A modern, distinctively Vietnamese-American version of pho — like the kind found in Houston — is finally available in New York via Di An Di. The newly opened Greenpoint restaurant, located at 68 Greenpoint Ave. near the intersection of Franklin, is owned by An Choi vets Dennis Ngo, Kim Hoang, and Tuan Bui, the former two hailing from Houston and Bui from northern Virginia.
The premises was formerly Hail Mary, an experimental diner that closed in early 2017, and the space still has a small but welcoming front porch, where a neon bowl of pho blazes. Plants hang in profusion from the ceiling. Further in, find a high-ceilinged room with a glassed-in kitchen running along one wall. Tables are arranged in the remaining L-shaped space, which is lit magnificently with natural light via windows in the ceiling, perfect for pre-sunset Instagramming. The space is attractive, with no kitsch or sentimentalism.
But the pho is what makes Di An Di particularly unique to the city. Most of the pho found in NYC dates from the decades following the 1975 fall of Saigon, when refugees, many from the Mekong Delta, came to the U.S., bringing the soup with them. Their version, often associated with Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), sported a complicated set of add-ins, including multiple sauces and vinegars, leafy fresh herbs, sprouts, green chiles, and a variety of beef cuts, as if the basic recipe begged for customization. Nevertheless, it was delectable and New Yorkers quickly grew to love it.
Beginning a few years ago, restaurants like Nightingale Nine, after a visit to Vietnam on the part of the owners, started taking inspiration from pho’s original recipe, which came from the vicinity of Hanoi. This version was more fundamental, mainly a rich, oniony broth with a single meat like sliced steak or brisket thrown in, and few flavorings added. What both pho varieties had in common was the fragrant and slippery rice noodles that gave the soup its name.
Other Vietnamese restaurants like Hanoi House followed suit, and a host of other restaurants soon added Hanoi-style pho to their repertoires. But as I found out during a visit to Houston, pho hasn’t stood still in the U.S. — Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants have remade it with a new panache that owes less to Saigon and Hanoi and more to their American identities.
Di An Di’s menu pulls from several different areas — more similar to the diversity of pho in Houston, though the owners say the dishes are not region specific, instead inspired by their childhoods in Houston and Virginia and by travels to Vietnam.
Chicken pho is represented more prominently at Di An Di than it is in many New York Vietnamese menus, with two versions out of six. (Houston has several restaurants that specialize in chicken pho, including Pho Ga Dakao, which serves it for breakfast decorated with chicken hearts and livers.) One of the two versions served at Di An Di offers the noodles in dry form, another prominent Houston permutation for both beef and chicken pho. For these options, broth is served on the side, meaning you don’t have to fish around for the noodles. Di An Di’s $14 bowl places the poached poultry in a jasmine-chile tea sauce and throws in a couple of quail eggs.
Several sides are available, and these pertain more to the first two pho on the list, which are the most like the ones we’re familiar with here. There’s a bare bones bowl ($13) and a deluxe bowl ($15), both filled with the usual cuts of beef. The brisket is particularly good, and so is the beef cartilage, which comes in gluey knobs. With these, you want to get the side of sprouts and herbs for dumping in the bowl. The so-called Chinese doughnut, a long stick of fried dough known as a youtiao, is also appropriate in this context, and innovative.
One of the greatest strengths of Di An Di is its homemade condiments, which come in metal-topped glass caddies and include pickled garlic, pickled jalapeño, tahini-hoisin, and chile, which is similar to a sriracha. The first two can be dumped into the soup, but the second two should be used to dip pieces of meat, as they do it in Houston. The fact that Di An Di has gone to the trouble of making these sauces rather than offering them in bottled form is nothing short of amazing.
There’s also a vegetarian version of a Vietnamese pizza, a street food that’s popular in Dalat, and other vegetarian dishes throughout the menu, including a vegetarian pho that’s a popular choice on Houston menus. This is partly owing to a large Vietnamese Buddhist population, for whom vegetarianism is a positive value. Di An Di’s Hanoi-style pho ($16) is attributed to a café in Hanoi called Pho Thin. It’s quite good, and contains a controversial raw chicken egg. You shouldn’t order anything to go with it on the side.
The rest of the menu contains dishes like bun bo noodle soup and the more traditional meat version of the aforementioned Dalat street food pizza, made out of the round rice papers called banh trang and topped with ground pork, pickled chiles, and shrimp floss. Other dishes also pull inspiration from Vietnamese restaurants across the U.S., like summer rolls made with grilled pork sausage rather than the usual shrimp — a nod to an Orange County restaurant called Brodard.
We’ll likely never match the breadth of Vietnamese restaurants seen in Houston — where I counted 70 devoted principally to pho — but Di An Di gives us a fair picture. In Houston, these eateries tend to be open in the mornings, when the older crowd arrive for their morning bowls of pho. Some are open far into the night, with DJs and disco lights, catering to a much younger crowd of second and third generation Vietnamese Americans, who have seen much of the familiar menu remade. Di An Di strikes a very nice balance between reverence and innovation, offering New York City a Vietnamese bill of fare unlike any we’ve seen before.