There are “Little Saigons” in cities throughout the world. But in New York City, the Vietnamese area exceeds the diminutive connotation. In Manhattan’s sprawling Chinatown, “Little Saigon” is truly little. In fact, it’s tiny. However, I’ve found all my culinary needs for preparing Vietnamese food in a handful of shops near the Grand Street subway station. Pop your head up from the station and you’re looking at the New York’s bevy of Vietnamese shops. It’s an L-shaped teeny area that spans Grand Street up to Bowery and southward down to Hester. There's produce for sale on the street and people milling about looking for groceries and sundries. The shops are small and packed, kind of like what you'd find in Vietnam itself!
Along Grand, I’ve found a butcher, seafood vendor, and a Vietnamese market that proudly announces its Vietnamese affiliation as a “Sieu Thi Viet Nam” – Vietnamese market. You’ll find fresh herbs, noodles, fish sauce and even net-like wrappers called banh re, which are hard to find outside of Vietnam these days. That market keeps those wrappers very fresh; if you get them, use them as you would a Chinese spring roll/lumpia wrapper for fried cha gio (imperial rolls).
Walk toward Bowery and on the north corner of the street is a fresh rice noodle sheet vendor. The no-nonsense ladies will sell you bags of banh uot steamed rice sheets for stir-fries or for wrapping up grilled meats. You could even just eat them with nuoc cham dipping sauce. They’re exceptionally fresh and sold by the pound. Enjoy them the day you buy them.
Head southward on Bowery and just a couple of storefronts away from Grand is Tan Tin Hung supermarket (121 Bowery), arguably the best Vietnamese market in Manhattan. It’s not as cluttered as the one on Grand and the prices are about 15 cents lower. The shop owners are Vietnamese-Chinese and very sweet. Last week, while buying herbs for my class at the Institute of Culinary Education, the cashier told me that there’s only one (1!) true Vietnamese person at the market on Grand. “Next time, you come here first!” she said.
Walk further down Grand to the next block, which is Hester Street. Turn left and on the south side of the street is Cong Ly restaurant (124 Hester). Jennie M. turned me on to this little hole in the wall last week when she sent me her short list of Vietnamese restaurants in New York. I’m partial to the name Cong Ly as my family’s home was near the Cong Ly bridge in Saigon.
I went there last Saturday after teaching at the Whole Foods Bowery and stocking up on a few special ingredients for other classes. I wanted something familiar and ordered Cong Ly’s nem nuong, grilled meatballs with lettuce, herbs and rice paper. There were only about 10 tables in the place, and a group of chatty local men occupied a couple of them. It was the late afternoon coffee and lottery klatch. There’s no ambiance but I liked the homey feel of the place, which was simple like a modest spot you’d find in Vietnam. They were very thoughtful with the meatballs, offering two difference sauces (garlicky sweet bean sauce and nuoc cham), lots of lettuce, pickled carrot and shallot, sliced cucumber, and rice paper cut in half. All for $9. It wasn’t the best, but it was extremely satisfying and I appreciate the hospitality. Jennie likes Cong Ly’s pho noodle soup.
If you’re hankering for a hearty banh mi sandwich, you’ll have to cross the street and find your way to Saigon Bakery (138 Mott, between Grand and Hester). Look for a jewelry store and walk straight to the back. They’ll get your banh mi made in a flash (their pate in the case is pretty good) and you’ll be out the door for around $4.
The New York City population of Vietnamese people totals around 15,000 so that explains the tiny Little Saigon effect. Manhattan’s Viet presence in Chinatown isn’t like that in Elmhurst (Queens),which has more Viet people, but it’s pretty darn good for people who want to shop for Vietnamese ingredients or grab a quick Vietnamese meal without leaving the island.
If you have tips on places to buy Vietnamese ingredients or where to find good Vietnamese food in New York, contribute your wealth of knowledge!