Sai Gon Dep — from chef John Nguyen, who was recently arrested for aggravated harassment, and partners Jimmy Fong and Ophelia Wu, who own Basement in Chinatown — opens Wednesday at 719 Second Ave., between 38th and 39th streets. Nguyen rose to prominence as chef at Hanoi House in the East Village for his deeply flavored beef pho, but here the focus is on chicken.
“I want to do it exactly how Vietnam does it, just modernize it and make it prettier,” Nguyen says. “It’s all about showing people there’s nothing wrong with the head; there’s nothing wrong with balut. I’m not going to be ashamed of where I was born.”
That means chicken head will be served in the chicken pho, eyes and all, with instructions from servers on how to eat it if people have never tried it before. The chicken comes daily from BoBo Chickens, which provides all-natural, heritage birds from upstate New York. But Nguyen is also known for some flash, like inserting whole bone marrow into soup, so a weekend special will be tomahawk rib-eye pho.
The rest of the menu is slim, with just three types of pho, three rice dishes, four appetizers, and one dessert; the full menu is below.
The opening comes at a turbulent time for Nguyen, who was arrested last week on charges of aggravated harassment. Nguyen allegedly threatened the owner of Madame Vo BBQ, where he consulted on the menu, writing “I’m going to get my homeboys to cut your throat,” according to the arrest report. And in September, Nguyen’s former employer at Hanoi House sued him for a temporary restraining order to keep him away from the restaurant, also accusing him of threatening messages. That case has since been settled.
Nonetheless, Nguyen — who attributed the messages to the stress of opening a restaurant — is forging ahead with this opening, before he moves to Hong Kong in the new year. He has trained Fong to execute the menu and will be visiting a couple times a year to update dishes. He and the team also have ambitions to open another, larger Vietnamese restaurant in six months.
The space underwent a quick flip from the Spot — from Fong and Wu before they brought on Nguyen — into Sai Gon Dep, with colorful Vietnamese posters now on the wall and plenty of turquoise throughout. There are 42 seats alongside an open kitchen.
Sai Gon Dep is joining a wave of modern Vietnamese restaurants in New York City, such as Di An Di in Greenpoint and Madame Vo BBQ in the East Village. Nguyen has been an instrumental part of that wave at Hanoi House.
Sai Gon Dep is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., adding daily dinner on December 26 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.