A Very Early Look at OBAO’s Lunch
It never quite reached a MomoMidtown fever pitch, but the opening of Michael Huynh’s OBAO (on 53rd btw. 2+3rd) last week was met with a bit of excitement. And why not? Midtown is not exactly a hotbed of great Vietnamese food- and even though nothing Chef Hyunh does is straight forward, his twisted Vietnamese/Pan Asian sit down restaurant is bound to be better than the options we have now. There were a couple of pre-opening reports that sounded positive, but you can’t be truly sure about a place until a restaurant is open and has paying customers. They opened for dinner a week ago, and Friday was their very first lunch service.
I don’t think it’s fair to be critical of a place based on a meal you had during the 2 busiest hours of their opening week. And not everything we ate was perfect, but there was enough there for me to know this is a place I’ll want to go back to. What we tried is after the jump…
When the lunch menu was first released, I was excited to see that many of the dishes were $10 or less (we have strict rules here at Midtown Lunch!) A lot of them aren’t under $10, but at least some of the more expensive dinnertime dishes are offered for less during lunch… so for those of you who are willing to splurge for the pricier dishes, it still won’t break the bank.
Of course with entrees in the $9-13 range, keeping lunch to under $10 per person meant forgoing the appetizer section entirely, but clearly you won’t be making a mistake if you order the crispy pork belly on a stick. Instead we ordered four $10 and under entrees that we thought we make for a filling lunch by themselves.
Bun (Vietnamese vermicelli noodle bowls) is actually my favorite dish to order at a Vietnamese restaurant. I love the variety of getting two meats (usually pork and shrimp) plus a fried spring roll over noodles covered in nuoc cham (the sweet and tangy fish sauce mixture that is a staple in Vietnamese food.) It’s a full lunch in a bowl and I love it. So I was pretty excited to see that this dish was only $10 on the lunch menu (it’s $12 at dinner.) It’s not the best version of the dish I’ve ever had, and it should really include a spring roll, but all in all I was pleased… and it’s certainly the best version of the dish I’ve had in Midtown. $10 is a bit on the pricey side, but like MomoMidtown I don’t mind paying a little extra for lunch if it’s quality ingredients (key words being “a little” extra.)
I’m a sucker for pig’s feet and beef shins, so in the soup category we opted for the Bun bo Hue instead of the pho. I’ve never had bun bo hue, so I have no basis for comparison, but to me the broth tasted like a standard pho. And there was no sign of a pig’s foot anywhere in the soup. As for the thin slices of perfectly cooked borderline rare meat, they were delicious- but I’ll have to take their word for it that it was beef shin. I didn’t really taste any lemongrass either, leading me to wonder if they had brought us the pho by accident (which from the description on the menu sounded exactly like what we were eating.) In fact I’m not the only one…
Peter Chershes wrote about the same soup on his blog Word of Mouth, and came to the same conclusion. But he actually asked, and the waitstaff swore up and down that he got the right soup. If that was the case, as far as he was concerned, this was the worst bun bo hue he’s ever had. Apparently it’s supposed to be heavy on the lemongrass, with a slick of chili oil covering the top. Instead it tasted like a regular pho broth, but I the soup’s defense it did come with a side dish of chili paste that took the soup from decent to really good. Once we added the chili paste, I actually loved this soup as a stand alone dish, and would order it again. But if you’re looking for an authentic bun bo hue (or want to see a pig’s foot in your bowl) it sounds like you will be extremely disappointed.
We wanted to try one of the wok fried noodle dishes, but sadly only the Singapore noodles were $10 (the rest were $11). I don’t know what “authentic” Singapore noodles are supposed to taste like, but even taking this dish at face value it was just ok. Not bad, just not great. I just wish the pad see iew with kalbi was $10! I might just have to suck it up and splurge.
Finally, we tried a rice dish (since all of them were $10 and under.) I love chinese sausage, and Michael Huynh is Vietnamese so we went with the Viet Rice. It was good, but also not spectacular, and is definitely meant to be a side dish- not a meal. Next time I might have to try the duck confit Lao rice, or the Thai fried rice topped with a poached egg (hello!)
So… not everything was a winner, and you can definitely find things to complain about. If you’re looking for “authenticity”, this Pan-Asian hodge podge is not going to cut it in some ways. Huynh puts his spin on just about every dish, adding or subtracting something that you might be used to. In some cases it works, and in some cases it doesn’t. But if you have certain expectations, prepare to be surprised (or disappointed) in some way. Oh, and there are clearly “better versions” for “half the price” somewhere else in New York City. But not in Midtown… and I welcome OBAO in much the same way I welcomed Ma Peche (aka MomoMidtown.)
Clearly I like finding the authentic dives, where food is cheap and doesn’t make you wish the train ride to Jackson Heights or Flushing was short enough for a one hour lunch break. But sometimes you’re looking for something a little more classy. And if there is one thing Michael Hyunh has proven over his long, and, frankly, strange cooking career here in New York City, it’s that the guy is a great chef. Inconsistent? Sure. Off base sometimes? Uh, yeah. But, if you keep an open mind- and don’t mind spending a little extra money, you’ll end up finding some delicious gems at a place like OBAO.
Criticisms aside (and I am sure there will be more as more bloggers, and the real critics, descend) I’m psyched to have this new option in our wasteland. (And I’m even more excited for the Baoguette we’re *supposedly* getting in Grand Central.) But would it kill you to add a spring roll to the bun?!
OBAO, 222 E 53rd St (btw. 2+3rd)