Our latest Quick Bites brings us to two boroughs for two very different Vietnamese meals.
Hanoi House on St. Marks Place is one of those friendly neighborhood restaurants that make you happy the moment you walk in—okay, good, we made the right choice tonight.
It's cramped but comfortable, lively but not too loud, with an L-shaped bar, an open kitchen, tables lining one wall, and a cozy room in back that seems suitable for either an intimate date or a politely-raucous party of six. The dark wood could have been too somber, but it's countered nicely by white bricks and tiles.
Less than week old but already running remarkably smoothly, Hanoi House is owned by Ben Lowell and Sara Leveen, who clearly learned a thing or two about creating a professional, welcoming atmosphere from their work with Stephen Starr at places like Buddakan and Upland. It's not a grown-up restaurant, exactly, but it won't appeal to the East Village fratty types either.
Bunker, in Bushwick near the Jefferson L, feels more like a party spot than a place to eat dinner.
The entrance here is annoyingly (and possibly deliberately) difficult to locate. Like it's a secret club or some shit. There's no sign, and the listed address, 99 Scott Avenue, appears to have multiple businesses and entry points, but I'm here to tell you that Bunker is on Randolph Street, the door is red, and it's semi-hidden behind some bamboo.
Once you do get inside, the room is high-ceilinged and huge, a visual cacophony evoking, I assume, a Vietnamese market, with brightly-colored everything, hints of thatched-roof huts, random corrugated tin siding, delicate ink drawings, hanging lanterns, more bamboo, tables and counters crammed in everywhere, and a DJ area with a drum kit. No question, it looks like fun.
Chef and owner Jimmy Tu has said that he's eager to do things like wine events and collaborations with skate companies. "We can make as much noise as we want," he recently told Eater. The complex used to house the Brooklyn Mirage, where Full Moon Fest was held a couple of summers ago, and it still kind of feels like a rager might break out at any minute.
The chef at Hanoi House is John Nguyen, and he's not afraid of big flavors. The Pho Bac, for example, is redolent with garlic and cinnamon, with hunks of filet mignon, brisket, and, for two dollars more, fatty oxtail all swimming in an intense beefy broth. The rice noodles are slippery and plentiful. Spoon in the house hot sauce and pickled garlic and you have a dish that wakes you right the hell up.
Or get Nguyen's Bun Cha, the porky sweet-and-sour dish that Anthony Bourdin and President Obama wolfed down in Hanoi (the city) last spring. It comes with a platter of greens for wilting, a bowl of noodles for dipping (the "broth" here functions more like a sauce), and, unnecessarily but fine by me, a pair of crisp pork summer rolls. If you're seeking a taste of the sea, order the Chao Hao, a thin, congee-like porridge overflowing with at least a dozen roasted clams, peanuts and crunchy garlic bits. This was deeply satisfying, and I used the accompanying "Chinese cruller" to soak up every last sticky drop.
There are pleasant surprises all over the menu. The Papaya Salad arrives laden with chewy strips of pig ear. The diaphanous Spring Rolls hide won-ton-fried scallions (that sausage is wonderfully funky too!). And the Grilled Eggplant is pasted with a thick anchovy and almond sauce.
At Bunker, on the other hand, on opening night nothing really tasted like anything. The Beef Pho lacked vitality; the Bun Cha decent but without enough sauce for the cold, gummy noodles that came with; the Bo Luc Lac seemingly unseasoned in any way; and the "Turmeric Wild Blue Catfish"... well, I actually can't remember anything about the catfish, other than it was fried.
The mushrooms in the Mushroom Fried Rice were good, but really the best part of the meal was the crumbled bits of jerky on top of the otherwise unremarkable papaya salad. All of which is kind of weird, because I assume that the original, often acclaimed Bunker, located in Ridgewood about a mile from any train, was pretty much only about the food.
My companion and I spent $120 at Bunker, with no booze, and left hungry.
The neighborhood place on St. Marks has some great food; the party spot in Bushwick does not.
Hanoi House is as solid as a neighborhood spot gets, and because that neighborhood is the East Village, lots of us non-locals will find ourselves often there as well. Put it on your list of Tompkins Square-area options.
Bunker seems better suited for drinking than a restaurant worth journeying to for a meal.
Hanoi House is located at 119 St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A, and dinner service starts at 5:30 (212-995-5010; hanoihouse.com)
Bunker is located at 99 Scott Avenue, entrance on Randolph Street, and dinner service starts at 5:00 (bunkervietnamese.com)