The bathroom-wall photo of a wolfish ’50s-era Elvis gobbling a sandwich tells you everything you need to know about Bunk. Bunk is all about indulging appetites. And Bunk is all about the glory that is the sandwich. Two ideas, incidentally, that pretty much sum up the philosophy of the Underground Gourmet. The counter-service sandwich shop that opened recently in Williamsburg is a branch of a popular Portland, Oregon, mini-chain run by a crew of musician-cooks including co-founder Tommy Habetz, who once worked for Mario Batali as a Lupa sous-chef.
For his first Bunk foray outside Portland, Habetz hired Jake Adams, a former Milk Bar chef de cuisine, to oversee the kitchen. The sandwich-making modus operandi here is to start with the classics, then by judicious tweaking, scratch cooking, meticulous construction, and the use of outstanding bread and top-notch ingredients, improve upon them. This formula works like a charm. Take, for instance, the Cubano which crams pork belly, pork butt, good New Hampshire ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles into a crackly, well-smooshed roll, its innards swiped with mustard and drizzled with hot sauce. This substantial specimen is rich and tangy but streamlined enough to evoke the kind of sandwich you might find in an old-school Cuban luncheonette on Roosevelt Avenue. The fried-egg-and-cheese on a toasted poppy-seed Kaiser roll also deftly bridges the gap between crowd-pleasing classic and gourmet upgrade. It comes with sharp Oregon Cheddar and an optional choice of bacon, ham, or housemade pork sausage. Get the sausage, and for an umami sensation like no other, do as they do at the original Bunk and order it with add-on anchovies. (A note on the Kaiser rolls: Like the ciabatta, they’re specially made for Bunk by Bien Cuit’s Zachary Golper and they’re terrific — almost as dense and tight-crumbed as a bagel but mysteriously tender.)
As for the rest of the impressive roster, the roast-chicken salad with bacon and avocado is a contender. The meatball hero is spot-on. The tuna melt is un-mayo’d in favor of oil and balsamic, plus mustard and pickles, and tasty as can be. And an Italian combo that brings together ham, three cured meats from Oregon’s excellent Olympia Provisions, and a Mazzola hero roll could go up against any East Coast hoagie. If there’s an underperformer in the bunch, it’s the grilled Cheddar, undone by pain de mie sliced so thick it’s proportionately out of whack with the relatively spare amount of cheese.
Bunk could easily get away with serving just its signature sandwiches and the bags of Kettle chips that come with them, but the kitchen also turns out some great side dishes. Chief among these are burnt broccoli with garlic and chiles, a spectacular potato salad (credit the addition of bacon and eggs), and fries smothered with New Orleans-style debris gravy that puts the disco-fries competition to shame. For dessert, try a chocolate-chip cookie. After all, they’re baked by the guy who used to help run Milk Bar.
Gothamist wasn’t feeling the love:
I tried six of Bunk’s sandwiches over the weekend, and could only muster the enthusiasm to finish one, the Oregon Albacore Tuna Melt.
Why “Oregon”? I asked the same thing, and it’s not because the tuna salad is prepared in an interesting, regional manner; it’s that the fishery is based in the Northwest. Also, as Bunk’s owner admitted, it’s more of a branding thing. Anyway, it was decent, appropriately cheesy, with nice usage of pickles. The dried-up crusty bits were slightly off-putting, but I was starving that day and soldiered through.
There’s a curious sort of inattention, or lack of caring, that was evident throughout my three visits. The Marinated Garbanzo Bean sandwich seemed promising—served with feta, arugula, and hot peppers, like a zippy Greek salad between bread—but the soggy beans had been soaking way too long, and the astringent marinade completely overwhelmed everything else. And there’s no way anyone tasted a prototype for the special dessert sandwich I had on Sunday. Billed as grilled brie and peach on pound cake, the cheese was off-the-charts overripe, more like a stinky blue (complete with vomit undertones), and the miserly smear of jelly didn’t stand a chance. If you want dessert, get one of the Bunk Chocolate Chip Cookies instead, which at least are sweet though, as a friend said, little better than standard mall-kiosk issue.
The Pork Belly Cubano is apparently something of a signature dish at the Portland Bunks, and it wasn’t available my first visit because, I was told, they ran out of pork belly. But the next day, there it was on the menu again… only thing is, that’s not pork belly, guys. “Yes, that’s pork belly,” said one of the friendly staffers when I showed her the thin slice of gray tenderloin on my sandwich. I didn’t argue the point further, but the following day another worker told me that they don’t use actual pork belly for their Pork Belly Cubano, because it’s too fatty, so instead they take a little bit of belly, meat glue it onto some pork shoulder, roll it up and then slice it for a sandwich. Personally? I’d stick a slab of regular ol’ pork belly on this thing just to create some excitement. As it stands, it’s really more grilled ham and cheese than anything else…
The ideas are solid here, the menu appealing, the prices reasonable, and Bunk could become a go-to neighborhood spot. But they can’t just coast on whatever legend they might be back in Portland. Someone needs to wake up back there in the kitchen, and start spreading some love to the folks out front. It is, after all, the Brooklyn way.
740 Driggs Ave (Williamsburg)