FiDi favorite Bennie’s Thai Cafe is the latest restaurant to close as a result of the novel coronavirus. Sadly, its final day will be Sunday, July 26. Think about visiting for a final plate of pork larb or pad thai.
There have been plenty of big-ticket restaurant closings as a result of the pandemic. But it is the demise of the little joints with modest prices and scant notoriety that have affected me the most. Jay & Lloyd’s is one, a kosher deli in Sheepshead Bay that I visited every time I found myself on Avenue U. The three-foot plastic hot dog hanging over the counter was irresistible, along with a brightly colored interior that lured families, and flawless, deeply pink pastrami. I mourned China Chalet, too, for its grandiose décor and reliable Chinese-American fare that felt like a throwback to an earlier era.
But the closure of Bennie’s has hit perhaps hardest of all. An announcement on its Facebook page warned that the restaurant would be finishing up on the 24th anniversary of its founding, and gave a schedule of the restaurant’s remaining days, encouraging well-wishers to visit. Its last service will be from 2 p.m. till the food runs out this coming Sunday.
Bennie’s started out as an accessory steam table within a Blimpie on Trinity Place, but by early 1996, owners Bennie and James Boon had established their own premises on Fulton Street devoted exclusively to Siamese food, just uphill from the South Street Seaport. It unabashedly occupied a basement, but one with big windows that looked into a narrow and unadorned concrete terrace.
Unlike most Thai cafes, it boasted a steam table in full view so diners could ogle it before attendants dished up the food. This installation allowed one to preview one’s order. And the range of selections was expansive, including basil stir fries; curries in various mellow shades of green, red, and the less-common yellow; simply dressed rice or egg noodles, some with Chinese elements; and meat- and chicken-intensive salads. The pad thai was one of the best in town, partly because it was less sweet than usual, with crushed peanuts strewn atop with a generous hand.
There were always daily specials scrawled on slips of paper that further reduced already low prices. The Boons never failed to make recommendations, or explain an unfamiliar dish. In an era when the city was embracing tart and fiery Isan food from the Thai northeast for the first time, Bennie’s was in the vanguard of presenting it. Normally, one had to go to Elmhurst, Woodside, or Hell’s Kitchen for something similar.
Among the many lures of the steam table — which ran along the back wall — was a pork larb consisting of ground meat, scallions, purple onions, and cilantro dressed with lime juice and fish sauce. It was plated with crudite and what amounted to a quarter head of iceberg lettuce. These side vegetables allowed the mound to be eaten in the traditional fashion by wrapping, scooping, and dipping. Few other places outfitted their larbs so completely.
Another favorite was the green curry, the hottest on the roster of Bennie’s curries, loaded with either chicken or pork and spiked with cilantro. The vegetarian version using vegetarian duck was estimable, too. Another don’t-miss was hoi joh, bean curd skin stuffed with shrimp paste and fried, served with the a pink sweet dipping sauce.
The downstairs setting gave the place an almost secretive air, even when it bustled. Mid-afternoon was the time to go, when you could spread out with friends and relax. And for those who’ve spent a lot of time in the Financial District, Bennie’s was a real refuge, especially since you couldn’t see the bristling skyscrapers out the windows. There’s nothing in the city quite like Bennie’s, even in Queens.