The specialty at Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều is broken rice, the lowliest rice, grains splintered in the milling process, shunted aside and sold cheap.
In Việt Nam, it was poor man’s food until the rich realized what they were missing.
Turns out the fragments are clingier and earthier than their grander, polished cousins, all the better for soaking up the flavors of whatever is flung on top.
Here that adornment may be sườn nướng, a pork chop flat as a plank and fantastically saturated with lemon grass, fish sauce and liquid caramel.
You could add a nest of bì, translucent strands of shredded pork skin, dusted with roasted rice powder and larded with nubs of pork; or fried eggs crackling at the edges, with hard yolks; or a fluffy cake of shrimp mashed until approaching mousse and bundled in crispy bean-curd skin.
Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều opened five years ago in the shadow of the elevated No. 4 train in the northwest Bronx.
(Cơm tấm is broken rice; Ninh Kiều is a waterfront district in Cần Thơ, in southern Việt Nam, where the owner and chef, Sinh Lee, grew up.)
Two doors down stands the Phnom Penh-Nha Trang Market, with its stock of jackfruit chips and water-chestnut powder.
These are the only outward signs on the block of the thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants who have made the surrounding neighborhoods their home.
Inside, prayer beads hang from a scalloped wooden rafter that runs above the otherwise prosaic dining room.
A mango sits in offering by a statue of the Buddha.
Hot tea in plastic-foam cups is plunked on the table before you say a word.
The murmur — from the kitchen, other tables, the flat-screen TV — is Vietnamese.
Apart from broken-rice dishes, the menu consists almost entirely of noodle soups, which in Vietnamese cuisine is no limitation.
Consider the range:
Bún riêu like a deliquescing sunset, muddled with tomato, annatto, tamarind and fresh crab crushed, along with its shell, into an intense, briny slurry;
Beefy bánh mì bò kho, close to a pot-au-feu and served with a hunk of baguette for sopping up;
And bún bò Huế, loaded with lemon grass, beef, pork knuckles and chả lụa (steamed pork roll) but missing the traditional cubes of congealed pig’s blood, at least on my visits.
(It was the one disappointment:
The rage of chiles couldn’t quite mask a timid broth.)
Phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup most familiar to Westerners, arrives trailing the scent of star anise, with the balance in the broth tipped toward that spice’s sweetness.
It is not a primal, belligerently meaty broth, but it has clarity, dimension and arc, the flavors deepening as the spoon goes down.
Taste it first as is, then season as you please with lime (not the lemon often found at Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown), mint and chile.
But go easy on the hoisin:
I was informed that young Vietnamese scornfully call it “gringo sauce” because of how shamelessly Americans use it.
Each bowl of phở comes crowded with your choice of steak, brisket, tendon relaxing into a kind of jelly, and strips of tripe looking like stray pieces of crochet.
There are beef balls, too, made of beef splashed with fish sauce, ground into a paste, frozen, ground again, then boiled until springy.
They spurn the teeth a little, like a hot dog.
The waitress grinned when my table ordered bún mắm, a hard-to-find seafood soup dominated by fermented anchovies.
She urged us to add lime, and after we had squeezed in one wedge, she reached over and squeezed another, then dumped in two spoonfuls of chile.
The result was heady, but with only a hint of funk, as if chastened by the chile and lime.
Take interest in the farther reaches of the menu, and the waitress may in turn take interest in you.
At the end of one meal, she handed out pyramids of pandan jelly wrapped in banana leaves.
During another, she conferred with my Vietnamese-speaking companion before heading out the door.
“She had to run home quickly.”
My friend said.
“She asked me to translate if anybody needed it.”
We looked around at the other diners, wholly absorbed in their steaming bowls.
They didn’t need a thing.
Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều
2641 Jerome Avenue (193rd Street), Kingsbridge Heights, Bronx; 718-365-2680.
Cơm tấm (broken rice) with pork chop, shrimp cake and egg; phở đặc biệt (noodle soup with steak, brisket, tendon and tripe); cháo vịt (congee with duck); bánh mì bò kho (beef stew with bread); bún riêu (crab noodle soup); bún mắm (fermented seafood noodle soup).
$5 to $9.50, cash only.
Daily for lunch and dinner.
The entrance is on the same level as the sidewalk.
The restroom has a handrail.
By LIGAYA MISHAN
Source: The New York Times