A new Vietnamese restaurant has landed in Shaw that hopes to capture the atmosphere and cuisine of Hanoi’s famous “train street.” Called 1914, this restaurant specializing in Northern Vietnamese dishes revels in the bustling street life that emerged around Ngõ 224 Lê Duẩn: an alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The alley is largely comprised of old train tracks, on which a train whizzes by twice daily, surrounded by gardens, cafes, and shops. Packed and popular, the attraction turned so crowded that the city closed cafes along the street last year due to safety concerns.
The atmosphere lives at 1914, which sits in the space vacated by Dino’s Grotto. A true-to-size replica locomotive, in dazzling yellow, red, blue, and white, emerges from the brick wall in the back of the restaurant, giving the illusion it is ready to barrel toward diners.
The restaurant’s vision, says manager Khuong Nguyen, is “to showcase the distinct taste of food from the Northern region of Vietnam and a physical journey of what you can eat on the streets of Hanoi.” The vibrant design and small, focused menu speak to the restaurant’s goal of offering “a slice of Vietnam, not only in the culinary aspect, but also an understanding of our culture through the decor,” says Nguyen.
Restaurant and food concept incubator Kolben Conceptor, which has opened a series of Vietnamese cafes and eateries in Texas, is behind 1914. The organization’s coalition of chefs and operators from Texas and Vietnam craft a menu specific to each location.
Why bring the concept to Washington? Nguyen explains that early waves of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in California, Texas, and the D.C. area — a post-war wave that also led to the construction of Falls Church Vietnamese hub the Eden Center. After finding success in Texas, the Kolben Conceptor owners saw an opportunity to break into the D.C. market with dishes they had rarely seen in the city.
Northern Vietnamese-style cuisine is more meat- and noodle-heavy than Southern Vietnamese cooking, which can be sweeter, spicier, and is more famous for its pho, per Nguyen. At 1914, shrimp and pork star on the menu, including two of the appetizers: cha gio re (waffle egg rolls) and tom lan bot (fried shrimp). Unlike the smooth rice paper in more well-known egg rolls, 1914’s egg rolls are encased in deeply textured fried-crisp shells, resembling the crosshair weave of a basket.
The most visually arresting dish is the unassumingly named fried shrimp: Imagine a plate of shrimp fried in neon Rice Krispies. Unlike battered shrimp, these sizable prawns arrive wrapped in a crunchy jacket of green rice flakes. This type of rice is harvested before fully ripening, remaining green, and then pounded and flattened.
Entrees run deep with umami. The restaurant’s Com Tam (broken rice with barbecue chicken or pork) is a standout. Broken rice — which is fractured during the milling process — is stickier than regular grains, and is almost tailor-made to soak up the barbecue of the meat, the vinegary punch of a vegetable salad, the gooey fried egg that arrives on top, and the accompanying sweet and sour dipping sauce. Like nearby Ethiopian restaurants, where injera is a critical element, it is the broken rice that speaks loudest.
“The rice is really what makes the dish and not the other way around,” says Nguyen.
Another Northern Vietnamese specialty on the menu is bun cha (grilled pork with vermicelli noodles). President Barack Obama famously shared it with Anthony Bourdain in a tiny cafe on No Reservations.
While the trolley is the star of the second floor, the subterranean level comes alive as an homage to a night market. Instead of a train car, there’s a moped, along with music videos playing on a wall projector under dim blue lights. Were it not for tight pandemic capacity restrictions, the space could easily turn into a more raucous bar (the current indoor capacity is 30 guests).
There’s just a handful of beers on the menu currently (supply chain issues means that 1914 stpell has yet to be able to purchase beer from Vietnam). Signature non-alcoholic drinks, however, include Vietnamese coffee and tea (sourced from Vietnam), and sua trong, or egg milk coffee. This Vietnamese espresso is mixed with sweetened condensed milk and topped with egg yolks whipped to achieve a custard consistency. In the summer, it’s served iced; wintertime means it comes hot. The less-caffeinated lychee oolong tea is a lighter option.
For now, 1914 primarily offers takeout, though there is limited indoor dining seating at brightly painted, spaced-out tables for two and four diners. (There is no outdoor seating.)
Coming up, Nguyen says that there will be additional vegetarian and dessert menu items, as well as a potential for other alcoholic drinks.
As for the restaurant’s name, Nguyen says that the last stop on the Hanoi train was built in 1913. The restaurant’s address happens to be 1914 9th Street. He imagines that the restaurant 1914 could come to represent the new “final” station on the line.
1914 is located at 1914 9th St NW. Hours are Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri–Sun 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Indoor dining and takeout available.
(As Published on dcist)