Reading through last week's New York Diet by Ivan Orkin, I was surprised when I came across his casual mention of "a Vietnamese restaurant on Jerome Avenue." Not because of the location, but because my meals at the restaurant, recognizable as Com Tam Ninh Kieu, have been unanimously unimpressive. Still, his positive reference made me wonder, have I been I missing something? I returned to the restaurant to find out.
Past meals had turned me off their shallow pho and ovecooked grilled meat. Electing a different route, I placed an order for mi vit ($8), a bowl of rice porridge that you mix tableside with a plate of poached duck and a salad of toasted peanuts, Thai basil, and pickled daikon and carrot.
The soupy rice is neither milky or nutty, little more than a smooth and straightforward canvas for the fatty, lightly seasoned duck and salad, which spruces it up with the punchy basil and vinegary crunch of the pcikles. This would be great if the pickles didn't taste like they were tossed in simple syrup. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the dish, far and away the best I've had at the restaurant.
You can also find a "classic" banh mi for $4 complete with cold cuts and pork belly. The sandwich is solid for the neighborhood, certainly cleaner and tastier than most options, and one I'd return for if I lived nearby and was rushing downtown. But even in a city as banh mi deprived as ours, it's nothing special. The pickles lack boldness and the bread is unspectacular, which is more than I can say for the thin, flavorless slab of pork belly. I'm happy to have had it, but its a "good for the neighborhood" bite at best.
The highlight of my meal, however, was had a few steps down at Phnom Penh-Nha Trang. Stopping by this past Sunday for an afternoon treat, I found a greater array of sweets than I had grown accustomed to seeing there. Joining the sticky rice cakes and puddings were desserts of cassava with coconut and yellow mung bean, coconut, and sesame seeds ($2 each).
The cassava, which gets a dose of milkiness from the coconut, is surprisingly and delightfully gummy. A scattering of sesame seeds and a mess of shredded coconut add a crunchier, different kind of chew. When you're in the neighborhood or just passing through, buy a container (five servings) or two. Its well worth the diversion.
Com Tam Ninh Kieu
2641 Jerome Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10468 (map) 718-918-0791
Phnom Penh-Nha Trang
2639 Jerome Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10468 (map) 718-918-0791