Labor-Intensive Vietnamese Cooking in a Summer Short on Labor
The Vietnamese rice cake known as banh chung is typically begun at least a day in advance, by soaking sticky rice in water. The next day, a large …
The Vietnamese rice cake known as banh chung is typically begun at least a day in advance, by soaking sticky rice in water. The next day, a large green leaf is spread with the successive layers that will make up the cake: some soaked rice, cooked mung beans, marinated pork and finally more rice. This is wrapped in the leaf and tied into a neat bundle that will be boiled as long as necessary; several hours is not unusual.
As the banh chung cooks, the flavor of the leaf (phrynium in Vietnam, usually banana in the United States) and the filling will travel so that the outer rice will taste leafier and the inner rice will be meatier. The recipe, said to have been revealed to a Hung dynasty prince in a dream, is customary in Vietnamese homes during the Lunar New Year. It is made outside the holiday, too, but banh chung is not likely to appear on anyone’s list of the top 10 fast weeknight dinners.
It is, though, a staple on the menu of Banh Vietnamese Shop House, on the Upper West Side. The two versions there, one with pork and one without, are carved into slabs and fried, a treatment often accorded to leftover rice cakes. This may well push the banh chung timeline into a third day.
John Nguyen, left, and Nhu Ton own the restaurant. He runs the dining room and she is the chef.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
As you eat it — crunching on a pickled scallion bulb to offset the earthier flavors and lingering over the way the chewy, soft, white interior feels in your mouth when it meets the sticky-crisp golden edges — you may find yourself lost in wonder that such a labor-intensive dish is available at a place that is, to all appearances, a high-volume takeout joint with a few sit-down tables.
Banh Vietnamese Shop House appeared on Amsterdam Avenue around Halloween. In its tentative first months it was open only on weekends and called itself a pop-up. It was meant to last, but the owners, Nhu Ton and John Nguyen, wanted to broadcast that the kinks hadn’t been worked out yet. If they hoped that the neighborhood would give them a few weeks to settle in, they were mistaken; soon the two of them were sleeping in the restaurant to keep up with orders.
In pandemic New York, as voracious demand for takeout crashed into the scarcity of skilled cooks, many restaurants jettisoned dishes from their menus, particularly complicated and time-consuming ones — for instance, banh chung chien. Ms. Ton and Mr. Nguyen, who also own a Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx, Com Tam Ninh Kieu, seem to have resisted this urge. Ms. Ton, the chef, changes her menu constantly, but it never seems to get any shorter. When a dish goes away, she replaces it with another that may be just as unusual. Many of the dishes at Banh Vietnamese are rarely seen in New York restaurants, or rarely seen in such faithful renditions, and this is one of the chief reasons to go.
Bun cha, a kind of pork barbecue sampler, appears the way you might see it in Hanoi. On a platter with rice noodles, herbs and lettuce, for wrapping, are skewers of pork that taste unmistakably of caramel, fish sauce and charcoal smoke; Oreo-size sausage patties that are wrapped in betel leaves and blackened on the grill; and spring rolls. You may see one or two elements of this trinity in other Vietnamese restaurants here, but they probably will not be cooked over charcoal and the peppery, tannic betel leaf is likely to be missing.
If you somehow find a place that serves all three together, it’s still highly unlikely the spring roll will be as good as the ones at Banh Vietnamese, which are among the most flavorful in the city. The spring rolls appear in other manifestations, all worth eating: with cold rice vermicelli, crunchy vegetables and a bowl of sweet, salty nuoc cham dressing to be inverted over them; stuffed into a warm baguette to make a banh mi with pink curls of cured sweet sausage; and finally, on their own, except for lettuce to wrap them in and a few bright mint sprigs.
You will also find a salad of chilled crab circled with daikon, crab chips and segments of pink grapefruit. It is hard to imagine a meal better suited to a slow summer evening.
Fans of Com Tam Ninh Kieu understand that Ms. Nhu and Mr. Nguyen know their way around a bowl of soup. Braised pig intestines, pha lau, have sporadically appeared on the menu, and so has the spicy, lemongrass-rich beef noodle soup called bun bo hue. You may catch one of them; failing that, the pho dac biet is in pretty steady supply. The broth almost glows with the warmth of toasted cinnamon and star anise, steaming as it cooks the pink shaved steak and keeps the tripe and tendons tender and soft until you are ready to reckon with them.
The restaurant in which all this happens has a jaunty, almost tropical look, like a coffee shop in Miami or Palm Springs. Black and white tiles create a slinking, syncopated visual rhythm across the floor. Perforated concrete breeze blocks partly hide the long galley kitchen where the pork belly fries, the excellent Vietnamese coffee drips thickly from metal filters, and the baguettes are warmed in an oven before they are split open for banh mi.
The pace in the kitchen is, if anything, faster than it was last fall. Shortly after the doors are unlocked, all the seats are full, both in the dining room and out in a tangerine-and-turquoise shed on the avenue. New takeout customers seem to walk through the door approximately every two and a half minutes.
This takes a toll, understandably. Meals can race along at first and then stall out. Orders can back up. Some may arrive in what seems like an incomplete state. I’d like to know what the banh mi filled with fried, turmeric-rubbed chicken would have tasted like with more lemongrass-chile sauce and a few slices of jalapeño.
In the past, you might have found fault with a restaurant that consistently takes on more orders than it can handle. Now you find yourself rooting for the orders to keep coming in, and rooting for the cooks as they try to balance on the edge of chaos.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.
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