By Kylie Francis on December 22nd, 2020
New York has a more diverse culinary offering than any other city I’ve ever been to. Whether you are dining on the duck with daikon and plum at Eleven Madison Park, or snacking on satay at Queens Night Market, eating out here is a sport that even a global pandemic won’t stop people from partaking in. Just like in sports, meals bring people together, whether they are sharing food or discussing the new buzzy restaurant to try. And just like in sports, there can be no gain without pain, whether that means sampling the spiciest dishes in the city or sitting curbside in the cold now that indoor dining is no longer allowed.
While there is an abundance of choice when it comes to Southeast Asian fare, here are my recommendations for restaurants in Manhattan for each cuisine.
Filipino: Pig and Khao, Lower East Side and Jeepney, East Village
My first trip to Pig and Khao was for a bachelorette party, and for good reason - this is a great restaurant to introduce a big group of New Yorker friends to Southeast Asian street food within a casually hip setting: patrons sit on simple wooden benches and sip cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon while listening to Skrillex.
Chef Leah Cohen, a “Top Chef” contestant, created the menu based on her travels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. The dishes are divided into small plates, large plates, and “snacks,” which tend to be fried: the salmon skin, sourced from nearby Russ & Daughters, is one of my favorites as it’s the closest I can get to fish skin, a popular Southeast Asian treat that resembles scaly potato chips.
Whereas Pig and Khao is a safe choice, Jeepney, a self-described “Filipino gastropub,” is where you’ll find authentic and exotic food like balut. For the uninitiated, balut is a fertilized duck egg that is 14 to 17 days old (when the embryo has formed). The high-spirited staff will not just show you how to eat it, but cheer you on as you do so. Pre-Covid, Jeepney would do a Kamayan Night twice a week where dinner would be served on banana leaves and eaten with bare hands, which makes for a fun group dining experience.
Vietnamese: Just Pho, Midtown
There’s nothing like a steamy bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh”) to cure a hangover. This beef noodle soup is hearty enough to satiate your hunger, yet its light broth goes easy on your stomach. Combine it with a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee for an instant pick me up.
While I’ve been a regular at Saigon Shack by virtue of its proximity, one of the best bowls of pho that I’ve ever had is from Just Pho near Pennsylvania Station. Unlike pho from the South of Vietnam, whose broth is sweeter, more fragrant, and comes with an accompanying plate of lime, bean sprouts and basil as well as hoisin and Sriracha sauces, Northern-style pho is more austere; its broth is clear and delicate, served without the usual accoutrements.
“We don’t use Sriracha or hoisin, because our broth is very good,” says chef Trung Nguyen, who grew up in Hanoi. He makes his broth by first soaking beef and pork bones for hours, which brings out a natural sweetness. He then roasts the bones, painstakingly cleans them again and puts them in a pot to simmer overnight. Order it with beef brisket or raw slices of eye of round beef, or a combination of both for more texture.
Indonesian: Wayan, NoLIta
Admittedly I’ve never been here, but it comes highly recommended by an Indonesian friend with whom I ate at Spice Market many years ago. Instead of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef at Wayan is his son, Cédric, whose wife Ochi is from Indonesia. She works in the dining room, stopping by tables to offer explanations of the menu and how the cooking differs from that at some other Indonesian restaurants in New York. Try the satay, Jimbaran-style clams and of course, the nasi goreng.
Laotian: Khe-Yo, TriBeCa
Almost every country in Southeast Asia is surrounded by ocean, making seafood a staple ingredient, whether freshly prepared or processed into condiments such as fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste. The exception is Laos, which is a landlocked country bordering China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. So it’s not surprising that meat, rather than fish, is emphasized at Khe-Yo, a bustling Tribeca establishment by Marc Forgione, Nick Bradley, and their chef partner, Soulayphet Schwader. Among the best dishes are a whole grilled quail on a stick, tasting like charcoal and ginger, and a steak tartare that’s served, Flintstones style, atop a giant bone filled with roasted marrow.
Thai: Thai Diner, NoLIta
I was crushed when Uncle Boons closed during the pandemic, but luckily while walking around Nolita last week, I discovered Thai Diner and was relieved to see Uncle Boons’ crab fried rice and chicken khao soi on the menu. Sadly there was no toasted-coconut sundae, but hey it’s December and I was sitting outside.
Unlike the traditional Thai food of Uncle Boons, Thai Diner celebrates chef Ann Redding’s dual Thai and American heritage with a menu that features both classic Thai dishes as well as several American diner staples served with a Thai twist, such as the Thai tea French toast and an egg sandwich with Thai sausage - great for Sunday brunch!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kylie is Dia’s co-founder based in New York City. Hailing from a family of journalists and writers, Kylie grew up with a passion for stories and a curiosity about the world. This has led her to travel extensively across the globe and she has lived in Malaysia, Zimbabwe and the United States. Kylie graduated with a Bachelor’s in Government from Harvard University and an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.