New York lacks the bounty of great Vietnamese food that parts of Southern California and Northern Virginia enjoy, but for years, Steven Duong has been quietly trying to improve that. He’s a prolific restaurateur who keeps a surprisingly low profile: The Vietnam-born chef and businessman has at one time or another owned Cyclo, O Mai, Nam, and, most recently Tet, which was a very good place, serving his vibrantly seasoned, precisely executed food. But last year, he closed Tet, sold O Mai and Nam, and went back to Vietnam to scout out new ideas. There, he found himself less interested in the country’s formal restaurant kitchens than in home cooking and the alleyway eateries that approximate it.
“Everyone has this small neighborhood joint,” explains Duong, when I call him up to ask a few questions after completing my visits to his new spot, Co Ba. “It’s owned and run by a housewife who goes out to the market every day. Everybody is very comfortable there. You hang out, order whatever she’s making.” The common nickname for the woman running that food stall is “Co Ba,” which means “Miss Number Three” or “Auntie Number Three.” Many people, Duong says, feel like this woman is almost a family member. Other neighborhoods might have their Co Ba, but she’s your Co Ba. And because these restaurants often don’t have formal names, each ends up labeled with that same moniker—as in, “Let’s go to Co Ba’s.”
Duong has recently opened his own Co Ba in Chelsea, serving the same kind of homey Vietnamese cooking offered at those neighborhood stalls, though his version is prettified and upscale. The narrow restaurant is simply decorated, one wall lined with conical Asian rice paddy hats. Duong acts as executive chef, but his chef de cuisine, Jenny Lo, mans the kitchen when he’s working the small dining room, double-cheek kissing and making sure everyone’s enjoying the food. And, for the most part, they are. Co Ba’s long, enticing menu comprises small snacks, banh mi sandwiches, noodles, clay pot meals, and beef three ways, a dish that gets its own paragraph. All are reasonably priced—most of the smaller plates are $6, while noodles average $14 and clay pots $15.
On the small plates section, find dishes like salads, spring rolls, grilled meats, and fried tofu and squid. Of these, the best might be banh duc man—steamed coconut rice cakes topped with shrimp, and a pungent mix of ground pork, wood-ear mushrooms, jicama, and fried shallots, doused in lime juice and fish sauce. Each bite offers a wonderful combination of texture and flavor, the jiggly, mildly sweet cakes soaking in the salty, umami-rich wallop of the other ingredients. Green papaya salad does not resemble the run-of-the-mill tangle you get from other Vietnamese or Thai spots. This one includes bits of coconut-braised pork belly, tender and fatty, and a darkly complex soy dressing. Then there is fried tofu, sizzled to a lemongrassy crisp, or crunchy little spring rolls filled with a savory mix of shrimp and pork, both perfectly nice. The grilled lemongrass baby back ribs, though beguiling, turn out to be disappointingly underseasoned.
A particular honey-plum-glazed grilled pork shows up in several dishes, and I was glad to see it every time. It’s blackened on the edges, sweet and savory, porcine, and tender without being fatty or gristly. You can have it on top of bun (rice noodles) with grilled shrimp, in a banh mi, or in a delicious dish called banh uot thit nuong. Essentially a meat-heavy noodle salad, it’s a jumble of that grilled pork, Vietnamese ham (pale, tender, mild), cucumbers, bean sprouts, fried shallots, and herbs. Buried underneath all that are cool, thick rice noodles.
Hanoi-style fish is also smartly deployed in a few ways. The mild white fish, distinctively flavored with turmeric and dill fronds, can be had with a simple, peanut-sprinkled rice vermicelli salad or in a banh mi.
Of the clay pot meals, the caramel-cooked dishes are the most interesting. Stewing proteins in sweet caramel sauce is a common technique in Vietnam, and here it results in one of the richest, most luscious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time. Skip the salmon in caramel, which was overdone and oddly watery when we had it, and pick the caramelized pork belly instead. Duong first marinates the pork belly in fish sauce and pepper, then braises it in young coconut juice, combines it with daikon and tiny quail eggs in a simple caramel sauce, and simmers it gently for hours until the sauce is reduced to a dark, intensely flavorful sludge and the pork belly is soft and sticky.
The banh mi craze happened here while Duong was traveling in Vietnam, so he decided to offer six different kinds at Co Ba. These are neither your average yuppified banh mi nor your messy, stuffed Chinatown style. For lack of a better word, they’re restrained, maybe elegant—the barest spreads of mayo and judicious amounts of filling, which range from the lemongrass tofu to the five-spice grilled beef. The classic cold-cut version features gelatinous headcheese and bouncy pork roll. But instead of the traditional liver paté lubrication, there’s more of that honey-grilled pork, a change Duong says he made because he felt the spread was too heavy. Some might say that’s the point of paté. Its absence does make the sandwiches more manageable, but also a little less delicious. On the other hand, you can get one filled with that incredible pork belly, which provides its own sauce. Eat it, and you’ll be happy to call Duong your own Auntie Number Three.