Pho Bodega Dac Biet
Chef Jimmie Kwok
Pssst. Ready to feast on a melee of flavors? I gotta hand it to ~BODEGA BISTRO~: every time I eat there, something knocks my socks off, and sometimes my shoes. But then I quickly put them back on because I don’t want to be booted outside on grungy Larkin Street without my shoes or socks. Yeah, and I think the gritty Tenderloin address is to blame for why a lot of people still haven’t discovered this total gem for Vietnamese-French food. Très Indochine.
The Hanoi-born chef-owner, Jimmie Kwok, is the picture of effusive, and I think his enthusiasm bubbles out of the kitchen and into the dining room, because the waitstaff here is equally kind and charming. The place has been gracing our dining scene for six years, and in case you’re wondering about the name, it’s a play on the Vietnamese words bo (beef) de (lamb) ga (chicken). There, now you have some trivia in your pocket.
When you walk in, the majority of tables are filled with large groups, but you will find a few tables of couples here and there. For optimal menu grazing, I say invite at least a couple friends to dine with. You’ll probably see the chim quay (roasted squab, $16) on every table. The livery, tangy squab meat isn’t for everyone, but I adore this preparation: the juicy roasted pieces have a fantastic coating, but it’s the glaze made of drippings, sultanas, butter (oh yes sir), onion, and the secret tang of Maggi that is seriously finger-licking good (and how convenient, it’s an eat-with-your-hands kind of dish). It comes with a salty-peppery lime sauce that you lightly dip your squab pieces into. The feet and head are also on the plate, so don’t freak out. Maybe your neighbors will want to gnaw on them. Or your cat at home.
The nom (green papaya salad, $6.30) is just that: nom nom nom. One of the better executions in the city, with the thinnest ribbons of green papaya, little beef jerky bits, peanuts, and a tangy, feisty sauce that will hypnotize you into ordering it every time you return here. Another classic, the bo luc lac (shaking beef, $14.50) brings tender cubes of filet, loaded with flavor, plus more of the pepper-lime-salt sauce. Sometimes the meat is more tender than other times, but the flavors are always on point.
A personal favorite is the banh xeo (stuffed pancake, $11.90) in the Hanoi Street Food section of the menu. My sister charmingly christened it a Vietnamese quesadilla, an eggy half moon that comes stuffed with shrimp, sprouts, and pork. You’ll go to town wrapping it up in lettuce and herbs like little tacos (to continue the Mexican theme) and dipping it into bowls of fish sauce. It’s a huge portion. More finger food: if you have the patience to pick crab, the Dungeness crab (AQ) with a salt-and-pepper crust will satisfy, especially with a side of garlic noodles ($6.30).
In all the times I’ve come here, to be honest, I never had the pho. MY BAD. A chef friend was hootin’ at me to get my ass in there and have some of the best beef pho in the city. Yeah, what was I thinking? Jimmie’s broth alone is sheer gorgeousness, and the quality of the beef he uses (we’re talking rare filet that the kitchen tenderizes à la minute) is what makes the dish. He starts a huge batch of broth a day ahead, so it has a deep, savory flavor, but is simultaneously quite pure and light on its feet.
Go for the pho bodega dac biet ($7.90), a bowl of face-steaming goodness, which comes with the hand-cut rare filet, well-done brisket, and meatballs, plus cleaned bean sprouts. Just keep the hoisin and sriracha on the side to dip your meat into—don’t adulterate the fragrant broth with it, really. Request the fat rice noodles and you’re stoked. (There’s also pho ga, with free-range chicken, if beef isn’t your thing.)
The bright magenta walls will insure you’re awake and feeling festive, and the bent bamboo chairs add just the right tropical vibe. If you have a birthday event coming up, come here and your group will be eating like you’re royalty or something. Finish up with some technicolor custards in the colors of peach or lime, and you’re set.
Oh, and I purposefully buried this little tidbit toward the end to reward you reading types: they have an awesome deal on Kumamoto oysters on the half shell, only $9.99 for a half dozen. Boo-yah. Further boo-yah-ness: they have Chimay by the bottle, and some decent wines too. This place kicks ass, what more can I say?