With his exceedingly popular noodle den, Di An Di (68 Greenpoint Ave.), chef Dennis Ngo’s plotting to take his contemporary Vietnamese fare to new heights as the restaurant approaches its first anniversary in Greenpoint. Ngo’s a go-getter. This statement will likely come as no surprise to any who knows him–the chef has been hustling his way through New York City’s gritty culinary scene for almost 13 years now.
Ngo and his partners Kim Hoang and Tuan Bui opened Di An Di last May, after years of flirting with the idea of bringing a specialty pho shop to New York–where they’d already made their mark in elevated Vietnamese cuisine with their beloved little Lower East Side shop An Choi.
There’s the crowd-pleasing pho–a rotation which, at the moment, features a selection of buttery beef soups, a soulful veggie, and a clean, fragrant chicken noodle. But there’s also the infamous Vietnamese “pizza”–involving golden shears and a crispy grilled rice paper dusted with a toothsome medley of crumbly pork, shrimp floss, and their house-made hot sauce–and an understated, yet revelatory fried spring roll, which you can cradle in a lettuce leaf as you dunk in a fishy sauce.
Ngo, like his partner Hoang, hails from Houston, home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. From an early age, he dined on the foods of an era that predated him, recipes that Vietnamese immigrants took from their hometowns and–with the ingredients available to them in Houston–recreated with a new distinct taste. It’s the flavors and economic sensibility of Houston’s sprawling diaspora cuisines that infuse Di An Di’s menu.
The restaurants’ palatable blueprint can also be traced back to more traditional Vietnamese establishments like Hanoi’s Pho Thin, a family-run, no-frills shop whose revolutionary take on standard pho gave rise to Di An Di’s own “Pho Thin,” which features a showstopper charred-beef brisket nestled next to a creamy egg yolk. It’s a dish Ngo says they’re most proud of. Perhaps that’s why it’s a bestseller.
Taking cues from restaurants that have inspired him, Ngo’s improved on relatively simple recipes using the vast selection of responsibly-sourced, quality ingredients New York has to offer. “We just want to be good stewards of the cuisine,” Ngo said. “We’re taking traditional methods and applying modern techniques.” Just as the generation before them, second generation Vietnamese-Americans like Ngo are bringing their own interpretations of Vietnamese-American food to the table.
More than anything, Ngo’s aim is not so much to teach guests about Vietnamese-American food, as it is to reveal the endless possibilities that come from eating with an open mind. Compared to other Asian cuisines, like ramen and sushi, that have gone mainstream in the past decade, Vietnamese-American food is still somewhat a newcomer in New York City’s mainstream dining scene. Ngo and his partners–not to mention other spots like the innovative Hanoi House and Madame Vo–have been working to change that, by expanding people’s understanding of Vietnamese food.
For Ngo, the ideal guest experience at Di An Di entails an ‘aha’ moment. One in which a guest might think, “I didn’t realize this was part of Vietnamese cuisine,” he said. “Or I didn’t know you could use this ingredient this way.” “One example that surprises people all the time is [the way we use] rice paper,” Ngo explains. “I think people think of rice paper in just summer rolls. Here we grill it and you get those little pizzas out of it. We make a salad out of them. I don’t think people have really seen that.”
A quick bite served on the streets of Vietnam–typically, Ngo tells me, as an after-school snack for kids–Bahn Bot Chien was a dish the chef scoffed down many a night with his family at Tan Tan Restaurant in Houston’s Bellaire neighborhood. “I think they pay their rent because of that dish primarily,” Ngo said.
Bahn Bot Chien is a mashup of rice cake, eggs, pickled radish, and briney pork lardons (think bacon but better) on top, or as Ngo simply puts it: “kind of like an omelette with crunchy things on top” that you dip in a piquant chile soy sauce.
Ngo knew he wanted to feature the dish on his menu at Di An Di, but to emulate such a staple of his childhood meant the execution had to be perfect. It all boiled down to the integrity of a rice cake. “First we started off just by buying rice cakes, but texture wasn’t right,” Ngo recalls. The cake should be “crispy on the outside, but should melt like cheese on the inside. It should be very soft.” Like mashed potatoes, he said. “Our contribution to the dish was figuring out how to make those rice cakes.”
There’s a thawing and freezing process which renders the outside crunchy and the inside like soft puffs of rice clouds. For cooks who have no qualms with skipping on the meticulous rice cake chemistry for a store-bought alternative, the kicker’s that Banh Bot Chien can be reproduced at home with minimal effort.
Home chefs set on impressing guests their newfangled mastery of street food delicacies should consider venturing out of the neighborhood for more authentic ingredients. Ngo recommends Tan Tin-Hung, on the corner of Grand and Christie or Ken Hing Supermarket on Bowery.
Ngo and his partners are well aware they’ve landed some great real estate and intend to utilizing their space by making it more available to Greenpointers, and reminding people that though the weekends can be bonkers (as any reputable spot in the city tends to be), guests can easily walk in on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday and be seated on the spot. “We want to be a place that serves the neighborhood,” says Ngo. Because of their limited dining hours, the chef and his team have also considered opening up the front of the restaurant during the day as a cafe with Vietnamese pastries and coffee.
In the meantime you can test your chef skills at recreating Banh Bot Chien (fried rice cakes with egg):
2 Large Eggs
Taro Rice Cake (Kong Kee Brand)
1 Cup Canola Oil
2 Cups Scallion Chopped
2 Tablespoons of Fish Sauce
Pickled Sweet Radish (Chopped)
Light Soy Sauce (Pearl River Bridge)
Sugar (to taste)
Pickled Chili / Jalapeno
- Cut the Taro Cakes into rectangles (about 2 inches by 1 inch) and about ½ inch thick. Coat with potato starch and dust off excess and set aside. You will need about 6 pieces.
- Heat up the oil until it registers to 300F and then add the chopped scallion. Be careful as it will release a lot of steam as the water from the scallions evaporates. Add the fish sauce and stir and set aside.
- In a non stick 12 inch skillet over medium heat pan fry the taro rice cakes until golden brown and crispy.
- Take the 2 eggs and whisk them in a bowl and add to pan with rice cakes. Swirl the pan to fill in all of the gaps around the rice cakes.
- Cook until egg is set to your liking. Remove from pan and immediately top generously with chopped pickled sweet radish, scallion oil and fried shallots.
- To make dipping sauce, add equal parts Soy Sauce and Rice Vinegar and mix. Add sugar and mix until it’s a balance of savory, sweet and acidic. Add pickled chilis to sauce and serve.