Em Vietnamese Bistro is finally here. After close to two years of delays, Ly Nguyen and Patrick Lin’s sequel to their hit Bensonhurst restaurant opens this week in Dumbo.
The restaurant at 57 Front Street, near York Street, has been in the works since the couple signed a lease on the space in July 2019 and will debut with a soft opening on May 19. Nguyen and Lin began planning the sequel restaurant shortly after opening Em Vietnamese Kitchen, the acclaimed noodle and pho shop they brought to Bensonhurst in 2018.
At the couple’s first restaurant, Nguyen developed a following for her comforting approach to Vietnamese cooking, with dishes like pho bo and a banh mi riffing on bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. Em Vietnamese Bistro, by comparison, is going for something “a little more elegant,” Lin says, leaning into the late-night-style bites popular in Vietnam.
Its menu channels the lively, open-air restaurants of Ho Chi Minh City, which many still refer to as Saigon. These food businesses are best known for their saucy bowls of shellfish, a category in Southern Vietnam that also includes snails. Here, expect scallop congee, clams bathed in butter, and a baguette on the side for sopping up whatever’s left.
A crucial component of the equation — “lots of beer” — is on hold until the restaurant secures its liquor license and hires a full bar staff, Lin says.
Ever since the couple planned to open in the fall of 2019, the restaurant has repeatedly been put on hold: First by the coronavirus pandemic, then by construction delays, and later, by the birth of their first child, Liam. Through it all, the couple’s vision for the restaurant has remained the same: “This is what you’re eating on a Saturday night out in Saigon,” Lin says.
Most of the dishes here are not attempting acrobatics. Nguyen, who grew up in Khanh Hoa, a small coastal town outside of Nha Trang in Southern Vietnam, is merely trying to “prepare food as it’s served in modern Vietnam today,” she says through Lin. Shellfish are at the heart of the new menu, as seen in her version of ngheu xao bo, a common after-hours order in Saigon that consists of clams doused in garlic, butter, and chiles. A dish known as oc xao dua consists of mussels in a bath of coconut and lemongrass.
In Saigon, the seafood dishes are referred to as oc, a term used interchangeably to refer to mollusks and snails. Here, the couple calls them tapas.
A handful of dishes from the couple’s first restaurant have also appeared on their menu in Dumbo, especially during lunch. On weekdays, Nguyen serves a handful of banh mi sandwiches, including a banh mi burger made with housemade pate, cilantro, pickled carrot, and daikon. Her popular mango smoothie, which landed the restaurant a critic’s pick designation in the New York Times, is joined by versions made with coconut, avocado, and strawberry. The drinks, thickened with condensed milk or yogurt, are a worthwhile order even once the bar is up and running. The full menu is available online.
Tucked away on a construction-laden side street of Dumbo, Em isn’t a stand-in for the raucous, open-air restaurants of Saigon. Still, it’s a start for a neighborhood with few Southeast Asian options, and a city whose Vietnamese restaurant scene is making up for lost time.
Nguyen and Lin have outfitted the dining room with teal booths, a bar, and high-top seating along one of its walls. The building most recently housed a bodega, according to Lin. The couple renovated the former space from scratch, and while building an older sibling for Em, they became pregnant with their first child. Their son Liam was born in December 2020.
The couple opened Em in March 2018. Nguyen previously helped her brother open a restaurant in Saigon, and Lin used to work as a fruit importer, but neither had run a food business in New York City before. It didn’t seem to matter. Within months of opening, the humble, 20-seat restaurant had earned an enthusiastic following, including from New York Times critic Ligaya Mishan, who called its hu tieu Nam Vang “hard to resist.” The dish, a Southern Vietnamese noodle soup, is also the first meal Nguyen prepared for Lin.
Em is open for indoor dining from 12 to 9 p.m. daily. The restaurant has two outdoor tables for walk-ins on weekends, but is limited to indoor dining on weekdays due to construction across the street. Closed Tuesdays.