694 Central Ave • Scarsdale • 914.723.7222
The ubiquitous strip malls of Central Avenue can look sorely similar, confusing even the most familiar driver, so you’ll want to ask Siri for directions before heading to Vietnam’s Central in Scarsdale.
The restaurant’s name is a play on words, combining its location and the chef/owner Tuong Bui’s (you can call him Tom) native region of Vietnam. He is a gregarious host, explaining dishes indigenous to his homeland, differentiating them from other areas of the country, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the food, service, and customer’s reactions to his creations.
Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by five central tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty. At Vietnam’s Central, the combinations are fresh and subtle. Although many offerings arehighlighted in red as “mild to spicy,” nothing that we tried was overtly so. The condiments that are placed on the table or accompany the dishes add kick. The house-fermented soy sauce is unlike any other; only a limited amount is made daily, so savor and save what you are given.
Of course we had to try the pho and its spicier cousin, chili saté. Both are built on hearty stocks, chock full of vermicelli, your choice of protein, and fresh vegetables. Stir-fried noodles can come in either wheat or non-gluten varieties, garnished with a myriad of options. Fragrant jasmine fried rice gets similar treatment (note: the chef’s version is sans soy sauce). While these familiar preparations all hit the mark, it is the less familiar that sets the place apart.
All the dishes are numbered, and 01 is a great place to start. The roll-your-own goi cuon rice-paper spring rolls are first softened in hot water at your table and then filled with charbroiled pork strips, pencil-thin, crisp cha goi shrimp rolls, and an array of fresh and pickled vegetables. Once you get the technique down, you dip them into a mildly spicy sauce and enjoy your personal creation.
Catfish mango (02), delivers a crisp catfish fillet topped with a diced mango salsa, and 07 is succulent, fall-from-the-bone, glazed spareribs. Both the exceptional beef carpaccio (08, a tower of sweet-sour shaved rare flank steak), and calamari and avocado salad (09), where the avocado is presented as a smooth sauce topped with the ultra-crisp rings, are pleasant surprises. Hot and sour soup (11) is nothing like its Chinese counterpart. It gets its umami from preserved bamboo shoots.
Choice 14, vermicelli plus one of four grilled proteins, is a play on textures and temperatures, between the warm main ingredient and its supporting cast of noodles, dressing, and garnishes. The thin, grilled, four-day marinated pork chop (15) is addictive. The only unlucky number we chose was 24, Vietnam’s hot wings: They would have benefited from a little less time in the fryer and a more liberal tossing of the sweet-hot sauce.
Ca kho to, catfish caramelized in a clay pot, was excellent. The fish firm, the sauce reduced and sticky with a punch of black pepper. Our chopsticks jousted over the last few morsels. There is an extensive list of vegan and vegetarian options, too. We tried the Entrees Two, where you can mix and match main ingredients and sauce; we opted for the mock chicken with curry. The house-made seitan ably fills in as the poultry impersonator.
The dessert list is compact. The vegan-friendly taro pudding with tapioca pearls and chopped peanuts is mini-bubble tea in a cup. Halo Halo is pure fun in a bowl: a scoop of vibrant purple yam ice cream paired with a mound of crushed ice surrounded by tiny lychees, julienned jackfruit, bits of colored agar jelly, and red and black beans. Mix everything together to the consistency of a thick soup and every slurp is filled with a variety of icy textures and creamy flavors.
Beverages are limited at this point, although a liquor license is imminent. The fresh limeade is refreshing and, if you have never sampled it, Vietnamese coffee, either iced or hot, is definitely worth a try. The concentrated brew is slowly extracted and poured over a layer of thick condensed milk.
The décor is quirky and the atmosphere depends a lot on the crowd. Music seems to be an insignificant afterthought. Service is very friendly and attentive, and the kitchen seems to hum along regardless of the volume of customers.
Tom and his team are cruising. Set the GPS for Vietnam’s Central and get ready to enjoy the ride.
P.J. Correale is a seasoned veteran with more than four decades in the restaurant industry as an owner and chef.