Many of the restaurants I’ve visited in Queens serve as community centers for specific ethnic enclaves. At Phayul, the wall outside the door is covered in flyers—many in Tibetan—advertising Tibetan religious events or social services for Tibetans. Often Tibetans going there for momos or other Tibetan dishes will run into friends there. At Awang, the cooks often stroll out of the kitchen and chat in Thai with friends who have come in for food from home. Some of these restaurants call their food Asian fusion or advertise their chow mein to broaden the appeal, but the majority of their customers are not interested in Asian fusion or chow mein.
JoJu, a very popular and highly regarded restaurant in Elmhurst, is an exception. It describes its food as “Modern Vietnamese.” But the owners are from Taiwan, and the workers are required to know Mandarin—the most widely spoken language in the neighborhood—not Vietnamese. The menu itself is true Asian fusion, featuring elements from Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. JoJu started off as a Vietnamese sandwich (banh mi) shop, and has since expanded to include a rice bowl shop downstairs.
Just outside JoJu
I went to the new extension. It is one of several cellar shops with entrances below the street. You must go down a stairway; at the bottom you will find a furniture store, a manicurist, and a few other shops, as well as JoJu Bowl. Despite being below the street, JoJu Bowl gets a lot of light through its front windows, and the dining area is pleasantly sunny.
The décor is also bright and cheerful: one wall is covered in friendly messages painted to look as though they were handwritten, featuring exclamation points and doodles—everything short of emoji.
The menu is a user-friendly flow chart:
“Step 1: Pick a protein” (I picked Korean-style thin cut marinated ribeye).
“Step 2: Pick a base” (I picked Jasmine rice).
“Step 3: Add spicy!” (I picked green sauce).
“Step 4: Special Toppings!” (I picked Onsen Tamago, Japanese poached egg with runny yolk).
“Step 5: Homemade Drinks” (Frankly the offerings were not exciting, so I had water).
The result nicely combined high, sour notes from pickled daikon, red onion, and carrots and from kimchi, and low notes from marinated beef and peanuts. The spicy green sauce was not very spicy; probably milder food has a wider appeal among JoJu’s mixed clientele. But if you want your JoJu bowl to have a specifically Vietnamese flavor, you can ask for fish sauce (nước mắm) on the side. Like shrimp paste, this is made from pulverized and fermented dead things. Just a small amount of fish sauce will make your JoJu bowl smell and taste suspiciously funky. However, as shocking as fish sauce may be the first time you try it, it is possible to enjoy this condiment, if only because it transforms the dish so completely.
83-25 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373
11am – 9pm every day