There are no great Vietnamese restaurants in Gotham, so we have to settle for places that are merely good. One of those is Tu Do (“Freedom”), formerly known as Pho Tu Do. Until recently, it was located across the street from its present location on the west side of Bowery, south of Grand Street. The new restaurant occupies a larger space, with two long rows of tables on either side of a low wall, and so many kinds of bright and distracting lighting, you may want to wear a blindfold as you eat. But, in a slap in the face to modernity, the décor also fakes a village, with rustic overhangs and hut-like decorations. Get over the annoying ambience, though, because the food is often worth it.
While northern California’s Bay Area glories in its tiny pho shops, which do only one thing and do it exceedingly well, our restaurants tend to dabble in pho, mounting random menus hundreds of items long, featuring Chinese as well as Vietnamese recipes. Sure, our joints throw the same inscrutable combo of beef cuts into the soup—flank steak, tendon, omosa (tripe), fatty brisket, navel (lean brisket), and eye of round (thin-sliced raw steak)—but Bay Area cafés offer broths that totally blow ours away. Theirs are deeper, richer, and more balanced, while our soups often taste too much like cinnamon.
So skip Tu Do’s pho, which takes up an entire page of the menu. The single exception is pho curry ($6.50), a cilantro-bedecked chicken stew containing a starchy one-two punch of rice noodles and potatoes in a thick curried broth. There are also a few notable non-pho soups, including an estimable chao huyet ($5.95)—a congee buoying fried cruller and rectangles of pig-blood pudding—and canh chua cai ($8.95 small, $11.95 humongous), a sizable catfish poached in a hot-and-sour lemongrass potage, tasting more Laotian than Vietnamese.
Anything made with beef is a good bet at Tu Do. The preponderance of cow over pig in Vietnamese food is another legacy of the centuries-long French involvement in the slender country, since most of the rest of Asia clearly prefers pork. The best beef dish is bo luc lac ($9.75), a warm salad of butter-basted cubes, tender as hell, tossed with sweet onions, green peppers, and ripe tomatoes, dripping enough meaty juices, you’ll wish you had a baguette to sop them up. (Vietnamese cuisine does deploy baguettes in chicken stews and banh mi sandwiches. Even though both are listed on the restaurant’s menu, the waiter always shrugs and says, “No bread.”)
Nearly a third of the dishes on the menu come with lettuce, sprouts, Asian basil, and pickled garlic bulbs to use as wrapping materials. One such is nem nurong, which proves to be a pile of hemispheric meatballs, redolent of fish sauce and heaped with crushed peanuts. Getting Western diners to bother with the foliage is always a problem, even though enfolding the meat in little packages of greenery totally changes the eating experience, and also helps carry more of the thin, fishy-smelling dipping sauce known as nuoc mam cham up to your mouth. Don’t dare spill cham on your pants, or cats will pursue you down the street as you exit the restaurant.
The menu contains all sorts of things that you might have trouble identifying as Vietnamese. One of them is bot chien trieu chau ($5.95), a flattened omelet enfolding creamy shafts of taro and garnished with crunchy fried shallots. Another is the entire catalog of Vietnamese chow meins. While this culinary currency has been severely devalued by countless neighborhood Chinese restaurants, an adapted version forms an important part of Viet cuisine. Tu Do’s chow meins feature extremely thin egg noodles fried wavy—like a ’30s screen siren’s hair—with mild chilies, onions, fried bean curd, broccoli, and your choice of meat sitting on top like a cloche hat. I’d say go with the beef as your meat option—except that the all-vegetable version is every bit as good.
While there are no desserts in Vietnamese food per se, the menu’s 39 beverages make a fine substitute. You can get the usual orange-tinted (and too sweet) iced coffees and teas, but the milkshakes are more dessert-worthy. Grab a durian shake if you want to freak out your friends and stink up your breath, but subtler and less sweet is the Haas avocado shake (sinh to bo, $2.75), looking something like liquid guacamole. If you’ve never thought of avocado as a fruit before, here’s your big chance.