Before Michael "Bao" Huynh was slapping his name on every restaurant concept in town, Nicky's owners Ninh and Teresa Van Dang were serving up the best Vietnamese sandwiches outside of Sunset Park, crisp French baguettes filled with paté, ham, ground pork, pickled carrots and cilantro. Today, in the aftermath of the banh mi boom, they don't seem so unique, which might be why the owners tried to expand into something new.
That something is pho (pronounced more like "fuuh" than "foe"), the classic Vietnamese noodle soup made with beef and rice noodles. New York might excel when it comes to plenty of ethnic dishes, but pho is not one of them. A truly excellent bowl of pho is wonderfully complex, with grassy notes from fresh herbs interplaying with a rich, beefy broth seasoned with hints of cinnamon and coriander, all cut with the acidity of a wedge of lime. I wanted to believe that Nicky's could do what it did for banh mi for pho; God knows how many times I've waited in their original East Village shop watching reruns of The Simpsons on their TV as I waited for my perfect sandwich.
Sadly, while the owners may have upped their game when it comes to the new restaurant's décor, the pho is merely on par with the other Vietnamese noodle joints in Manhattan, which is to say, it's just ok. I had the classic, topped with rare, thinly sliced beef and thicker cuts of brisket. Now, let me clarify; it was a perfectly acceptable bowl of pho, a great option if you live nearby and are looking to warm up on a cold day. But I can't see anyone walking 14 blocks out of their way like I've done for one of Nicky's banh mi sandwiches. The meat was a little tough, the broth lacked the tang of patiently prepared stock, the offering of basil and cilantro was insufficient and the noodles were thickly clumped together. Good pho should be constantly surprising you with new flavors as you carefully sip the broth; here, it was a bit flat and boring.
The summer rolls I tried weren't much better, filled with limp shrimp and a pile of rice vermicelli that I ate with a shrug. At least the digs are nice. The 20-seat dining room is appointed with exposed brick, leather-backed chairs and red curtains that give it the dark, sultry feel of a 90s R&B video. For $8 per person, you could have one reasonably priced date here; just make sure he or she isn't a pho snob.