Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hurricane bunker becomes Vietnamese hotspot

It is only a spring roll—a common Asian appetizer I have mindlessly consumed so many times before—and yet somehow I have rapidly devoured three of these crispy golden fingers before even realizing I have yet to dunk one into the accompanying chili sauce, which I apparently have subconsciously deemed unnecessary. Delicately crispy wonton wrapper crackles at the bite and gives way to a steaming center of tightly bundled al dente glass noodles, tiny slivers of carrot, and sweet lumps of fresh crabmeat. The flavors are intense, the textures playful, and I do not want to share even one of the four.

Fortunately my friend is a vegetarian—always a safe dining companion when I don’t want to share everything on my plate. “That has crabmeat in it, right?” he asks, after gauging the absurd degree of pleasure on my face. “It does…,” I say, as if genuinely sorry.

“You know, maybe I could be pescetarian just for one day?” he smiles as I watch in horror while his greedy, assuming hand snatches up the last spring roll. Taking notice of my clenched fists, he snaps the roll in two, and returns the remaining half to the plate, laughing. A spring roll this excellent can really heighten your awareness of just how monotonous and lousy most other renditions can be. It almost ended a friendship today, after all. I am already grinning, and this is merely the first taste of what is to come.

The quality of food is beyond surprising, given the restaurant’s less-than-sparkly location on a rather barren strip of Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood. Partially named as a play-on-words with the Vietnamese vermicelli known as bún (pronounced boon), Bún-ker Vietnamese is also quite literally just that—a bunker.

The space was initially intended to be a boutique seafood distribution site, Fish & Ships. Because it was just a storage space, “the location really didn’t matter,” explains Jimmy Tu, chef and partner. “Rent was cheap, so originally that’s why we chose this location.” Tu has cooked throughout Vietnam, Thailand, San Francisco, and New York City—where he actually opened Eleven Madison park, and cooked there for two years.

Hurricane Sandy saw things a little differently, and after putting the seafood distribution out of business for almost a month due to major damages and no flood insurance, the team decided to close the business, and open Bún-ker in its place in January.

“The chefs develop the menu, and I develop the concept,” explains partner and general manager, Roy Zapanta—childhood skateboarding buddy of the Tu brothers--pun intended--Jimmy and Jacky (chef and sous chef, respectively). Previous collaborations have included Skinny’s Cantina in Long Island City. With gingham tablecloths, plastic soldier figurines keeping guard above the windows, buckets of utensils on each table, and a bamboo and straw thatched ceiling, the tiny dining room is buzzing daily with locals clustered around tightly packed tables, some communal.

The draw here is simple, excellent, Vietnamese cuisine. After deciding to leave the fine dining industry, Jimmy Tu spent a month and a half in Thailand and Vietnam studying street food, befriending local establishments, analyzing their recipes and techniques. “Noodles are a really big street food in Vietnam—” Tu explains, “just a big stock pot. We also use a Japanese grill with real charcoal, because out in Vietnam, it’s all charcoal, which definitely adds to the flavor.”

Take, for instance, the ‘Saigon Special Banh Mi’—a flaky baguette stuffed with 5-spiced pate made in house, steamed pork shoulder ground with cinnamon, sugar, and fish sauce, and garlic sausage—all garnished with pickled vegetables, mayo, cilantro, jalapeno, and a ribbon of sriracha.

The ‘Pho Ga’ is an intense, rich, flavorsome chicken noodle soup with a smoked shallot broth with juicy Bo Bo chicken that develops over the course of eight hours. It’s the kind of soup you believe can fix any problem, cure any illness…

Even simple plates explode with flavors carefully coaxed in the kitchen. Tomato garlic fried rice is like a crispy mountain of stir-fried risotto and marinara. Creamed taro leaves taste like southeast Asian collard greens, with a hint of curry, ginger, and garlic (a Filipino dish inspired by Zapanta’s heritage).

vegetarian banh xeo with enoki mushrooms and bean sprouts
The banh mi variations stray from tradition, as well, available as a cheesesteak with havarti and gouda, or with chili mackerel, or even grilled lemongrass pork. The ‘banh xeo’ appetizer is a crunchy Vietnamese rice flour and egg crepe crepe ‘taco’ loaded with shrimp, bacon, bean sprouts, and lettuce (the chef’s mother’s recipe).

Drinks are limited to a cooler where customers serve themselves water, or order an artichoke kefir iced tea, or Vietnamese black coffee. Next week they plan to introduce several homemade soft drinks including flavors like lime-ginger-mint, tamarind, or chili lychee.

Until then, plan on cooling your palate with a bowl of coconut tapioca pudding, with tender miniature pearls studded with slivers of young coconut, pineapple, star fruit, and palm seeds.

Simple food, masterfully executed, with no pretense.

“That’s why I left fine dining,” elaborates Jimmy Tu. "I was at [a different upscale restaurant in Manhattan], and there was this little window where you could see into the dining room from the kitchen. And all you could see were CEOs, businessmen, and a lot of people I couldn’t really relate to. And I was like, is this what I am going to do for the rest of my life? So after that, I kind of went back to my roots, cooking the food I grew up with. Street food made with a lot of love.”

Bún-ker Vietnamese
46-63 Metropolitan Ave.
Ridgewood, NY 11385
(718) 386-4282
Tue &Wed 5 – 10:00pm
Thur & Fri 5 – 11:00pm
Sat 12pm – 11pm
Sun 12pm – 10pm

Bún-ker on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Nice review and I was inspired and shared this on my Facebook page. I'm Peter, I'm a photographer and writer for asianinny.com. Recently I published a bunker Vietnamese review on blog.asianinny.com . Your review is very delightful, I really love your writing style. For the main subject, we all hope all the success for Bunker Vietnamese.

James said...

I think this is a great review and I honestly have a craving for Vietnamese cuisine right now! We've been working on a great site to showcase excellent restaurants like this one and many others to help users find great spots to dine. It's http://toptenlist.mobi/ and definitely worth checking out if you're in the mood for some great food

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