Thursday, September 3, 2009

Great Find: Bia Garden

I'm typing this while in a food and beer coma, but I'm so pleased after a perfect night out that I had to share. Tonight Book Babe and I went to Bia Garden, Michael Huynh's beer garden inspired Vietnamese street food restaurant in the Lower East Side (Orchard between Stanton and Rivington) and had a perfect al fresco meal on one of the nicest nights of the summer.

After weeks of anticipation in foodie circles, Bia Garden was finally open last week. When we arrived at 6:30, a piece of white paper on which someone had written "Bia Garden" was stuck to the window as identification, but you could have guessed by the line that this was the place.
The place opens at 6:00, but according to the host, there was already a line at a quarter of. At 6:30, the line of people extended down the short stair case and into the small space that serves as the take out/delivery space of Bia Garden. From that vantage, it was impossible to see the beer garden itself, as the steel refrigerator door conceals the passageway to the garden, so it was hard to gauge what kind of a wait we could expect. But we decided to wait 15 minutes and see if the line moved.

Some people left, discouraged, but others left their names with the host, who was willing to call people when tables opened up. We stayed and took in the take out menu (which is different than the eat-in menu includes Bun) and Asian snacks (shrimp chips!) being offered at the take out window.It's a good thing we stayed b/c within 10 minutes, we were happily escorted through the steel refrigerator to the garden in the back, through the beer-bottle lined passageway. The journey to the patio passes the kitchen and is a bit treacherous - a lot of "watch your step's" by the host. The patio, which reportedly seats around 50 people, was packed. The clinking of beer bottles and happy hour chatter filled the air. A large Vietnamese family seated at the large table in the center of the space seemed to be enjoying themselves--an auspicious sign for a Vietnamese beer garden.The garden has wooden painted tables, for both small and large groups, on which chopsticks and napkins are stuck in empty Cafe Du Monde coffee tins for easy self-service. Menus looks like they were printed just that morning on someone's office printer.Our waiter, possibly one of the nicest waiters I've ever been served by, came by and took our drink orders. The way it works is you order a six pack (or more) of beer bottles off their Asian beer menu, which features beers from all over Asia, and they bring it to you on ice. You're only charged for what you drink. We ordered the "33," a Vietnamese beer, on our waiter's recommendation. A mild, nutty beer. Very nice.So far so good, but how would the food be? Dishes are arranged on the menu by size - the small dish category had the most items, then the medium dishes, and finally, the large, which featured a lobster.

We ordered the green mango salad, shrimp summer rolls, and spare ribs off the small dish menu and the berkshire pork belly off the medium dish menu. Let me tell you, I'd go back for the pork belly and the summer rolls alone - they were that good. Here's more about each dish, in order of my preference:
  1. The pork belly was PERFECTLY cooked - moist and fatty on the inside and a little crisp on the outside. The dipping sauce, which had the sweetness of a fish sauce, was a perfect complement to the saltiness of the pork. This was by far the standout of the meal. This pork was so good I had to close my eyes and shut up in order to savor its flavor. It was so good I had to pace myself so I didn't eat it too quickly.
  2. Shrimp summer rolls are a difficult thing to distinguish yourself by. They are pretty standard Vietnamese fare, but these summer rolls were the epitome of freshness. First of all, the peanut sauce they came with was so perfectly balanced - not too chalky or peanuty or salty or sweet - and then, when you bit into the roll, you got a hit of the fresh mint and the perfectly cooked shrimp. A great way to start the meal.
  3. The green mango salad was full of flavor - tangy, salty pickled green mango, fish and shrimp flakes, tiny slices of hot pepper. This dish was saltier than I would have liked for a stand-alone salad, but it worked well as a condiment (kind of like a kimchee) to the other dishes.
  4. Our least favorite dish was the pork spare ribs. You could tell there was a nice sweet marinade in the meat, but it was overpowered by the charring on the spare rib. Also, the meat could have been moister. We wanted the meat to fall off the bone, but I had to work to hard to get at it.
Three out of four is not bad, and pork belly....seriously good. The beer and the garden atmosphere just adds to the fun. And all for under $35 a head (mind you, we're girls and we only had one beer a piece). In the winter, Bia Garden will be covered and heat lamps will be used, so it'll be a nice place to come back to when I need another casual night out.

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