An Choi – Bringing the Comforts of Vietnamese Street Food Indoors

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Chef Dennis Ngo with Co-owner Tuan Bui at the banh mi counter inside An Choi on Orchard Street.

Although the Vietnamese restaurant, An Choi (85 Orchard), is new to the 'hood, as of a couple months ago, co-owner Tuan Bui is not a newcomer to the Lower East Side. It's been his neighborhood for almost nine years – he can't imagine living anywhere else. Tuan has watched the LES change during the past decade. There are those big, towering developments, like the Blue Building and the Hotel on Rivington, but he really likes how the community is evolving below Delancey Street.

"People say it's too much gentrification, but I do love the diversity and the history it has.  I mean here we have Hassidic Jews, the Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, professionals, artists, hipsters,
tourists. It's one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York, so I like that this (restaurant) is
something I can contribute, to add to it's diversity".

After 7 years in the finance industry, Tuan took a "sabbatical" and traveled on his own through Vietnam last year.  He ate different types of regional food throughout the country and realized he was ready to bring some of his cultural heritage back to the Lower East Side.  

Luckily his brother, Huy Bui, who is an architect, was also ready to work on his first solo project. They had noticed a big gap between the "no frills" type of Vietnamese food Chinatown offers and some of the more upscale, high concept Vietnamese restaurants uptown.  "We wanted to be something in the middle, to elevate the experience of eating the traditional street food everybody loves but bring it inside to a nice environment."  But mostly, Tuan saw a need for an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. "Sometimes when I order in Vietnamese at a Pho restarant in Chinatown, he says with a  twinkle in his eye, they don't understand what I'm saying".

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Tuan and Huy based the design of the restaurant on a typical alley you might find somewhere in Saigon.  If you've been there, you may have noticed the markings on buildings, phone numbers left by contractors when they finish a project. The images on An Choi's walls were created from photographs actually taken in Vietnam.

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An Choi believes in the concept of doing a few things very well. They focus on two of Vietnam's favorite dishes, the banh mi sandwich and pho noodle soup. There are two versions of the pho, beef and chicken – both made with very fresh ingredients and a delicious light broth.  I asked Tuan if he gets annoyed when Americans pronounce the soup like "Foh" instead of "Fuh". He laughed and said, no, he doesn't mind, but he likes that people coming in to eat can get a bit of a cultural education at the same time.  A guy slurping up his soup at a table nearby looked up, concerned. "It's not pronounced 'Foh?'" 

Now, about that flavorful meat found in those banh mi sandwiches, which have taken Manhattan by storm in the last few months. There are five varieties at An Choi, some traditional – others offer a few modern touches. The basic banh mi is the dac biet. The main components include a delicate and crunchy french baguette, butter, mayonaise or aioli, pickled carrots, daichon, cilantro and cucumber. Once they add the meat, there are several variations. There's usually either chicken liver or pork liver pate, head cheese (made of sliced pork, steamed and then rolled up), five-spice ham and pork roll (something like salami). 

I asked Tuan if he was nervous about starting a new restaurant in the middle of a brutal recession.  He said they gave it a lot of thought, but ultimately decided it was the big, high-end restaurants that would be hit the hardest by the economic downturn.  "I think it helps that we have a small, simple space and everything here is under $10,"  he says. Tuan seems like a guy who knows what his neighborhood wants: he's serving up interesting food, fresh ingredients and a good value.

For a look at An Choi's menu, check out their web site.