It’s an unforgivable cliché, of course, to say that good things come in small packages. But hey, in this case, it is true. @ The Spot is about as small as a place can get and still count as a restaurant. But it is a potential destination nonetheless.
The modishly named spot focuses on what might be called a core group of familiar Vietnamese dishes, so it’s not the place to go if you are looking for a creative streak or exotic Asian fusion food. There is pho, banh mi sandwiches, angel-hair noodle dishes, rice bowls, fried spring rolls and summer rolls. The main dishes offer the customary choice of beef, grilled pork, grilled chicken or tofu.
The open kitchen, with a clear shot of the hardworking staff, establishes that everything here is made to order. The prices are decent: most dishes sell for $10 or under. While there’s no bar, the Vietnamese coffee and the house-made lemonade brightened with fresh mint (each $3.50) aim to please. The staff is friendly, the service efficient, and the decor clean and simple while being mildly stylish.
The dining area is barely big enough for six tables, each with two backless red stools. You can put two of the tables together and seat four, but however you arrange them, you can’t fit in more than 12 people. Thus a good deal of @ The Spot’s business is carryout.
The greater pleasure, however, comes from eating on the spot. Although it would be impossible to get lost in a place so small, you are greeted at the door and led to your table by the owner, who immediately won my heart on my first visit by placing before me a stainless steel mug and a large glass jug of water infused with mint leaves. What a welcome contrast to those places that serve you water only in a plastic bottle at $2 or $3 a pop.
My next pleasant surprise? The meal is served on real plates and in real bowls with actual silverware (or chopsticks). Even the paper napkins are nice.
Start your meal with fried spring rolls ($6 to $10) — whose crunchy grease-free wrappers are stuffed full of savory ground pork or vegetables — or the summer rolls ($5), bursting with shrimp, vermicelli noodles and shredded veggies and spices, enveloped in a wafer-thin “rice paper” wrapper. The spring rolls, served straight from the frying oil, are extremely hot inside, so let the ends dangle in the dipping sauce for a moment or two so you don’t burn your tongue.
Pho is a popular type of dinner bowl in New York, and the version here ($9) is quite respectable. A rich broth lake is topped with micro slivers of white onion, bits of scallion and fresh coriander and loaded with good-size slices of meat or tofu and plenty of vermicelli. A smaller bowl of add-ins comes alongside the main bowl, stocked with fragrant Thai basil leaves, bean sprouts, thin pieces of jalapeño pepper and a wedge of fresh lime. Don’t be timid: add it all.
Or choose the rice or vermicelli bowl ($9 to$12), with bite-size shreds of lettuce, carrot, cilantro, scallion, cucumber and pickled daikon garnished with grilled chicken, shrimp or pork chop or beef cubes.
Four varieties of banh mi ($8.50 to $10) are available, and the rolls’ crunchy crusts are a highlight. The “classic” is stuffed with thinly sliced pork belly, a smear of pork paté, fresh coriander sprigs and an abundance of shredded carrot and daikon. The shrimp version came with a strong dose of hot sauce as well as sweet relish. The sandwiches, which can also come with grilled chicken or grilled pork chop, may not be the best you will ever find in New York — some flavors were a bit off-balance in the ones I sampled, veering toward sweet. Yet they are still good.
@ The Spot occupies a narrow storefront on a charmless strip of Second Avenue. While it has some admirable neighbors — including two reviewed in this space, an Asian Fusion palace called Sachi and an attractive sandwich joint called Mayhem & Stout — it may not get the kind of foot traffic that helps a restaurant survive. A previous occupant of the same space, a fervent pan-Asian dive named Saigon Baguette, had an awesome kitchen but a short life, not the least because of its charmless decor. No sooner had I filed my glowing review than it went under.
The Spot is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. It is located at 719 Second Avenue between 38th and 39th Street. (212) 818-1188
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.