The meteoric rise in popularity of the Chinese steamed bao, folded over fillings into a taco-shaped sandwich, has continued across the city. As adapted here by restaurants like Momofuku, it was initially loaded with soy-braised pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, and other mainly Asian ingredients, but the list of fillings eventually became endless and international. Now, in New York, this enticing assemblage has figuratively come to the Caribbean, or at least the nearby Bahamas.
The chef responsible is Kermit “Ray” Mackey, co-owner of Bun Hut along with Kevin Mathiasen, a CPA. Mackey was born in the Bahamas and worked in resort restaurants on several of its islands, including Great Exuma and Bimini, before coming to the States. After visiting China, he was inspired to fold typical Bahamian fillings into steamed bao, including coconut shrimp, cracked conch, curried goat, and pulled jackfruit, to intriguing effect.
Bun Hut is located near the bucolic intersection of Stanton and Attorney streets on the Lower East Side, far from the fleshpots of “Hell Square,” so the streets will likely be nearly empty when you arrive. The premises was previously the most recent home of Colors, the legacy restaurant of Windows on the World, and before that Lowlife, a restaurant partly inspired by a Luc Sante book, which merged French food with Lower East Side classics, putting borscht and lamb tartare on the same menu. Obviously, both restaurants failed.
With doors flung open three weeks ago to reveal a mainly darkened interior with a bar in the rear, Bun Hut is another of the surprisingly large number of restaurants that have appeared during the pandemic. It is also the only restaurant in town I know of specifically devoted to Bahamian fare, though many of the menu’s dishes are shared with other islands. In addition to bao, the bill of fare features wrapped rotis (rather than the bust-up shot favored in Guyanese restaurants); entrees like jerk chicken and braised oxtail, served with rice and beans; sides; punches; and desserts.
The bao come disassembled in a box, comprising two warm bao, a main ingredient, a craisin-studded mayo slaw, and sauces that run to honey lime chipotle aioli, Haitian pikliz, and Mackey’s very sweet mango chutney. I tried two of the nine bao offered (all $10 or $12). I liked the Bahamian coconut shrimp, a dish popularized in the East Village by Sugar Reef in the early ’90s. The dish finds five spice-coated crustaceans fried to order — it’s tempting to simply pop them in your mouth without bothering with the bao.
Even better was the cracked conch, the pink-shelled creature rendered as small flat fritters that went especially well with the steamed buns when a little slaw was tucked inside and the chipotle aioli liberally applied. Other bao that I’m itching to try include she-crab cake and pulled jackfruit.
Part of my delight at hearing about Bun Hut were the rotis. These Indian-inspired wraps, native to the Caribbean, are one of my favorite viands, and sadly lacking in Manhattan since Terry’s Gourmet, the Trinidadian-run deli at 16th and Sixth Avenue, closed. (You pretty much have to go to Jersey City, Flatbush, or South Richmond Hill to get a great one, though some pan-Caribbean restaurants sell them.) Bun Hut’s examples use a diversity of ingredients, including shredded cabbage, potatoes, and plantains, in addition to coconut curry chicken, jerk chicken, spicy pork, and curry goat.
Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of goat the day I ordered it, but the chicken curry was fine, with a nice mixture of light and dark meat and a mild curry flavor. This roti deploys a real dal puri as the wrapper, a flatbread with crushed yellow split peas between its flaky layers. Most priced at $12, these rotis constitute a full meal; in fact, I shared mine with a friend.
Though I found the hibiscus lemonade ($6) forgettable, the coconut tart (two for $8) was spectacular. Paved with granulated sugar and bulging with shredded coconut, it was shaped like an empanada. According to co-owner Mathiasen, it was inspired by a Bahamian pastry the chef ate as a child called guava duff. Eat one, and give the other to a friend. They’re that rich. 178 Stanton Street, between Clinton and Attorney streets, Lower East Side
This is the second in a series of columns called Sietsema’s Picks, in which I cover places I’m enjoying in our takeout-centric times. In the first entry, I visited Happy Hot Hunan on the Upper West Side.
A couple of other new restaurants I like and have written about that have opened during the pandemic: Pane Pasta and Terra Thai.