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Visit Ho Chi Min City by way of Ridgewood, Queens

A banh xeo, a Vietnamese crepe filled with shrimp and bean sprouts, is one of the highlights on Bunker's menu. Photo courtesy Suzanne Parker
TimesLedger Newspapers

We would be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely or inhospitable spot to open an eatery than the stretch of Metropolitan Avenue, near Queen’s western frontier, where Bunker has hunkered down. It’s across from a junk yard and next to a sewage treatment plant. Yet inaccessibility may actually work in Bunker’s favor.

What foodie doesn’t yearn for the bragging rights to be able to say “I know this little place in the middle of nowhere that makes the greatest….(name your food)?” This hypothesis was borne out on a recent gloomy Thursday evening when the place was so packed that, in a few cases, strangers were obliged to share tables. In all fairness, it doesn’t take much of a crowd to declare a place this size “packed.”

Bunker specializes in the street foods of Vietnam. It is the brain child of Queensite owner/chef Jimmy Tu, whose culinary pedigree includes the polar opposites Eleven Madison Park and the Korilla BBQ Truck. He has applied his expertise and vision to create, in this God forsaken spot, one of the most talked about eateries in New York.

The space itself is your basic hole-in-the-wall, transformed into Southeast Asia using bamboo, thatch and rattan, and a dash of irony. The TV is perpetually tuned to mute movies of bygone eras. Witty T-shirts festoon a clothesline. If you want water, you can help yourself from an urn. There is a steady procession of customers making the two-block march to and from Western Beef for beer. The rest room includes a washing machine. We wondered if a patron could do a free load of laundry for the price of dinner.

All that aside, the food rocks. It demonstrates what happens when an accomplished chef applies his talents to other than haute cuisine. The concise menu is divided between appetizers, mains, banh mi sandwiches and a few sides. You can’t go wrong with any of them. The hardest choice is what not to order.

The appetizer that really grabbed our attention was the traditional banh xeo. A crepe-like thing, it manages to achieve the ultimate in crunch on the outside with a delicately puffy interior. The crepe is generously studded with shrimp, and folded around a clutch of bean sprouts. The civilized way to eat it is to wrap the crepe in lettuce to protect your fingers from grease, stuff a little of the Asian basil in with the sprouts, and dip it in the sweet and spicy sauce.

Two types of pho (pronounced “fuh”), Vietnam’s national dish, are listed as mains on the menu—chicken and mushroom. It is modestly described on the menu as “chicken noodle soup.” In fact, the broth is made from special Bo Bo free range chickens, and redolent of exotic herbs and spices. The Vietnamese young woman who was one of our random tablemates declared it the best pho she’s had in the States.

If soup isn’t your idea of a main, especially in warm weather, try the Cha Ca, turmeric seared salmon with dill over vermicelli and heaped with peanuts. It embodies all the flavors and textures of Southeast Asia: sweet, salty, fishy, spicy, oversoft and crunchy. We were there on a day when razor clams were the special of the day. The long narrow clams were grilled with loads of garlic and cilantro. By themselves, they were a bit protein-heavy, and needed an order of water spinach with garlic and chilies to round things out.

Right now, lunch is only served on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s nothing to stop you from eating bahn mi for dinner, but they make the ideal lunch. The Saigon Special is the pick of the category, loaded with the spectrum of pork products—Vietnamese ham, sausage, bacon and pork pate. If we have any complaint, it is that they were a little stingy with their divine, homemade pate. The crunchiness of the baguette is augmented by a scattering of puffy crab chips (bánh phồng tôm).

Dessert is an easy decision—tapioca pudding,—yes or no? It’s not your school lunch tapioca. This rich concoction is made by cooking the tapioca in coconut milk with bits of young coconut, jackfruit, and palm seeds. Very tropical. Very delish.

The Bottom Line

Bunker is the epitome of a culinary hidden treasure. If you find yourself in the vicinity during their hours of operation, stop in. If not, find an excuse to get there.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Bunker

46-63 Metropolitan Ave. (Woodward Avenue),

Ridgewood, NY 11385

(718) 386-4282

www.bunkernyc.com

Cuisine: Casual Vietnamese

Setting: Southeast Asian trappings in a tiny space.

Service: Friendly and accommodating, but a bit harried at times.

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday: Noon – 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday: 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.; Saturday: Noon – 11 p.m.

Reservations: No

Alcohol: BYOB

Parking: Street

Dress: Hipster casual

Children: Welcome

Music: No

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: The usual

Noise level: Not too bad considering the close quarters

Handicap accessible: yes

WIFI: Yes

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