For a long time, whenever I thought of Vietnamese food I thought of very clean, healthy and light flavors – summer rolls and pho. In the last few years, I (and most of NY) discovered the banh mi. A Vietnamese sandwich traditionally made with cucumbers, cilantro, pickled carrots, and all sorts of pork: paté, roasted, sausage, etc. Not the cleanest and healthiest of dishes.
Yet banh mi has (or should have) a great balance of flavors and textures. The veggies add that clean crispness, the meat gives it an earthy saltiness, and the baguette is fresher and lighter than any Subway hoagie.
Nhá Tôi is not the cleanest of places. It’s on a seemingly sketchy street in the middle of a hipster-lite section of Williamsburg. The shop itself is beyond tiny with maybe three or four seats and it’s awkward to maneuver around. The chef whose English and Vietnamese both seem flawless (I can only vouch for his English) takes your order and then disappears into the kitchen while we’re left to wait and watch Memento (which was strangely playing on the television).
In addition to the Braised Beef (Bo Kho) banh mi, we also ordered a Pork Pho (a noodle soup), and a Seared Basa fish (a Native Vietnamese fish) summer roll. Everything around us sort of inferred that this food was going to be dirty and greasy. The tap water even tasted like grease (I think the cup had not been cleaned well enough). But surprisingly, the food was fresh and quite delicious.
I thought the pho was the least successful. The broth was rather bland and the solid ingredients (including the dry pork) didn’t help matters. The summer roll was light and tasty and this is what I expect from Vitenamese food. Strong on the cilantro, fresh rice paper. and the fish was a tasty meaty discovery (it’s similar to catfish).
The Braised Beef Banh Mi is one of their many creative takes on the classic sandwich. I was curious to taste their Pho Banh Mi (although if it’s as disappointing as the actual pho, I’m glad I skipped it), but was very happy with the Braised Beef. The brisket was tender and moist. The sauce reminded me a bit of Southern barbecue, but less tangy. It was slightly sweet and sticky. The vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and daikon) and crusty baguette were all fresh. The only thing missing was a bit more seasoning. So I had to help myself to some sriracha (hot sauce).
The restaurant aesthetics, while interesting, were not the most comfortable. But this is cheap fast food, after all. Vietnamese fast food. And Nhá Tôi are all those things those two thoughts imply: rough, greasy, fresh, light, and delicious.
Would Nhá Tôi’s Beef Brasied Banh Mi make my Top 100 of the year? The unusual sandwich was tasty and filling and something I’d recommend to both fans of fresh Vietnamese food and fans of meaty, greasy Southern food. 7 out of 10.