May 26, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Pho Sure Is Pho Bulous Pho Now
This is Vietnam’s iconic pho – “Pho Real” with slices of rare beef. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s a deep recession Monday and Pho Sure is almost empty when we arrive at . I can’t say that Christopher Street has any energy either so maybe it is really about blue Monday, a day New Yorkers have chosen to economize. Or maybe it’s because Pho Sure has yet to be discovered. Or that the phone was out all day. I’m remembering the crowds lined up outside B’un/SoHo jockeying to get in and taste Michael Huynh’s food at coffee shop prices not that long ago. He ricocheted around the kitchen while his new Vietnamese wife Thao Nguyen stood placidly by, fashioning summer rolls, two at a time, as if Noah and the Ark weren’t about to float off the edge of the world at any moment. Huynh has lived and danced through many lives since then – abandoned B’un because he couldn’t get along with his partner, decamped from Drew Nieporent’s Mai House to sign on as a partner with the Main Street Group at BarBao, launched a project that seems stalled for the moment in Saigon, helped his wife open a Vietnamese sandwich shop, Baoguette and installed his own Baoguette on St. Mark’s Place.
|Michael stirs the pot: Photo Steven Richter
Now, with yet another investor he has opened Pho Sure – a tiny café with a sandwich shop up front. Where are the madding fans? Well, suddenly Vietnamese cubbyholes are everywhere. And possibly Michael and his hit-and-run lifestyle have become boring even to lemmings.
But I’m still fascinated by what he’ll do next. I always did fall for bad boys. And he’s made BarBao a must for us uptown even when he’s nowhere to be seen. “He has the right in our contract to open other places,” BarBao partner Jeff Kalish tells me. “I just didn’t think it would be so soon,” he adds wistfully.
Executive chef Sean Scotese tosses those bones with authority. Photo: Steven Richter
So here we are on Christopher Street with half a dozen hands in the kitchen cooking for us, even Michael and his new executive chef Sean Scotese, brought in to teach the cooks and keep the empire consistent as it grows. (And just in time. On a recent visit to St. Mark’s Place, the house’s proud Sloppy Joe banh mi had become ugly ooze on a bun.)
Big fat summer rolls are stuffed with flavor. Photo: Steven Richter
If shoestring has charm, this is it – wallpaper of Vietnamese women the chef designed himself, a stretch of flowered fabric in a canopy over the booths, bright colored pickles in jars above an open kitchen. There Scotese empties giant marrow bones into the bubbling stock pot for Vietnam’s classic Pho – listed here as “Big Bowls:” Pho Sure, Pho Real, Pho Bulous and Mo Pho. We’re sharing Pho Real, a mound of vermicelli in fragrant broth topped with rare beef, so thin, it quickly turns beige and is totally boring. Beef tongue, belly, tripe, marrow, tendon or peen (what it sounds like) are offered In “Small Bowls” to zip it up. But frankly, we’re happier sampling perfectly fried salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab on a yuzu-kiwi sauce, and remarkable green mango salad with shrimp and a spicy lime dressing – maybe the best I can recall – and my favorite, the pan fried rice cake with Chinese sausage and a fried duck egg.
Everyone’s favorite dish – rice cake with duck egg and Chinese sausage. Photo: Steven Richter
Jicama summer rolls are especially gutsy, stuffed with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp and basil, even better than the splendid version from Hue, with pickled shrimp and pork belly. Of course we’ll have both. And at our friends’ insistence, savory fried spring rolls too, which the two of them manage to eat naked before I have a chance to explain the rolls should be wrapped with pickled vegetable strands and leaves of mint and basil in lettuce for dipping into nuoc cham sauce.
I guess I’ll stick with the honey-mustard-glazed lemongrass baby back ribs over the super fatty barbecued lamb ribs – much as I adore lamb, I also adore life. And I need to save appetite for spicy hanger steak salad (“Rare,” we instruct, and it is) or b’un noodles deliciously topped with grilled hanger, green mango, mint and cucumber. A crunchy warm baoguette from the front room – the classic pâté, terrine, pork with pickled daikon and cilantro – will be dessert, I assure my friends, except that Michael sends out a real dessert, just perfected. “Like mochi,” he says. A double order, two little mounds of sticky rice flour pudding stuffed with mung bean paste in a warm sugar cane and ginger sauce with streaks of coconut milk, it is odd and delicious, less elastic than mochi, rather comforting.
Grilled hanger steak tops vermicelli noodle salad with green mango. Photo: Steven Richter.
A Vietnamese waiter who took care of us on our first visit watches our wary tasting and murmurs of surprise. “This is what my mom gave me when I was growing up if I was not feeling well,” he volunteers. “It’s supposed to be a good remedy.”
“Where did you grow up? What part of Vietnam?” Ava asks.
“North Carolina,” he responds, like a comedian, gauging the laugh. “But it’s a traditional Chinese dish.”
I’m looking at the bill. Our excessive feast without drinks – only soft drinks are sold – is just $55 for two, with some slight over-tipping. The unchallenged staff is adorable…so far. But I can’t help noticing that prices here – $13 to $15 for appetizers, for example, $8 for spring rolls – are heftier than for similar food on the notorious East Village drag. And they’re also cheaper a few feet away up front at the sandwich/carryout bar which has its own menu. “People want to buy their sandwich at the bar and sit out back,” Michael notes as he sees us to the door. “We have a few things to work out.”
Maybe he’ll work them out before the Village discovers this little gem and taxes its bonhomie. And maybe not. Maybe an aggressive entrepreneur will lure Sean Scotese away and Huynh’s empire will founder. And maybe an indifferent cook will grind the Sloppy Joe baoguette mix into baby food when everyone’s off seeding the next twiglet. With Michael Huynh in play, you never know.
Pho Sure, 120 Christopher Street between Bedford and Bleecker. 212 929 0877; open at 11:30 to 11 pm.
Baoguette Café, 37 St. Mark’s Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. 212 380 1482; open at 11 til midnight or later
Thao Nguyen’s Baoguette, 81 Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets. 212 532 1133; open 11 to 8 pm.
BarBao, 100 West 82nd Street, just west of Columbus. 212 501 0776; Monday through Friday 6 pm to 11 pm, Saturday 5 pm to midnight and Sunday 5 pm to 10 pm.