Thinking of Vietnam: Huong Viet in Nutley

Monday, Mar 08, 2010 1:00pm  |  COMMENTS (11)


The sudden closure of Little Saigon in Montclair late last year disappointed many, and raised questions as to why. The spacious restaurant had been a familiar sight on the otherwise unremarkable Elm St. for four years, having moved there from Nutley, where it recovered from fire damage in 2003 but still plugged on bravely for a couple more years. I was pleased to discover that Little Saigon is still alive and kicking, and resurrected back in Nutley in January under the new name, Huong Viet, which means thinking of Vietnam.
Nestled among the stores on Passaic Ave is the restaurant, whose owner, Mr Quan Hua, explained that he closed shop in Montclair in November after its lease had expired.
“It (the rent) was too expensive in Montclair and there was no parking,” said Mr Quan, a Baristaville resident for more than a decade. “We decided to come back to Nutley where it is cheaper.”
As its name and extensive menu options suggest, Huong Viet is true to its Saigon roots. The restaurant isn’t fancy, but the food was fresh, modestly seasoned and tasty. Vietnamese food is milder and less ear-ringing chilli-spiced than the food of its neighbor Thailand, though similar herbs and aromatic spices are used, and vegetables and noodle soups (or pho, recommended by friends who have dined there) are prominent.


I had heard that some patrons had had issues with the service in terms of waiting, and indeed, there was a bit of that involved when I visited Huong Viet with two health-conscious foodies, my friend Jennifer, an environmental engineer, and blogger, Victor Sasson.
The visit, for me, was nostalgic, as I had traveled to Vietnam 15 years ago when the country was in the infancy of opening up to tourism and trade (President Clinton lifted a trade embargo with Vietnam in 1994) and been utterly charmed by its people, especially the very friendly and chatty children.
There were three things a budgeting tourist who didn’t speak Vietnamese could count on in those days, in terms of a quick meal – the best baguettes outside of Paris (Vietnam was colonized by the French decades earlier), the best espresso (Vietnam is one of the world’s top exporters of robusta and arabica coffee) and the wide availability of Laughing Cow cheese, from the most remote rice paddies in the rural areas right up to to bustling Saigon! Check out this ad.
I can’t help but chuckle when I think back to how the Vietnamese kids – seeing diminutive and dusky me in the company of my 6-foot-tall blond boyfriend at the time and his equally statuesque sister, plus my 6-foot-tall Danish flatmate and her 7-foot-tall boyfriend – would be particularly curious about yours truly, approaching me as if I were another child and asking with perfect innocence (phonetically reproduced here), “What is your nem?,” “How ode are you?” and, this is the killer, “Where you go with your mama and your papa?”
Back to Huong Viet.
Hot, jasmine tea was brought to the table as soon as we were seated. We ordered two kinds of summer rolls wrapped in rice paper – beef with rice noodles, spinach, mint and bean sprouts, and vegetable, with fried tofu, mint, sprouts and spinach. Perfect for anyone on a diet, these were extremely fresh and the vegetables were crunchy. As one of the party was vegetarian, we made a special request for a wheat noodle item on the menu to be done without meat and shrimp. This dish was served with mustard greens and spinach and tofu, very mildly seasoned, not oily, and again, nirvana for the dieter (which incidentally, none of us were). Mustard greens with ginger and garlic were al dente, vividly green and flavorsome. And last, but best, was fried tilapia, battered lightly with cornstarch and topped with lemongrass, ginger and scallions – one had the choice of having this with, or without head – we picked the latter. The fish was tender and moist and just delicious.
Despite the lightness of lunch, we were stuffed and couldn’t face looking at dessert options, although I hear their flan, a bit like a creme caramel, is delicious. Click here for a more extensive look at menu offerings.
Instead, still on a nostalgic bent, I specifically ordered a cup of Vietnamese coffee “as they serve it in Vietnam.” What came were three cups, atop which sat a stainless steel coffee dripper, dripping dark espresso very, very slowly (exactly as it’s done in Vietnam from north to south, in city or village) into the cups. I had asked for milk on the side and was served condensed milk. In many tropical countries, fresh milk used to be a rarity, in step with the rarity of refrigeration and well-padded cows, and condensed milk is the favored, climate-suited alternative. I waited patiently for my dripper to finish its job. But one of us, I will name no names, had had enough of waiting and ended up pouring the partially brewed beverage into his cup, ground beans and all. Needless to say he wasn’t too happy with the end product, but mine was smooth, dark, aromatic, lusciously thick and satisfying.
And it made me think of Vietnam.
Huong Viet is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:00am to 9:30pm. It’s closed on Mondays.
Huong Viet Restaurant
358 Passaic Ave
Nutley, NJ
Tel: 973.667.0827

11 Comments

  1. POSTED BY Kristen Kemp  |  March 08, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    I’m so hungry I could eat my computer screen. Your photos are amazing, Bernadette. The food must be such a delicious subject. I hope to make it there one day soon.

