One of New York’s most exciting new dishes originates from the street vendors of Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City. There, hawkers grill round rice crackers over charcoal, brushing the crisps with cream cheese, scallions, and then, to keep everything from burning, a thin layer of egg. This bánh tráng nướng, or Vietnamese pizza, is also commonplace in Orange County, California, home to one of the country’s biggest Vietnamese populations. But it’s been largely unavailable in New York.
That changed with Di An Di, a Greenpoint Vietnamese restaurant from Texas-native Dennis Ngo. When it opened, Ngo served a traditional bánh tráng nướng with bits of sweet ground pork, funky shrimp floss, and spicy jalapenos.
But the hot spot, which champions the contemporary foods of Vietnam and its American diaspora, debuted something a bit different in December.
Ngo started dotting his rice crisps with the classic Vietnamese pairing of clams and rau ram, an herb that suggests cilantro perfumed with pine. And then he threw in some pork lardons and sweet chile sauce. The crust recalls crisp phyllo; it gives just a little before shattering. The clams, in turn, offer more chew than brine, acting as a soft counterpart to the snappy cracker, while the nuclear-powered rau ram punches the palate back into focus.
The chef says the flavor combinations are true to Vietnamese sensibilities, but the dish inadvertently evokes a foodstuff that’s surely more familiar to scores of Northeasterners: a New Haven-style bivalve pie. The menu lists it both as a Vietnamese clam pizza and a bánh tráng nướng, reflecting a cross-cultural ethos that infuses so much of the restaurant’s cuisine, and that firmly plants Di An Di as a modern Vietnamese-American restaurant. And it’s an excellent one at that.
Long before contemporary chefs expressed indignation over Chinese dollar dumplings commanding one-twentieth of the price of ravioli, satirist Tu Mo had a few smart words about Vietnamese soup. “Don’t downgrade phở by labeling it a humble food,” he stated in a 1934 poem, as interpreted by cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. Mo, who touted the dish to oppose colonialist French rule, compared phở to “other international foods of note,” adding that “even the city of Paris,” that international gastronomic hub, has to “welcome” it.
Nearly a century later, Vietnamese spots pepper the Parisian landscape. And even though phở, like ramen, has a hard time breaking past the $20 mark in New York, it’s unquestionably solidifying its status as one of the city’s quintessential soups. Few would consider it humble — especially not at Di An Di, where the clear, complex broths are no less stunning than Gallic consommes.
It would be just as absurd to call the restaurant humble. Patrons of all stripes line up two hours for bánh xèo — a dosa-like turmeric crepe filled with a warming blend of shrimp, pork, and mung beans; the starchy mixture is bland at first, but a quick application of fish sauce brings the component ingredients to life.
Other diners might reserve weeks in advance to gnaw at wonderfully chewy fried pig tails, sticky with tart tamarind chile sauce. They cleanse their palates with icy vodka highballs, redolent of lemongrass and bergamot, while sitting near neon-green lights and hanging plants.
These are the type of fervent crowds the late Pastis might have commanded in its heyday, or that Momofuku might attract now. Whenever an old developer stuffs his luxe mall or waterfront development full of copycat Euro spots, I think about packed venues like Di An Di, restaurants that will define the future of the city while corporate brasseries sit fallow.
Humble, in fact, is not a word that would apply at all to the Big Apple’s rapidly evolving Southeast Asian scene.
New York’s largest flow of Vietnamese immigrants came following the fall of Saigon in 1975; many of them eventually settled in Elmhurst and Flushing, which along with Chinatown still boasts one of the city’s most notable clusterings of phở and banh mi spots. But just as a new class of Korean and Chinese restaurants are popping up around the city, a younger group of Vietnamese venues are making a name for themselves as well, pushing past tradition and the burden of being cheap.
Members of this crew include Bunker, backed by a Queens native who dishes up bacon banh mi sandwiches in Bushwick; Hanoi House, which sells uni pancakes in the East Village; and Madame Vo BBQ, whose New York- and Mississippi-born chefs book up the house with $59 seven-course beef tastings.
Di An Di’s operators are second generation; Ngo and Kim Hoang were raised in Houston, home to the country’s third-largest diaspora community, while Tuan Bui hails from Northern Virginia. Accordingly, they reference foods both from their Vietnamese travels and their American upbringings.
That means diners can expect chicken over rice, a staple dish in Houston, where it’s normally steamed Hainanese style. Di An Di instead fries the birds, letting them crisp up without any batter. The soft meat and golden skin taste like a mathematically engineered bird: poultry to the power of 100. To amp up the richness even further, a pile of scallion aioli lies underneath the grains.
Bánh tráng trộn, another stalwart of Lone Star Vietnamese cuisine, makes a rare New York appearance here. Strands of rice paper, as wide as tagliatelle and as thin as tissue, act as springboard for a tart jolt of pickled papaya and a salty crumble of beef jerky. It is a perfect cold noodle salad.
Lucky guests might also encounter a steamed, grilled, and deep-fried short rib. Ngo says the “entire reasoning” for this special, which packs a powerfully earthy beefiness, was to show off an even more flavor-packed product: mắm nêm. He softens the blow of that famous elixir, forged from whole fermented anchovies, with pineapples, chile, and lime juice. Patrons wrap the beef in the lettuce, then dunk it in the mắm nêm, which has a stunning umami-rich pungency that more or less makes it the durian of steak sauces.
And of course there’s the spring roll, a dish so ingrained in Stateside culture that one can find them, for better or for worse, on a Cheesecake Factory menu. At Di An Di, the flavors seem to sing more brightly than elsewhere. The tamale-sized rice wrapper folds around a fistful of mint and basil, while a pile of shrimp and squid mimic the flavor intensity of a langoustine.
New York’s modern Vietnamese menus are often quite focused in their soup offerings. Hanoi House offers a riff on leaner Northern phở — little more than broth, stretchy rice noodles, fish sauce, and filet mignon — while Madame Vo reps the lusher and more common version from the South, fragrant with cilantro and accompanied by a plate of basil, jalapenos, and sprouts.
Di An Di, by contrast, acts as an outlier in selling both. Cooks cover the Hanoi phở in scallions, adding a touch of perfume to the intensely beefy broth. And they serve the sweeter Southern version with a plate of basil and sprouts for tearing and infusing. Giant mounds of noodles lie at the bottom of each bowl, the translucent strands mirroring the broth’s flavors of cinnamon and star anise.
The kitchen also puts out an estimable phở ga (chicken), with a clean poultry tang and a resinous hit of rau ram, as well as a strikingly nuanced bún bò huế, a crimson-hued soup heady with beef, shrimp paste, sweet lemongrass, and bouncier, thicker, firmer noodles.
Best of all is the dry phở, currently off the menu but slated for a summer return. Patrons take wide rice noodles and dip them in sweet jasmine chile sauce and a concentrated bowl of chicken broth. This ecumenical approach to phở effectively makes Di An Di a Vietnamese analogue of sorts to Ivan Ramen, one of the few Japanese-style noodle shops to juxtapose shoyu, shio, tsukemen, mazamen, and other soup styles under a single roof. Diners can compare and contrast styles of phở here before seeking more dedicated versions elsewhere.
Ngo says he plans to tweak the Di An Di formula as it matures, perhaps introducing a late-night program — along the lines of Ssäm Bar in its 2006 days, where Tien Ho served some of the best Vietnamese-American fare the city has ever seen. And he’d also like to revisit dessert, which was nixed after an early effort to keep the tables moving. In other words, the chef is ensuring Di An Di can do what virtually any modern American restaurant serving any type of food needs to do to remain relevant: adapt and evolve.