It feels rarer and rarer to find an undiscovered gem in Williamsburg, but Nha Toi is one of those diamonds-in-the-rough.
It's not as if Nha Toi is totally undiscovered—the tiny, 15-seat Vietnamese restaurant opened on Havemeyer Street in early 2009, and has plenty of devoted fans that happily squeeze into the matchbox-sized space to devour excellent bahn mi at lunch or slurp down rich, steaming bowls of pho at dinner. But there's just something about Nha Toi that makes if feel as if it's off the beaten path.
Maybe it's the space's quirky decor: every available inch of the restaurant's wall space is crammed with framed photos, paintings, and random memorabilia, such as a risqué drawing of a scantily-clad Marge Simpson primping in front of a mirror. Maybe it's the overhead TV screen, which is usually turned off but which occasionally, in the middle of a slow day, will screen Star Wars or Rocky. Most likely it's the restaurant's complete lack of pretense: there's no table service, so customers pick up their orders from a counter dividing the closet-sized kitchen from the teensy dining room, and no fancy cocktail menu: in fact, Nha Toi doesn't even serve alcohol. In a neighborhood where artifice and manufactured cool abound, Nha Toi feels refreshingly honest.
But of course, a restaurant's funky interior design and straightforward attitude matter not a whit if the food isn't any good: luckily, Nha Toi's food is great. The menu offers a healthy mix of meat and vegetarian dishes, and since I'm an omnivore, I can attest to the quality of the former. But we're here to talk about the meatless fare, so let's, shall we?
In keeping with Nha Toi's casual style, there's but one menu in the joint: it's paper, and it's posted on the wall near the kitchen where you place your order. Surrounding that menu is a haphazard smattering of yellowed post-it notes listing specials. You'll want to pay attention to those notes, because a few of the restaurant's great dishes are advertised on them.
One such dish is the ordinary-sounding veggie fries with sauces ($6, pictured at top), which, in fact, are no ordinary fries but a diverse mix of cooked vegetables that are pounded together, seasoned heavily with cumin, cut into stubby wedges, and deep-fried until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Chef Fred Hua wouldn't reveal exactly what's in those fries, but he did say he uses Chinese broccoli, beets, and two kinds of beans. The fries come with an addictive spicy mayo and a little dish of what looks like ketchup but which is actually a sweet-hot sauce made with red chiles and puréed roasted beets.
Even those unacquainted with Vietnamese food probably know pho, the hearty rice noodle soup that's heaped tableside with crunchy bean sprouts and fresh herbs, squeezed with lime and drizzled with spicy sriracha and sweet hoisin. Pho broth is traditionally brewed from beef bones, but Nha Toi offers a satisfying vegetarian pho (small, $8) made with a flavorful, not-too-salty broth and filled with noodles, jewel-green baby bok choy, earthy, mushrooms and a few nuggets of silken fried tofu. The small size is incredibly generous and a steal at $8.
Nha Toi's menu offers a couple of cheap sides, all priced at $3 or below and all vegetarian. The pea shoots ($3) are simply steamed until crisp-tender, seasoned heavily with salt and pepper (mix together before eating), and drizzled with sesame oil, a light touch that allows the natural sweetness of the vegetable to shine through.
The restaurant offers a handful of varieties of bun, or cold, thin rice noodles heaped with vegetables and toppings of various textures, such as roasted peanuts, fresh mint and pickled vegetables. One vegetarian option is piled with roasted portobello mushrooms and vegetarian fried rolls ($9), and it's just about as flavorful and filling as vegetarian entrées get. The springy noodles sit atop a fresh salad of shredded lettuce, thinly sliced cucumbers, and minced fresh ginger. A tangle of bright, vinegary daikon and carrot are mounded next to the real star of the dish: thick, meaty, chewy slices of portobellos that are dredged in crisp shards of fried garlic, like some delicious hybrid of mushrooms and onion rings. There's more good fried stuff off to the side in the form of a thin, crispy vegetarian spring roll that adds a touch of indulgence to an otherwise super-healthy dish. Finally, Nha Toi's bun distinguishes itself by providing crunch not just in the form of standard crushed peanuts, but also with toasty chopped almonds and pistachios.
In a dining landscape that can sometimes feel too homogenous, Nha Toi's originality and playfulness stand out. It's an ideal destination for vegetarians, and gluten-free diners as well: the dinner menu is 100 percent wheat-free.