It used to be that I would go to Banh Cuon Thang Long in Garland for the little steamed rice flour cakes called bánh beo. The humble diner-esque spot in a strip mall was an unlikely backdrop for a beautiful, dainty delicacy from Hue, whose elegance shone back in a tray full of pale moons. (I’d get them here, because the restaurant also specializes in the folded rice-batter crepes, bánh cuon, that give the spot its name). And around the corner, I could get salty limeade at Nam Hua Garland. Sure, you can find steamed rice-batter items at Bistro B in Dallas. And there are other spots where you can accompany a meal with salty limeade or a housemade fizzy preserved plum soda. But it was not possible to find these things, these intricacies, really, in the main restaurant drags of downtown Dallas (aside from Sandwich Hag’s walkup window). Until now, that is.
At Ngon Vietnamese Kitchen—Carol Nguyen’s recently opened restaurant on Lower Greenville which has been doling out a limited menu before its grand opening this Saturday, September 5—bánh beo will be on the menu, praise be! Nguyen tops her bánh beo with beautiful crumbles of pulverized shrimp, ready to cut into four and spoon up.
Already, Nguyen broadcasts her intentions with a bánh mì station whose breeze-in-breeze-out casualness has all the ease of street-food culture. It’s there you’ll find the spoonable cloud of an egg coffee that reminds me of tiramisu. Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk gets a float of cognac and a soft layer of whipped egg foam. The bánh mì in their crackling baguettes feature classic cognac-infused pâté, as though reminding us that her food influences are from Ha Noi, a city historically inflected with French colonial influence—the city from whence hails her clear-brothed style of pho.
The walkability of Lower Greenville and the street-food-feeling vibrancy are part of what Nguyen sought when she nabbed the space, formerly Shivas Bar and Grill. Nguyen previously worked in the sushi restaurant her family owned and opened the Cajun restaurant Crazee Crab in Grand Prairie, but this is the first restaurant to reflect her own heritage. Ngon is female-owned and female-run, named in part after Nguyen’s mother, who lives in Australia, and from whom she’s been separated for 20 years. It’s a reunion of women and also a reunion of regional dishes.
And so the menu features com tam, the (traditionally) morning dish with a sunny-side up egg, mounds of what traditionally was discard rice, and often a shrimp cake and chargrilled meats (Nguyen favors shrimp); bánh canh’s chewy tapioca noodles in an 18-hour simmered pork broth, topped with outstanding pink-rimmed char sui and tender, sweet king crab meat. Bun bo Hue, redolent with lemongrass, which I’ve spent weeks of my life hunting down in Richardson, Garland, and North Dallas, chasing the blazing-sunset-red broth with its tender, mesmerizing crab balls. And bun cha Hanoi, a chilled vermicelli bowl with sweeter nuoc mam sauce, that, again is not easy to find. (The bánh cahn I haven’t had anywhere.)
It all puts Nguyen in rarified company. On Lower Greenville itself, she joins a place like the now-closed Gung Ho for whom the ambiance of a walkable downtown space came into play. She imagines the feel it might have of late nights in Ha Noi, when the city comes alive. But she’s trying to do something else as well: bring authenticity closer to the city center in her own way. Not the visual overload of a Bistro B, or the updates and borrowings of a Gung Ho—though are there a butterfly pea flower-tinted refresher with a lilt of passionfruit and a vegetarian summer roll vibrant with beets, contemporary and phone-camera-ready. Not the hole-in-the-wall regional restaurant influenced by a family’s roots, though there’s a good deal of that, too. Rather, it’s something at the interstices. Something I hope will kindle obsessions with egg coffee.
For the grand opening festivities at Ngon on September 5, there’s much to celebrate, like Nguyen’s birthday and Vietnamese Mother’s Day (especially fitting since the restaurant is named for her mom, Ngôn). There will be a lion dance at 5 p.m. and prizes all day on Saturday, a wine tasting with Bar and Garden on September 10, plus donations to a local nonprofit all week.
Nguyen has also already secured a second restaurant location for a second Ngon in Bishop Arts. Which means Ngon will presumably be heading to another walkable neighborhood soon. Stay tuned for details as we have them.