Old-new Vietnamese Cuisine for a New Generation
Smokey tamarind mezcal, Sichuan black pepper and anise syrup—elaborately garnished “birthday cocktails” proudly standing in for cake. It was the drinks that drew me to District Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant on Astoria’s Broadway. This was a place where people were having fun behind the bar—and the food didn’t look too bad, either. District Saigon, which opened in February 2016, is run by father-and-son team Lam and Michael Lien. “My father and I worked together in another restaurant in the city,” said Michael. “It was always our dream to open in Queens.” The family named the restaurant for their home city in Vietnam; Lam came to the U.S. in 1979 as a refugee, while his mother landed in Toronto. It was Lam’s mother, Michael’s grandmother, who saved the recipes in a little red book that now account for much of the restaurant’s menu.
They’ve earned attention for the deep flavor of the pho broths, made with “grandmother’s secret recipe.” Here they marry the old and new schools: traditional shrimp summer rolls follow Lam’s recipe, while Michael has brought in a pickled mango version. “There are little elements of that throughout the restaurant, to showcase my dad’s Vietnamese cooking,” he said. “Our family has been in the restaurant business and the Vietnamese markets in Chinatown since I was a kid,” Michael told me. “I grew up eating this and I honestly love the food that my dad makes.”
In other boroughs, Vietnamese food has had a similar makeover inspired by second-generation tastes: At Chao Chao in the East Village, chef Stephan Brezinsky fuses his mom’s homestyle Vietnamese cooking with his training from spots like Pok Pok NY. Brooklyn’s Bunker by chef Jimmy Tu has been described as “punk rock.” In the hands of these chefs and Michael Lien, Vietnamese food in New York City is being rebranded as well worth a wait, often served in a highly stylized dining room.
I certainly couldn’t resist those pickled mango summer rolls and the tofu satay, where the chunks came out perfectly browned and crisp. The acidic sweetness of the pickled mango—which they buy from The Pickle Guys on the Lower East Side—stood out against the gentler, mellower flavors of tofu, mixed greens and avocado. “I could eat two orders,” I said, and proved it when I stole a lingering piece off my lunch partner’s plate.
“This was a great location, a great place to put out our twist on Vietnamese cuisine,” Michael said. In keeping with their dedication to blending new and old, they make a smokier pho in addition to the traditional.
As they approach their first anniversary, Michael can look back and say Astoria has definitely been a “superb area” for this concept. “We were surprised that people are so captivated with what we are offering, from the drink to the food and service.”
The wide-ranging menu offers a hearty dose of plant-based options, beyond the tofu satay and pickled mango summer rolls. An order of organic grilled tofu noodles provided addictive smoke, freshness, crunch and bite, and it’s by design that there’s so much here for non-meat eaters. Michael tries to be vegetarian one day a week, at least, and he thinks Astoria skews healthy. Appealing to the neighborhood is also why the restaurant serves a betel leaf lamb, a nod to Astoria’s Greek population.
It’s that openness to experimentation that’s led to the inventive cocktail menu, over which Michael give his bartenders have free rein. “Even though it’s pretty bold, a lot of people are willing to give that a try,” he said.
Next time you find yourself in Astoria, step through District Saigon’s massive wooden door. And eat an extra pickled mango summer roll for me.