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May 30, 2007 07:08 AM

Sunset Park Expeditions Part 1 - Nha Trang Palace

While I'm reasonably familiar with Chinese and Thai cuisines I am embarrassed to admit that I've only had Vietnamese food 5 or 6 times. This was by chance and not by design. At first there weren't that many Vietnamese restaurants in New York. Then a few opened up but in areas that I rarely frequent, and finally I was a victim of my own inertia. I liked plenty of other things and it was easy to stick with the familiar. In my heart I knew I was missing out on some good stuff.

A few months back I decided to open things up. I started with the excellent bahn mi at Ba Xuyen in Sunset Park. I liked it very much - who wouldn't like a great sandwich sold at the fan friendly price of $3.50? Another buck for a Snapple and I was in heaven. I made a couple of solo trips and then brought my girlfriend for 2 more visits. Unlike me she's had her share of bahn mi in the past and pronounced these as first rate. We were off to the races.

On a beautiful Saturday in early May we decided to stretch our legs as we were leaving Ba Xuyen and started walking down 8th Avenue from 42nd St. towards the Verrazzano bridge. I recommend the trip. The strip starts as mixed Latino and Asian but quickly becomes almost entirely Vietnamese and Chinese. There are a series of Malay and Vietnamese restaurants, both sit down and take out. Mixed in are various Asian grocery stores and a choice selection of $1 stores. I find those places irresistible. Who wouldn't buy a battery powered flashing and barking dog if the price was right?

And speaking of odd, we passed two Polish delis/butcher shops on our trip. Maybe this neighborhood used to have a Central European population at one time? Or perhaps the Vietnamese have a secret craving for kielbasa? For now it's a Brooklyn mystery.

As we walked along my girlfriend and I were scouting out likely restaurants for a return visit and we collected various menus so we could see what seemed most tempting. Last Friday night we decided on Nha Trang Palace as our first full scale meal and we were glad we did.

As with many Asian restaurants in ethnic neighborhoods (as opposed to the gussied up ones plunked down in mainstream locales) the decor was clean, pleasant, and completely undistinguished. No matter - we weren't there to look at the scenery. (The interesting thing is that the interiors of all 4 places on our list are virtually identical.)

The food did not disappoint. We started with #10 pho, described as rice noodle beef soup with brisket. This was seriously good stuff with a tremendous depth of flavor. The brisket, if that's what it was, was sliced as thin as ham and was almost meltingly tender. As we were enjoying the pho we noticed that almost every other table had ordered a pho dish of one kind or another. Clearly they're doing something right.

We followed with #34, barbequed beef wrapped in Vietnamese green leaves. The beef had a nice mild char but was medium rare in the center. Although it was served with a dipping sauce it was mildly spiced and the beef benefited from a dash of the Sriracha that was on the table. A very nice dish.

We followed with #92, chicken lemongrass served with green pepper, onions, and chili sauce. This dish was a sleeper. At first it seemed overly mild but by the 3rd mouthful it gradually opened up. It's not that it was heavily spiced at all but the same kind of depth of flavor that we noticed in the pho became apparent. Excellent.

Finally, the soft-shell crab special posted on the wall proved irresistible to my girlfriend. Unfortunately, it proved altogether resistible on the plate. It was breaded, bland, and overcooked - the only clear miss in an otherwise very good meal.

Early on, in a fit of exuberance and before we noticed the soft-shell crab, we ordered #36a, the Vietnamese pan-fried cake. As dish after dish arrived at the table we began to hope they would forget to bring it. But no. At the end of the meal we were presented with this large pancake-like crepe stuffed with vegetables, shredded pork, and shrimp. Was it good? We were way too full to really tell although my impression was that this dish was a bit bland.

