Critics’ choice: The many flavors of Vietnam
Hanoi House New York City
The young owners behind this alwayscrowded East Village eatery “clearly have a feel for the elusive alchemy of comfort, style, and quality that goes into building a popular restaurant,” said Adam Platt in New York magazine. Sitting at a dining counter with a dark Laotian lager as you watch the action in the open kitchen, you can easily imagine that trendy places in today’s Hanoi feel just like this. “Same-day freshness is one of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine, of course,” so “most of the dishes come to the table decked with sprigs of mint, tangles of coriander and Thai basil, and great fronds of just-washed lettuce.” The chef, John Nguyen, “has a knack for imbuing familiar, homespun classics with a combination of elegance, integrity, and first-class cooking technique,” so his meaty beef pho is packed with shredded brisket and filet mignon, and his green-papaya salad is topped with crunchy, salty slices of pig’s ear “like some sinful form of confetti.” If the soft-shell-crab banh mi is available, “I suggest you order two of them.” 119 St. Marks Pl., (212) 995-5010
Khai San Francisco
“Whatever the opposite of resting on your laurels is, that’s what this place embodies,” said Peter Lawrence Kane in SF Weekly. Five nights a week, Vietnamese-born chef Khai Duong takes over a French patisserie after its afternoon closing, and does the rest virtually by himself as diners settle in for a two-hour-plus $145 tasting menu—wine pairings included—that “goes nine for nine” on my culinary scorecard. Chef Khai, who formerly ran well-liked Ana Mandara, will probably be serving your seaweed salad, ready to explain that its white seaweed grows in the darkness of the deep ocean, and he may be back to deliver the sausage made of mushroom and Dungeness crab, the black cod over noodles, the garlicky fried quail, or the lamb, rubbed with Vietnamese spices and served over lightly charred eggplant. A finer setting would be appropriate for a meal of this caliber, and Khai should kill the fluttery piano music.
But from that seaweed salad on, “the level of craft that greets you is even throughout,” and the crab sausage is—without question—“something that more kitchens should do.” 655 Townsend St., (415) 724-2325
La Me Dallas
It’s no wonder that Vietnamese- Americans pack into La Me at every meal, said Brian Reinhart in the Dallas Observer. The kitchen, with “its genius for great soup broths” and its “mastery of an enormous menu,” is quite simply one of the finest in Dallas. At mealtimes, the place “buzzes with energy”: Families seem to fill every table but the one where the kitchen staff might be sorting through herbs. Order an array of soups to share, but don’t miss the kho dac biet. The house special is fun to order with the broth on the side, the better to appreciate the whole shrimp fried into a bubbly cracker—and what happens when you pour broth over the kinky noodles, ground pork, clams, and crab claws. “It’s like a culinary magic trick.” The vast menu includes whole categories of food—like porridge bowls—that might be worthy of a separate review, but I can’t not mention the bo luc lac, or “shaking beef,” a stir-fry made with tender filet mignon that “shows La Me at its formidable best.” 9780 Walnut St., No. 140, (972) 669-8515