On a dark, drizzly winter’s night I took the bus to a bleak stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood to meet my friend Max Falkowitz for dinner at Bún-ker then a new Vietnamese spot in a neighborhood better known for junkyards than Southeast Asian fare. I got lost, really lost, cursing in the freezing rain lost.
“Man, I don’t know where this damn place is!”, I bellowed to Max. “Look, just start without me.” Eventually I made it to the funky little dining room. At the time I found the food to be good, but not great. I am of course fully aware that perhaps my opinion was skewed by my blowing a gasket in an attempt to find the joint. Fast forward some eight months. Chef Jimmy Tu, who I’ve since learned has cooked everywhere from the workaday kitchens of Restaurant Associates to the more rarefied temple of gastronomy Eleven Madison Park, has been lauded by everyone from The New York Times to Edible Queens. A few weeks ago I took the bus in daytime to that block that straddles Ridgewood and Maspeth, call it Ridgepeth or maybe Maswood, only to find Bún-ker closed for lunch. So I was especially excited when I found out the Bún-ker boys were doing a pop-up at Coffeed last weekend as part of the newly launched Qns Urban Mkt.
Tu originally planned for his restaurant’s space to house a boutique seafood operation, but had to change up his business plan when Hurricane Sandy struck. His seafood connections still run deep though. Thus the presence of three pristine slabs of seared o-toro grade tuna belly from Tokyo’s fabled Tsukiji wholesale fish market, atop a long bean and watercress salad ($15). That long bean salad sans tuna is a hit at Tu’s restaurant, often selling out before night’s end. With its perfect balance of kaffir lime leaves, coconut, and peanut I can see why. It sings with the flavors of Southeast Asia, and is absolutely mind-blowing with the addition of pristine seared tuna.
“It’s a northern Vietnamese dish that was made famous by a family in Hanoi, Tu says of cha ca la vong ($15) in Coffeed’s tiny kitchen. “They opened a restaurant with just that dish.” I was almost too ashamed to admit I’ve never tried it. When I do try it, I cannot stop eating the delicately flavored fillets of perfectly fried fish.
As for that bo kho ($15), the rich beef gravy was so good that I asked for a second piece of garlic bread to sop it up. Last weekend’s pop-up was Bún-ker’s first, but Tu says it will most likely not be his last. He’s even considering doing a raw bar at Coffeed. With my affinity for oysters and espresso, I might never leave.
“People still get lost coming to us all the time,” Tu says before we part ways. Now that I’ve had a proper introduction to Bún-ker’s food, I don’t plan on being one of those people any more.
Many thanks to William C. Wallis, Jr. for the photos in this post.