Sure, there are good Vietnamese restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and along 86th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. There’s even a decent place in Jersey City. But no place can match the excellent Vietnamese food I’ve been eating lately at an unexpected location—Jerome Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Under the elevated 4 train lurks a microscopic Southeast Asian neighborhood, represented by a pair of Cambodian groceries and a single Vietnamese restaurant.
One of the Cambodian stores, Phnom Penh-Nha Trang Market (2639 Jerome Avenue), stocks neat shelves of curry pastes, snack chips, and pickled, dried, and frozen fish. Among a modest selection of carry-out meals, the braised chicken, served with ginger relish, is particularly good. You can also get black-pepper-dotted pork pâte, served sliced in a salad with lettuce, mint, and thick soy sauce. On the opposite side of Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage—which sits forlornly on a small triangle of grass off the Grand Concourse—lies Battambang Market II (229 East Kingsbridge Road). Named after Cambodia’s second-largest city, it features fresh vegetables and pork products and is a great place to score kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and bird chilies.
The restaurant’s entire name is World of Taste Seafood Deli/Vietnamese Food, and the joint must have once been a seafood market, judging by the stuffed swordfish that hangs menacingly at the end of the large room, which is now entirely devoid of iced catch. Instead, a counter dispenses ready-to-eat pork buns and shrimp summer rolls wrapped in edible rice paper. The kitchen area is directly behind, and therein labor a talented pair of Vietnamese women so short you can barely see their heads over the counter. A third member of the culinary team identified herself as a Liberian. (The Bronx fosters such unexpected culinary bedfellows.)
World of Taste is not the kind of place that offers a dozen barely different varieties of pho: You can get the dish furnished with either thin-sliced eye-of-round (put into the soup raw, steeping as you eat it) or beef balls, which might have been fashioned by Poe’s ghost, so pale and feathery are they. Either pho ($5.50–$6) sports a limpid broth tasting of long-boiled beef bones and zapped at the last instant with five-spice powder. The cilantro’s already in the soup, but you must toss in the stalks of Asian basil and bales of bean sprouts provided.
So, too, are the cha gio (spring rolls, four for $3.50) way better than those found elsewhere. The delicate pastry flutes contain a mellow combo of pork, crab, mushrooms, and clear mung-bean vermicelli. They’ve been fried more aggressively than usual, resulting in a deep caramelized brown color and a superior crunch. Wrap them in iceberg with fresh mint, dip them in sharp vinegar, and rocket yourself to gastronomic nirvana.
Served with plenty of rice, bargain stir-fries scented with scallions and lemongrass are another wise choice. Chicken is cooked to near-dryness with mild green chilies and curry powder in ga xao xa ot ($6). Recalling the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, beef, “country-style,” comes sautéed in pure butter, the cubes meltingly tender on your tongue. Dressed with mayo and soy sauce, the banh mi sandwich ($3.50) layers pork pâte, barbecued pork, and ham, for an enhanced triple porkiness.
After sampling the countrywide standards, turn to the obscure back page of the menu, which you may have missed. It features house specials, many associated with the city of Hue (pronounced “Way”), smack-dab in the center of Vietnam and looking almost like an Alpine village against a backdrop of green hills. (The Americans bombed the crap out of it during the Vietnam War.) Bun bo Hue ($5.50) is a soup with a fiery red broth improved with both scallions and sweet white onions. Into it belly-flop several beef fillets and a couple of slices of pork pâte, while masses of the slender white-rice noodles known as bun provide the starch. The soup’s cousin in exceptionality is vun mang vit, a duck-and-bamboo-shoot potage also associated with Hue, which springs into action when you dump in the ginger vinaigrette that comes alongside.
The refrigerator case holds a slew of beverage surprises, including a basil-seed drink that looks like zillions of small, unblinking eyes in your paper cup. Poe would have loved it, and I delight to think of him traipsing over from his crib and sitting among the other Bronx denizens to enjoy a cold-weather bowl of pho.