Thursday, September 15, 2011
Phuc Yea! - Pop-Up Downtown Miami
I usually try to give a restaurant at least a couple of visits and a couple of months before writing about it. But with Phuc Yea!, a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant slated to be open only a few months total, that may be too late for the information to be of much use. Phuc Yea! doesn't follow the rules of a normal restaurant, and so my review won't either.
Official opening night was last Thursday, and I was there. We had a great meal, basically eating our way through the entire menu and then back again. You should go and do the same.
I gave a bit of a preview last week and won't repeat what's said there. But a bit of nitty gritty before talking about the food. Phuc Yea! is operating out of the "Crown Bistro" space located within the Ingraham Building downtown, across from the Gusman Center. There is no signage outside on the building for either Phuc Yea! or Crown Bistro. You get to it via SE 2nd Avenue, where there is an entrance just north of the main entrance to the office building, which leads into a corridor with mostly vacant retail space and the restaurant at the end.
It is a typical downtown lunch spot - meaning, completely nondescript and lacking in personality. The Phuc Yea! crew (Aniece Meinhold, Cesar Zapata and Daniel Treiman) have "spruced it up" by adding some curtains apparently inspired by an anime featuring an innocent big-eyed young girl and an angry Viking spirit. It's not exactly Extreme Makeover: Home Edition material, though it has its own unique charm. But the whole point of a pop-up is the food, not the decor, and happily, their talents in the kitchen vastly exceed their interior decorating skills.
(You can see the full set of pictures in this Phuc Yea! flickr set)
Our table was debating our choices among the first section of the menu (labeled simply "1 - một") until finally taking the easy route and ordering everything (except the pickles, which we knew would be coming as an accompaniment to one of the larger dishes later).
Of these, the dish that really stood out, that we were craving more of before we even finished - that we wound up getting at least two more orders of - was the bánh cuốn. I've often seen this translated as "pork rolling cake," though Phuc Yea! dubs it "Oodles of Noodles."
It features chewy rice flour crepes, rolled jelly-roll style, and in this iteration, topped with a cornucopia of ingredients: bits of roast pork, shreds of wood ear mushrooms, fresh bean sprouts, crispy fried shallots, nubs of salty pork terrine, a spray of fresh cilantro and mint, all anchored by a deceptively light-hued sauce rich with the potent umami blast of nước mắm, or Vietnamese fish sauce. Every bite makes a play to different taste receptors, hitting multiple notes at once, but ultimately achieving balance. It was a great dish.
The deeply resonant flavor of nước mắm is like a funky Bootsy Collins bass line that winds its way through many of Phuc Yea's dishes. Among other places, it's in the nước chấm dipping sauce that accompanies the chả giò, fried spring rolls stuffed with minced shrimp, pork and greens, and served with lettuce leaves and herbs for wrapping the rolls before dipping. These had good flavors, but lacked the shattering crispness of the best examples that I've had.
Though I'm usually partial to anything fried, I preferred the clean bright flavors of the bò bía, fresh rice paper rolls, served cold and filled with a thin julienne of crisp, fresh jicama and carrots, shrimp and Chinese sausage, with a spoonful of sweet hoisin sauce for dipping.
The "Mini Grand Puba" are Phuc Yea's spin on bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich classic. Two mini-sandwiches, each sliced in half, came with a couple different Vietnamese style deli meats - rosy thin-sliced roast pork and soft, bologna-like cha lua pork roll - pickled carrots and daikon, chiles and cilantro. The only part that didn't fit was the bread, a soft potato roll style almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the delightfully crisp rice flour baguettes that most folks associate with the sandwich. The flavors are good, but bánh mì traditionalists, like Arthur Dent getting tea from the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser, will likely have their expectations dashed. They were served with some nicely spiced chicharrones alongside that make a fine substitute for potato chips.
We moved into the next section of the menu (2 - hai) which offered somewhat more substantial dishes, most of a good size for sharing though probably not enough to make a meal of by oneself. A couple in particular really made my eyes open wide with their unexpectedly vibrant flavors.
"Lil Fishies Salt n Peppa Style" (Ca Com Chien Don) is a distant cousin of fish and chips. Small, delicate whole smelts (you can eat them head to tail), faintly crisp outside, delicate flesh inside, twist among thin-sliced fried lotus root chips, slivers of jalapeño, and sprigs of cilantro, all over a generous whorl of lemon-spiked aioli. As is, that would make a fine dish, but an assertive dose of spice (five-spice?) in the salt and pepper mix in which the fish are dredged really elevates it to another level.
Phuc Yea!'s Crispy Pig Ear Salad may not have any direct Vietnamese translation, but it bears some family resemblance to a similar dish that's been served for a long time at Michael's Genuine. The Phuc Yea! version starts with pig's ears slow-cooked in a highly seasoned broth, cooled (resulting in magic Pig Ear Jello), then cut into thin slivers and fried. The flavors (again, more of that nước mắm) really get infused into the cartilaginous meat, giving much more than just some nice crispy bits. The salty pig's ears play against sweet cubes of watermelon, little matchsticks of radish and a scatter of herbs including the unique flavor of rau ram. Another great dish, though I might have welcomed a bit more greenery into the mix to provide some herbaceous contrast against the sweet melon.
If ears aren't the part of the pig you're most fond of, perhaps the Pork Riblets (Suon Heo Rim) will be more your speed. These stubby chopped ribs had a good amount of meat on the bone and rode a fine balance between chewy and tender. The sticky caramel glaze is a Vietnamese classic based on fish sauce and sugar with a bit of sesame oil, reinforced here with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, as well as a smattering of slivered green onions and cilantro sprigs. We went back for another round of these too.
Still more pig parts make an appearance with these Sweet n Sour Chicharrones (Heo Xào Chua Ngọt), cubes of crispy fried pork belly served over a version of sweet and sour that eschews the canned fruit and gloppy neon sauce, instead using fresh pineapple, lightly pickled onions and red bell peppers in a thin, sweet sauce. I liked the texture of the pork but thought the sauce veered too far onto the sweet side of things. Though it is, after all, a sweet and sour sauce, I would have welcomed a bit less sugar and a bit more vinegar bite.
The only dish among this round that I didn't really like were the mussels, steamed in beer, lemongrass and herbs - the mussels were a bit gritty and the flavors somewhat indistinct, particularly in comparison to the other dishes we tried.
There are only a few real entrées on the menu, and all are done in the style of Korean ssams: big proteins served with lettuce leaves and various condiments for making wraps. Choosing between duck confit and a whole snapper, Aniece encouraged us to go with the duck and we followed her instructions. Two pieces came to an order, the meat soft, luscious and rich, the skin maybe a shade less crispy than ideal. The puddle of hoisin sauce in which the bird was nestled was perhaps a bit overly sweet and domineering, but easily avoided. There were a variety of pickled vegetables as well as some crisp fried shallots alongside for some DIY assembly.
Though I might be able to quibble over a dish or two, overall this was really exciting, lively, engaging food, prepared well and with great flavors. Several dishes - the bánh cuốn, the salt and pepper smelts, the crispy pig ear salad, the pork riblets - were genuinely memorable, the kinds of things that would be standouts on any established restaurant's menu. For an opening night, in a borrowed kitchen, in a drab little corridor of a downtown office building, Phuc Yea! really knocked it out.
There are only about 30 seats in the space and they were filled for a few turns on opening night. I hope it stays that way. Miami needs more of this: interesting food with personality and perspective. No need for a million dollar dining room, just tables and chairs, a kitchen, and some curtains with angry floating Viking heads.
Right now they don't have any liquor license so it was BYOB only, but they're working on getting a beer and wine license. When they do, it's a safe bet there will be some interesting selections - the list Aniece had put together at Blue Piano showed some very good taste in juice.
In the meantime, grab a bottle, venture your way downtown, and find out why people are saying "Phuc Yea!"
19 SE 2nd Avenue, Miami FL
(open Tuesday - Saturday 5:30pm - 10:30pm; enter from SE 2nd Ave. between Flagler St. and SE 1st St., just north of the main entrance to the Ingraham Building)