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.
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.
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.
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.