Three years ago, Liza Queen faced an uncertain future. Queen’s Hideaway—her quirky Greenpoint restaurant that garnered a devoted following for whatever Greenmarket ingredients the self-taught chef felt like cooking—was effectively shut down when the landlord raised her rent beyond anything her salt potatoes, patio-smoked pork and zucchini fritters could pay for. So she shuttered the built-by-hand space (Queen describes it as her own “total pirate ship”), packed up and went to lick her wounds in her native Syracuse. To top it off, her beloved pit bull of nearly 20 years passed away.
Aching for a change, she began exploring options abroad, hoping for a two-year stint in a distant land. “I would have gone anywhere,” she says.
Little did she know, the quest for “anywhere” would take her back to Brooklyn—but only after a two-year detour on the other side of the globe.
As it happened, Queen got an e-mail from a friend in Portland, where she used to cook. They needed a chef for a place they ran in Saigon, Vietnam’s biggest city and a place that’s arguably an orgy of deliciousness—think fried duck, pork chops with broken rice, spring rolls and fresh clams pulled from the river. Faster than you can say “báhn mì,” Queen accepted the offer and was soon stepping off a plane in manic, sweltering Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City—her new home for the next two years.
At the job—as chef at a Western ex-pat joint called Bread and Butter—Queen supervised an all-Vietnamese staff whose English was basic at best and who preferred traditional, country-style recipes to the fish and chips they and Queen cooked on the clock. The menu was almost exclusively pub grub, but her staff found the food, in a word, “disgusting.” Following her colleagues’ cues, she shunned the bangers and mash, instead tucking into Mekong specialties they conjured up between shifts—like pork in a clay pot, or sour fish soup.
Thanks to her crew, Queen quickly picked up essential kitchen Vietnamese. “Conversationally, I pretty much had nothing,” she laughs. “But I had a pretty extensive vocabulary when it came to recipes, ingredients and kitchen technique.” So she began exploring the farmers markets, taking in the duck eggs, durians and đu đu (papaya) carted in from the countryside, putting from one rainbow-filled market to the next on a canary-yellow motorbike—her precariously balanced bags bulging with produce.
“I remember pulling up at the market on my motorbike a few months in and rattling off my order in Vietnamese, and the guy’s jaw dropped open,” she recalls.
Queen immersed herself in the food culture of Vietnam, where patrons overflow from beer cafés munching on fried frogs and sucking up quail eggs with salt, pepper and lime, and street food vendors crowd already-congested sidewalks and alleys, shouting out their fares from sunrise till well past midnight. Queen encountered fine French restaurants—remnants of Vietnam’s colonial past—that fused East with West at bargain prices, but she also dined at little one-dish restaurants dedicated to making chicken pho, or goat hot pots, or Hanoi-style barbecue. She became well acquainted with fermented shrimp paste and sriracha sauce, Southeast Asia’s original spicy rooster sauce. As the months went by, Vietnam’s flavors brewed and bubbled, irreversibly infusing Queen’s culinary psyche.
By day she served Westerners—during her second year, she started managing a restaurant called Burger-oi!, or Burger-hey, a fast-food joint that specialized in pizza and hamburger delivery. But while she slung cheeseburgers for a living, after clocking off she’d squat on curbs with locals, bent over a bowl of steaming soup with a BYO beer in hand.
Queen was won over by the Vietnamese style of combining basic elemental ingredients in incredibly unexpected ways to create complex creations—like bánh tráng tron, a sublime street treat that’s essentially a mixed-up bowl of rice-paper shreds, fried shallots, basil, cilantro, lime and salt.
She loved it all, but lucky for us, a combination of factors called her back to Brooklyn. Despite moving to another hemisphere, she managed to pick out another Brooklynite from the Saigon crowds to fall in love with. When he returned to BK, Queen decided to follow. Plus, her mother wanted her back on this side of the planet, and she missed peaches, tomatoes and corn. Plus, her ambitions outgrew Vietnam, where restaurant-goers either want Vietnamese food or Western clichés. Her itch to forge her own thing lured her to Bedford Avenue, where she knew the clientele would fork out for the kind of high-standard food she wanted to create. Potlikker was born.
But it isn’t a Vietnamese restaurant. Like Queen’s Hideaway, Potlikker is a category-defying potluck of anything and everything Queen is inspired to make. “Things become part of the way I cook, but they’re rarely very obvious,” shrugs Queen. Her little dining room was immediately crowded with hungry patrons eager to tuck into Queen’s brick chicken with corn custard, paired with shaved summer truffles and peaches roasted in duck fat. Though she spent the summer selling a few bánh mì and similar staples at Smorgasburg, the chef shied away from an exclusively Asian menu, partly because so many ingredients require importation—this is a woman who used to bike to the Union Square Greenmarket three times a week—and also because she felt “it would be arrogant” after just two years in the country; she doubts she’d be able to pull off Vietnam’s very best offerings herself. (In fact the recipe of her favorite vendor there, a grumpy older woman who sold only pork wonton egg noodle soup, still haunts her. “The broth was so, so good, so fatty and awesome; the pork dumplings so delicate. The best part was the texture of the fried pork cracklings on top of it, just so perfect,” Queen says. “If I could eat that right now,” she sighs, “I’d be so eff-ing happy, I crave it in the worst kind of way. I honestly don’t think I could recreate it.”)
But after two years marinating in fermented fish brine and lemongrass, Queen’s flavors cannot help but hint at the Eastern influence—like grilled calamari with green mango, radish, shaved pickled beets and chili-lime salad. And even if her self-described “bitchin’” lavender Scottish shortbread with blueberry compote and lemon curd or blistered Japanese shishito and fushimi peppers with grilled okra and tomatillo relish don’t call out “Good morning, Vietnam!” the country’s food philosophy—simple staples working together to create a new palate experience—runs deep throughout her menu.
Think of it as a pirate ship that was moored at the Saigon docks before sailing home.
Photo credit: Liza Queen and Rachel Nuwer