It is only a spring roll, but I have somehow rapidly devoured three of these crispy golden fingers before realizing I have yet to dunk one into the accompanying chili sauce. The delicate wrapper crackles and gives way to a steaming center of al dente glass noodles, tiny slivers of carrot and sweet lumps of fresh crabmeat. A spring roll this delicious can really heighten your awareness of just how monotonous most other renditions can be. I am already grinning, and this is just the first course.
The quality of food at Bún-ker Vietnamese is beyond surprising. The first syllable is the Vietnamese word for vermicelli (pronounced boon), while the restaurant’s full name is a play on its bunker-like location.
Chef Jimmy Tu said the space was initially a boutique seafood distribution site. Tu previously opened Manhattan’s famed Eleven Madison Park, where he also cooked for two years.
Since he originally intended Bún-ker to be a storage space, he said “the location really didn’t matter.”
He added that cheap rent was why he chose the location.
Sandy saw things a little differently. The storm put the distribution center out of business for almost a month. Facing major damage and with no flood insurance, Tu and his partners — including younger brother Jacky, who is also the sous-chef — decided to close the distribution business and open Bún-ker in its place in January.
With gingham tablecloths, buckets of utensils on each table and a bamboo and straw thatched ceiling, the tiny dining room daily buzzes with locals clustered around tightly packed private and communal tables.
The draw here is simple: excellent Vietnamese cuisine. After leaving the fine dining industry, Tu spent a month and a half studying street food, befriending local establishments throughout Vietnam and
Thailand and studying their recipes and techniques.
“Noodles are a really big street food in Vietnam,” Tu explained, “We also use a Japanese grill with realcharcoal, because out in Vietnam, it’s all charcoal, which definitely adds to the flavor.”
It’s “street food made with a lot of love,” Tu added with a smile.
Take, for instance, the Saigon Special Banh Mi. It is a flaky baguette stuffed with five-spice pâté made in-house as well as steamed pork shoulder ground with cinnamon, sugar and fish sauce. The sandwich also has garlic sausage, and it’s all garnished with pickled vegetables, mayo, cilantro, jalapeno and a ribbon of sriracha hot sauce.
The Pho Ga is an intense chicken noodle soup consisting of smoked shallot broth with bobo chicken. The kitchen develops it over eight hours.
Even simple plates explode with flavors carefully cultivated in the kitchen — tomato garlic fried rice and creamed taro leaves like collard greens with a hint of curry, ginger and garlic.
Drinks are limited to a cooler where customers serve themselves water. You can also order artichoke kefir iced tea or Vietnamese black coffee. Next week, the restaurant plans to introduce several homemade soft drinks including flavors like lime ginger mint, tamarind and chili lychee.
Until then, plan on cooling your palate with a bowl of coconut tapioca pudding whose tender pearls are studded with slivers of young coconut, pineapple, star fruit and palm seeds.
Sounds simple? It is simply delicious.
46-63 Metropolitan Avenue, Ridgewood
Tuesdays & Wednesdays 5 – 10 p.m.
Thursdays & Fridays 5 – 11 p.m.
Saturday noon – 11 p.m.
Sunday noon – 10 p.m.
BY BRADLEY HAWKS
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