Great food, pleasant setting, low prices: That's a tough combination to find in the city. We've got a glorious abundance of cheap eateries dishing out great food with zero atmosphere, and no shortage of expensive places where the decor and furnishings are as good as the food. But when you want it all on a tight budget, the list is pretty short.
Bodega Bistro, a 3-year-old restaurant on the edge of the Tenderloin near the Civic Center, belongs near the top. Chef-owner Jimmie Kwok serves a mix of Vietnamese and French dishes in a dining room that's in most respects as nice as most restaurants that cost twice as much. The tables are good-sized and spaced reasonably far apart, the chairs are comfortable, the napkins are cloth, and the dishes and platters are attractive. Bright orange seat cushions, red tabletops, dark pink and purple walls, and a black ceiling create a colorful, modern, modestly elegant environment. It would make for a romantic mood except for one jarring note: The otherwise attractive modernish chandeliers have clear glass panels, so the room is lit mostly with the glare of bare bulbs.
Some of the best items in Kwok's repertoire are street foods in Vietnam, items that you'd buy from a vendor who specializes in one particular dish. The papaya salad is a standout, better than the more familiar Thai version. The server brings out a pile of long shreds of unripe papaya topped with bits of chewy dried beef (similar to beef jerky), chopped peanuts, aromatic herbs, and a mild dressing of fish sauce and lime juice, tosses the salad, and portions it out into small bowls. You'll probably want seconds, so if you've got more than three in your party, consider a double order.
Another street favorite is nem cua, deep-fried crab and black mushroom rolls. Served traditionally, as here, this is a do-it-yourself item: Using a lettuce leaf wrapper, you make a sort of taco of cool rice vermicelli, a couple of pieces of roll dipped in a mix of fermented fish sauce, water, and a little sugar, and your choice of leaves from a heap of fresh herbs. The pile here typically includes cilantro, mint, red shiso, and polygonum (rau ram), a dark, pointy leaf with a slightly soapy flavor that some people may not like. This is one of the best dishes I've had at the Slanted Door, and Kwok's is just as good.
Bun cha Hanoi (rice vermicelli with pork) is the same idea, but with grilled pork soaking in a tangy marinade in place of the fried rolls. A third variation is bun cha ca Hanoi, made with marinated filet of sole grilled with aromatic fresh dill and served with both the usual light dipping sauce and a strong, salty gray one based on fermented shrimp paste.
Kwok makes some of the best Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo) in town. A thin batter of rice flour, water, and a little coconut milk fries up into a crisp, slightly puffy pancake with a soft center, which is folded like an omelette over a savory filling of pork, shrimp, onions, and bean sprouts. Like the noodle dishes, this is eaten with lettuce, herbs, and dipping sauce. Any of these four dishes would make a great lunch for one.
If you're not in the mood for noodles, or prefer a light appetizer, try the cha gio, similar rolls filled with pork, jicama, and wood ear mushrooms, but served without the noodles.
The Viet Minh kicked out the French 50 years ago, but the Vietnamese still appreciate the imperialists' cuisine, and retain many of their influences in the kitchen. Bodega's menu includes both unreconstructed classics, such as tournedos Rossini and (by advance order) bouillabaisse, and fusion dishes like the squab appetizer for example. Roasted to a crisp, golden brown, with the meat inside still juicy and succulent, served on a dollop of simmered whole golden raisins and sliced onions, you might get this dish in a Parisian bistro — except that Kwok serves the whole bird, including the crunchy feet, which you munch like pork rinds, and the head, which you can hold by the beak as you suck out the creamy brains.
Fritures de calmar was, despite the name, more reminiscent of Chinese salt-and-pepper squid. Thick slices quickly fried in a delicate rice batter are served scalding hot with a sprinkling of scallions and chilis and another bowl of the ubiquitous dipping sauce. This seemed dull at first but with a squirt of sriracha (red chili sauce) proved addictive.
In contrast, the poulet was as Frenchy as could be. A boned breast with half the wing and all the skin left on was as perfectly roasted as the squab, and served on a small puddle of intense, reduced mushroom sauce. This was a modest portion, but came with a huge pile of stir-fried garlic noodles and the vegetable of the day, baby bok choy (both available as side orders), making a good choice for somebody wanting a more Western-style dinner of meat and starch. Sure would have been nice to have a baguette to sop up that killer sauce, though.
A couple of dishes didn't come up to the same level. Pork spring rolls (goi cuon) were boring: These cold rice-paper wraps should include a bright-tasting mix of pork, shrimp, crunchy vegetable salad, and herbs, set off by a sweet-salty-sour peanut dipping sauce. This version was missing the contrasting textures and the aromatics, and the dipping sauce tasted pretty much like peanut butter. The shaking beef (bo luc lac) was another disappointment: The quickly stir-fried beef didn't seem to have picked up much flavor from its marinade (which per the menu includes five spices and garlic), and its sauce was bland, dominated by celery rather than the usual onion. A lime, salt, and pepper dip helped a bit, but either something was wanting or the dish was just too subtle after a succession of more intensely flavored dishes.
Though there are no desserts on the menu, the kitchen usually sends out a crème caramel for the table to share. This classic French flan is relatively light, obviously made with mostly or all milk instead of heavy cream, and its caramel sauce provides a nice bitter finish to clean the palate.
The wine list is fairly short, 20-odd bottles, with the whites divided equally between the major regions of France and California, and the reds all New World. Prices are mostly reasonable, with glasses from $5.40 to $9, bottles starting at $22.50. If you want to splurge, $81 will get you a fancy Pahlmeyer chardonnay or a Silver Oak cabernet.
Service on recent visits has been informal and sometimes a bit amateurish, but friendly and without any major gaffes. Things were definitely more efficient than a year or so ago, when it was often Kwok and one other person doing everything.
The best testament to Bodega Bistro's quality is the customers. On most of my visits, half or more were Vietnamese, usually in groups of six to a dozen or more adults, eating long, leisurely meals, often consulting with the chef about what to try next or what wine to order. Meanwhile, people from the neighborhood are popping in and out for quick plates of noodles. Fast or fancy, they all leave happy.