Can Miami sustain a long-term commitment to one of its first pop-up restaurants, now that it’s here to stay? Or was our fascination with the saucy Phuc Yea just a fling?
The relationship seems to be off to an encouraging start since the wife-and-husband team of Aniece Meinhold and Cesar Zapata settled into a stable spot inside a one-time 1939 Art Deco hotel in the Upper Eastside in early September. The funky 100-seat eatery, peddling “Viet-Cajun” cuisine, is crowded most nights with diners hungry to see more choices at this end of the Biscayne corridor.
The ground floor of the former Sir William Hotel, last home to Moonchine Asian Bistro, has been compartmentalized into a fun, bi-level space. A front patio and lounge-like entrance with a 15-foot raw bar front the restaurant. Up a short set of stairs, a three-room dining room is divided by a traditional bar that spotlights designer cocktails heavy on lime, basil, cucumber and coconut flavors. An outdoor courtyard, decked with lanterns and Adirondack chairs, has yet to be activated.
Exposed wood ceilings, terrazzo and wood floors, Asian street art and mismatched mid-century furniture create the ambience of a makeshift exotic outpost. Loud beats, ranging from 1990s hip-hop to Lou Reed, connect the dim alcoves.
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Although Phuc Yea (pronounced fook-yeah) touts itself as a hybrid of Vietnamese and Cajun food — a Gulf Coast restaurant trend inching across the nation via the children of Vietnamese immigrants who fled to Louisiana during the Vietnam War — the one-page menu is predominantly Asian fare, no doubt thanks to Meinhold’s Saigon-born mother. Nuoc cham, the pungent salty-sweet fish sauce ubiquitous to Vietnamese cooking, permeates practically every dish with fermented flavor.
Some of the best choices are holdovers from Phuc Yea’s pop-up past, when it took over downtown’s Crown Bistro during dinner hours for three months in 2011. Caramel pork riblets, smoked and soaked in ginger, scallions and nuoc cham, deliver meaty, fall-apart-in-your-mouth goodness in a tiny cast-iron skillet. Caja China Cola duck is a delicious platter of duck legs marinated in cola hoisin. The juicy meat is surrounded by crackling, crispy skin for a sweet and sticky indulgence that comes with fresh butter lettuce and mint leaves in a Chinese takeout box for wrapping.
The bright green mango and cucumber salad, tossed with red onions, garlic, bean sprouts, cilantro, chiles, lime and nuoc cham, is a refreshing contrast to the heavy meat dishes. A fragile crudo of jellyfish, passion fruit, chiles, garlic chips, sesame and nuoc cham also is a crunchy, cool pleaser.
The “Mamma Roll” bò bía was overpowered by an abundance of jicama and too light on the Chinese sausage and shrimp for our taste. Served with a “peanut sauce” that tasted like hoisin with chopped peanuts on top, the sliced spring roll was dry and unremarkable. Spicy beef and noodles also lacked flavor beyond the heat.
The whole fish special on one of our visits was a seldom-seen strawberry grouper that was dredged in flour and fried up crispy on the outside. Diced into easy-to-eat chunks and served with nuac cham, lemongrass and garlic, the meaty fish also came with a side of lettuce, cilantro and mint for bundling. It was a delicious dish for sharing.
Less appealing was the “Cajun Wok” bowl from the smidgen side of the menu devoted to Louisiana. Diners can pick one protein from a choice of lobster, crab, shrimp or clams and single out an accompanying sauce (Cajun, green curry, garlic butter or chili garlic). The selections are added to a seafood boil of andouille sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob. Presented in a charming metal stock pot, our shrimp-and-garlic-butter mix was an unfortunate muddle that lacked depth of flavor. A lemongrass clams special with an anemic broth drew the same discouraged reaction.
For dessert, Vietnamese bread pudding is dense, with pineapple and powdered sugar sweetening the carbed-up cast-iron pot. Our pudding was burned on top and cold inside — a regrettable ending.
Such is the hit-or-miss nature of Phuc Yea, where paper napkins and wobbly tables are among the things that make you go hmmmm. Servers in jeans and brown vests are friendly, frenzied and forgetful. (We had to order our drinks twice.) Don’t be surprised if you’re disconnected when trying to call in reservations or if a communication gap between the waiter and busboy results in dirty napkins tossed on top of your leftovers destined for home. (Phuc Yea, we’re those kind of waste-not diners.)
This is the second joint venture for Meinhold and Zapata. They had a successful five-year run with their Biscayne Boulevard tavern The Federal, which was widely praised and was featured on several television shows before it closed this year. Meinhold, who has worked front of house for the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, and Zapata, previously in the kitchens of the Setai, Karu & Y and Fratelli Lyon, have street cred in Miami. But they’ll have to go beyond clever double entendres and novelty mash-ups to make this affair last.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
If You Go
Place: Phuc Yea
Address: 7100 Biscayne Blvd,
Rating: ☆ ☆1/2 stars (Good)
Contact: 305-602-3710, www.phucyea.com
Hours: 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, until midnight Thursday-Saturday, until 9 p.m. Sunday; dim sum brunch 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Prices: $8-$12 small plates; $15-$29 main plates; $8 dessert.
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; valet parking lot in back ($5).
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)