Di An Di — an acclaimed local spot located at 68 Greenpoint Ave and surrounded by other favorite haunts like Paulie Gee’s and Pencil Factory — has been serving up Vietnamese cuisine in the neighborhood for nearly four years. But that doesn’t mean it’s always been smooth sailing. Greenpointers spoke to Di An Di chef and co-owner Dennis Ngo about the rollercoaster of hospitality during a pandemic, how he approaches his menu, and what he hopes Di An Di’s next four years look like.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you land in Greenpoint specifically?
When I first started my journey in the hospitality industry I was cooking in the Lower East Side and actually lived in Greenpoint … around 2006. I honestly really enjoyed living in the neighborhood, but I was ready to move on, just because at that time there just really wasn’t as much here, the dining scene wasn’t nearly as expansive and robust as it is right now.
Fast forward about 10 years later, I was like “Oh, I haven’t been to Greenpoint in a while, let’s go check it out.” We were just surprised at just how much it had grown, and I was really excited about the opportunity to join this neighborhood again and be a part of the community because I saw a lot of opportunity.
What have you learned in in your four years of running the restaurant, and how has the neighborhood contributed to that?
What we really try to be is just a good neighbor and steward of the Greenpoint community. I think for us those first couple of years were spent just trying to understand where we fit in the landscape and how we can be an active member of the community.
Like during the pandemic, we tried to find ways to help improve the lives of our immediate neighbors; we were working with the Echoed Voices group and did a lot of cleanup, sanitation services were challenged, for good reason, so we’d find those opportunities — whether it was giving them gift certificates or feeding them — be a part of the community while also operating a restaurant.
Aside from your restaurant philosophy, what’s your menu philosophy?
This pandemic has really thrown a lot of the things that we used to believe in and how we operated out the window. When we opened the restaurant we had a vision of sharing the food that we had experienced in Vietnam, during our travels, the things that were close to us as Vietnamese Americans growing up, and I think that was successful in the beginning pre-pandemic. But what we realize now…is that in order to survive as a small, independent mom and pop, we have to kind of be everything to everyone as much as you can.
I need to be that date spot for the people that do feel comfortable eating out and want to be out on a Friday night, but I also need to capture that revenue for guests that feel uncomfortable dining out. Crafting a menu that works on all phases is very challenging, and I have to think about the realities of like, “OK, I need to craft the menu that works for delivery that can travel 30-45 minutes and can be executed for dine-in as well that works for my kitchen team.”
What dishes would you personally recommend to people who have never visited the restaurant before?
Our most popular dish is our Phở Thìn — that’s probably one of our most-Instagrammed dishes, and this is our interpretation of a variation of pho that we experienced in Hanoi. Our rice-paper pizzas are something that we don’t offer for delivery, only dine-in, because it just doesn’t work as a delivery dish; that’s also very popular.
If you’re wanting to experience delivery, our phos travel very well, our vermicelli bowls; we have a lot of different dishes that work for all.
Is there a dish that you consider your favorite?
These days the dish that I find myself eating the most is called cuốn, and in Vietnamese that just means “to roll.” It’s a sizzling plate of mushrooms wokked with some five-spice and sa tế, which is kind of like chili and lemongrass, and it gets Colombian grilled cheese and Texas-style queso — because I’m from Texas — so you get this very hearty, fat-rich dish with the cheese, grilled cheese which has a different texture, then you get traditional mushrooms on a sizzling plate and then you wrap it with lettuce and dip it in this fermented tofu sauce.
Given all you’ve had to reflect on, what are your goals for the future of Di An Di?
Myself and my other partners and our leadership team are trying to create a different operating structure and different restaurant culture. There’s the Great Resignation, a lot of people left the hospitality industry during this time. That’s really put the onus on myself and the rest of the team here to see what we can do differently to make working in a restaurant a career again for someone, not just a job they’re clocking in and clocking out.
When I said we have to be everything to everyone, it’s not just to our guests, but to our team as well.
What are your favorite places to grab a bite in Greenpoint?
I love all of the new hot spots that have opened, like Taqueria Ramirez, it’s a delicious addition to the neighborhood. I know that my friends over at 886 are opening up Wenwen, so I’m really looking forward to that opening. Fulgurances has been a nice addition to the neighborhood, if you want to enjoy that tasting-menu vibe.
But I have my classic mainstays that I still try to frequent. Glasserie has been something that’s been in my routine that I’ve really enjoyed. I love God Bless Deli for late night; that was one of the places that was open when I lived here 10 years ago. I can always enjoy Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop; that sushi shop, KanaHashi, on Manhattan Ave. Bakeri, I enjoy their baked goods all the time. I don’t want to leave any of my neighbors out, but I don’t think there’s any place in Greenpoint that I’d tell people to stay away from.
I think there’s great representation here. I sincerely hope that we still keep the Polish identity that’s really been an anchor here for so long when nobody really was keeping an eye on Greenpoint as much as they are now.