After last week's visit to Nha Trang Palace (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/406396)
we decided to keep the Vietnamese theme going by visiting Gia Lam. The decor is plain but pleasant enough. There is wood paneling on the walls and my girlfriend and I wondered if the Vietnamese have a word for "knotty pine." Mind you, it was *nice* knotty pine - it had been stained a medium brown and was pleasant enough but it just reminded me of someone's finished basement.
The place was about 70% full when we arrived at around 9:00PM and while there was a steady stream of new customers throughout our meal gradually the crowd thinned down. We people in the outer boroughs like to eat early. The crowd was 60% Asian and 40% Westerners for those of you who use the Authenticity Meter. Gia Lam is BYO. We brought wine and noticed that a couple of other tables had brought beer.
In many ways the meal was similar to our previous meal at Nha Trang but no less satisfying for being so. By the numbers -
#10 Pho - rice noodle soup with fresh eye of round. Once again the broth had a wonderfully complex flavor. This time around it was served with generous slices of roast beef at the bottom of the bowl. The slices were a bit large and I thought this might make for some awkward eating but they were so tender that it was all very manageable. An outstanding dish.
#20 - Grilled beef with sesame seasoning on rice thread. This was actually a reasonably close match to the grilled beef we had ordered last week at Nha Trang. While the Nha Trang version had a slight pleasant char this didn't but the nicely balanced seasonings more than made up for the absence. Gia Lam's version was sliced thinner, almost like thinly sliced grilled roast beef. As a result it was noticeably more tender. Excellent.
#48 - Grilled pork chop, shredded pork, and egg patty on rice. The "pork chop" was actually 2 thin pork cutlets, nicely seasoned. My girlfriend liked this more than I did although I thought it was fine. Just not as distinctive as I would have liked. Worth a try.
#127 - stir fried chicken with straw mushrooms. I don't know about you but I'm a sucker for straw mushrooms - they always remind me of Fantasia. This was a pleasant dish and while I liked it fine, you could classify it as the chicken equivalent of the pork dish my girlfriend ordered. Well made but no surprises. Then again, nothing in the menu description made me expect anything more so I wasn't disappointed. I just wanted those straw mushrooms.
This time around we were smarter and limited ourselves to 4 dishes. The portion sizes are reasonable and we had plenty to eat. $29 plus tip for some very good cooking. This is a stunning bargain in a city where mediocre meals routinely run to $100-$130.
For those who didn't read my earlier post about Nha Trang, be aware that Vietnamese food is well seasoned but not particularly spicy. Each table at Gia Lam was equipped with both Sriracha and an unlabeled bottle of pepper sauce. I tried the second on some of the grilled beef and thought it added a nice kick without being punishingly hot.
We liked Gia Lam a bit more than Nha Trang although you couldn't go wrong at either place. We'll definitely be back.
4819 8th Ave. at 48th St.