Sunset Park is home to Brooklyn's Chinatown, and there's also lots of great Vietnamese food there. Gia Lam is a Chinese-owned Vietnamese restaurant, but I'd heard that they serve properly Vietnamese food. As soon as I stepped in the door I was overwhelmed by its unmistakable scents: mint, garlic, fish sauce. From a vegetarian perspective, I first noticed pho chay ($5.50)—the suffix "chay" indicating that the noodle soup was vegetarian. Vegetarian pho is not easy to come by; the broth is usually meat-based. When I asked if the pho was really vegetarian, I was told that they could make it with water instead of the usual beef or chicken broth. I was unsure of how much flavor there would be, but gave it a shot.
The bowl came out over-loaded with vegetables, mushrooms and fried tofu, as well as a small plate with a handful of raw bean sprouts and a lemon wedge. The water hadn't picked up much flavor from all of the vegetables, but a squirt of the sriracha, a dab of soybean paste (both helpfully provided on each table), and a squeeze of that lemon more than made up for it. The noodles were perfectly cooked, with just a bit of bite to them. I ate all of the vegetables and noodles, leaving the mild "broth" behind.
For a real burst of flavor you could order the dau hu xao xa ot ($7.95); just be sure to specify that you want it without the fish sauce it's usually made with. Fried tofu is mixed with peppers and onions in a spicy lemongrass sauce to great effect. Note that rice is not included—I didn't even see it listed on the menu.
Don't bother with the goi cuon chay ($3.50). I usually enjoy tofu summer rolls, but these were tasteless. One of the great pleasures of Vietnamese food is not only the mix of flavors, but of temperatures. In this case they took it way too far— the tofu inside the roll was still warm from cooking, the rice noodles and lettuce were room temperature, but the peanut sauce was served ice cold. Not a pleasant combination.
It's not often that I find Vietnamese restaurants as accommodating to vegetarians as Gia Lam was. There aren't a lot of vegetarian options on their menu beyond what I sampled, but I'd be willing to bet that they would make changes for you if you ask. My quest for truly great vegetarian pho may continue, but Gia Lam will do for now.
4810 8th Ave, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog.