In Vietnam, signs that read bia hơi mark open spaces where locals sit on plastic kiddie chairs, swill cheap fresh beer, and snack on salted fried peanuts. Bia in Williamsburg doesn't aim to replicate the experience of a night out in Hanoi, but it captures a similar bacchanalian spirit.
It's impossible not to feel invited into the space—a warehouse with 30-foot ceilings, softly lit by dappled glass skylights during the day and exposed edison bulbs at night. Staircases lead up to a concrete roof deck where you can drink to the soundtrack of Williamsburg bridge traffic.
The menu reads like a greatest hits collection of iconic Vietnamese dishes; no twists or takes, just a straightforward, classic selection of rice noodle soups, banh mi, and grilled meats. One of the most recognizable dishes that Vietnamese restaurants are often judged by is a simple bowl of pho ga (chicken noodle soup). Bia's pho ga ($6 sm / $10 lg) features a broth that tastes strongly of sweet onions and ginger and faintly of star anise and clove. The standard vermicelli, pulled dark chicken meat, raw onion, scallion, and cilantro round out a deeply satisfying bowl. My only gripe is that the included herb and sprout salad (for garnishing) is smaller than the generous piles that usually accompany a bowl of pho.
The green papaya and grilled shrimp salad ($8) nails the balance of sweetness, acidic lime juice, bird's eye chili, and fish sauce. Unlike most renditions, their papaya is crisp and not swimming in a pool of dressing.
Grilled skewers of chicken or pork (each $3), wrapped in lettuce with a vinegary carrot slaw make for a fine bar snack. Mine received a healthy dousing of hoisin.
Noodle soup bowls of oxtail stew ($11) and vegetable curry ($9) could each both easily feed two or three. They're both based around a thin broth, which is traditional, so don't expect a thick Thai curry or braised Chinese stew. The oxtail is melting tender and gelatinous; it's uncivil for some to gnaw and suck on a tail bone at a crowded communal table, but it's worth the embarrassment. The curry broth is lightly sweetened with coconut milk and slicked with a deep red chili oil that coats the fried tofu, meaty grilled eggplant, and large chunks of potato.
If you're not in the mood for noodles or soup, the grilled pork chop ($10) is the best option. The chop is slightly thicker than a traditional thịt nướng and thus is a little chewy, but its burnt sugar char and lemongrass-soy sauce marinade is delicious nonetheless. The addition of an over medium egg makes it quite a rich plate. A peppery cabbage slaw with fried shallots offers a welcome bite of brightness.
In the past few years, Vietnamese cooking has gained prevalence in Brooklyn. A few blocks away, Nhà Tôi is a hidden away spot for a quick hearty meal. Nightingale 9 in Carroll Gardens is offering a liberal interpretation of Vietnamese fare in a modern setting. Bia is the spot to hunker down for a few drinks with friends, and when hunger hits, there's a lot of satisfying food to be had.
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