Morgan Street, a stone’s throw from Roberta’s, noting the progress of high-rise condo projects in a hardscrabble industrial area. A ride on the L and F took us to the Lower East Side, where we disembarked for a new Vietnamese restaurant specializing in chicken called Bep Ga. On the same block as Spicy Village, the restaurant has no sign outside and a bright pink interior. “Looks like chicken inside,” replied one follower when I tweeted a photo.
All three of us liked the chicken pho ($10), which seemed to have the same squarish noodles as the previous examples we’d tasted, though the added kaffir lime leaves sent the flavor in an unusual direction. We also ordered pho ga kho, a salad of chicken and fresh herbs made with the same delectable Hoi An-style chicken used throughout the five-item menu. The salad is served with a cup of broth laced with lime and ginger that’s poured on the salad as it’s eaten.
Next we trudged north to An Choi, a Lower East Side café founded several years ago by Vietnamese-Americans from Houston, where there’s a large Vietnamese population and some of the best pho in the country. Once again, the double-storefront premises evoked a tropical bar, with tables set outside on the sidewalk that sported lively plastic tablecloths. Inside phone numbers of fictitious tradesmen were stenciled on the walls, a decorative touch that delighted Nguyen.
Of several pho options (the chicken version was crossed out on the menu with a pen), we picked the deluxe edition of pho bo dac biet ($15). that comes with a saucer of liquid fat and pickled onions on the side. To deluxe it up more, we ordered extra beef balls in broth along with crullers that we tore up and added to the soup.
The soup was nearly perfect — the best we’d tried so far. My companions were impressed by the quality of the beef that Nguyen said may reflect the owners’ Texas roots, where meats for barbecue are sacred. We washed down the pho with Vietnamese coffee and an excellent glass of salty lemonade before making our way northward to Hanoi House in the East Village, stopping to relax a few minutes at that community garden on Avenue B.
We were soon seated at the bar in a room made to look like a colonial cottage, with storm shutters and a profusion of potted foliage. It was happy hour, so we commenced knocking back beers while we chatted with the bartender, who was one of the owners. The Hanoi style pho ($13) came with a garlic vinaigrette that Nguyen thought was too strong as well as little saucers of hot sauce made with charred red chiles — the latter intended for dipping the meat, rather than dumping in the broth.
The brisket was especially good, but Nguyen decided the broth was a bit too cloudy and sweet. (Sweet broth is characteristic of Saigon-style pho.) Nevertheless, the beef pho at Hanoi House is a decent stab at reproducing the fabled pho of Hanoi. The chicken pho wasn’t available that evening so we tried the bun cha instead: a variation of the turmeric catfish dish we’d enjoyed at Bunker.
As we walked out to the East Village sidewalk, Nguyen confirmed that New York is becoming a capital of pho innovation. We’d certainly sampled some enjoyable and unusual bowls in our compact afternoon of eating.