Friends and I would sit there on a picnic table, a bucket of cold beers between us, watching the steel warehouses quietly drift by. I found the scene hypnotic: a rare glimpse at the engines of commerce, close enough to see the flags of convenience of each passing ship. Close enough to see the rust, the occasional crew member, even the birds that hovered in the ship’s wake. It was man, machine and nature, all in one widescreen spectacle.
I recalled my trips to the Houston Ship Channel the minute I started watching videos of “train street,” a single track that winds through the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The line has been a part of the city’s landscape since the turn of the 20th century, cutting a narrow path through neighborhoods where locals treat this rumbling convoy of rail cars no differently than you or I would treat the occasional SUV and UPS truck that lumbers through our streets. The tracks serve as a thoroughfare, sidewalk and front yard. Residents hang clothes and potted plants along its route, children play on the tracks, animals wander across the rails, each ready to scatter as soon as the train whistle blows, not unlike Wayne and Garth when cars interrupted their game of suburban street hockey.
But in recent years, train street has become an attraction itself, as coffee shops and cafes multiplied along the route to cater to tourists who sip beer and tea, awaiting their brush with an immovable force that click-clacks down the rails, mere feet from their faces. The laughter, applause and hoots that follow the final car are testaments to the adrenaline rush of the encounter: Folks have stood next to the great locomotive, felt its potential for violence and lived to tell the tale on Instagram. Train street, in fact, became so alluring that last year the local government ordered the closure of all cafes along it, citing the safety of those who flock to the tracks, perhaps after one too many bottles of Hanoi beer.
1914 by Kolben, a new North Vietnamese restaurant on Ninth Street NW, serves as an homage to those cafes that helped lubricate the tourists on train street. In the former space of Dino’s Grotto, the two-story trattoria that closed last year, and in a neighborhood once known informally as Little Ethiopia, 1914 channels the atmosphere of Hanoi’s street train quite literally: On the second level, a red-white-and-blue locomotive looks as if it’s pulling into the station, right next to the counter where you place your order from an electronic menu or from the Japanese-style food models right at your elbow.
There are about a dozen dishes on the menu, give or take a special, and each one has been workshopped into submission by Kolben Conceptor, the Texas-based company that licensed its know-how to three local owners who opened 1914 in July, right in the middle of a pandemic. Kolben Conceptor — “coalition of chefs from Texas, Vietnam, and many other places in Asia,” 1914 manager Khuong Nguyen tells me — had previously introduced many of the dishes at other cafes and teahouses in Texas, honing and fine-tuning each one along the way. Not surprising, then, there’s nary a miss on the menu at 1914.
Order anything with grilled or barbecued pork in the ingredient list, whether spring rolls (goi cuon thit nuong), a signature rice noodle bowl (bun cha ha thanh) or a broken rice dish (com tam 1914). But my favorite use of pig can be found in the xoi thit nuong, a sticky rice preparation with barbecued pork and a sprinkle of scallions, fried red onions and crushed peanuts. The pork, shellacked with an umami-enhanced marinade, is tossed on a grill, leaving bite-size pieces that disappear faster than movie popcorn.
The same sweet kiss from the grill accents the bun cha, a vermicelli-and-grilled-pork dish that had its 15 minutes of fame in Western media when President Barack Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain sat across from each other at a Hanoi noodle shop in 2016. The 1914 version remains true to its North Vietnamese roots: Two types of pork, including meatballs with rich deposits of fat, are submerged in a bowl of fish sauce cut with broth. Noodles, bean sprouts and a variety of fresh-cut vegetables surround the bowl, allowing you to mix and match bites in many mouthwatering variations. The kitchen also offers the South Vietnamese version of the dish, minus the meatballs, suggesting the line between gastronomic regions is not as bright as the 1914 owners would lead you to believe. Regardless, whichever version you order, you’re golden.
The pandemic has kneecapped 1914 in a number of regrettable ways, starting with the menu. The owners have maintained a tight rotation of dishes that fare well with takeaway, including, surprisingly, the cha gio re appetizer, otherwise known as the waffle wrap egg rolls. Whole shrimp come rolled in rice paper designed to resemble the weave of a basket, making for a snack of startling contrasts: supernatural crunch and sweet, succulent shellfish.
The ingredients for pho ga, or chicken pho, are packaged separately to allow you to combine them at home. The broth hints at fish sauce, tantalizing and ephemeral, and comes swimming with pieces of dark meat, far more satisfying than those cotton balls of breast often floating in pho ga. Even the fried tofu maintains its edge in a carryout order of bun tau hu 1914, a noodle dish with a variety of non-meat nuggets for wrapping and dunking. You can pair these dishes with any number of nonalcoholic drinks, but I wouldn’t miss two on opposite ends of the spectrum: the sweet, stiff jolt of Vietnamese coffee and the silky, vanilla-scented elixir sold as corn milk.
If the pandemic has limited the menu, it has also deprived customers a chance to experience 1914 as it was intended: in large groups, as packed as riders on a platform awaiting their train. As I sit at a two-top next to the locomotive inside a nearly empty 1914, I imagine what this second-story platform (or even the subterranean space designed to resemble a night market) will look like once folks feel comfortable again dining in confined spaces. When crowded with customers, these narrow dining rooms will adopt the air of Hanoi alleys lined with tourists, everyone eager to get their first glimpse of that powerful engine coming round the bend.
If you go
1914 by Kolben
1914 Ninth St. NW, 301-244-9795; 1914kolben.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Monday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Shaw-Howard U or U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.3-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.45 to $16.95 for all food and drinks on the menu.