New York is no stranger to late-night eateries, but a summer pop-up in Bushwick aims to offer a different kind of social-eating experience, one that goes beyond guessing what ingredients the Halal Guys use in their white sauce. Umi Bushwick (214 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn), a new Asian-style bun shop operating out of the Sweet & Shiny Bakery, is a project started by New York University students Renel Sun and Phoebe Tran, who aren’t shy about discussing where their buns come from, mostly because there’s a story behind each one.
Sharing an interest in food media and food design, Tran and Sun met while studying abroad in Shanghai and clicked immediately. “Phoebe and I were the only ones in our program that were studying food and who weren’t doing business or finance,” notes Sun. Working together to support Shanghai Supper Club, where they helped plan experiential dinners and menus, the duo used their time not only to explore flavor combinations and event planning, but to travel extensively. Thanks to their adventures, each bunwich they serve comes with a story and the chance for some socializing — an important characteristic of street food.
“The mala bun is based off our previous pop-up, Burger Babes Shanghai. We bought the jankiest equipment, set up outside of clubs in the middle of the night, and the first night we set up, we wound up selling ten burgers off of a suitcase,” recalls Tran. The half-pork, half-beef patty is served with Sichuan peppers, bok choy salad, pickled pear, crisp wonton, and a sesame sauce that riffs on one served in a popular Shanghai dumpling spot.
A seven-bridge, six-island, flat-tire-filled bike trip through Japan inspired the menu’s lone seafood entry. “The entire Japan trip, we were looking for a bike shop, thought we found one, and it was actually this amazing grill-your-own-seafood market,” noted Sun. Though the entrepreneurs fell in love with unagi, they realized eel is an unsustainable fish, so they use wild blue catfish instead. The menu also includes a Cali West Coast bun (the pair grew up in California), as well as a Vietnamese báhn mí style based on a family recipe.
Traveling abroad may have planted the seeds for Umi Bushwick, but the Brooklyn neighborhood had a own unique appeal. “We really wanted to work with local, responsibly raised ingredients,” explains Tran, who cites Bushwick Food Co-Op and Greenpoint Fish & Lobster as two environmentally conscious partners. The duo plans to return to Shanghai after the summer season. Until then, late-night revelers can grab a bun at the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Troutman Street from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.