New Yorkers know bánh mì, pho, bun and summer rolls—standard fare on the menus at most Vietnamese-American restaurants. But Vietnamese tapas, known as anh choi, are a rarer offering. Chef Fred Hua wants to change that. At Nha Ban Kitchen, located in the back room of Zeke’s Bar—a no-frills joint that quietly opened this August in Bed-Stuy—Hua serves up savory and inventive bar bites, which patrons pair with two-for-one happy hour drinks, or nosh on between games of pool or during DJ sets and trivia nights.
Hua, who previously ran Vietnamese eatery Quynh inside Erv’s Bar, coffee shop/restaurant/art gallery Nha Minh in Greenpoint, and Nha Toi, a cheap-eats favorite in South Williamsburg, explains that anh choi roughly translates to “eating and playing,” which reflects his cooking philosophy. “I like to play around and keep things kinda loose,” he says. And because “you can’t eat the same thing every day,” he changes the menu nightly, sourcing what’s fresh and available—a rotating selection of seafood, exotic meats and veggies.
This culinary approach won over Zeke’s co-owner Eric “The Red” Austin (who also owns Second Chance Saloon), a fan of Hua’s cooking since the Nha Toi days. After Nha Minh shuttered this past summer, Austin approached Hua about running his own kitchen at Zeke’s; Hua saw it as opportunity to nudge diners out of their comfort zones with a menu of Vietnamese bar food that he likes to cook and that, at this point, is seen as unconventional for New York.
At Nha Ban, you’ll find bar bites like grilled rice paper with shrimp chicharonnes, a dish he says is trendy right now in Vietnam and likens to “a big warm chip”; or banh knot, a rice flour, coconut milk crostini topped with lumpfish roe. The San Jose, California, native creates dishes that combine Mexican-Vietnamese influences, like shrimp and crab taquitos, or a giant fried turkey wonton, which he says was everywhere when he was growing up.
“I want people to look outside of chicken and beef, salmon and tilapia,” he explains. Instead, he’ll source wild boar, rabbit, quail; catch-of-the-day, from catfish to striped bass; beer-battered snails and turmeric-dill smelts. But he’s not above giving the people what they want: bánh mì, pho and other favorites, available vegan and vegetarian, are staples on his menu. He experiments with sauces, like a coffee hoisin and a ajicito-szechuan pepper blend, and makes his own herbed salts and oils.
Hua keeps the prices refreshingly low, at $11 and under—“accessible, affordable, and tasty,” in keeping with Vietnamese street food tradition, might be his mandate. “If you get those three things right, people come back,” he says. “I like cooking for poor people. I’d rather make my food accessible than get a Michelin star.”
It’s important to Hua that his culinary offerings are available to everybody in the neighborhood—“whether you’re an artist, trying to do something cool and you want to have a delicious meal, or you’re on food stamps and you can’t really go out that much,” he explains. “Feeding the rich sucks,” he adds.
Hua is keeping busy. In a couple of months, he’s set to open a Nha Minh 2.0 inside Bushwick venue TransPeco, which he says will feature grab-and-go offerings like báhn mì, summer rolls and bun.
Nha Ban Kitchen is open Monday through Thursday from 4-10 p.m., Friday through Saturday from 4-11 p.m. in the back of Zeke’s Bar at 1452 Fulton St. in Bed-Stuy.