Phung Hung Market
“... and let not distance, nor train delays, nor outer boroughs, nor water vapor mass per cubic meter of air, [etc.]... dissuade you in your travels.”These are the Dog Days of Brooklyn, good reader: hot, humid, extra lazy. The last thing on our mind was spending an hour on the subway, but destiny intervened. You see, we had received a hot new tip about a Bronx Banh Mi and felt honor-bound to check it out. So we hopped on the 4 Express and headed uptown to investigate Phung Hung Market, a low-key oasis of Vietnamese Sandwich goodness with a few surprises to boot.From the street, PH looks pretty standard: bright yellow sign, big red letters, red neon sandwich, weathered “lunch special” notice. Step inside, however, and it feels a world removed. The space is calm, airy and immaculate, with eat-off-clean counters, shining pots and brushed metal. Add a few fans blowing softly, some small folding tables, stacked liquids, sauces and sundries, and a big TV playing Squarebob Spongepants, and you're left with a space that treads the line between “relax(ed), homey” and “no-nonsense.”
– The Ancient Banh Mi Reporter's Oath (selection)
“No Chinatown tourists, just real Vietnamese,” David Nguyen offered by way of explanation. And in this instance, “keep it real” isn't just posturing; it's Phung Hung's raison d'etre, and the reason they eschew Standard Southeast Asian Restaurant faux hut Style (fake bamboo, mechanical stream) for something more, well, Vietnamese. Hence the open kitchen, the low-slung folding tables and chopstick/soup spoon centerpieces, the smell of lemongrass.
It's akin to eating in your grandmother's living room, if your grandmother had a really big kitchen in her living room. And dabbled in importing/exporting. And came from Vietnam. And was a guy named “Dave.”
Dave is, of course, Phung Hung's founder, chef, server and (for at least another month) owner. He moved from south Saigon to the Bronx back in the Third Grade, but cut his culinary chops at his mom's restaurant in Vietnam. Dave put himself through college taking odd restaurant jobs in New York, and spent this time observing and learning all angles of the trade before venturing out on his own. PH opened 4 years back but this was our first visit, and we were eager to see what they had to offer. We began with their take on the classic, a #1 Banh Mi Phung Hung ($3). The menu advertises ham, ground pork and pate, along with the standard veggie/cilantro combo... but we were in for a terrific surprise. “Ground pork” was actually super-mega-delicious lemongrass-and-shallot marinated grilled sliced pork. It was like renting a Ford Festiva, then rolling out with a Hemi. Kudos for also making the sandwich truly spicy on request, by way of sliced red chilies. Our only complaint? Too much of that mystery lunchmeat folded in, so we tossed a few slices and mulled things over. The verdict: this is one seriously refreshing Banh Mi. The loaf is light, the girth moderate yet satisfying, the pork flavor terrific.So good, in fact, that we moved on to a #3 Banh Mi Xi Mai ($3). Despite its alarming red dye #9 color, this Vietnamese Meatball hero delivered. The meat was moist and spreadable, with intense flavor, great heat, and unique spicing and texture. It may not be enough to dissuade me from future grilled pork specials, but if you're “pro-balls” or even “balls-curious” then give these a go.
It seemed a shame to haul ass to the Bronx and not try a few more things, so we ordered the dish that literally everyone else in the restaurant was eating: Bún Riên Cua, a/k/a crab soup. Dave grinds fresh crustaceans (nothing canned here) to make this fire-red broth, and piles the bowl high with noodles, sliced fishcake, fried tofu, tomato and green onions. Don't forget to add a hearty squeeze of lemon juice, and dollops of fresh mint, chilies and sprouts. This will balance the strong seafood flavor, and add refreshing new textures and accents.It's a satisfying, eclectic balance, not unlike the neighborhood itself. Phung Hung is, after all, flanked by a Mexican grocery store, a Caribbean restaurant and St. James Park. Lehman College, Fordham, the Botanical Garden, St. Nicholas Church and a Buddhist temple are also nearby. Yet truthfully, it doesn't matter where you're from, so long as you appreciate good food. To wit, David has converted even the most skeptical of patrons, teenagers who enter for quick-fix Chinese takeout (shrimp fried rice, et al) and leave with newfound banh mi appreciation.
Phung Hung is just that type of place: warm and inviting, no matter your banh mi comfort level. But it's hard work, and the rigors of being chef/owner/server add up. David, Cindy, her mom and aunt (above) make everything fresh daily. They start prep work at 6 am, take their two kids (Phung Hung's namesakes) to school, return to the restaurant for morning rush, pick up their kids after school, bring them to the restaurant, cook them chicken nuggets, finish cooking for the evening crowd, then start the same cycle again the next day.
After 4 years of this bump and grind, change awaits. David has just sold Phung Hung and will relinquish the ownership reigns in about a month. He will stay on as chef to, as he describes, keep the Vietnamese culinary tradition alive uptown. But you might want to arrive before 3pm just to be safe. Once he steps down as owner, he will be leaving a lot earlier.All of which is to say, we hope the food doesn't change. After all, as David put, “In school you'll have one teacher, ten students, and ten totally different takes on the material. It's the same with restaurants.” And in a town with no shortage of banh mi, this unlikely outpost delivers some unique, real-deal options that are Vietnamese in more than just name.
Phung Hung Market
2614 Jerome Avenue
The Bronx, New York
Banh Mi: $3.00
Heineken $2, Lemonade & Iced Cofee $1.50
Open daily from about 8:30am to 6ish. Banh Mi sell out early, so you might want to call ahead for availability.
Labels: Banh Mi