Although the desire to drink beer outdoors seems like a natural part of human evolution, beer gardens arose for a very particular reason: Dark lager beer needs to be fermented at a low temperature, so Bavarian brewers dug outdoor cellars in which to store the beer, and covered them with gravel and shade trees to keep them cool in summer. Why not set up a few tables and serve the beer there, too?
New York was once home to hundreds of German and Czech beer gardens, but most fell by the wayside. Astoria’s Bavarian Beer Garden, opened in 1919, is the oldest such establishment still in business. Almost 100 years later, beer gardens are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Bia Garden, which is billed as New York’s first Vietnamese beer garden, sits on a hipsterish block on the Lower East Side, but it gets the unstudied atmosphere just about right: packed and full of chatter, bottles clinking. The backyard space’s improvised touches—the plastic tarp to protect from the fall chill, a tangle of overgrown hanging plants—make us feel like we’re somewhere messier and more exciting than Manhattan.
The restaurant is one in a long line of Michael Huynh’s projects this year, as the chef/restaurateur has gone on a restaurant-opening rampage, a feverish burst of industriousness that has resulted in Bar Bao, a handful of Baoguettes (seven more coming soon), Pho Sure, and now Bia Garden. A barbecue/noodle joint and a greenmarket-y Vietnamese restaurant are reportedly next. Huynh told our food blog, Fork in the Road, that he takes his cue from Donald Trump—of all people!—who says that plenty of money can be made in bad times if you snatch up real estate while it’s cheap.
Eating my way through Huynh’s new additions, I’ve been impressed by how committed he is to keeping prices reasonable, and how well-executed and delicious the food manages to be, no matter how slapdash the opening (although I don’t love his banh mi). Bia Garden breaks the spell a bit. In many ways, the restaurant provides a fun evening out with pretty good food, if you order right. But some of the ideas behind it are half-baked, as if someone said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we opened a Vietnamese beer garden, and sold casual food and Asian beer by the six-pack?”—and never got further than that.
Walk into Bia Garden and you find yourself in a small foyer with a takeout window and a blackboard printed with a to-go menu that turns out to be hypothetical—they’re not doing takeout yet, and they may never do it. Fine, but why the menu? There’s also a display of shrimp cracker packs, labeled $2—perfect if there’s a wait for a table and you’re starving. Except they’re not for sale—they’re just decoration. Deliver us from this sort of quasi-cool-kid-restaurant fakery!
To get to the beer garden in the backyard, you go through a walk-in refrigerator lined with beer, by the kitchen, and out into a small space packed with tables, which is now mostly open-air but will soon sport a greenhouse roof to enable it to run all winter.
Let’s start with the beer, of which there are 12 bottled varieties to choose from, all imported from Asia. Aside from the BeerLao dark lager, they’re all very light lagers, in the mild, low-alcohol style of beers from warm climates. They’re the sort that go down like water, and really only taste great when you’re very hot. Ranging from $4.50 to $6.50 each, choose from the Thai Singha, the Vietnamese Saigon and 33, the Indian Taj Mahal, and the Filipino San Miguel, among others. You can only order the beer by the six-pack, the dozen, or the case, although you’re only charged for what you drink. If you and your friend want to try two different beers, you’re out of luck—unless you order two six-packs, but the tables are too tight for that.
Huynh’s flair for taking challenging food to the hipsters—as he does at Pho Sure by offering a slew of offal—continues here, this time in the guise of curried frog. The coconut-tamarind curry sauce is rich and delicious, but the frog legs within are tough and overcooked, unlikely to covert any amphibian skeptics. Instead, order the off-menu embryonic duck eggs, which actually include the tiny, dinosaur-like duck fetus.
The frog curry illustrates a problem that is common throughout the menu: dishes that are not easy to share. But since the menu doesn’t offer traditionally sized main dishes—items are labeled small, medium, and large—you expect to eat family-style. The frog curry sauce fills the bowl so much that it’s more like a soup; eating from the communal bowl made the table look like a Pollock done in curry. Besides the frog, the Singha clams and curry mussels are both soupy dishes that are also difficult to share. The best part of the clam dish is the broth—a mix of beer, green chilies, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and the clam’s liquor—but we had to ask for spoons to slurp it up. Why not serve it with a big baguette, so that everyone can rip off a piece and dip it in?
The whole fish is one of the best of its kind in the city, gorgeously fried and topped with a mess of onions, peanuts, fermented black beans, scallions, and cilantro. But it’s served with rice-paper rounds that you have to re-hydrate yourself in a big bowl of water—a task that most Vietnamese restaurants do for you, then serve on a stack of plastic separators. One night, we sat in the dark, fishing around with our chopsticks in the lukewarm water to bring up the gossamer wrappers, which stuck to each other and were generally a mess. At a beer garden, you don’t want to do your own cooking—you’re meant to be busy drinking, after all.
What you do want are Bia Garden’s smaller dishes, which are generally great and easy to share. Choose a piquant green mango salad, elevated above the ordinary by the addition of pungent salted fish, liberally sprinkled with fresh chilies; the fat, crisp crab spring rolls; and the chicken lollipops—battered and fried until crunchy, and served with a syrupy, spicy habañero sauce. Then there’s the fatty, lemongrass sausage; shrimp dipped in chile powder and salt; and fried batons of fish in a sweet and tangy ginger sauce. When you choose these simpler dishes, Bia Garden’s concept makes perfect sense. Even Donald Trump might approve.