Round Four: Two Great Restaurants, Only One Crown
By Kimberly Kaye
For those of you who are just tuning in, “But I Digest…” has spent the last two months pitting North Jersey’s best Vietnamese restaurants against each other in order to crown a champion deserving of your warm weather obsession. We’ve trawled the length of the Northeast Garden State Parkway seeking out competitors, singling out talent from a list of enthusiastic recommendations and documented champions before choosing our gladiators. While by no means inclusive, the list eventually reduced itself to four worthy contenders, including one heavyweight champ, an old-school underdog and a sleeper with a cult following. We’ve sampled soups and salads, noodles and rice, fish and fowl and various cow parts, as well as a small parade of other wonderful Southeast Asian delicacies -- and the results are in.
The NJVS was scored based on a short (but inclusive) list of vital criteria:
* Quality of pho, Vietnamese cuisine’s signature soup
* Quality of spring/summer rolls, a staple of Vietnamese menus
* Quality and quantity of house entrees and/or specials
* Overall feeling of contentment upon leaving
The first contender, Bloomfield’s Binh Duong, put in a good performance (as well as the best summer rolls of the competition -- no small accomplishment) featuring wallet-friendly prices and an impressive menu selection. However, a combination of middle-of-the-pack flavor profiles and mediocre service left Binh open for a knockout -- which Montclair’s Little Saigon delivered shortly thereafter. Little Saigon, a charming spot with an underdog story (the restaurant burned down several years ago in Nutley and had to start from scratch at its new site), easily trounced its local competitor with what Ramon could only describe as a culinary “beatdown,” delivering blow after blow with a combination of flavorful dishes, fresh herbs, bottom-barrel prices, and truly stellar service (if you’re trying to figure out how to use all those tableside condiments, this is the place for a lesson); the restaurant also received bonus points for it’s date-friendly environment, something particularly hard to find in authentic cheap-eat joints.
As the next round commenced, Little Saigon found itself matched against a true North Jersey heavyweight champion, Pho Thang Long, a Jersey City favorite and one of NJ Monthly’s 2007 Best Cheap Eats titleholders. The battle was close – Pho Thang Long offers legitimately tasty authentic cuisine, low prices, really good tea and a whole lot of kitschy charisma. While the food was solid (though no fresh herbs or condiments were provided), our judges did take deductions for the establishment’s Tyson-esque assault on its patrons ears (bad foreign-language techno should never drown out table conversation no matter how casual the dining environment may be) and spotty service (nothing ruins a bowl of pho like where’s-the-waiter syndrome). And so it was that Little Saigon’s technical savvy (fresh herbs, ample condiments, attentive and directive service, etc.) eventually pulled it to victory over a reigning champ.
Which brings us to this week’s championship fight: Little Saigon vs. Jersey City’s Nha Tranh Place. Located on Newark Ave. directly adjacent to the Nha Tranh Vietnamese Market, the restaurant has a cult following amongst internet food lovers and local diners alike – a worthy adversary for a restaurant of Little Saigon’s caliber.
Let us begin by stressing that it is always a good sign when an ethnic-eats establishment is patronized enthusiastically by diners of the same ethnicity (its takes some good cuisine to make momma pay double for what she could whip up at home), which is why we were encouraged by the overflow of happy Vietnamese and Asian families spilling from Nha Trang’s brimming dining room. The room itself, an airy space with high ceilings and a communal vibe, is easily the largest and most accommodating of all the contenders – a good spot for a larger group to tuck into both food and conversation. Be warned that the service is reflective of the space; with a dining room this size at full swing you’re unlikely to get any hand holding or extra service from your server. But the food? Suffice to say there’s a reason the dining room needs to accommodate so many.
Nha Tranh’s menu is as varied and affordable as its competitor’s – indeed, all the restaurants reviewed could stuff two to capacity for roughly $20-$30 – but the food specifically fought with a combination of authenticity and execution unmatched by any of the other contenders. Theirs was easily the best pho of the bunch with its rich and savory broth, served with extra fresh bean sprouts, lemon wedges and tear-able handfuls of vibrantly green mint. Both the pork and assorted summer rolls were cool and satisfying, the iced teas are refreshing seasonal bliss, and just one glass of their inky iced coffee with condensed milk is enough to make Red Bull look like Ambien. The entrees, like the house fried rice with chicken and egg, are large enough to share but good enough not to, and display the hallmarks of true Vietnamese fare: distinctive flavors which blend rather than overpowering, the pleasant presence of fat without heavy grease, the subdued use of tender steamed noodles and delicate sauces. One house specialty, a simple dish of large, butterflied shrimp stretched flat and cooked over sugar cane, is a shining example of how simple components – mild protein, steamed noodles, a light kiss of grill – can come together with little fanfare to create something infinitely more satisfying than any elaborate haute cuisine equivalent.
So, "Enough!," you’re saying. "ENOUGH with the elaboration, the analysis, the praise and play-by-plays. Who is the winner? Whose rolls reign supreme? Who shall we hungrily patronize with cries of MO’ PHO!, pocket money in hand?"
The winner, by unanimous decision is….
Nha Tranh Place. Though Little Saigon’s perseverance and obvious skill won our hearts, the goal of this challenge was to find North Jersey’s most authentic and affordable Vietnamese cuisine – and we’ve found it on Newark Ave. We do, however, recommend that Vietnamese newbies start out at Little Saigon, whose menu is adapted in many places to introduce the unfamiliar Western palate to new flavors and textures. In the meantime, all seasoned veterans can stroll on over to 249 Newark Ave. where Nha Tranh Place will be doling out spicy hot bowls of victory, fresh sprouts and citrus on the side.
Nha Tranh Place; 249 Newark Avenue, Jersey City; 201.239.1988