These are, to put it lightly, keenly anxious times for the restaurant and bar business in New York. There are the hourly and/or tipped employees, the suppliers and the proprietors whose livelihoods are threatened; and then there are those who, in the weeks, months or even years leading up to Governor Cuomo’s coronavirus-related bar/restaurant closure announcement, had been in the midst of unveiling new contributions to the city’s hospitality scene.
Among these is Lucy’s, a mole hole-sized Vietnamese restaurant on Irving Avenue between Bleecker and Menahan streets out of commission for almost a year for remodeling/re-organization, reopened Sunday, March 8. In addition to the original’s resuscitation, a second location was opened the following Sunday in Williamsburg, featuring a 20-seat dining room and backyard. Both locations do brisk business in take-outs and deliveries, which accounts for their still being open.
The five-year-old restaurant is known primarily for its BBQ brisket-enhanced pho, but also features iterations of both chicken and tofu, as well as three-deep selections of banh mi, vermicelli bowls and summer rolls. While currently, beverages are limited to non-alcoholic offerings like Vietnamese coffee and ginger beer, a beer-and-wine license may be in Lucy’s future.
Lucy’s is the house built by owner Johnny Huynh, whose charm, spark and brio would embarrass John Leguizamo in full manic mode. His story is both universal – overcoming long odds to bootstrap himself out of poverty – and compelling in its specifics.
Huynh was reared on the streets of pre-gentrification Bushwick, a period during which, he says, Asian families were scarce. Raised mainly by his grandmother (a Vietnamese refugee and his restaurant’s namesake), his parents were, he strongly suspects, members of a local gang; mother left before he was five, and father spoke to him, by Huynh’s estimate, all of three times for the first 12 years of his life. High school was never finished, college a hazy abstraction.
After a tough period of hustling sneakers, among other things, a 19-year-old Huynh answered a Craigslist ad placed by Lower East Side Vietnamese restaurant An Choi soliciting a cook. Banally quotidian as it may seem, it was the proverbial knock of fate at his door.
The chef at An Choi was one Dennis Ngo, now owner/chef at the popular high-end Vietnmaese restaurant Di An Di, in Greenpoint. Huynh, fresh from an ill-fated citywide tour as a Starbucks barista, was, he himself admits, an egg sorely in need of incubation. Ngo would come to be, over the next handful of years, the patient emperor penguin balancing young Huynh on his webbed feet.
“I look back now and realize how much shit I gave him as a worker,” laughed Huynh, seated at his Irving location’s sole table. “I was a punk, basically, but he loved me. No matter how bad I was, he had my back.”
Huynh proved himself to Ngo by out-working everyone else around him. The chef was impressed enough by the young cook’s work ethic to bring him along on weekend outings to open-air food market Smorgasburg, where the two peddled Houston native Ngo’s BBQ brisket.
After a couple of years, Huynh left An Choi and dedicated himself to Ngo’s side businesses full time, which included being put in charge of the chef’s summer shrimp rolls.
After a frenetic few years of constant work (in addition to cooking he did club promotion and ran an underground gambling den), Huynh had accumulated a healthy plug of capital. One day in 2015, a For Rent sign in a tiny storefront not far from where he grew up caught his eye. He swiftly contacted the owner, they agreed on a price – an extremely modest $1300 a month – and the place was his.
The menu at Lucy’s would be simple, and rely heavily on what he had learned at An Choi and chef Ngo’s outdoor booths: accessible and familiar Vietnamese staples and BBQ brisket. The brisket (smoked for 14 hours over mesquite) wouldn’t be served alone, however, but instead dropped, slice by unctuous fat-capped slice, directly into the pho; so immersed, the meat’s smoky charred bits permeated and perfumed the broth to narcotic effect.
Perhaps on the strength of the BBQ pho alone, Lucy’s was a big enough hit to prompt a 2017 profile by Vice, which substantially raised the restaurant’s profile and highlighted Huynh’s remarkable saga; The New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan also did a profile not long after the establishment’s opening. (However, beating both of those industry Kraken to the punch was your very own Bushwick Daily, who first published a story about Lucy’s in March of 2015.)
While the BBQ pho is undeniably marquee worthy, the establishment’s remaining comestibles are far from afterthoughts. There’s the trio of summer rolls: brisket makes a curtain call in a gauzy shrimp summer roll, while the other two feature, respectively, lemongrass chicken and faux chicken & shiitake mushrooms.
And next time you have a hankering for a turkey sub or chopped cheese, opt instead for one of their decidedly non-traditional bahn mi; even if purists will surely quibble about the absence of the classic (pork pate, head cheese, etc), they may clam up after trying either a brisket, lemongrass chicken or lemongrass faux chicken version, all three completed by garlic aioli, crunchy pickled carrots, cilantro, bean sprouts, cucumbers and jalapenos.
My first interview with Hunyh took place several days before the city and state governments started taking coronavirus seriously, shuttering schools, bars and restaurants. I asked him by text on Thursday, March 19, two days after the restaurant/bar edict took effect, what his feelings on the crisis were. He answered that, “Life shouldn’t just stop for everyone. We’ve kept all our employees on so they can make a living and provide for their families. I’m working 17-hours-a-day to make sure both stores run and everyone is safe.”
The re-opened Lucy’s, which has but one table, was never overly reliant on foot traffic, something that should serve it well in the coming months. What complicates matters is the second, 20-seat location in Williamsburg.
I did a second interview with Huynh by phone a month after the first, to see what, if anything, had changed for the hard-nosed restaurateur. Having just returned from a short – and no doubt much needed – vacation with his family in Woodstock, he sounded as fresh and breezy as dry linens on a clothesline.
“To be honest,” said Huynh with a laugh, “it’s going pretty well. Better than I thought it would. But we’re already a fast casual, take-out spot, so it was an easy transition. We’ve even been able to donate food to hospitals.”
Although the recently reopened Lucy’s didn’t qualify for the federal Pay Check Protection program for small businesses it includes the stipulation that a given business needs to have been open for at least 60 day, with no exceptions for cases like Huynh’s), they have survived not only because their business model hews pretty close to the one that many restaurants have only now had to adopt, but, according to Huynh, because of a general ethic of austerity and tirelessness inculcated in him by years of work as cook and all purpose hustler. And like most hyper-driven people, he finds it puzzling when others seem to fall short of his exacting standards, which would make a Mennonite farmer shave his beard in despair.
“Lots of places are not doing well, obviously,” admitted Huynh. “I feel bad, but honestly, some of these places never have their numbers right. It’s all about numbers. And you don’t always need a ton of employees. Most owners aren’t cooks; they hire cooks and chefs. That’s already a falling model. Be there 24 hours if you have to. Put in the time.”
Huynh can be seen “putting in the time” (he generally works from 9 am to 12 am) almost exclusively at Lucy’s new iteration on Berry Street in Williamsburg, where he says there is very little life on the street. (That represents a marked contrast with Bushwick, which on a clement Saturday persists in being a beehive of activity regardless of dire plague threats.) If you’d rather not interface directly with him or his employees, Lucy’s is available for delivery/pickup on Seamless, Caviar and Grubhub. The last, however, is on Huynh’s shit list for persisting in skimming, unlike the other two apps, the full 30 percent of the top. Do with that information what you will.
262 Irving Ave., Bushwick. Phone: (347) 240-1599;
112 Berry St., Williamsburg. Phone: (347) 916-1127.
Hours: 11 am – 11 pm, good for both locations.
Cover Image Courtesy of Lucy’s
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