Two weeks ago, an elegant Vietnamese cafe quietly opened on a strip of Morgan Avenue where East Williamsburg meets Greenpoint, for the first of what we’re told will be monthly art shows.
“We’re all artists, so it makes sense,” Fred Hua, chef and co-owner of Nha Minh, told us this afternoon while he prepped food and occasionally looked up from behind the counter to chat with his friend sitting at a table nearby. Hua spent five years running Nha Toi in Williamsburg, a tiny takeout spot that was one of the few zones in this godforsaken city where you could find a delicious bowl of pho. The restaurant closed abruptly, to the disappointment of many, after a demolition accident next-door damaged the building it was housed in. Dang.
Hua focused his efforts on the South Side Supper Club, a series of pop-up dinners that featured a rotating cast of chefs. The club will continue at Nha Minh with each monthly art show, when a different chef will come in to the small open kitchen and design a menu to his or her standards. “It’s about letting them get creative,” Hua said. “It’s really whatever they want to cook — it could even be a collaboration with the artists.”
The only rule, Hua said, is that it has to include “really awesome food and really awesome cocktails.” The aim is to bring back something that Hua feels has disappeared at New York art shows and gallery openings: the delicious catered meal. “Now it’s all snacks and maybe some beer and wine,” he said. “There was a time when it was fancy, and we want to bring that back.”
With Nha Minh, Hua will return to the open-every-day routine. The hand-written menu is based on four basic ingredient groups combined together in a bowl — grains, vegetables, eggs, and protein of some sort (fish and meat, so far). But it changes daily (“chef’s choice,” Hua said), leaving room for improvisation and seasonal options. “It’s basically farmer’s food,” he explained. “It speaks to a lot of different cultures, really.” And it’s relatively healthy. “I could eat this every day,” Hua said.
Today, for example, the grain was basmati rice (which may sound run-of-the-mill, but we promise you, it wasn’t). But tomorrow, Hua explained, it could be kasha, couscous, spelt, black rice, or orzo. Of course, the vegetables and proteins will change as well (today the options were house-cured salmon and pulled pork), but surprisingly so will the eggs. “For now we have chicken eggs,” Hua said. “But we’re going to have turkey eggs, quail eggs, goose eggs” — the list went on.
We sat down with a bowl of basmati rice, vegetables of the day (pickled beets and red cabbage, grilled Shiitake mushrooms, gooseberries, cucumber) plus carrot and sea-bean latkes, a soft-boiled egg, and house-cured salmon, which we smothered in a soy sauce vinegar and Sriracha. Holy yum. It resembled a way more interesting take on bibimbap. And did we mention it’s affordable? Like, seriously affordable. For $6 you can get the giant bowl of grains and vegetables, for $7 total you get an egg, $8 two eggs, and add on $2 for either of the proteins. Do the math people, that’s ten freaking doll hairs for an enormous amount of food.
The heart of Nha Minh, though, is the coffee. “It’s the first Vietnamese coffee shop in New York,” Hua said. As a Vietnamese-American, he grew up drinking his Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk and caramel) made with the canned stuff, Cafe Du Monde, which will always be available here. But they’re also bringing in “a rotating roster” of coffees from places like Oslo and Stumptown. The caramel options will also be rotating.
The place is beautiful, with white herringbone tiles in the kitchen, and natural light spilling in onto the wooden cafe tables. Jake Klotz, who owns the restaurant with Hua and their partner Jeremy Jones, revealed that the renovation was done very cheaply. It also helped that his wood shop is located in the back. But those tiles are actually subway tiles and all of the wood is repurposed from an old craft store in Williasmburg, a restaurant in Greenpoint, and other nearby locales. “It’s all found,” Klotz said. There’s even a chandelier in the dining zone, but it’s clearly a found object sort of design, too. The walls are covered in art which you can buy, some of it’s in the “affordable” range and some in the “half my income does not go to my rent” range.
At one point, Hua’s friend looked up from his laptop and announced that “it’s also a great place to work.” And it’s true, the place does have a really laid-back vibe. There’s plenty of room to sit, but the place retains a sort of intimacy, and if you wanted you could definitely chat up Hua behind the counter from almost any seat.
Nha Minh is open every day from 10am to 8 m at 485 Morgan Ave., Brooklyn; 718-387-7848. Menu changes daily.