“I grew up right down the block,” Johnny Huynh (co-owner of Lucy’s, a tiny new Vietnamese restaurant in Bushwick) explained, beaming. “I’m a native. But it’s funny– I was never home. I was always out being a bad kid. So that was part of the ambition for this place, I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese to learn more about my heritage.” Johnny, who is spotted with tattoos and looks as young as 25 sounds, sat down across the table from me at Lucy’s after I’d furiously whipped through a bowl of his fragrant bowl of vegetarian pho. This broth will be the base for all pho on offer here– no chicken or beef broth, but you can throw in some brisket if you’re feeling frisky. But man, Johnny’s broth is right up there with any of the meaty broths I’ve had, and honestly it only had to be about a quarter as good as this was to keep me coming back.
Johnny’s team (including three business partners: Daniel Bridge from California, Jeanaro Sar from Connecticut, and Sahra Nguyen from Boston) make up probably one of the youngest restaurant-owning crews around. “No VCs. No angel investors. No silent partner. No trust funds,” a post on Lucy’s Instagram feed reads. “This is our first brick-and-mortar restaurant,” Johnny explained. All told he’s spent about eight years working in kitchens and preparing food for outdoor events, which is how he met co-owner Dan, who was working for Pizza Moto at the time. Originally, the two were going to open up a pizzeria. “But we decided that’s kind of typical,” Johnny said. “Then I thought, hey why not a banh mi spot? There aren’t any in Bushwick.”
Johnny and Dan assembled a squad adding two more of their close friends. Of the owners, three of them live in Bushwick. “We’re a team, everyone has their own role,” he explained. “So I can focus on cooking.” As of now, Lucy’s (named after Johnny’s grandmother) is still in soft opening mode, meaning there’s a limited chalkboard menu only, and no takeout (at least until next week). But you can grip beef brisket or lemongrass tofu banh mi and vegetarian pho with the option to add on beef brisket, all stellar choices.
The full menu will launch next week and includes vermicelli rolls, summer rolls, four or five different bahn mi options, pho, and of course the requisite Vietnamese iced coffee. “I’m not trying to reinvent Vietnamese food,” Johnny said. “It’s actually really simple, really healthy, delicious food.”
I asked Johnny if he preferred to be called a “chef.” He laughed, “I’m definitely not a chef, I love cooking but I don’t want that title right now, maybe one day.” He pointed to his friend Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s. “That guy’s a chef,” he said. “He wakes up every morning and thinks about food all day.”
Johnny might be humble, and Lucy’s might be tiny, but the place has some serious style. A bright red communal table at first elicits a response of, “Wait, that’s it?” But it has its unique benefits. “I really like the communal aspect of it,” Johnny explained. Admittedly, it did make for a friendly atmosphere– though I imagine when business picks up here the fights for those spots will be fierce. But Johnny doesn’t seem concerned about the place being small, he’s going to do his best to make it as pleasant as possible. He even has plans to plant a cherry blossom tree outside. “You know, because we’re the only Asian thing on the block,” he said.
And Johnny’s definitely passionate about giving back to the neighborhood. Lucy’s gets their bread from the Boobie Trap’s new pizza spot, Pizza Party just down the block. “I try to keep it as local as possible,” he said.
“I hired all my friends, we all grew up in this neighborhood and nobody saw anyone do this,” he said. “I want to take them out of that scene, selling drugs and getting quick money. Bushwick was known for that, drugs and violence. It’s still bad, but it’s getting better. People are too afraid of change though, change is good. People need change.”
Johnny’s employing local kids and is close with his staff. “All of us grew up with out a father, barely with moms in our lives,” he said. “I want to help people out, I don’t want to run a militaristic business.”
The place had its soft opening on Sunday to great reception. “We gave out free food all day,” Johnny said. Friends, family, even his high school principal came by. “I don’t think anyone expected this of me,” he said. “But I want to show this community you don’t have to finish high school, you don’t have to finish college to work hard and earn money and do well.”
Lucy’s grand opening is happening this Saturday, March 21st noon to 12am at 262 Irving Avenue, Bushwick
Update: Lucy’s grand opening has been postponed due to electrical issues, stay tuned for a new official opening date. The restaurant is still open daily and serving from their limited menu, noon – midnight.
Follow Nicole Disser on Twitter @mlledisser