Whether we're talking about banh mi, bun, or pho, finding good Vietnamese food in New York is no easy task. Few restaurants rise above the rank of the middling neighborhood spot, offering unspectacular meats and shallow broths, and the story's no different in the Bronx.
While the borough was briefly home to the city's most celebrated Vietnamese restaurant, the shuttered World of Taste, there is now only the lackluster Com Tam Ninh Kieu. Over four years of sporadic meals I haven't found a single dish worth returning for, just the disappointment of shallow broths and sense of lost promise. (The borough, we have noted, is home to a substantial Vietnamese population.) Still, Bronxites have reason to hope yet--but first we'll have to go to the bodega.
At first glance Saigon Market appears to be like any other Southeast Asian market. The fridges are full of fish, the coffee is served with condensed milk, and the shelves are stocked with instant pho base, packages of vermicelli, and fish sauce. You'll find plenty of specialty herbs too, and rarer ingredients like banana blossom. But what we're here for is their home cooking, done in a makeshift kitchen hidden away in the back of the store.
Bucking the bodega trend of weekend specials, the owners of Saigon cook food every day of the week. Dishes are displayed at the front counter, but if there's nothing up there don't hesitate to ask. The ambitions of the cooks are not outsized, and the quality reflects their means: you'll find fresh and punchy giap ca and balanced nuoc cham paired with pre-cooked noodles.
Their intentions are to provide their local community with some decent grub, and what we get are salads of shredded papaya with shrimp, roast pork, and pig ear; mám chung (salted fish made with pork, egg, onion, sugar, garlic, chili, and soy bean oil); and the occasional soup. Oh, and one of the borough's finest preparations of roast pork belly.
Sold by the pound ($10) and cooked with minimal spices, Saigon's roast pork is sweet with crispy skin and juicy fat. It's subtle, so eat it solo, dipped in hot sauce, or mixed in with some steaming white rice. It's roast pork worth seeking out, all the more because of the cloyingly sweet pork so many of New York's Vietnamese restaurants serve.
Nothing else they cook is up to par with the pork, but many of the dishes ($6-7) are worth picking up. The aforementioned papaya salad is particularly good, the juicy papaya mingling delightfully with the sharp heat of the scattered birds' eye chili slices. Some days you'll find fried rice—standard and safe but worth appreciating in a borough flush with shockingly greasy Chinese take out—or a plate of nuoc cham, herbs including yep ca and Thai basil, and banh khot, mini-pancakes cooked with coconut milk and topped with ground meat (photograph at top).
My favorite dish so far, however, has been mám chung, pitched by the owner as a condiment to be eaten with bread, tomatoes, or cucumber. The flavor is decidedly but not overwhelmingly fishy, balanced and cut with necessary sweetness and the meatiness of the pork. It's definitely salty, though, and will leave you parched if you overindulge, but it has an addictively complex flavor I'd be happy to build a sandwich around.
For those who dig in Southeast Asian sweets, there are some desserts to satisfy your cravings. Options include strips of fried yucca coated with shredded coconut and black rice with chunks of yucca and coconut milk. The latter I found to be bland, too light on sweetness to justify.
Saigon Market won't change your mind about Vietnamese cuisine, but it's a solid option in a borough bereft of East and Southeast Asian cooking. Different dishes appear to come out of the kitchen every day, and every Saturday that I have visited has introduced me to new offerings. We're unlikely to find more complex dishes, though a paper menu posted near the cashier does list (in Vietnamese) the variety of meals that they prepare. While the options might be limited, Bronxites are well advised to skip Com Tam in favor of Saigon. There may be no seating or pho, but roast pork is well worth the longer walk from the 4 train.
2465 University Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10468 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.