If you've had Vietnamese cuisine, pho, bánh mì and/or bún bò huế are probably dishes that you're familiar with. Restaurants left and right serve their home-style, traditional, and fusion versions of these popular selections. But one restaurant in New York City is changing the game for Vietnamese food in America and adding Vietnamese barbecue to the lexicon. Following up on our inaugural Freshness Eats feature on 886, we are proud to present our second restaurant, Madame Vo BBQ.
Madame Vo BBQ is the second restaurant opened by chef/owner Jimmy Ly and his wife Yen Vo. Their first establishment, Madame Vo, is located just four blocks away, and has become a pillar in the Vietnamese community. At Madame Vo, you can find Ly's signature Madame Pho with a gigantic short rib and many dishes that he's recreated from memory of his mom's cooking when he was younger. And just in case you were wondering, yes, he named the restaurant after his wife.
Memories and a connection to the regulars that frequent Madame Vo played a pivotal part in Ly's decision to open his second concept. He credits his customers and their support in motivating him to bring Madame Vo BBQ to life. "I feel a connection to our regulars and people through food. I wanted to push the envelope and push myself as a chef to work harder and bring something new to the table. Growing up, I know this [Vietnamese barbecue] but people in New York probably never heard of it so that got me super excited and made me want to work harder to bring that concept here."
So what exactly is Vietnamese barbecue and how does it differ from Korean BBQ or Japanese yakiniku? Chef Ly explains that while the high-end cuts are similar, it's beyond the obvious flavor profile differences and that Vietnamese BBQ, at least for him, is all about getting everyone together for a special occasion. "Growing up we didn't eat this all the time. We probably ate it once a year at home because it's a lot of work so we had it to celebrate graduations, weddings and other big occasions."
This idea of gathering and sharing beautiful memories with family and friends is what drove the interior design of the space and the menu itself. When you walk into Madame Vo BBQ, a mural of a lady on a scooter is accompanied by an actual scooter shipped over from Vietnam. Scooters are the main mode of transportation for a lot of Asian countries, especially Vietnam. Additionally, flower-like wallpaper and colorful tones are supposed to transport you to a restaurant back in Vietnam.
"We went over to Vietnam and ate a lot of barbecue over there for R&D. At a lot of the places, the food was eaten outdoors. It was very tropical vibes and even though it was a restaurant, they had banana leaves and trees all over each place and it was so fun. You're supposed to bond and connect with people, it's all love at the table and you're having a good time. We really loved that and wanted to do it here," Ly said smiling. Plants and prints on the walls of Vietnamese streets add additional flair alongside Medicom BE@RBRICKs that Ly collects and has maintained in his restaurants since Madame Vo.
The menu itself is also crafted to reflect what is eaten classically for Vietnamese BBQ but also to include high-end interpretations by Chef Ly. Like the experiences of Ly's past, he wanted to make everything shareable and a moment to remember for all those participating. Bò 7 món or "beef 7 ways" is the recommended move and we were served the Nem Nuong (roast Berkshire pork meatball topped with scallion oil and crushed peanuts) and Chao Duoi Bo (oxtail congee with honey-fish sauce brown butter) courses from that selection.
Additionally, the kitchen prepared the house Tomahawk steak with its beurre blanc glaze and the house Catfish along with their February special, a duck confit, vermicelli noodles, garlic chips, peppers, scallions, cilantro and house-made fish sauce dish that packed a ton of flavor. All the preparations were beautifully plated and although Ly is a self-trained cook, he credits his idol Joël Robuchon for that.
"He was an all-time great that passed away. I love his food till this day. I eat at his restaurant at least once a month. He inspires me a lot because he pushed the envelope for French cuisine and although I'm Vietnamese, there's French influence in our history and I want to push the boundaries of my cuisine the way he did," Ly comments.
So where else does Ly like to eat aside from Joël Robuchon's restaurants? Well, he loves Asian food and says he needs to have it "all the time" so the other places are more homey and you can order the whole menu a lot easier (that's the way the chef likes to get down). "We eat real food. For Malaysian food, Taste Good out in Elmhurst, it's one of my favorites because we love Southeast Asian food in my family. China Pearl, I grew up eating there, I took my wife there on our first date. That's an all-time staple for us, it's just great Cantonese cooking. 886 ever since they opened and Popeyes," Ly says as he bursts out laughing but adds "Seriously, just keeping it real."
For Ly, who likes to take charge and place orders whenever he eats out with family and friends, he does it because of the symbolism. "It's symbolic, we live a fulfilling life and it's a reminder of how blessed we are. In that moment when you're eating and surrounded by the people you love the most, it means so much and I want everything to be plentiful. That's why when I opened BBQ, I tried to make it simple for people, Beef 7 Ways. You get a full spread of food no matter what. Of course we have our appetizers and seafood but if you don't want to think about it, you order that and you'll have a lot of food and you'll leave fulfilled the way I do when I eat out with family and friends," he happily explains.
If you're looking for a new experience, Madame Vo BBQ is the place for you. Take your family, friends and co-workers and enjoy a large meal together that will create lasting memories the way it did for Jimmy Ly and his wife Yen Vo. At the end of the day all that really matters is that "we pride ourselves on good food and good vibes." Stay fresh Chef Ly, we know you have something up your sleeves and aren't done disrupting the food & beverage industry just yet.