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First Look: Bunker Vietnamese, now in Brooklyn

Critic Robert Sietsema gets shell-on caramelized shrimp, beef pho, and more

I was not a big fan of the original Bunker —then styled Bun-Ker. It was a small, thatched Vietnamese cafe in an incongruous location on the borders of Maspeth and Ridgewood, next door to the hulking Western Beef on Metropolitan Avenue on a stretch of beat-up warehouses.

When the place opened four years ago it attracted long lines, even though it was nearly a mile from the nearest subway stop. I went a couple of times with friends and they were not delighted either, though it made a splendid destination for a Sunday afternoon bike ride.

Why didn’t I like it? The only pho available was a pallid chicken version. The dishes seemed small for the price. And the banh mi wasn't great— the demi-baguette was not light enough; the pickled vegetables were not pungent enough; the meats were not adorably funky enough — compared to places like Banh Mi Saigon in Chinatown. More important, the brief menu neglected vast regions of the cuisine, serving what I thought were Thai dishes instead. I now know that I was partly wrong in my assessment. You can get that way after eating New York City’s sometimes-indifferent Vietnamese fare for 20 years.

As it turns out, the new Bunker has opened in a more obscure location, amid the kills and canals of extreme northeastern Williamsburg on dead-end Scott Avenue, where it backs up to a rail yard. Even the front door proves difficult to find, with its bamboo-shielded entrance around the corner on Randolph Street. I went with my friend, Mai Tran, who grew up in Hanoi, and has often been my arbiter of taste when it comes to Vietnamese food.

The contrast between the dirty, snow-blown streetscape and the warm, high-ceilinged interior was profound — a dining room jumbled with colorful chairs and stools, flapping pennants and grass thatching, high mullioned windows, and hanging lanterns. An open kitchen displayed a half-dozen cooks who bustled about in full view of customers.

We were the only diners in the place at 5 p.m. but despite inclement weather, the place filled up in an hour.

The menu is twice the length of its predecessor, including 14 entrees, ten apps, and miscellaneous sides and desserts, plus an interesting selection of teas and coffees. We tried nine dishes in total, among them a green papaya salad layered with an excellent homemade beef jerky ($11), and a platter of shell-on caramelized shrimp with a coating reminiscent of molasses, served with a hump of rice.

Beef jerky papaya salad

Tran said the place reminded her of a Hanoi chain she said is called Delicious Vietnam, which has little stations selling individual street foods. She was further impressed by owner Jimmy Tu’s curation of actual Hanoi specialties, especially a dish of grilled pork sausage and pork belly in broth, listed as bun cha Ha Noi ($17). The bowl contained oblong patties of ground pork and pale strips of belly in a brown broth littered with pickled and carved carrots and radishes. On the side appeared swatches of rice noodle, mint leaves, and lettuce. I thought we were supposed to wrap meat in lettuce and eat with our hands. Instead, Tran showed us how to use chopsticks to pick up little piles of meat, lettuce, herb, and noodles. We all thought the dish was particularly delicious, though Tran thought it needed more broth.

Spring rolls stuffed with pork and vermicelli wore coarse-textured shells that were a contrast to the more delicate Chinese-style spring rolls usually served in Vietnamese restaurants here. Cha ca la Vong ($19), turmeric-coated catfish filet heaped with greens and crushed peanuts, delivered an earthy savor I didn’t like quite as much as my companions did.

We also ordered the shrimp-studded scallion pancake, banh xeo. In larger form, they are often a highlight of Baxter Street Vietnamese restaurants. "In front of my grandmother’s house in Hanoi," Tran said, "a vendor squats and makes these pancakes." In fact, much of what's served at Bunker is street food.

Our meal at the new Bunker was a good one and we resolved to return to sample more of the menu. The most disappointing dish was the beef pho, new to the menu and another dish associated with Hanoi.

This version contained rare beef and well-cooked brisket, but once again the broth was disappointing. It was intriguingly dark, but lacking in flavor. As in Hanoi and in contrast with South Vietnamese versions, there were few things available to doctor it.

After a dessert plate of cookies and a bowl of tapioca pudding, we left concluding that Bunker will likely grow into one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.

Tapioca pudding

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