By Mark Hokoda
100 West 82nd St NY 10019
BarBao, which opened in October 2008, has hit its stride, bringing upmarket Vietnamese to the Asian-challenged Upper West Side. Baoguette, the sandwich shop he started last fall with his wife, Thao Nguyen, has three locations and more on the way. Just in time for summer, he hopes to launch Bia on the Lower East Side; in his native Vietnam it would be called a quan nhau, a casual spot for drinks and snacks. And he was recently in Ho Chi Minh City making plans for OBao, which will serve French-Vietnamese food in what he calls “New York style.” New York style, at Huynh’s stateside restaurants, means traditional Vietnamese flavors recombined in refined, nontraditional ways. At BarBao he adopts Western techniques in dishes like the signature pork belly, which is slow-cooked sous-vide style after marinating in fish sauce and spices. Ingredients are a cut above those at budget Vietnamese places, and Huynh, who was trained as an architect, brings a designer’s eye to presentation. He also brings an ear for customer-friendly menu language that translates unfamiliar dishes into familiar terms. A soy-seasoned melange of duck confit, duck bacon and bits of daikon cake, crowned with a poached egg, is christened duck “hash.” And Baoguette’s curry beef sandwich is dubbed the Sloppy Bao.
Alongside new dishes like the pork belly, BarBao features some greatest hits from Huynh’s previous stops downtown, starting in 1993 at Bao 111 in the East Village. Among them are jalapeno-spiked baby lamb lollipops and sizzling cuttlefish with a bright, Asian-accented “salsa verde” of mint, basil, yuzu and anchovy. Huynh has mixed feelings about revisiting his past creations. On one hand, he says, “People really want them.” And keeping the customer satisfied is vital, especially at a time when fewer customers are coming in the door. Then again, a chef needs to move on.
In his career, Huynh has never hesitated to move on. In the last couple of years, in rapid succession, he has come and gone at Mai House and Bun Soho. He attributes his restlessness to his business partnerships, which he compares to marriages (“Some are good, some are bad”). As for his real marriage, it’s a union of chefs, and that means plenty of hard work. During the day, before BarBao opens, Huynh pitches in with Nguyen at Baoguette. On days off they head to Chinatown and chow down on dim sum or street cart fare like noodles and fish balls.
While he loves this kind of downscale dining, Huynh has built a career on taking Asian food upscale—and he’s met some resistance from Americans convinced that ethnic food has to be cheap. An American deli might charge $8 for a sandwich, he observes, but a banh mi shop gets grief if it charges more than $4. (Baoguette’s sandwiches run $5 to $7.) “It’s not fair to Asians,” Huynh complains, and it’s a misconception he aims to correct. Just one more item on his plate.