Jaime Hodgkin lounged back in a chair on the sunny back patio of High Low Beverage Company, his Vietnam-influenced eatery and bar on Wyckoff Ave, and smiled.
“We’ll have our year anniversary before we even serve anybody at the bar,” he observed bemusedly.
Hodgkin and his business and life partner Shriver Tran first signed the lease for the space in October 2018. They spent the next year-and-change building out the space and complying with DOB hurdle after hurdle until they were set to open a year ago. What ensued is a tale of hard luck and adaptation amid a pandemic.
Thanks to the recent vaccine rollouts, the business-verse seems (fingers crossed) to be re-orienting itself, allowing a scrappy restaurateur duo to finally kick out the jams. In the case of High Low Beverage Company, those include craft cocktails, Vietnamese-influenced bar food, micro brews, natural wines, highly pedigreed pastries and coffee.
It’s a lot for two people to successfully conceptualize and carry out, but Hodgkin and Tran’s combined backgrounds cover most of those bases.
Coffee is more than accounted for: Tran and Hodgkins met several years ago several years working at the Greenwich Village branch of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, she a barista and he on the administrative/training side. Tran, the West Coast-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, was raised eating and cooking the food of her parents’ home country, and thus provides a large share of High Low’s culinary soul; having worked at several cocktail and beer bars post-Stumptown, she also exerts a heavy influence over the drink list.
All that’s left to account for, then, is the baked goods program, whose initial conceptualization and execution involved a third key player: Matthew Tilden.
“We knew him from my days at Stumptown,” Hodgkins said. “He had a cafe/bakery called Scratchbread, and I supplied him coffee as a Stumptown rep. And before Shriver and I met, she lived right around the corner from Scratchbread and was a big fan. So when we thought about who could do a great bakery program, we thought of him.”
Scratchbread, for those unfamiliar, was a Bed-Stuy bakery that enjoyed a fervent following. Even though it closed several years ago, the aura surrounding the spot and its owner is positively messianic. (A second coming, in fact, is scheduled for some time this year.)
One of Tilden’s queue-spawning signatures was a pecan sticky bun, as swooningly decadent as it sounds. Fashioned in a similar spirit of excess for High Low Beverage Company are various creative, continent-leaping confectionaries, such as the (take a deep breath) “pandan cashew cream coconut donut” or the “sour cherry lime leaf jelly donut.” The former, while it might sound to some like painting with too many colors, is a delight. The hole-less donut looks more like two muffins stacked upon one another; the smaller piggy-backer is dusted with golden coconut shavings and topped with an elegantly piped flourish of the titular cream, which comes in a surprising shade of green and fills the entire donut. Add a macchiato, gracefully wanded by Hodgkins himself, and my post-breakfast/pre-lunch stop gap was complete.
Tilden also had a hand in the menu’s savory portion during High Low’s R&D phase; his long kitchen experience combined with Tran’s intimate knowledge of Vietnamese traditions to spawn a small bill of fare featuring sambal beef jerky, pork and root vegetable egg rolls (cha gio), a papaya salad with plum vinaigrette, and two banh mi, one vegan and the other packed with speck, pork belly and smoked chicken liver pate, and smeared with duck fat aioli. Both feature the mix of fresh and pickled vegetables (cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño) that are essential to any crusty-breaded Vietnamese sandwich worth its salt.
While High Low’s savory menu is always available, Tilden’s baked confections are currently limited to weekends. That will change, though, once climatic and epidemiological conditions improve.
“We get more coffee drinkers on the weekend right now,” said Hodgkins. “People aren’t commuting as much these days during the weekdays, so they’re not stopping by our spot [for coffee and pastries] on their way to work. The location near the Myrtle Wyckoff station was strategic, in that we thought we’d get a commuter crowd.”
The pandemic has seen Hodgkins and Tran bob and weave not just in terms of when to serve what, but in the myriad ways they’ve used their own private slice of Brooklyn real estate. Late last year, for instance, Tran’s mother, wanting some time with her daughter but aware of how busy Tran and Hodgkins were, decided to fly out from California and run a pho pop-up out of the High-Low kitchen for a couple of months.
“She did a traditional pho, but also a vegan bun bo hue [another Vietnamese soup],” recalled Hodgkins. “She had never cooked that, so she called up her vegetarian monk friends for advice, did a few test runs, and we had a vegan bun bo hue!”
Tran and Hodgkin’s families have been crucial lifelines during the pandemic; the business doesn’t have formal investors, and, for Kafkaesque bureaucratic reasons I won’t detail, doesn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Impact Disaster loans. So, a homey bowl of mom-cooked pho takes on a deeper significance in light of those travails.
“There’s a good chance [another pho pop-up] will happen again when she comes back,” teased Hodgkins.
High Low Beverage Company
Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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