While I'm reasonably familiar with Chinese and Thai cuisines I am embarrassed to admit that I've only had Vietnamese food 5 or 6 times. This was by chance and not by design. At first there weren't that many Vietnamese restaurants in New York. Then a few opened up but in areas that I rarely frequent, and finally I was a victim of my own inertia. I liked plenty of other things and it was easy to stick with the familiar. In my heart I knew I was missing out on some good stuff.
A few months back I decided to open things up. I started with the excellent bahn mi at Ba Xuyen in Sunset Park. I liked it very much - who wouldn't like a great sandwich sold at the fan friendly price of $3.50? Another buck for a Snapple and I was in heaven. I made a couple of solo trips and then brought my girlfriend for 2 more visits. Unlike me she's had her share of bahn mi in the past and pronounced these as first rate. We were off to the races.
On a beautiful Saturday in early May we decided to stretch our legs as we were leaving Ba Xuyen and started walking down 8th Avenue from 42nd St. towards the Verrazzano bridge. I recommend the trip. The strip starts as mixed Latino and Asian but quickly becomes almost entirely Vietnamese and Chinese. There are a series of Malay and Vietnamese restaurants, both sit down and take out. Mixed in are various Asian grocery stores and a choice selection of $1 stores. I find those places irresistible. Who wouldn't buy a battery powered flashing and barking dog if the price was right?
And speaking of odd, we passed two Polish delis/butcher shops on our trip. Maybe this neighborhood used to have a Central European population at one time? Or perhaps the Vietnamese have a secret craving for kielbasa? For now it's a Brooklyn mystery.
As we walked along my girlfriend and I were scouting out likely restaurants for a return visit and we collected various menus so we could see what seemed most tempting. Last Friday night we decided on Nha Trang Palace as our first full scale meal and we were glad we did.
As with many Asian restaurants in ethnic neighborhoods (as opposed to the gussied up ones plunked down in mainstream locales) the decor was clean, pleasant, and completely undistinguished. No matter - we weren't there to look at the scenery. (The interesting thing is that the interiors of all 4 places on our list are virtually identical.)
The food did not disappoint. We started with #10 pho, described as rice noodle beef soup with brisket. This was seriously good stuff with a tremendous depth of flavor. The brisket, if that's what it was, was sliced as thin as ham and was almost meltingly tender. As we were enjoying the pho we noticed that almost every other table had ordered a pho dish of one kind or another. Clearly they're doing something right.
We followed with #34, barbequed beef wrapped in Vietnamese green leaves. The beef had a nice mild char but was medium rare in the center. Although it was served with a dipping sauce it was mildly spiced and the beef benefited from a dash of the Sriracha that was on the table. A very nice dish.
We followed with #92, chicken lemongrass served with green pepper, onions, and chili sauce. This dish was a sleeper. At first it seemed overly mild but by the 3rd mouthful it gradually opened up. It's not that it was heavily spiced at all but the same kind of depth of flavor that we noticed in the pho became apparent. Excellent.
Finally, the soft-shell crab special posted on the wall proved irresistible to my girlfriend. Unfortunately, it proved altogether resistible on the plate. It was breaded, bland, and overcooked - the only clear miss in an otherwise very good meal.
Early on, in a fit of exuberance and before we noticed the soft-shell crab, we ordered #36a, the Vietnamese pan-fried cake. As dish after dish arrived at the table we began to hope they would forget to bring it. But no. At the end of the meal we were presented with this large pancake-like crepe stuffed with vegetables, shredded pork, and shrimp. Was it good? We were way too full to really tell although my impression was that this dish was a bit bland.
Service was friendly and prompt. The place is BYO and we brought a bottle of wine which was whisked away when I pulled it from it's bag. When the opened bottle didn't make an re-appearance after about 5 minutes I acted on my hunch that they were probably having a problem locating a bottle opener. I had brought my own and when I showed it to the waiter the bottle was back on the table in 30 seconds. I opened it myself and we were in business.
After ordering a silly amount of food the bill was $39 plus tip. Two sane people could probably eat very nicely for $30.
The crowd was 70% - 30% Asian vs. Western. The place almost filled up a couple of times but then tables opened up quickly. Reservations probably aren't necessary.
Nha Trang Palace
5908 8th Avenue (at 59th St.)
Other Sunset Park reports to follow.