Bunker, an early leader among New York’s modern day Vietnamese restaurants, shut down in early July 2021, ostensibly for a three-week summer vacation. At the end of that hiatus it was still closed, and didn’t reopen till early December, having teased on Facebook that it would be debuting a “whole new dining concept.” Yet, Bunker then restricted itself to carryout for a month, and didn’t resume indoor dining until the new year, at which point I went with some friends to sample the revised bill of fare.
But first, a thumbnail history: Originally styled Bun-ker, a pun on the Vietnamese word for noodles, the spot debuted in early 2013 on a forlorn stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood. It was located in a squat cinderblock building that had previously housed — until Hurricane Sandy damaged it — a seafood distribution business operated by Eleven Madison Park alum Jimmy Tu, who then became a chef at the new restaurant.
Highlights of the brief menu included seafood that seemed like holdovers from the seafood distributor, but the dish that caused the biggest sensation was pho ga, a chicken variation on the usual beef pho, which foreshadowed the opening of cafes entirely devoted to the soup. Three years later, this wildly popular spot moved to an even more obscure street, among the warehouses and factories of East Williamsburg.
Perhaps taking a cue from the Lower East Side’s now defunct An Choi, which was made to look like a night market with its hanging bare bulbs and stenciled signs, Bunker’s hulking new space was decorated in a lively fashion featuring a street hawker theme, including historic placard advertisements, a thatched bar with brightly colored stools, and tropical foliage. While Bun-ker had generally specialized in food from the former Saigon, Bunker sought out recipes from Hanoi.
Consistent with its street-food theme, there were charcoal grilled items on the menu, most notably bun cha Hanoi (a dish that consists of a dark brothy bowl of grilled skinless pork sausages with spools of rice noodle on the side) and the rice-batter crepe called banh xeo. There was a northern-style pho bo, too, beautiful in its beefy austerity, a real contrast to the pho ga at Bun-ker.
Now the new dining direction has finally been revealed, and it feels like a third version of this trailblazing restaurant. Heartier than the previous one, it ups the beef options and experiments with mushrooms, with a penchant for embroidering on classic Vietnamese dishes while inventing some new ones in much the same way as the nearby Bolero and Falansai have done. Gone are the days when Bunker specialized in faithful renditions of Hanoi street food — though the colorful decor remains.
Yet, banh mi is still a focus, but Bunker completely transforms them with main ingredients like fried fish and beef brisket. The latter ($25) incorporates a thick and elongated slab of smoked meat. While the typical Vietnamese sandwich features thinly layered pork products, here the flavors of cilantro and pickled root vegetables are muted by the barbecued brisket. Sadly, it’s like something found in a sports bar, and one doesn’t relish the sandwich so much as plow through it. The french fries, however, are excellent, but why serve them with ketchup?
The dish reminded me of Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen, a Bushwick spot that pioneered the use of smoked brisket seven years ago. Bunker’s new menu also offers a pho bo made with smoked beef brisket; and the standard spring rolls, fried crisp and served with pristine herbs and greens for rolling like giant spliffs, come stuffed with smoked brisket, too. My guests felt like the beef overwhelmed the dish, frustrating their expectations of what is often a favorite Vietnamese appetizer.
But Bunker’s other dishes worked better. For example, the summer roll ($18) features the usual shrimp and rice vermicelli wrapped inside a translucent wrapper with a peanut dipping sauce on the side. But lo and behold, this warm-weather classic has been modified with duck breast, adding flavor but not heft, and subtly turning the appetizer into something enjoyable even when it’s sleeting outside — as it was during our visit.
In similar fashion, the banh xeo crepe, an ideal brunch or lunch choice in Vietnamese restaurants, has been dotted with bacon in the wrapper, while retaining the usual filling of shrimp and sprouts. With our party of four, we were able to eat our way through half of the 17-item menu.
The grilled lemongrass pork chop ($26) was served with a runny egg and Vietnamese fried rice, instead of the broken rice used in the classic Mekong Delta dishes called com tam. We really missed the razor-thin, fish-sauce-marinated chops that are often the focus of this dish, but consoled ourselves with a very lush and perfectly cooked chop.
The caramel clay pot shrimp was a triumph ($33). While the original Bun-ker offered a pared-down version of the dish by dunking the crustaceans in caramel, this one presented them in a sizzling crock with a dark, opulent, gingery sauce that also bobbed with quail eggs. (Make sure to order jasmine rice on the side, since it would be a shame to waste any of the sauce.)
All together, the transformation of Bunker’s menu signals a new direction for the restaurant. Rather than staying on a single vector (previously, Hanoi street food), the new menu takes into account the changing shape of Vietnamese food in the city. This is not a bad thing, by any means, though some dishes become needlessly complicated and some innovations simply don’t succeed.
The new approach is illustrated in a single dish. Bunker’s pho has returned to the chicken version that first made the restaurant a hit but with a few permutations. The soup now contains grilled mushrooms, which add a welcome woodsy flavor, and the chicken is now smoked — which you may love, or it may mean too many smoked things on the menu for you. But, as with Bun-ker’s pho at the time, you’ve got to admit there’s currently no pho quite like it in the city.