This summer, buzzy Greenpoint, Brooklyn got a new Vietnamese restaurant, Di An Di. To be more specific, Greenpoint got a new Vietnamese-American restaurant, its three so-hip-it-hurts owners are quick to point out. Chinese-American food is considered its own cuisine, and Vietnamese, they say, is poised to get the same treatment.
Di An Di’s menu traverses the diverse flavors of Vietnam’s distinct regions as well as diasporic reinterpretations of those dishes. Since two of the restaurant’s owners, Kim Hoang and chef Dennis Ngo, are Bayou City transplants—the third, Tuan Bui, is from Northern Virginia—it's little surprise that much of the menu finds inspiration in the Vietnamese restaurants of Houston.
New Yorkers have responded in droves, packing the beautifully designed Di An Di—translation, “Let’s go eat!”—nightly while ordering up dishes that will be familiar to Houstonians, like a selection of chicken pho, popularized in Bellaire at time-honored favorites like Pho Ga So 1 and Pho Ga Dakao.
The team’s first project, An Choi, has served as one of Manhattan’s only upmarket Vietnamese options since opening in 2009. “There was a lack of Vietnamese restaurants that we could identify with,” remembers Bui. “In New York’s Chinatown, a lot of the restaurants are run by Viet Hoa, or ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese. Not to say it’s not ‘authentic,’ but it’s not the same. …We wanted a more accurate style of what we thought defined Vietnamese-American food.”
Bui has visited Space City with Hoang, his partner in life and business. “I was blown away by how large the community in Houston was,” he says. “I had never tried pho ga kho, or dry chicken pho, before. That really represents Houston Vietnamese to me.”
Here, the pasta-like dish comes with wide rice noodles shellacked in a chile-jasmine tea sauce and layered with slivers of tender poached chicken. True to the original, a small bowl of chicken broth comes on the side. It’s an excellent iteration, though Ngo admits not all the Houston-inspired experiments fared as well. “We R&D’d the sh*t out of the banh bot chien from Tan Tan,” laughs Hoang. Ngo chimes in: “I just couldn’t nail the rice cakes right!”
But Ngo did manage to re-create the pickled-garlic-and-serrano-pepper condiment on offer at Tan Tan—it’s served with many of the appetizers at Di An Di, to delightful effect. And the banh xeo cuon, or meat-filled Vietnamese “pancake,” recalls Ngo’s first experience with the grilled pork sausage, at now-shuttered Bellaire restaurant Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa.
The team just might dig into Houston’s now-famous Vietnamese-Cajun genre, too, Ngo says. He hopes to incorporate a seafood boil, or even po-boy banh mis, into his upcoming late-night dinner series.
While Di An Di’s design-centric digs and amped-up service represent a far cry from Houston’s mostly no-frills establishments, the team feel that they’re building on that time-honored foundation to pioneer the next generation of Vietnamese cuisine.
“For us, first-generation Vietnamese but living in New York, dining out isn’t just about the food anymore—it’s about creating an experience,” says Hoang. “We’re introducing Vietnamese to New Yorkers at large—decor, service, drinks all play a role in that.”
But that doesn’t mean they don’t get a hankering for a taste of their youths. For that, they still go home.