Looking back through the pictures I’ve taken over the course of the past few weeks, I realize I’ve been on two subconscious kicks: The Asian-food thing I’m attributing, in retrospect, to the weather, but I can’t really explain the speakeasy thing. It’s unintentional, really.
I’d read about Bia Garden—Michael “Bao” Huynh’s take on the Vietnamese beer garden—back when it opened last year, but somehow I missed the part about the not-so-stealthy entrance. I have to say, though, that any establishment that touts itself as “secret” and advertises its entryway with a sidewalk sandwich board really isn’t very clandestine at all, and I kind of like it that way.
My visit to Bia was the result of disparate elements conveniently colliding. On this particular day, I skipped out of work at exactly 5:00 p.m. to watch the Showdown in Chinatown, Steve Nash’s annual charity event featuring a mashup of basketball and soccer players, coming together on the pitch for an exhibition game. The Carnivore and I stood in the glare of the sun and watched a first half that included more recognizable NBA stars than footballers (this coming from someone who doesn’t follow professional basketball in the slightest), and decided at halftime that we’d had more than enough. Beer was sorely needed. A friend had mentioned this Vietnamese beer garden a few weeks earlier; she was in the neighborhood and came to meet us. And, in yet another act of serendipity, Jill had introduced me, via email, to a friend of hers in town for the week, staying on the Lower East Side; she, also, agreed to hang out. An IF-NY-OH crossover event!
Not only did I get to meet one of Jill’s food-oriented Columbus people, but, with five diners at our table, I got to order a whole lot of dishes. As we’ve mentioned, it’s one of my favorite things to do.
Drinks were no problem: Though my preferred beverage from our time in the Philippines wasn’t on the list, the runner-up was. I ordered one posthaste, and, while it wasn’t as icy-cold as beer should be on a hot day, it still brought me back to our first night in Baguio.
With the food portion of the menu, however, I was in trouble with my first glance: I wanted one of everything. Luckily, my initial small-plate choices—barbecue-pork summer rolls, crepe with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, and crab spring rolls—were 86’d, so that narrowed down our options somewhat.
First up: fried cuttlefish. Lightly spiced and served with a sweet-and-sour tamarind dipping sauce, this one was nothing special, and sadly underwhelming.
Much, much better were the chicken lollipops with habanero sweet and sour sauce. Perfectly fried, with a deliciously garlicky, salty crust and none of the messiness of traditional wings, these were the ideal complement to the pepper sauce. (Yes. In most cases, I consider pepper sauce to be the main event.) I held onto that little dish for the rest of our meal, to the dismay of each waitress who tried to clear it away, and dipped practically everything in it.
As a counterpoint to the fried goodies under our belts and the fatty stuff ahead, we ordered the green papaya salad with steamed shrimp (they’re in there, somewhere), cucumber, and crushed peanuts. While not the best rendition I’ve ever had, the salad was cool and refreshing, with a whiff of healthiness about it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was this pork belly with caramel-pepper sauce; as we’ve pretty much established, if pork belly is on the menu, we will order it. Again, and unfortunately, we were unimpressed: The meat was tender enough, but if you didn’t get one of the pieces at the bottom of the pile, where the little puddle of sauce was, there was no seasoning to speak of. Not that the Carnivore had a problem with that—he cleaned up after the rest of us.
The shaking beef was texturally ideal, though similarly mild in flavor, even when dredged in the paste made by wringing the accompanying lemon of its juice and mixing it with salt. The fresh tomato and watercress provided a clean, sharp edge to the otherwise bland proceedings.
Not underseasoned in the slightest were these salt and pepper shrimp: eaten shell-on, with lightly grilled onions and juicy tomato, this was a great summertime bite.
We also ordered two of the daily specials: the first, soft-shell crab with green-mango salad. All in all, given the fact that this salad was practically indistinguishable from the green-papaya one we’d already consumed, and that the crab’s shell was more medium than soft, this plate didn’t exactly make us sit up and take notice.
Happily, though, we ended the evening on a high note: The second special tied with those chicken lollipops for Best Dish of the Evening. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I read the description of the radish cake with Chinese sausage and bean sprouts, but this wasn’t it in the slightest; these chewy, starchy chunks, with their crisp-fried exteriors, paired with a bit of scallion to cut the heaviness, dunked in sriracha (or that hard-won pepper sauce) were so tasty that the sausage was nearly superfluous. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water all over again.
And, with that, even I had had enough. We finished our drinks and stepped outside, much cooler, thanks to the beer and the bites, than we’d been a few hours prior. The food wasn’t amazing, but it was just good enough to beg for another visit. That is, you know, if I can find it again.
154 Orchard Street
New York, NY