I’d never heard pie likened to headcheese, but Steven Duong makes a good case for it. “You know how everyone thinks their mother’s pie is best?’ asks Duong. “Well, that’s how it is with Vietnamese headcheese. We love it. It’s tough to make, but we always do it at home for any big holiday.”
At Tet, Duong’s new restaurant, the headcheese is made the way Duong remembers his mother making it. He sautées sliced pig ear, snout, and tongue in a wok, reducing the mixture until the gelatin thickens. In goes fish sauce and black peppercorns, and then the concoction is pressed until the gelatin sets and it turns into a quivering whole. Duong slices the result into thin batons that are baby pink and mottled with creamy fat, and tosses them with green-papaya salad. The headcheese’s unctuous funk anchors the sharply herbal salad, balancing out the zesty dried red chilies, Thai basil, and lime juice.
It’s appropriate to eat this holiday headcheese at Tet (pronounced “tate”), since the restaurant is named after the Vietnamese New Year (not, obviously, after the 1968 military offensive). Duong also owns Nam, in Tribeca, and O Mai, in Chelsea—he has an inadvertent knack for alarmingly named restaurants. Tet’s menu bounces through flavors and ingredients from Vietnam’s spicy north and fruity south. Duong says that Tet specializes in smaller dishes to share, although there’s a large array of main dishes, too. True to form, the best items are from the rolls, salads, and appetizers sections of the menu; some of the main courses are much less exciting.
Although you’d never know it from the generic, plum-hued dining room, Tet aspires to be more than a neighborhood Vietnamese place. The food manages to be both traditional and stylish—not fancied up for the sake of it, but cooked with finesse and attention to detail. A simple salad roll filled with homemade meat patties has clearly been wrapped up just a second before, the rice paper delicately chewy and soft. The green-papaya salad has an utterly fresh crunch and an uncommonly vibrant lime-chile-soy dressing.
Tet’s food is the result of collaboration between Duong, the octogenarian and lifelong cook Tien Pham, and the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Pun (“one name, like Madonna”). Pham, the elder of the group, emigrated from Saigon in 1979 and cooked at both Nam and O Mai before retiring to Houston. But when Duong decided to open another restaurant, he begged her to come out of retirement to work on the project.
So Pham came to New York for two months—enough time to help develop the menu and test recipes. Now that she’s back in Houston, she calls Duong constantly, sometimes five or six times a night, to ask if the vegetables are being cut correctly (they are). Sometimes she calls at midnight to find out if all the guests enjoyed their food that evening. “She’s like my mother,” laughs Duong. “She calls me 10 times a day.”
The best way to eat at Tet is to order a bunch of the rolls, salads, and appetizers. The green-papaya salad with headcheese is one of the most delicious options. Goi sua, a jellyfish, shrimp, and cucumber salad, comes in a pink, green, and white tangle, all crunch and gel, zipped with a tart dressing.
Salad rolls—or summer rolls, as they’re sometimes called—are too often made ahead of time and left to languish in the refrigerator, so that they arrive on the table chilled and tough. Tet’s rolls, on the other hand, are tiny, tender, and translucent, filled with either a twirl of vegetables, spiced meat patties, or still-warm grilled shrimp.
The best dish at Tet, though, is the grilled lemongrass baby back ribs. They come in a stack of four, so everyone at our table grabbed one. All talk dropped away as we proceeded to gnaw down to the bone like wild animals. The ribs are lacquered with a honey-plum glaze that cooks up almost entirely black, giving the ribs a craggy, fossilized look. The generous gloss of sauce isn’t burnt; it’s just ultra-caramelized and brightened with a scattering of scallions on top. The sweet, piggy meat underneath is toothsome and tender.
After the rib high, the pho ruins the buzz. Its broth is disappointingly wan, with none of the beefy, star-anise oomph it should have. Pho is all about the broth; without a good broth, all the noodles and beef balls in the world won’t make it right.
Other main courses are tasty enough but unremarkable: Both the sirloin stir-fried with string beans, yam, and eggplant and the vegetable-coconut curry could have come from any run-of-the-mill Thai or Vietnamese spot.
On the brighter side, there’s a wonderful roast duck with crunchy golden skin, served with mildly pickled slices of carrot and daikon and a gingery dipping sauce. A nice side of wok-sautéed greens is dashed with browned slices of garlic and tiny, silvery dried anchovies.
Even better, red snapper has a crisp surface that gives way under your chopsticks to reveal pearly white, moist flesh. The generous triangle of fish sits in a lake of sauce that’s brick-red and viscous like barbecue sauce, but turns out to be addictively, almost overwhelmingly tangy, made with tamarind and lemongrass.
Desserts are fine but forgettable—which makes sense, since the most common Vietnamese finisher is simply fresh fruit. Cold tapioca soup has bits of jackfruit hidden in its milky depths, but the only other sweet options are ice cream or sorbet. Next time, I’ll order another plate of ribs for dessert.