You’ve got to appreciate the audacity of a name like “Vietnam One.” Is it hubris? Or is it just a simple, memorable name for a family-owned restaurant in that Little Vietnam section of West Broad Street? Who cares?!? They’re nice people who make great food, and I don’t know why I’m bothering to play with their name like that. I actually have quite a lot of respect for these people and their restaurant.
In 1984, amid post-war discomforts, Hai and Nancy Huynh left Vietnam. Nancy’s brother sponsored them here in the United States. 20 years later, in 2004, they opened their restaurant, Vietnam 1. It’s been 18 years, and it’s going strong. They have busy lunch hours, with lots of regular customers — a number that, lately, has included me. Vietnam 1 is a family restaurant indeed; their daughter works there, and you’re likely to see their adorable little granddaughter hanging around as well.
I started coming here because I’ve been looking for places to get Vietnamese noodle soups that are not phở. Don’t get me wrong, I love phở. I adore it. I’ve been eating it for about 25 years; ever since my buddy Jeff introduced it to me at a place called Viet House in Fairfax, Virginia. 25 years goes by in the blink of an eye, and for lots of us, phở is the top go-to, cures-what-ails-ya, best-buddy soup there is. Phở does not want to let you down. Bless you, phở. But after all that time, eventually, I needed to see what else was out there.
Not too long ago, I spent a couple years living in Portland, Oregon. There’s a magical Vietnamese soup joint there called Ha VL, which features two or three different noodle soups each day of the week. I went there all the damn time. In an attempt to get though every soup they made, I’d go repeatedly on each day they were open. I could go on about the James Beard Award-nominated Ha VL, and their sister restaurant Rose VL, and you should definitely eat there if you’re in Portland. But this article is not about that. This is about finding a variety of noodle soups right here in beautiful old Richmond, Virginia.
My friend Bret told me that Vietnam 1 is his go-to for phở, so I wanted to see what else they offered. I took a look at menu item N6, Hoành Thánh Mì, and went for it. I’ve eaten this dish three times now, trying to get a good feel for it. I like it a lot. Hoành Thánh Mì (you’ll see it written elsewhere as Mì Hoành Thánh) is a Vietnamese version of wonton noodle soup, a very popular dish introduced by the Cantonese and found all over Asia.
Here it’s a fairly basic dish, starting with a delicious chicken broth that instantly makes you feel right at home. They use thin egg noodles, always cooked perfectly al dente, and which have a springier, snappier texture than rice noodles. They add thinly sliced pork and tiny pancetta-like cubes of fried bacon fat. Next we find the star of this bowl, the wontons. Who doesn’t like wontons, or dumplings? Every culture in the world seems to have a version of it, and for good reason. You can put whatever you want inside various wrappers, cook them and eat them a hundred ways. We have lovable dumplings of all sorts: empanadas from Spain; gyoza from Japan; ravioli from Italy; maultaschen from Germany; pierogi from Poland; those divine soup dumplings, xiao long bao from China, or khinkali from Georgia; and on and on.
The wontons in this particular bowl are filled with pork. There’s a sweetness that makes these plump little flour ghosts instantly addictive. I use willpower to not eat them all at once. I space them out, enjoying one throughout each stage of emptying the bowl. The soup gets a small handful of chopped lettuce, and a few pinches of green onions and chives. They serve it with a side dish of basic garnishes you’d put in your phở: bean sprouts, jalapeños and lime. They forgo the Thai basil and culantro, I assume because they’ve already added some greens. I like to add a handful of bean sprouts, but I don’t personally mess with the jalapeños. I’ve got a weird stomach that doesn’t handle them too well. But here’s one basic food philosophy I tend to follow: if you are served a meal, or a drink with a lime on the side, definitely squeeze the lime into the thing.
Again, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing terribly unique about this dish, it’s just made extremely well, with lots of love, by people who obviously know what they’re doing. Hai Huynh is the chef here, with decades of experience preparing this sort of food. He can appear as a somewhat stern-looking, soft-spoken older gentleman, and he doesn’t have the best command over the English language. It’s highly likely he’s more jovial than one might assume. I’ve seen him smiling and playing with his granddaughter inside the restaurant. When I tried to ask him questions he referred me to his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Cindy.
Nancy Huynh is an affable woman. She’s well dressed, with stylish short hair and a nice smile. At the end of my third time eating menu item N6, she urged me to try N7, Sủi Cảo Mì, which is essentially the same dish but with shrimp-filled dumplings instead of pork. So as to let neither her nor myself down, I went back and enjoyed the shrimp version of the dish, now making it four times in a row that I ate this soup. I really liked the shrimp wontons. They also serve these fried, as an appetizer, and there’s a big photo on their wall depicting just that. I could not recommend one over the other; pork or shrimp, N6 or N7. Toss a coin if you must. You’re gonna come out a winner either way.
All the staff at Vietnam One are good-natured, knowledgable, and helpful. Server Mỹ Lê has worked there for 16 years, knows a ton about Asian food, and speaks Vietnamese, English, and French. Initially his consistent presence made me think that he was the owner. Honest mistake. When I showed him all the noodle soup photos I’ve taken, organized under my nerdy hashtag on Instagram, he asked me if I knew who Anthony Bourdain was. I do. Like myself, Bourdain really enjoyed Sapp Coffee Shop for Thai noodle soups in Los Angeles. So there’s at least one place where we could have crossed paths. He appeared to have such a dream job, but who really knows.
Nearly every time I try to get a photo of Vietnam 1 from the outside, I get streaks of light emanating from the front door (see pic above). This is probably because of the position of the sun during my often typical 3:00 lunch time. But it’s as though my camera/phone sees this storefront as being ethereal, almost heavenly. And that’s how I’m leaving the photo here — as a beacon of hope in the form of a bowl of noodle soup. Is life getting you down, which it often has done for me? Get yourself some soup.
If you need a digestivo, which you probably will, take a quick walk over to the Tan A Supermarket for a bag of chewy ginger candy, found in that long candy aisle. You’ll be glad you did. If you don’t have cash and need to make up their minimum card payment, maybe buy a new ceramic bowl, or some nice green tea. And while you’re chewing on that ginger candy in your car, driving to wherever you’re going, consider what it might be like to open an American restaurant in Vietnam called “USA 1.” I know, it certainly would not play out the same way, but it’s a silly idea…
Vietnam 1 is located at 6215 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23230. (804) 289-3838. Open 10:30 – 8:00 Sunday – Tuesday, and Thursday. 10:30 – 8:30 Friday and Saturday. Closed Wednesdays.
Top Photo: N6, Hoành Thánh Mì, as served. Photo by Matthew Park.