It’s lunchtime in Pleasantville, and they’re filing in—the fellow in the Dallas Cowboys hoodie who orders takeout, the gents speaking Vietnamese as they take seats and quickly order pho, the ladies who walk to a table in the spare, undecorated dining room that appears to be theirs and only theirs—to Hu Tieu Mien Tay, the granddaddy of Vietnamese restaurants in this city that sits some five miles west of the heart of downtown Atlantic City.
Owned by Bally and Tiffany Nguyen, Hu Tieu has been in business more than 15 years, and paved the way for a coterie of Vietnamese restaurants in the area that serve not only the growing Vietnamese community but visitors to this neck of the Shore looking for dining options outside the casinos. It’s located astride the Asian Supermarket in the Pleasantville Center shopping mall and though its humbleness cannot be overstated, neither can the sincerity and authenticity of its food.
And if you don’t know bagels from banh mi or pasta primavera from pho, Jackie will enlighten and guide you.
Jackie is everybody’s server at Hu Tieu, and she won’t let you down. If you want something light and palate-stimulating as a starter, she’ll nod approvingly when you order the shredded pork rolls, which cosset in near-translucent rice paper wrappers greens given a brisk chiffonade and just the right amount of practically macerated pork. Dip the rolls into a tangy-sweet sauce and feel your appetite rev up.
I have to get a banh mi, Vietnam’s hoagie that riffs on its culinary influences by starting with a baguette of a sub roll and adding layers of pate and ham, plus copious amounts of fresh cilantro and carrots. If you went to White House, the James Beard Award-winning sub shop in Atlantic City, you’d have a choice of sandwiches that pay homage to Italian ingredients and combos. The banh mi marries Vietnam’s long colonization by the French with ingredients and techniques of the Far East. Bottom line: Hu Tieu makes a fine banh mi.
As well as a sensational shrimp-and-pork papaya salad. Using green papaya, which is decidedly not sweet, but rather mild and mellow, the salad is a toss of sliced pork, shrimp and peanuts set atop shredded papaya that looks, and acts, much like rice noodles. The edible entourage is heaped on torn-up greens and begs to be drizzled with some of the tangy dressing Jackie brings to our table. No wonder there’s a regular lunch crowd here, I think as I eat way more than my share of the salad. It’s the perfect midday meal.
Or, if you want something a smidgen heavier, you could get the dual pork number that’s partnered with rice vermicelli. Here, there’s both shredded and barbecued pork, plus spirals of carrots and daikon radish, with some crisp greens tucked in between the light rice noodles and the proteins.
The can’t-miss dish here is the pho, and we claim the deluxe version of the quintessential Vietnamese soup, plumped as it is with beef eye, beef round, flanken, brisket and beef tripe. We bolster the mild broth with shots of fish sauce and hot sauce, a hit of soy and a lot of the basil leaves, jalapeno slices and cilantro offered to all as doctoring agents. Pho—pronounced to rhyme with duh—just might be the most restorative dish on the planet.
I’m longing to order one of the broken rice dishes, but Jackie smiles as she shakes her head. “Enough, you’ve had enough,” she says. I almost buck her order. Sure, we’ve eaten a lot, but the food is pure and light and invigorating; I honestly could take on a dish of rice and egg and pork chop.
Then again, there will be a next time for me at Hu Tieu Mien Tay. I bet it all will still be as charmingly humble and sincere.
Hu Tieu Mien Tay, 700 Black Horse Pike, Pleasantville. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 609-646-8977.Click here to leave a comment