It started out as a practical idea. Nhu Ton and John Nguyen, the co-owners behind acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều in the Bronx, decided to first open Bánh Vietnamese Shop House — a cozy Upper West Side restaurant showcasing hard-to-find Vietnamese dishes in NYC — as a quiet neighborhood pop-up to hammer out kitchen workflow and learn more about the area before the grand opening.
But the quiet opening never happened. From the minute they swung open the doors, Bánh Vietnamese Shop House, located at 942 Amsterdam Avenue, between 106th and 107th streets, was slammed. The restaurant processed 1,107 orders during its opening pop-up debut over Halloween weekend, and the numbers only grew as rave reviews drew more crowds in subsequent weekends. Some of the days were so overwhelming that Nguyen and Ton ended up sleeping at the restaurant. “I’d take a nap for two hours and then wake up and keep making food,” Ton says. “But we [still] didn’t make enough food for people.”
The deafening response caught Ton and Nguyen by surprise, but it’s a long-coming show of validation for a restaurant that they’ve been wanting to open since they met working the line together under controversial chef John Nguyen (of no relation) at Hanoi House in the East Village years ago. They went on to take over Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều, which Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times reviewed favorably in 2014. Now, Bánh Vietnamese Shop House will be opening in full starting on Friday. Along with head chef Carlos Cabeza, who also worked with them at Hanoi House, the trio are putting forth an ambitious range of homestyle Vietnamese fare that they feel hasn’t yet gotten a spotlight in NYC.
There’s a direct line between much of the menu at Bánh Vietnamese Shop House and Ton’s memories of the food she ate growing up in Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. One of the most popular dishes at the pop-up has been the bun cha, a barbecue platter with pork prepared three ways: skewers of barbecued pork belly and shoulder; ground pork patties wrapped in betel leaf; and pork spring rolls, all served with white rice noodles and vegetables on the side. Ton prepares the bun cha the same way that it is made in Hanoi, barbecuing the pork over charcoal to coax out more flavor.
Banh dap, a central Vietnamese street food involving a paper-thin layer of rice cake laid over a plate-sized crispy sesame cracker, is finished off with a pile of toppings including chive oil and pork floss and served with fermented fish sauce. It was another must-add item for Ton, who fondly remembered eating it as a child but couldn’t find the dish after moving to New York in 2012.
The opening menu also includes several variations of banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls, including a Hanoi version made with ground pork, ham, and wood ear mushrooms, and a Saigon version made with pickled sausage, bean sprouts, cucumbers, and fried prawn cake. There’s also banh chung chien, a special-occasion sticky rice cake treat that usually only appears around celebrations for Tet, what the lunar new year is called in Vietnam. In Hanoi, however, diners can find a fried form of the dish that is served year-round. Ton decided to do the same at Bánh Vietnamese Shop House, wrapping the rice cake, ground mung bean, and pork belly in banana leaves and steaming it for six hours, then frying it to achieve a crispy, golden crust.
There were some surprise hits on the pop-up menu that Ton and Nguyen were not expecting to connect with diners. Customers kept ordering the pha lau, a stew filled with pork intestines, tripe, chopped liver, and braised beef; and the chao long, a warming congee made with pork intestines and sausages, was so well-received that it’s now on the restaurant’s full opening menu.
“One customer texted us saying that she hasn’t had pha lau and chao long for a long time, and she almost cried in our restaurant,” Ton says.
Many of the dishes are time- and labor-intensive. The delicate rice rolls, which unlike its Chinese counterpart, involves pouring rice cake batter over a cloth and then covering it to steam properly, Nguyen explains. Instagram has been coming in handy as a tool to explain the menu to customers, with Ton and Nguyen posting videos of the process behind popular items, which often sell out, like banh dap and banh chung chien.
The team is also learning how to work out of a kitchen powered entirely by electricity. During the restaurant’s construction, Ton and Nguyen were told that they’d likely end up waiting a year or more for a gas supply, so they decided to forgo it altogether and learn how to manage an entirely electric kitchen. They’re still fine-tuning kitchen workflow, Ton says, which means some dishes, like the popular-but-laborious banh xeo — a thin turmeric and coconut-batter-fried crepe folded and stuffed with shrimp and lemongrass pork belly — will only appear occasionally on the menu.
At full capacity, the restaurant will be able to seat 30 people inside a sunny, open space complete with innovative touches like lights from MushLume, a company that sells lighting fixtures featuring lampshades grown from mushrooms. The restaurant’s quirky, eye-catching logo displayed on the shop’s exterior was designed by Saigon-based artist Ton Bui. For now, the restaurant will be operating with takeout, delivery, and 20 seats for outdoor dining.
“With this restaurant, we’re definitely pushing ourselves in terms of the menu,” Nguyen says of the opening. “We’re able to explore dishes that may not be too familiar with New Yorkers in general. And it seems like the more we push, the more people are willing to try what we have.”
Bánh Vietnamese Shop House will be open weekly from Tuesday to Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m., and Friday through Saturday, 12 to 9 p.m. Takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining on a first come, first served basis are available.