The most memorable dish at the youthful Little Vietnam in Washington isn’t printed on the menu. You have to know about it, be told about it, be a regular or get lucky to tap into the splendor of the newcomer’s chicken Caesar wrap, created by Jafar Umarov.
If you like Caesar salads and spring rolls, you’re going to love their union here. Its success starts with a whole roasted chicken, seasoned with turmeric and lemongrass, whose meat is pulled into bite-size slivers and whose skin is fried and sometimes dehydrated. The ingredients are bundled with whole red lettuce, fresh rice noodles and a single silvery Spanish anchovy in a sheet of rice paper, then rolled into fat, see-through cigars. Refreshing by themselves, the wraps swell with flavor after a plunge in the accompanying dish of tahini, miso and fish sauce. Every bite gives you something to cheer: velvety chicken, downy greens, sass from boquerones and crackle courtesy of the fried chicken skin. Noisy as chicharron, the skin fills the role typically played by croutons in a Caesar salad.
The sublime $10 concert goes unannounced on the menu because it’s labor-intensive, there isn’t always enough chicken skin to go around and the staff thinks it’s best when prepared a la minute, says Umarov, who figures no more than 10 orders are offered on any given night. “If you know, you know,” he says of the secret.
Little Vietnam fills the shoe box last occupied by the Korean-themed Magpie and the Tiger and, before that, Pom Pom and the late, great Himitsu starring Kevin Tien in the kitchen and Carlie Steiner in the dining room. Twenty-two diners is maximum capacity, a number that includes a handful of stools at the semicircular bar looking into the open kitchen. I imagine steam facials for those closest to the action. Claustrophobes need not apply. On the plus side, even guests in the dining room get to see their meals go from raw to ready for their close-ups. The proximity to your neighbors means getting previews of some dishes as they’re dropped off inches away, as well as catching snatches of conversation that place customers firmly in Washington. (“When I worked for Obama…”)
The venture features a clutch of talent who worked for the Washington-based Daikaya Group: chef and co-owner Kevin Robles; his girlfriend and business partner, Christy Vo; and beverage director and co-owner Joshua Davis, who mixes tequila, apple cider, lemon and more to create an Apple Bottom Jeans whose menu description fits it to a T: “Warm like boots with the fur.” (Oh, yeah, and make me another.) The partners’ familiarity with one another — Robles and Davis also punched the clock at Tien’s modern Vietnamese Moon Rabbit at the Wharf — translates to an easy alliance, where everyone seems to credit everyone else for what gets done and “chef” is just another word for pretty much everyone in the kitchen, regardless of rank. Robles, a native of El Salvador, credits Vo, whose family is Vietnamese, with making sure the food is “as close to authentic as we can get.” The broth for the soups doesn’t leave the kitchen without her tasting it.
Little Vietnam’s menu is small, fewer than a dozen dishes. But most of the efforts are the type you want to repeat, including dumplings filled with ground lamb that’s warm with black cumin, sharp with lemongrass and subtly nutty with sesame oil. The wontons, with their ghostlike tails, are available fried or steamed (my preference) and arrive with a carpet of pungent cilantro on an under-liner of chili-spiked soy vinaigrette.
Just as high on the pleasure chart as the chicken Caesar roll is banh xeo, the crisp stuffed crepe common to street food stalls in Vietnam. Turmeric gives the rice-flour batter its golden color; a filling of shrimp, ground pork, mung beans and bean sprouts is smoky from some time in the wok for the sprouts. Cool lettuce leaves are used to bundle hot bites of the crepe, which diners then dip in the nearby nuoc cham. The shareable dish gets its name from the sizzle it makes when the batter hits the hot grill.
It helps if you eat meat here, but there’s no requirement. The kitchen has vegetarians covered with puffs of fried tofu, gently crisp from their seasoning and paired with a sauce that illustrates the kitchen’s freedom to mix and match cultures. Count me a fan of ranch dressing brightened with Thai basil. (If the tofu seasoning rings some bells, it could be the housemade riff on shrimp-flavored instant-ramen noodles, a youthful snack Robles says he and Vo both enjoyed.) Hold the fried egg on the fried egg salad if you prefer something vegan, in this case a garland of watercress, tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs strewn with fried shallots and dressed with a nuoc cham made without fish sauce.
This is an intimate and chill place to spend an hour or so. Little Vietnam seems not to have changed much, design-wise, from its immediate predecessor with its wood floors, green-tiled bar and front windows facing Upshur Street. Diners enter via a handsome wooden door followed by a cat-print curtain to the familiar sounds of “New York, New York” or “I Say a Little Prayer.”
A few dishes taste out of place, foremost the hamburger, dramatically stabbed in its dry bun with a steak knife, just like the extravagant short rib sandwich at Joy by Seven Reasons in Chevy Chase, Md. The presentation is the most memorable aspect of the sandwich at Little Vietnam, its ordinariness compounded by a thatch of french fries that smack of the frozen bagged variety. News that the opening month’s (chicken) meatballs — a covid-era staple on seemingly every other menu — are history is no loss; they were pretty unremarkable, save for a loose texture that made plucking them from their bowl, intact, a challenge. (The chicken wings, another ubiquitous presence on menus of all stripes, are superior in every way.) And for such a small space, you’d think someone would remember to brush crumbs from previous visitors seated on the benches in the dining room. I prefer crunch on the plate, not when my hands touch my chair.
Quibbles fade at the sight of most dishes, say, a strapping bowl of red coconut curry with a meaty duck leg poking out from what looks like lava and pulses with lemongrass. Crushed peanuts yield crunch, and ginger-scallion oil ties the package together. Will Little Vietnam prevail in a storefront that earlier restaurants haven’t called home for very long? Dishes including this one, vit ca ri, make chowhounds hopeful.
The principals are continually tweaking the details. Down the road, they may add a phone line and reservations. (On behalf of fans: Yes, please!) One of the owners’ concerns is the rush of customers around 6 p.m. They’d love it if business were more spread out throughout the night. Allow me to tip the scales and suggest that more people visit when the doors open at 5 p.m., if only to improve their odds of securing my favorite dish.
As with the restaurant, there’s a lot in a little there.
828 Upshur St. NW. No phone. No website. Open for indoor dining 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: appetizers $9 to $14, soups and main courses $16 to $22. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The snug space is not conducive to wheelchair use. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be masked, but the entire staff is vaccinated.