"In a city of bad Vietnamese food, the ambitious Bep has carved itself a niche."
The failings of New York's Viet restaurants usually occur in a combination of three ways: poor quality of ingredients, inattention to technique, or an underestimation of the audience's appetite for spice. Bep, which sets up every Monday inside Williamsburg's Simple Cafe, is an ambitious young upstart in the city's Vietnamese dining scene. By limiting its scope to a weekly special of home-style dishes, Bep strives to offer the piquant flavors most Viet restaurants fall short of delivering.
In Vietnamese, the word "bep" evokes the cozy warmth of the cooking hearth, so it's surprising that Bep's best dishes are not the comfort classics. Rather, Bep excels at the ubiquitous staples that almost every Viet restaurant offers (cha gio and thit nuong). What distinguishes Bep from competitors, however, is their use of high-caliber ingredients while keeping close to Chinatown's portion sizes and price points. And Bep's menu is a thoughtfully edited one—key proteins are replicated in several dishes, allowing Bep to keep quality high and overhead low.
Cha gio—colloquially referred to as spring rolls, summer rolls, imperial rolls, or egg rolls depending on where you hail from—are filled with ground pork, cellophane noodles, carrots, and wood ear mushrooms. They're best eaten with their refreshing accompaniments: lettuce, mint, and a dip of nuoc cham.
There are lots of ways cha gio can go wrong: poor grade pork, unbalanced seasoning, old fry-oil, loose wrapping, overfrying, and underfrying. Thankfully, Bep takes heed of these details.
At Bep, the cha gio are wrapped in translucent rice paper. This is a trickier material to work with because if the cha gio aren't fried as soon as they're wrapped, the liquid ingredients cause the wrapper to tear, the stuffing to spill, the oil to splatter, and the cha gio to burn. Bep has the technique down, as evidenced by the cha gio's fully intact, bubbly, crisp wrap. And the cha gio themselves are squat little fatties, endearing in shape and generous in stuffing.
Bep's thit nuong is another example of the kitchen's care and deft handling. The start of a good thit nuong begins with fatty (but not gristly) pork spending ample time in marinade. Most thit nuong marinades consist of garlic, shallots, fish sauce, and sugar, but at Bep, lemongrass is thrown in for good measure. The result: a delightful taste that's juicy, smoky, and lightly herbaceous. At Bep, you can order thit nuong with bun (rice vermicelli), with bun and cha gio, or as part of a (understuffed) banh mi sandwich.
For all its strengths, Bep falls short in the comfort soups and stews department. Considering these broths can be made days in advance, I expected more aroma, flavor, and depth.
Pho bo is a beef noodle soup inspiring nationalistic fervor and impassioned debate. A good pho broth should be rich and almost silky from the dissolved gelatins of slow-cooked bones. While northern Vietnamese versions of pho value a clean and meaty broth, southern versions prize broths redolent of anise, ginger, cinnamon, clove, and the like.
Hu tieu is a regional soup from the south of Viet Nam. Compared to pho, hu tieu's broth is lighter and more sweet than savory. Hu tieu can be made by stewing pork bones, chicken bones, squid and/or shrimp, and is garnished with a potent mix of chives, green onions, and fried shallots.
Though I was relieved to find soups whose flavor didn't rest on MSG, both the hu tieu and pho broths tasted like products of an abbreviated simmer. The flavors were subdued and the aromas fell flat. If the broths were left to simmer several hours longer, Bep might have managed to unlock a more voluptuous mouthfeel.
Bep's bo kho suffered similar afflictions. Bo kho is a slow-cooked beef stew, ochre from the stain of annatto seeds. Some, like the food blog Holy Basil, call it a take on boeuf bourguignon, albeit one that smells deeply of anise, cinnamon, five spice, and lemongrass.
Unfortunately at Bep, the stew was richer in scent than in taste. Moreover, the beef chunks were undermarinated and undercooked, absorbing little of the stew's flavor.
It should be noted, however, that at Bep, the bread/banh mi accompanying the bo kho was a delight. Unlike most banh mi rolls, Bep's is unusually fresh. There's likely some amount of rice flour in the dough, as the crust is a thin crisp that yields to a fluffy crumb. Our server was both pleased and coy when our table asked about the source of Bep's bread (and our requests for refills decimated Bep's supply).
While Bep's flavors seem restrained, the restaurant's outlook looks bright. In a city of bad Vietnamese food, the ambitious Bep has carved itself a niche. Bep's instincts are good ones, and its once-a-week concept shows savvy in times of economic uncertainty. Should Bep take care to develop its broths, I have nothing but high hopes for its future.