87 Baxter St, New York, NY
In the US, at least, Vietnamese restaurants are judged by their pho, just as Thai restaurants, for better or worse, are judged by their…don’t make me say it…
How large a factor should authenticity be? If a restaurant conjures something delicious, how much should we care about fidelity to the original?
Nha Trang One is one Chinatown spot that doesn’t force you to choose. Which is good, because – I hate to say it – the original is often better, subtler, healthier, than a version adapted for American palates. Americans are too enamored of salt and sugar, and many a restauranteur realized he could increase his business simply by adding salt and corn syrup. I’ve been to four Asian countries, and “sampled” as much food as I could shovel (especially in Beijing – God Damn), but once I’m back on my own shores I still fall victim to the siren call of salt and sugar. I’ve walked out of more Asian eateries than I care to recall with a big dumb smile on my face, only to hear Chih-Yu remark “you realize that sauce was practically all corn syrup, right?”
Such was the fate of Nha Trang One’s primary competition, the much more western-friendly Saigon Grill. Once-upon-a-time, Saigon Grill looked more like Nha Trang One – small, spartan, and all business. It expanded too quickly, opened a cavernous Union Square flagship restaurant, let their original chefs walk away after a labor dispute, and forgot what got them there in the first place. The last meal I ate at Saigon was noticeably sweeter and saltier than the many I enjoyed in the past. I walked out, for the last time.
Luckily, Nha Trang One is like an echo of what Saigon Grill used to be – simple, authentic, good, refreshingly unambitious about anything other than satisfying as many customers as possible, and – at least so far – inexpensive.
As a “regular”, I can attest that the menu is “deep”, a hallmark of a truly good restaurant. You could drop your finger on one of the two menus (soup gets its own) with your eyes closed, and be guaranteed of a good dish. That said, my recommendations are-
Pho, obviously. I didn’t have you with the pic? It’s more subtle than some other spots in NYC, and it has a wonderful light, citrus-y broth, and delicate, thinly sliced sheets of beef.
Beef Luc Lac – marinated cubes of beef lightly grilled. Each chunk is a perfect medium rare, a well-balanced symphony of savory meatiness. The sauce is a soy reduction, probably with some rice wine (I haven’t seen it made firsthand), that’s so good you’ll use your rice to soak it up.
Any variation of stir fried chicken – curry, basil, etc. Chicken is fresh, well-marinated, and vivid in a way that’s difficult to achieve unless you’re an expert.
Any spring roll, particularly the fried shrimp spring roll – a guilty pleasure. The roll is light and airy, crunchy, and not too oily, and the combination with a big juicy shrimp is intoxicating.
Nha Trang One sits behind an unassuming storefront on Baxter Street, across the street from the municipal jail, and adjacent to a bail bondsman and a whiskey bar. It’s strictly about the food, and I, for one, hope it stays that way.