In 2003, Matthew Ho’s uncles opened Bodega Bistro in the Tenderloin. He started to work in his family’s Vietnamese restaurant as a busboy but, over the years, worked his way up to front-of-the-house and managerial duties. When he majored in hospitality at college, Ho was able to apply what he was learning to a real life setting at the restaurant. Now that he’s running his own business, Ho says his role is “to do what needs to be done.” His uncle does the cooking at BodegaSF. Ho himself is not a chef but he can cook when they’re short a body. “I can come up with dishes,” he says, “but I don’t think I can execute them the way I see them.”
BodegaSF extends the idea of what a pop-up restaurant can be. It’s renting out space from Rooster & Rice in the Castro but is open every day of the week except Tuesday. Ho says that in this new iteration, they’ve taken the family’s recipes for dishes like shaking beef, garlic noodles, and dry hu tieu and made them better. “We’re refining everything that we used to do,” he explains.
Bodega Bistro closed in 2017. Ho says that it got to be too much for his father. “I was working there at the time, as well as at Nobu,” he says. He was helping with the opening of Nobu in Palo Alto and couldn’t spend as much time in San Francisco at his family’s restaurant. Along with some problems with the health department, his father decided that he couldn’t handle the workload anymore and shut Bodega Bistro for good.
Ho was still working at Nobu when the pandemic started. Since they were only open for takeout, he had extra time on his hands. Both his mother and his uncle weren’t working so they decided to start selling Vietnamese takeout on Saturdays. After a couple of months, the owners of Rooster & Rice had tried and liked the food. Since the owners were “under-utilizing” the kitchen at the Castro location — they don’t use the grill or burners — they asked Ho if he wanted to use the space as a hub for his takeout business. Nobu laid Ho off from his job in October so he shifted his focus to BodegaSF.
The initial advantage to the “pop-up” is that there were no high, upfront costs. All of the kitchen equipment, utensils and supplies were already there. They pay rent and a percentage of their sales to Rooster & Rice but the only thing they had to do to figure out to get started was how to move about the space to set up the cooking line. BodegaSF splits the kitchen with Rooster & Rice. You can order from either one when you go inside. The only downside is they’d like to expand the menu. “We want to do different items,” Ho says, “but with the space that we have we can’t really do it.”
On Sundays though, they have specials like the Vietnamese rice rolls called bánh cuốn. “They’re traditional from Hanoi in northern Vietnam where my family comes from,” Ho says. The rolls are made from tapioca rice flour. It sits for over a day before being steamed over a cloth covering a pot of boiling water. “We roll it over like a little crepe,” he says, “and then fill it up with ground pork, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and crispy shallots.” The specials are only available on Sundays because Rooster & Rice is closed that day, which gives BodegaSF more room to maneuver within the space. “Other than the menu limitations, we love being there,” he says.
Ho isn’t exactly sure why another delicious dish on the menu, shaking beef, goes by that name but his best guess is because of the way you cook it. “You deglaze the beef with soy, to get a good little sear on the meat, you just keep shaking it,” he says. “That’s how we cook it so it doesn’t burn. We also add in a little butter so it coats the meat.”
If the timing’s right, Ho says he would like to open another location or take over the lease in the Castro, if that turns out to be an option. “We see a lot of people who ask if this is the same Bodega from Larkin Street,” he says. “They say, ‘We miss your food so much and are so glad you’re back.’” Hearing that makes Ho happy. “It makes me want to continue to do what we’re doing now,” he adds.
As of press time, BodegaSF is currently closed in response to San Francisco’s COVID-19 restrictions. Follow them on Instagram at @bodegabistro to find out more.
BodegaSF (Inside Rooster & Rice)
4039 18th St., San Francisco