PHO RESTAURANTS are about as prevalent as bus stops here, but pho is just a minor player in Hanoi Kitchen's lineup. It's a family-run operation: Mom is at the stove, and the daughters run the spacious and immaculate front-of-house. They seem to know they're a bit of a secret, and come over a bit giddy when they learn it's your first time—like they're excited for you. They should be, because Hanoi Kitchen's menu, distinguished by unique dishes, fresh ingredients, fair pricing, and a heartiness that makes it feel like home cooking, merits them far more buzz than they get.
A starter of canh ga chien nuoc mam, fried Vietnamese chicken wings in caramelized fish sauce, will look familiar. Sweet, sticky, and meaty, they don't have the heat and surface debris of their more famous local counterpart, but at only $7.45 for three full wings (drumette, flap, tip), it's great value and flavor. Bi cuon, shredded pork skin spring rolls ($4) are a less-intense and refreshing starter with a light, salty crunch at the center.
For mains, the staff is likely to steer you to their banh cuôn, steamed rice-batter crêpes ($6.50-7.50) served with the familiar orange fish sauce, chile, and lime dip. These house specialties are crêpes in a loose sense, and look more like the large chow fun kerchiefs you see at good dim sum parlors. The tender and delicious banh cuôn ha nôi, filled with ground pork, chopped shrimp, onions, and wood ear mushrooms, then topped with fried shallots and toasted ground shrimp, is something I would have ordered every time, if practical.
Mi hoanh thanh, won ton soup ($8.25), is a vast bowl of dumplings, egg noodles, and shiitake mushrooms, served pho-style with a dish of sprouts, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime. A carpet of finely chopped scallions, chives, and more cilantro steeps in the steaming, rich broth, creating a beautiful and enveloping aroma of fresh herbs and spices. Handmade won tons in a thick, silky shell seem to run out too quickly—but this is probably for the best given the volume of the dish. Bits of finely minced pork, fried shallots, and two fat pink tail-on shrimp add a pleasing complexity. Pho ha noi, their sole pho offering ($7.75), is another abundant ocean of traditionally spiced broth with handfuls of fresh herbs, rare flank, meatballs, and tripe. The jewel-red beef cooks quickly in the scalding soup, and while it's a great bowl of pho, my only minor objection is that the meatballs are a little tough.
The understated and delicate crab patties in the bun bo gio cua ($7.95), on the other hand, are soft and cut easily with a spoon. This spicy rice noodle soup, also loaded with beef and braised pork shank, has a gentle but clear heat and a richer broth than the others. Hu tieu nam vang ($8), transparent noodle soup with BBQ pork, ground pork, shrimp, crab, squid, liver, quail egg, and shrimp balls, can be served with the broth on the side, but when pressed for a reason to do so, the staff just said some people like it that way.
Bun, the dry vermicelli bowls served with the chile, fish sauce, and lime juice dressing, are larger and more vibrant than other versions I've found around the city. Bun hanoi dac biet ($7.95), sliced and charbroiled lemongrass pork with shrimp, egg roll, and ground shrimp patty on a sugar cane stick, is an excellent meal for one, as fresh and generous as anything on the menu.
We were consistently steered away from the rice dishes, but the com chien ha noi ($7.95), fried rice with BBQ pork, Asian sausage, chicken, and chopped shrimp, sounded too bountiful and treasure studded to pass up. We should have listened. Maybe it was just the uncle filling in for mom that night, but the chewy, frozen, diced vegetables and uninspired bits of chopped meat made for a ho-hum bachelor's hash, completely out of line with everything else we'd experienced.
Since they don't offer alcohol (please, keep reading), it's a good time to explore more healthful beverages. Cam sua ($3.25), orange juice with condensed milk, is squeezed and mixed to order. In lieu of bothering with the snail soup, I did my requisite Fear Factor bit with a durian sinh to ($3.50), a smoothie, which, when cold, is tangy and only mildly fragrant, like a sweet blue cheese with vanilla and mild citrus.
Hanoi Kitchen offers a wide-ranging menu that showcases fresh meats and vegetables, generous portions, and strong value. Family pride and integrity result in Vietnamese food of excellent quality and—if a dining room consistently full of Vietnamese patrons of all ages is any indication—authenticity.
Hanoi Kitchen is open Tues-Thurs 10 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 9 am-9 pm, Sun 9 am-8 pm.