It seemed like the perfect find. A hole-in-the-wall with a stellar reputation and intriguing back-story that hadn't gotten much press lately. These are the types of places that food writers live to discover (or rediscover, as the case may be) — the kind of places that have delicious food despite their unexpected location or provenance.
But Bodega Bistro didn't turn out to be one of those. Instead, it offered one of the stranger dining experiences in recent memory, and a reminder that it's necessary to visit a restaurant at least twice before passing judgment.
On my first visit, the Tenderloin restaurant was empty at dinner hour on a Thursday night. A staff member folded napkins at a table in the back, not really watching the TV in the corner tuned to the Military Channel (on mute) — shot after shot of troops on the march, explosions in desert locales, and the like. Despite its freshly painted yellow walls, framed vintage photos of Vietnam, and luxe wine rack along one wall, the place felt like a dive, and its health rating of 68 suggested that a recent remodel didn't go far below the surface (to the restaurant's credit, it has taken care of its violations, according to the San Francisco Department of Health). The menu had cracked laminate and an odd mix of Vietnamese standards alongside high-end French cooking, including a $33 steak dish that promised filet mignon with bacon, black truffle sauce, and foie gras, the latter ingredient suggesting that the menus hadn't been replaced in at least a year.
Basically, Bodega Bistro didn't seem especially promising at first glance. But I've eaten some of the best meals of my life in dirtier, weirder places, so I pulled up a chair, ordered a 33 beer, and got to it.
That meal was a disaster. Imperial rolls came to the table with burnt edges, though the meaty filling was well-seasoned despite the acrid taste from the overcooked wrapper. The pork in the Bun cha Hanoi was overcooked and uninteresting, the pho was filled with more fat than meat, and the dry bahn xeo omelet lacked the coconut-tinged lusciousness that the best versions offer.
Roasted squab is one of the dishes that the restaurant is known for — it's even featured on 7×7's list of the 100 must-eat items in San Francisco — and it was the most promising dish of the night. The bird's lacquered skin was drum-tight, and the gamey dark meat inside was juicy. Its musky taste was tamed with its accoutrements: caramelized onions, raisins, and peppery lemon juice. For authenticity, the feet and the fried head were next to the bird's tiny body.
A few customers eventually trickled in and made things a little less grim, but overall Bodega Bistro had the unmistakable feel of a restaurant near death — a marked deviation from its opening a decade ago, when it was hyped as some of the city's best, and cheapest, Vietnamese-French fusion.
I returned on a Tuesday, around the same time, and felt like I'd stepped into a time vortex back to the height of the restaurant's popularity. The dining room was full. Multiple tables of well-dressed, young Asian customers were drinking bottle after bottle of wine (whether they were ordering from the stocked rack or taking advantage of the $9 corkage, I couldn't say). White wine was chilling in silver buckets on tables next to plastic bottles of Sriracha, an unusual visual juxtaposition. There were tables of families, bros, Tenderloin hipsters — a diverse, convivial, wine-swilling crowd, that pointed to the fact that I had prematurely declared the restaurant's demise. Even if it wasn't as buzzy as Lers Ros or as packed as some of the other beloved Little Saigon spots, Bodega Bistro clearly still had it. I wondered where all these people had been a few nights before. I even wondered for a second if I'd accidentally wandered into a different restaurant, but then, there was the Military Channel, still on mute in the corner.
To my delight, the food this time around was much, much better, too. Calamari wasn't the usual ringlets of squid, but big chunks of tender, not-rubbery flesh, encased in a salty, crisp, airy batter. Seven fist-sized tiger prawns came arranged on a bed of herbs, and were fried in garlic for succulent bites full of buttery, garlicky flavor — one of the best shrimp dishes I've had in a long while. The filet mignon in the shaking beef was a tad overdone, but it was bathed in a velvety reduction, and a quick dunk in the accompanying lemon-pepper sauce revived the chewy beef (the presentation was a little off, though — the plate was overrun with wilting spinach and watery tomato slices that quickly sopped up the sauce). The server urged us to order garlic noodles instead of rice; they were thin, al dente noodles that tasted like buttered pasta from a kid's menu at an Italian restaurant, but would have served as a nice foil for something spicy.
Bodega Bistro was opened by chef Jimmie Kwok, who was hailed as a promising new chef in the early part of the early aughts. Flush with success, Kwok opened Jimmie's Bar across Larkin Street in 2010, and then apparently disappeared from both kitchens, though no one at Bodega could give me a solid answer about what happened, or why (Jimmie's is closed). A query on Chowhound turned up news that Kwok has been cooking a few nights a week at Little Sichuan in San Mateo.
At Bodega, Kwok's influence is still seen in the Indochine fusion dishes on the menu, even if the prices for some items are more than double what they were a decade ago. But the restaurant doesn't seem to be following through on many of them. When I inquired about the filet mignon with black truffle sauce and foie gras, I was told that the dish wasn't served anymore, with or without the foie. Why it's still on the menu is one of the restaurant's many mysteries.