Sitting in the confines of a regular, black-bricked retail space in Petworth, Little Vietnam is cooking up D.C.’s newest Vietnamese in an intimate setting of flavorful dining and up-close chef work.
Little Vietnam opened last month on Upshur Street, where it dishes out classic and inventive Vietnamese meals including classic Vietnamese savory crepes and a new take on a traditional spring roll from a simple menu of a dozen items. The slogan “big taste in a small space” tops their menu, greeting the eyes of hungry patrons sitting amid the tight, yet cozy environment of fewer than 20 seats that get a wide-open view of the chefs crafting each dish with precision and care.
This restaurant is charming and well-managed with quick service and quaint cat-print curtains, albeit a tiny space. The lights are dimmed and the vibe is homey. The eating area was designed to feel like a living room, a fitting design for a spread of only six seats at the bar and eight two-person tables. The restaurant also takes an old-school approach to attract hungry locals, operating without any website, online menu or reservation system.
I arrived soon after the restaurant opened at 5 p.m. to ensure that I could secure a seat. I grabbed a spot right at the bar and enjoyed front-row view of the chefs in the kitchen, and their work was swift. Nearly immediately after I ordered, I could see my food sizzling in the kitchen as my mouth watered awaiting to be fed. About 10 minutes later, my dinner was ready to be devoured.
The menu featured few appetizer options with caesar spring rolls, cumin lamb dumplings, fried tofu and duck fat rice. The meals included two soup options – pho and vit ca ri (duck curry) – and three nonsoup dishes, featuring banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese crepes), the banh mi burger and my dish of choice, the mi xao chay noodles. There were also a few wines, beers and sake to choose from as well.
I have long been a fan of pho, but prior to my visit to Little Vietnam, I had not tried any other Vietnamese dishes. At this establishment, it was due time to try something new. I ordered the mi xao chay ($18) based on its menu description: a dish consisting of scallion ginger noodle topped with sauteed mushrooms, pea leaves, bok choy and bean sprouts topped with fried shallots – perfect for the recent cold January weather. Patrons have the option to add lemongrass chicken or black pepper steak to the noodles, but I welcomed the chance to stick to a vegetarian meal.
The noodles were similar to ramen in terms of thickness and style, but unlike ramen, this dish was not immersed in soup or broth. Instead of sauce, the noodles were expertly covered in oil. The additional ingredients, like the shallots and bok choy, were mixed in and added a welcoming crunch to contrast the soft texture of the noodles. Ginger is one of those ingredients that has to be done right or else it can be too overpowering. But the chefs definitely knew how to handle it properly, adding the ingredient as a nice punch to the dish without taking it over. The absence of broth helped let the mixture of fresh vegetables, dense noodles and powerful spices shine through in a way that helped separate it from other noodle dishes I had tried in the past.
This restaurant opened as a partnership between chefs Joshua Davis, Kevin Robles and Jafar Umarov, who bonded through their shared appreciation for noodles. The chefs’ skill and appreciation were evident in the mi xao chay. Before I knew it, my plate was empty within less than 10 minutes. I even considered licking the plate clean but decided to save myself the embarrassment.
If you come alone, be prepared to be served about 10 minutes after ordering. Your visit here will likely only last 25 minutes unless you want to order drinks and appetizers too, much to the pleasure of the group of people waiting for seats at the door. It was a extended public transportation journey from GW, but this treat was worth the trip. If you are looking to get your hands on some more fresh, delectable bites of Vietnamese cuisine, give Little Vietnam a try.
This article appeared in the January 26, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.