Bunker Vietnamese, Bushwick
Eating at Bunker is always an adventure. And it's always worth it.
Bunker has recently opened in their new location, just a few blocks from their previous spot, a tiny delightful location in Ridgewood, Queens. In that earlier iteration, the owners served you, you poured your own water from a cooler by the door, and -- despite its location on the boundaries of an industrial park -- you may have waited a while outside for the honor of one of the twenty or so seats inside. It was a neighborhood anomaly, an inauspicious exterior heralding a modest one-room interior, but it felt and tasted like being let in on a secret.
The new location is decidedly larger, and goes so far as to attempt to convince you that you're not bound by architecture at all. The bright colors and variously-defined areas within the warehouse give the illusion that you're at an outdoor market. To your left, the bar. Straight ahead, casual seating under paper lanterns. Take a hard left to sit on picnic tables by the skate ramp. The exterior is still relatively unremarkable in this warehouse district, but the decor inside -- along with the hip hop soundtrack -- is an oasis.
The charm of the previous space was the charm of dining in close proximity to the kitchen, the proprietors, and the mystery building ensconced in barbed wire; that charm has been replaced with the charm of feeling utterly transported out of New York. Bunker has a full wait-staff now, who seat you and bring your drinks. I get the impression that the owners are (rightfully) very proud of this new space, though I personally found the intimacy of the Queens location more endearing.
There were some predictable hiccups when the new Bushwick space opened, though most of them seem to have cleared up now. The live music celebrating the reopening was too cacophonous for the space, making it impossible to hear diners at your own table. And our early meals at the Bushwick location seemed to lack the love we had tasted in Queens. Both issues have, thankfully, abated; Bunker has grown into the new space, and the food is as delicious as it was when we felt like members of a secret club.
The menu has familiar Vietnamese favorites, including pho and banh mi. But the gems of Bunker are the traditional meat dishes. My husband and I always order family-style here, whether it's just ourselves or we're joined by family or friends. The menu will change based on available ingredients. Our favorites include the Ca Ri Ga, the chicken curry that is now simply called chicken curry, the short ribs, and the papaya salad. At a recent dinner with my parents, we ordered these three dishes along with chicken fried rice and Chinese broccoli.
We started with the vegan papaya salad, which includes tofu; the jerky papaya salad is identical except for the tofu/jerky swap. The salad has a pleasingly sour citrus flavor, which prepares you for the flavors of the coming dishes. The sesame seeds and peanuts balance out that acidity well, as does the soft heat that lingers. I prefer the jerky version, but both are delicious.
The chicken curry is unlike anything I've tasted elsewhere. The chicken is tender and seasoned with curry, lemongrass, fennel seeds, and coriander. It is fragrant and the sauce is savory and restorative. It's a must-order, every time. At our most recent visit, we were treated to the legend of guerrilla artist Mr. Pixote, who painted the mural in the outdoor space, reportedly in exchange for this very dish.
The lemongrass short ribs are another favorite. They are served with vermicelli and spring rolls, as well as lettuce for making wraps. They come with a table sauce made with fish sauce, lime, and chilies. We asked for an extra bowl of the sauce; we could have ordered an extra bowl of the ribs, too. They are tangy little pieces of meat candy. Paired with the garlicky crisp broccoli, the flavors of the meal are dynamic and exciting.
My least favorite dish at this meal was the chicken fried rice. While the bright, citrus flavors of the other dishes danced politely with spices, lime juice, and garlic, the fried rice lacked this harmony and didn't seem to play well with the others. Perhaps it deserves to be in the spotlight by itself rather than competing with the larger flavors of the other dishes we ordered.
If you happen to have room left for dessert, the coconut-based pudding is delicious, light, and just the right finish for the spices and bright citrus of your meal.
Overall, the new Bushwick Bunker is the same delicious, fresh food served by the same kind, warm hosts in a larger, more spectacular space. It's still an adventure to get there, with the added gastronomic adventure you'll enjoy once you arrive. Their beverage license is still pending, so as of now there's no alcohol and no BYOB. While the flavors of the dishes stand up on their own, Bunker really comes alive when you can share a long meal with a group of friends and a few bottles of wine. Here's hoping this last hiccup of the move resolves soon.
99 Scott Avenue