If you decide to venture down to Chinatown to eat at the Vietnamese restaurant Cristal No. 1, you might want to remember to bring some cash. Otherwise, you’ll be pointed to the nearest ATM, located at the back of a high-security jewelry shop. There, you’ll be buzzed in, and directed to the end of a long, dimly lit hallway. A slot in a thick glass window will slide open and a hand will poke out, gesturing for your card.
Now, there are only a few things that test your trust more than a human ATM. However, when it’s the only obstacle between you and a huge bowls of cheap Vietnamese food, such details become irrelevant.
Upon finally entering the restaurant, my friend and I we were met with the hectic lunchtime crowd. As we quickly took off our coats, hats, and scarves, we squeezed onto the end of a communal table. Talking to the owner, Mr. Chiuc, we found out the din was the norm for weekdays. Cristal No. 1 is a lunchtime haunt for people living and working in the area. After having a single meal there, I understand why. The service is fast, the prices are low, and the atmosphere is cafeteria casual. It’s the type of place that seems to exist solely for a midday break.
When we got the menus, along with a pot of hot green tea, we settled in for the complex process of deciding what to eat. This was more difficult than it is at many other establishments due to the menu’s relatively large size, split into sections of soups, rice dishes, and noodle bowls. In addition, there was a list of drinks, on which I found the intriguing sweet & salty plum juice – though, when I asked, they were all out of it. As I continued down the list of drinks, it appeared they were out of everything liquid. We made a compromise and I settled on an old favorite, water.
I decided to get the restaurant’s most popular dish, Number 41A: stir-fried pork over vermicelli noodles, or bun ti nuong cha gio. This totaled in at $8.95, the standard price for dishes here. In exchange, I was met with a big, plastic bowl filled to the brim with vermicelli noodles. On top was a handful of fried, marinated pork, an imperial roll, and a small salad. On the side, I received a small pot of fish sauce.
The table was cluttered with other sauces, as well. There was peanut-hoisin, a Vietnamese chili sauce, which was surprisingly fruity, and two different types of soy sauce. All had their moments on my bowl of noodles. This was partly because sauces – we can agree – are great. Unfortunately, it was mostly because the dish badly needed it. Although the portions were generous, the food was generally pretty bland.
My friend, who had ordered the pho, had a similar experience. Besides the imperial roll, which was crispy and salty and succulent and god knows what else, the food was average. It’s the kind of food you can find just as good, and just as cheap, at a dozen other small Vietnamese places (such as Saigon, a block off campus and my personal favorite). My friend and I left contented, our bellies and our wallets full, but our tastebuds not particularly impressed.
Nevertheless, the place is adored and it thrives. Part of its appeal, perhaps, is its location, as may patrons work downtown. And after your meal you can stroll around Chinatown: you can look through the markets and the souvenir shops, and maybe, with that extra cash, grab dessert at one of the cheap nearby patisseries.