Lucky us that the city’s Vietnamese restaurant renaissance shows no signs of slowing. In the last decade or so, New Yorkers have reveled in Hanoi House’s rich northern-style beef pho, welcomed the concise and dedicated chicken obsession of Bep Ga, and celebrated the relocation of a modern classic at the bigger, badder Bunker (after the owners decamped from Ridgewood to Bushwick).
Enter Em, which opened along the border of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach earlier this year. The airy, brightly lit café is run by 27-year-old chef Ly Nguyen, a native of Vietnam’s South Central Coast, and her husband, Patrick Lin, 33, born in San Francisco to Vietnamese-Chinese refugees who settled in south Brooklyn. Theirs is a restaurant rooted in long-distance love (their courtship began four years ago in Ho Chi Minh City, when Lin was in town for his family’s fruit-importing business) and fostered by countless bowls of hu tieu Nam Vang ($8.50), the Chinese-influenced Khmer noodle soup popular throughout Cambodia and southern Vietnam that was the first thing Nguyen ever cooked for her spouse-to-be, as a nod to his heritage.
To make it, she boils down ham bones and pork spareribs in a stockpot with preserved squid and tiny, ossified dried shrimp, balancing the savory, briny broth with a smidgen of rock sugar. Eight hours later, the murky brew (with a fall-apart tender rib in tow) is ladled over admirably sturdy rice noodles, luscious ground pork, soft-boiled quail eggs, and snappy, just-cooked shrimp. For an extra charge, you can toss in pleasantly rubbery fish balls or sweet shredded crab meat, edging this surf-and-turf bowl in the ocean’s favor (I’d recommend springing for both). Garnished liberally with crispy garlic, chopped cilantro, and ribbons of chives and scallions, Nguyen’s recipe is ineffably memorable. Move over, engagement chicken.
Just two other soups are offered, but Lin tells me that off-menu specials, like bun ca Nha Trang, a fish noodle soup from Nguyen’s neck of the woods, are on the way. Pho bo ($12) is sensational, as immaculate a rendition as I’ve tasted anywhere, with a broth bearing the earthy sweetness of coriander and fennel seeds, plus a pronounced meatiness from simmering beef neck bones, knuckles, and Flinstonian femurs for just shy of 24 hours. Its intensity recalls northern-style pho, but, on the side, Nguyen adds the cornucopia of herbs, bean sprouts, and verdant fresh chiles that’s prevalent in the south — a best-of-both-worlds approach that nearly transcends this one. Around the bowl sits a butcher shop’s worth of beef cuts: taut meatballs, pudgy slices of brisket that barely put up a fight, and thinner ones of still-pink rib eye and filet mignon, so soft that they practically dissolve when chewed. Add a substantial bone-in short rib for $5 more. The meat is braised until it easily succumbs to chopsticks.
Mien ga ($8.50), meanwhile, calls for whole New Jersey birds to be simmered and shredded, the hash of light and dark meat chicken added back to the broth alongside Vietnamese coriander, an astringent herb also known as rau ram that imbues the clean-tasting poultry broth with an almost grassy piquancy. It too comes mobbed with scallions, cilantro, and chives. At the bottom of the bowl lurks a pellucid nest of thin and floppy cellophane noodles made from the starch of canna lilies. All but flavorless, they’re perfect for this soup’s milder character, though pho ga ($8.50), which swaps out the glass noodles (mien) for rice noodles, is also available upon request.
Noodles also make their way into all three appetizers ($6), bulking up fresh rice paper summer rolls stuffed with shrimp or griddle-kissed slabs of pork sausage and joining a welcomingly assertive filling of ground shrimp, pork, and mushrooms inside the golden-brown casings of spring rolls. Cradle the deep-fried bundles in lettuce leaves with pickled vegetables, then dip into garlicky, citrusy nuoc cham sauce.
Em’s terrific banh mi ($6–$9) are constructed around robustly crusty and pliant custom-baked rolls sourced from an Italian bakery nearby, and all but one of them (a vegetarian number with soy sauce–doused eggs) come paved with house-made pâté, the velvety spread of chicken and pork livers suffusing each bite with an undercurrent of earthy savor. Nguyen’s signature version is standard but wonderfully balanced, cramming in spongy slices of pork roll steamed in banana leaves; fatty, mortadella-esque cold cuts; pickled carrots and daikon; cucumbers; and, optionally, hot green chiles. Two others pit scrambled eggs against pork products, including a bacon, egg, and cheese (in this case, provolone), though the most compelling Americana riff is Em’s banh mi burger, anchored by a duo of nicely browned Black Angus patties winningly laced with fish sauce and smothered in melted provolone. Heartiest of all, banh mi bo is like a New Orleans po’boy, but with lime-lashed, stock-braised beef replacing the Big Easy’s roast beef soaked in “debris” gravy.
Mollify your indefatigable taste buds with drinks ($3–$6) like hot or cold ginger tea, iced slow-drip coffee steeped from Vietnamese beans, and sparkling limeade with or without chanh muối, muddled salt-cured limes that lend a brilliant pickled tanginess. There’s eminently refreshing pineapple-mint slush, and a tart juice that stans hard for Adele (the “Aloe, It’s Me,” which blends the holistic plant with lemons and lychees). Best of all, though, are Em’s smoothies. Some, like the Strawberry Fields, incorporate house-made Vietnamese yogurt. Others are sweetened with condensed milk. The best of these transforms watermelon into a creamy frozen treat packed with all the lighthearted fun and dewy sugariness of the best frosty summertime novelties. Gulped down to quell the heat of chiles, it’s better than striking gold at the ice cream truck.
1702 86th Street, Brooklyn