Longtime cooking competition enthusiasts may recognize chef Lisa Fernandes from her time appearing on the Bravo show Top Chef, where she finished as a finalist in 2008. Those more drawn to mobile cuisine may also know her from her food truck Sweet Chili, which served up southeast Asian food all over the city for five years. Now, Fernandes has retired from truck life and brought Sweet Chili to Bushwick, where it will be opening as a brick-and-mortar restaurant this Friday.
“Doing the food truck is a lot of fun,” Fernandes tells Bedford + Bowery. “It’s a nice, small space; you get to do what you want, explore different neighborhoods, and do events, but I wanted to do more with the menu. I wanted to be able to do specials and seasonal things, stuff that requires a lot of prep space and more room.” Fernandes’s desire for space is a familiar refrain from those who operate more transient culinary endeavors—earlier this year, Korean spot Kichin settled in a space on Bushwick’s Myrtle Avenue for the same reasons after a long stint of cooking in nightclubs and pop-ups.
Fernandes explains she was drawn to Bushwick after she moved there (both her and her business partner live within walking distance) and finding that, when it came to Asian food that wasn’t takeout, pickings were a bit slim.
“There weren’t a lot of options, and the options did exist were expensive and not necessarily in the area I was in,” she says. “We thought this was a good move in terms of our feel and our vibe. It just felt right.” In an interesting coincidence, Sweet Chili’s space used to be home to King Noodle, a flashily-decorated tiki bar and restaurant which also served a twist on southeast Asian food (The Village Voice once deemed it “hipster Asian stoner food”), and closed a little over a year ago.
Sweet Chili will be serving lunch and dinner, with brunch on the weekends. Fernandes has historically called the food “Thaietnamese,” but explains it also plays with Chinese and Korean cuisine.
“I like to take the flavors from those areas and do my own version of the dishes. I wouldn’t call it fusion,” she says.
Fernandes grew up in Toronto, where she developed an interest in Asian food at an early age. “[I ate] dim sum when I was a baby; my mother would cook with fish sauce. I got tired of ordering General Tso’s all the time so I figured out how to make it when I was 16 or 17, and it just kept escalating from there—having surplus of Bibb lettuce one day at a Caribbean restaurant and making kimchi out of the lettuce.”
Sweet Chili’s dinner menu is robust, featuring ambitious dishes like a crispy whole fish and a coriander-marinated strip steak with papaya salad and peanut butter mashed potatoes. For those seeking something slightly less involved, there’s also a coconutty tom kha gai soup, sweet and spicy chicken wings, a shrimp and watercress salad with cashews and herbs, and sriracha fries, among other options, though vegetarians and vegans may find their options a bit limited.
Their brunch is particularly a standout, which Fernandes says was inspired by more unconventional, non-Western brunch offerings at places like nearby Win Son. They’ll still be serving bacon, eggs, pancakes, and French toast, but the egg platters come with scallion pancakes and the only omelet available is a “yellow curry fried rice omelet,” reminiscent of Asian curry and Japanese omurice with a fried rice twist. Their version of Eggs Benedict is served as a banh mi sandwich, with pickled vegetables, pork belly, and cilantro, and side orders include pork dumplings and bok choy.
“It’s time to give [myself] the ability to be a chef, to get creative and have fun with food, pair it with alcohol and make it a fully immersive experience,” Fernandes says. While they have a liquor license, Fernandes is staying cryptic about their cocktail program for now, so only time will tell how the restaurant’s culinary stylings express themselves in liquid form.
Sweet Chili, located at 1045 Flushing Avenue, opens Friday, November 15 at 5 pm.