Few dining establishments caused as much of a sensation last summer as the residency of Ha’s Đặc Biệt, a periodic Vietnamese pop-up the previous two years, which included a partnership with Kreung Cambodia at Bushwick’s Outerspace. The smell of wood smoke permeating the air and the further pungency of fresh herbs, fish sauce, and other strong flavors all played a part when the New York Times called it the “restaurant of the summer.” But shortly after Pete Wells’s review appeared in early July 2021, both partners abruptly left the project.
Now, after a winding path that included a September pig roast on an upstate farm and an October Paris pop-up, the pair who run Ha’s — Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns, who met working at Mission Chinese — have rekindled the pop-up, this time on the Lower East Side. This residency for Burns and Ha, their longest running pop-up where they’ve operated independently, occupies a narrow storefront on Forsyth Street just opposite Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Next door is the New Fuzhou Senior Association, and beyond that, the sainted Spicy Village.
The dramatically lit space, with a red neon sign that says “Ha’s,” holds only 10 or so people at four tables, and a huge piece of textile art graces one wall. At the end of the room is an order counter, behind which Burns often presides, while Ha and crew cook in the brightly lit kitchen beyond. A stamped tin ceiling is a nice Lower East Side touch, and indeed enough effort has been invested in the decor to make you wonder if this is a permanent restaurant rather than a pop-up. (“Nope,” says Burns. “We plan on being here only till late March or early April.”) Ah, the transient magic of the pop-up!
Over the last decade, I’ve seen the Vietnamese restaurant scene in the city explode, from establishments presenting the food of Saigon and the Mekong Delta, centering on southern-style pho and the over-broken-rice dishes known as com tam. About five years ago, a pho revolution transpired that saw the simpler version of the rice noodle soup favored in the north extolled at places like Hanoi House, Bunker, and the now-defunct Just Pho.
Next, auteur bistros began to appear. These spots presented homey or elegant versions of regional specialties for the first time, embellished on them, and invented new dishes altogether at times to stunning effect, at, for example, Yen Ngo’s Van Da, Matt Le-Khac’s Bolero, and Nhu Ton and John Nguyen’s Bánh Vietnamese Shop House.
What does Ha’s Đặc Biệt add to the ongoing evolution of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants? It’s a small-plates place with a constantly changing menu of 10 or so dishes that channels a street-food kitchen back in Vietnam, experimenting with recipes both familiar and innovative. The flexible, ever-changing pop-up format makes you want to try new things because if you blink, you may miss something that everyone will be talking about for the next few weeks — like the raw oysters, which I hadn’t seen on a Vietnamese menu here before.
Yet, when I arrived for a first visit they were prominent on the menu, listed after a pair of meal-size banh mi. The mollusks soon arrived on the half-shell ($4 each), lusciously topped with a green watery mignonette tasting of fresh green chiles, vinegar, and fish sauce and radiating a slight sweetness, allowing you a good slurp even before reaching the creature itself. Of unimpeachable freshness, and perfectly opened, eat one and you’ll want a dozen.
The raw oysters had disappeared from the bill of fare a few days later when I made another visit. Instead, there were razor clam snippets in a rice salad ($15) with crunchy shallots fortified with the anchovy sauce mam nem, and perhaps a little less steamed rice than you might have desired. Another bivalve hit: cockles festooned with green herbs looking like seaweed trailing from a mermaid’s tail, in a caramel sauce that softened the bitter taste of the diminutive shellfish. Even better was the seafood soup called canh chua featuring tender fish and rubbery squid in a tamarind-laced broth. It’s a soup that sometimes appears on old-guard Vietnamese menus marred by too much canned pineapple juice, whereas here the fruit was used more subtly.
There were other highlights on my two visits. I’m a big fan of banh mi made with eggs — call them breakfast banh mi, if you will. Mission Cantina offered an excellent one late in 2014 on a stunted baguette with two runny eggs, duck liver, Maggi sauce, and plenty of ground black pepper; while Ridgewood’s Nhà Mình has lately been toying with deconstructing the sandwich. Ha’s version features soft scrambled eggs and scallions, with the powerful added kick of rau ram, a pointy tapered leaf sometimes called Vietnamese cilantro.
Another banh mi I tried sported pork-and-chicken liver pate, and I can’t help but wonder if the recent Parisian pop-up had something to do with this rich loamy layer of homemade pate. There was inevitably a dud, too. In this case a thin soup of navy beans, elbow macaroni, and pork ribs awash in a fishy gray broth. I didn’t hate it, but wished there were some parmesan cheese involved, since it tasted like more a diminished Italian-American pasta y fagioli.
Altogether, the best thing I ate there was chao ca ($16), a rice porridge with mounds of green herbs and red bird’s eye chiles on top, showcasing a plank of goldeneye snapper and lobe of monkfish liver. But even the occasional misfire will not deter you from wanting to check out the menu again and again at Ha’s, especially since you can drop by for a small plate or two if you’re in need of a snack, an option absent at most full-blown restaurants, but one more akin to what you might find at a street kitchen in Vietnam.