  2. POSTED BY gail  |  March 08, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    Try the pho with BBQ pork. It will be one of the best things you have ever eaten. I love going here for lunch, with a friend, and spending $11.50 for 2 bowls of soup.
    The Vietnamese coffee is good….at lunch, try the Vietnamese iced tea.

  3. POSTED BY Bernadette Baum  |  March 08, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    Thank you Kristen! And Gail too. Determined to try the pho next time .. couldn’t figure out how to share such a soupy dish with others!

  4. POSTED BY Dakotah  |  March 09, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    We were long-time customers of Little Saigon when located in Montclair. Our first visit to their new location was a disaster. All the food ordered was barely luke-warm, including the tea. The waiter, a young man, was very inattentive, which, in retrospect, was much of the problem. Dakotah

  5. POSTED BY gail  |  March 09, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    Do not share your pho.

  6. POSTED BY raspablobaje  |  March 09, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    I was addicted to this place in its original Nutley form. Something seemed a little different when it moved to Montclair (different chef or cooking staff???). That said, I have had some of the most enjoyable, authentic and tasty Vietnamese meals at both locations.

  7. POSTED BY cathar  |  March 11, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    Perhaps, Bernadette, I simply recall a very different Vietnam through the haze of 40+ years. And that specific sort of Nam has never been recalled for me in ANY Vietnamese restaurant I’ve visited in America. (Though the ones in the Orlando area, where the CIA managed to park many of its spooks upon the Republic of Viet Nam’s fall, come closest.)
    I’ll content myself with just one remembrance here: no Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever been to in America sells the simply labeled “meat” in either curries or on skewers. “Meat,” as opposed to beef, chicken, shrimp and fish, usually meant dog (or worse, just use your imagination), and dining American soldiers with adventurous palates would usually spend a moment or two debating whether the meat was, say, spaniel or shi tzu.

  8. POSTED BY It's ME  |  March 13, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Bernadette, I hope you told (or have by now) the owners about your post and the one on Victor Sasson’s blog and that they’ve seen the comments.
    Based on what we experienced at LS in Montclair and at the new location, if they don’t fix their service problems they won’t be around for long–and that would be a shame because the food is excellent once you get it–and a plate, and utensils, and–you get the idea.

  9. POSTED BY foodlover  |  March 19, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    We went to Huong Viet 3 weeks ago and had a fair experience. Food was good as ever. We went back 1 day later and service was extremely lousy. Appetizers didn’t arrive until almost 30 minutes later. Not that they were busy either. Main course took forever and the owner didn’t even help out. I should also mention that both visits were made on a weeknight. So the benefit of the doubt was on Huong Viet. With two visits on the scoreboard, from a scale of 1-5 (5 being the best) I would give this place a 3 (fair score considering 1st visit was good). As we love Vietnamese food we returned to this place on 3/18 Thursday night at 6:30p. The place was not busy…only 3 tables occupied. We ordered 2 soups and 2 entrees…and 25 min later our soup arrived. It’s also worth to mention that they only had 1 waitress. By the time we had our soup 4 more tables were filled. 30 additional minutes our dinner was served. BBQ pork did not come wit lettuce leaves so we asked for some. Well, guess what we got with the lettuce tray? Someone’s left over spring roll hidden under the lettuce leaves. Needless to say we didn’t touch it and left it aside. At this point more and more people were getting agitated with the terrible service. Poor woman who ordered a take out had waited for 50 minutes and complained to the owner who didn’t say a thing. Too busy counting his $$$. Just terrible owner and had no customer service orientation whatsoever. Embarrassing to see I must admit. We asked for the bill and that took forever too. So I got up and went to the counter to pay and told the owner what a terrible service we had and that he should pay more attention to his customers. His only words to me was something happened in the kitchen. As I was talking to the manager/owner another lady, who apparently had been waiting for their food, also complained to the owner who in return just looked at the lady as if she was talking foreign language. This is unacceptable and will not return! So, on the same scale of 1-5 overall score after 3 visits is 1, for extremely poor!

  10. POSTED BY tingle97  |  March 22, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Unfortunately I was at Huong Viet on the same night as foodlover and had a similar service experience. The whole restaurant seemed to be in disarray, only one waitress, the disgruntled chef/owner and many tables full of unhappy customers. We had 3 kids with us who were incredibly patient as our meal took 2 hours from start to finish. BUT all that being said, the food is AMAZING. The entrees were fantastic–the shrimp casserole with a caramel and ginger sauce, the vegetable curry with tofu, the pho, all of it was excellent and worth the wait (almost). I really hope they get their act together and hire a few more people to help with service/take out/delivery because if they do, they will be in town a long time. I would go back (without kids and with more wine) to sample that food again! It’s nice to have something different in town that we can walk to and enjoy. I hope they take the criticism and work it out.

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