Watercress salad with eggs, tomato, and shallots at Little Vietnam in Washington, D.C.
Watercress salad Credit: Nevin Martell

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Walking into Petworth’s Little Vietnam gives me a pleasant sense of deja vu. That’s because this happy glitch in the Matrix on Upshur Street NW occupies the same space as a slew of notable predecessors—among them Crane & Turtle, Himitsu, and Magpie and the Tiger—none of which lasted as long as I wanted.

From a practical perspective, not much changes between tenants. The room is still sparsely decorated and tiny: just 14 seats, plus space for 8 diners at the bar looking into the compact kitchen where the culinary team moves around each other with intensity and intentionality. On the dining room side, the crew is equally energetic—taking orders, serving, clearing, pouring water, dropping by to see how things are going, all as ’90s alt rock charges the atmosphere. Everyone everywhere seems to be doing a little bit of everything.

I take a seat at the bar, the best seats in the house thanks to the front-row view of the action—a flaming wok here, a sizzling deep fryer over there, some tweezer work right in front of me. The guests next to me are chatting about how it feels like they’re watching The Bear in real life. They must mean the buzz and the kitchen slang flying between the staff, because everything is running smoothly (no one is dawdling over the chocolate cake).  

The unfolding show is a joint production from three co-owners: beverage manager Joshua Davis, general manager Christy Vo, and chef Kevin Robles. Vo, Robles, and Davis met while working at the Daikaya Group; Davis and Robles also spent time at Moon Rabbit.

Last October, Davis did a pop-up in the Petworth space for Kiko, his bottled sake cocktails venture. Upon learning it was available, the group began brainstorming what might work in the neighborhood. Though pho is well-represented throughout D.C., and there are a couple of sit-down restaurants offering broader Vietnamese options, such as 1914 by Kolben and Doi Moi, they felt there was still room for an upscale casual Vietnamese concept.

They did consider the location’s “curse.” “You have to be uncomfortable in order to be successful,” Vo says. “And who knows, maybe we’ll change it?”

The menu is tight, just 10 items long—half small plates, half larger preparations, with a few options that can be vegan or vegetarian—but each dish sings with complex flavors while keeping its presentation humble, the vibes fun.

Lamb dumplings at Little Vietnam in Washington, D.C.
Lamb dumplings Credit: Nevin Martell

I start with a small bowl of duck fat-laden rice, rich and unctuous. Next up are puffs of pale gold fried tofu with herby ranch to dip them in. Lighter than marshmallows, they practically melt in my mouth. One-bite lamb dumplings redolent with black cumin and lemongrass arrive in a glistening pool of soy sauce pepped with gochugaru chile powder and sesame. Pro tip: Pour some of the leftover sauce onto the duck fat rice; you can thank me later.

The last opening salvo I sample is the watercress salad, its jumble of peppery leaves hiding oil-basted sunny side up eggs with crispy edges and runny yolks that become a complementary dressing to the vegan nước chấm sauce already at play. Also in the mix: torn mint and basil, grape tomatoes, and fried shallots. It’s bright; it’s rich; it’s crunchy; it’s fresh; it’s fucking delicious.

On the entree half of the menu, there’s pho, of course. It comes with translucent half-moons of white onion laying across an island of squiggled noodles submerged in broth that’s rather nuanced and laid-back. A side plate blossoms with jalapeños, sprouts, lime, cilantro, and mint; hoisin or sriracha are available by request. I choose my own adventure as I dip in with chopsticks and my soup spoon. Each bite is slightly different, but they’re all exciting and gratifying in their own way.

Noodles with butter, soy sauce, ginger, and scallions at Little Vietnam in Washington, D.C.
Noodles with butter, soy sauce, ginger, and scallions Credit: Nevin Martell

More noodles arrive in tubular swirl, glistening with butter and soy sauce, enlivened with ginger and scallions. On the side, a jungle of sauteed snap peas, mushrooms, and bok choy. 

Last, but not least, an unconventional burger materializes. Its inspiration? A banh mi. Creamy pâté, mayo, and a tingling array of pickles on the hefty patty help evoke the classic Vietnamese sandwich. A clever touch is the accompanying cluster of pho-spiced fries that are tough to stop eating. In a way, the dish is emblematic of Little Vietnam as a whole. They don’t take themselves too seriously but they’re putting out seriously good food.

The bánh mì-inspired burger at Little Vietnam in Washington, D.C.
Little Vietnam’s banh mi-inspired burger Credit: Nevin Martell

Everything is taste tested by Vo, who is Vietnamese and measures the flavors against what she grew up eating. The menu shifts based on the availability of ingredients. Not only does this keep the kitchen on their toes, “it makes people go out of their comfort zone to try things they might not normally be willing to try,” says Robles.

As of this writing, there are no desserts, though they are thinking of adding a pandan rum cake. Lunch is also under consideration, and they are navigating the paperwork necessary to add a 14-seat patio.

Like the dinner menu, the wine and cocktail lists are short and to the point. Crowd favorites in the latter are the Old Fashioned sweetened with toasted rice syrup and the Apple Bottom Jeans featuring tequila, apple cider syrup, and ume, a Japanese plum.

For nondrinkers such as myself, there are admirable options, including a “Nongroni,” which bites like the real deal thanks to Campari-esque Sanbitter soda and Bare Zero Proof gin. Sichuan peppercorn simple syrup adds a pleasant numbing tingle. Sweeter sips include coconut horchata and classic Vietnamese iced coffee guaranteed to keep you up all night. I order one to go; I’ll need it to get going the next day. As I head back out the door, my fingers are crossed Little Vietnam sticks around for the long run; restaurants this good don’t come along often.

Little Vietnam, 828 Upshur St. NW. instagram.com/littlevietnamdc.