Service was friendly and prompt. The place is BYO and we brought a bottle of wine which was whisked away when I pulled it from it's bag. When the opened bottle didn't make an re-appearance after about 5 minutes I acted on my hunch that they were probably having a problem locating a bottle opener. I had brought my own and when I showed it to the waiter the bottle was back on the table in 30 seconds. I opened it myself and we were in business.

After ordering a silly amount of food the bill was $39 plus tip. Two sane people could probably eat very nicely for $30.

The crowd was 70% - 30% Asian vs. Western. The place almost filled up a couple of times but then tables opened up quickly. Reservations probably aren't necessary.

Nha Trang Palace
5908 8th Avenue (at 59th St.)
Brooklyn 11220

Other Sunset Park reports to follow.

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  1. I know this place has been talked to death, but if you want really good Vietnamese
    go to Pho Tay Ho,(Bensonhurst, not Sunset Park) which I think has the yummiest Viet in the City, even though I am not a huge fan of their PHO.. not the best in the city. However, their Fried Squid appetizer alone is worth the trip and there are so many other great items as well.

    1. Sunset Park was a heavily Polish neighborhood from the late 1800s through the neighborhood's post-WWII decline. There was a small Polish wave in the late 1980s and early '90s, which is why a couple of newer Polish businesses opened on the blocks near Eagle Provisions on 5th Ave. at the time, but it was nothing compared to the influx of Latin Americans and later, Asians in the last few decades.

      2 Replies
      1. re: hatless

        I grew up in this neighborhood (56 St at 8th Ave) in the 50s and 60s when it was a heavily Scandinavian neighborhood. 8th Ave was nicknamed "Lapskaus Boulevard" and the biggest celebration day by far was May 17, Norwegian Independance Day.

        1. re: Scagnetti

          Yeah, we were discussing this on another thread. I believe the first Norwegians, sailors,came in the 1850s. All the Scandinavian restaurants are gone, except for a private Danish club that runs a dining room open to the public. Maybe a few shops in Bay Ridge.

      2. Nice review! Too bad you are not doing the "$25 and under" for the Times. (They reviewed an interesting place on 8th Av today, but not as well done as your review.)

        1 Reply
        1. re: Brian S

          Thanks for your kind words Brian. I don't deserve them but like a free drink served at a bar I'll gladly accept them.

          And thanks to those folks on this thread who recommended Pho Tay Ho in Bensonhurst. I'll check it out later this year.

          To be sure, I was writing about Nha Trang and Sunset Park in general to alert the Park Slope and Carroll Gardens residents that there are some very worthwhile dining alternatives in easy striking distance. There's a whole world of good food out there besides Al Di La.

          I'll be writing about more Sunset Park Asian places in the coming weeks.

        2. My trips to Sunset Park have always begun with Ba Xuyen as well. Five or six years back, when they moved from their old location, it was literally my introduction to the neighborhood. Have tried six or seven of their sandwiches and have never been disappointed. The bread and veggies set them apart from most other purveyors - always crisp and fresh tasting. I would easily include their meatball or pate Bahn Mi on a short list of favorite cheap NYC eats. Much agreed about the walk on 8th, which is alternately fascinating, tempting and delicious. Perhaps because of the way this Chinatown is laid out geographically - spread out in a straight grid as opposed to being more centralized a la Manhattan, Flushing, Elmhurst, etc - it has not gotten the same amount of attention. But exploration will reap its' rewards. I wish I could remember the dim sum and seafood place that Sietsema raved about some years back - said it was one of the best in the city.

          1. After some disappointing dishes, I discovered that if you want tasty and spicy in a Vietnamese restaurant, you need to take advantage of the bottles on the table.

            PS: Jason is correct, Pho Tay Ho is the best Vietnamese in the 5 boroughs.

            2 Replies
            1. re: bobjbkln

              Vietnamese food, for the most part is not spicy, its subtle and delicate with hints of chili and heat.

              1. re: bobjbkln

                Is the Nha Trang owned by the same people as the restaurant of the same name on Lafayette Street in Manhattan?