As of this week, South Street has a new bar — and it’s much more impressive than anyone thought.
Banh Mi + Bottles, which has been in the works to replace Bottom of the Sea at 712-714 South St. for nearly a year, has softly opened for business. Early reports billed it as a “Vietnamese taphouse,” with beer on draft as well as to-go, plus a menu of Vietnamese and Viet-inspired food designed by owner Tuan Phung, whose family runs popular South Philly noodle house Pho Ha.
That’s exciting enough, since the community of Vietnamese restaurants that continues to spread along Washington Avenue hadn’t yet reached up into South Street’s tourist destination zone. But a visit with general manager Philip Search revealed the spot has greater ambitions.
“This is the best bar in Philly right now,” Search says, waving his hand toward the 15-seat, three-sided concrete counter at the center of the dining room.
A bold claim, sure, but Search does have the bonafides to pass judgement. He’s been in the hospitality industry for a decade and a half, including time spent as a liquor and coffee consultant who traveled the country. In Philly he oversaw bar programs at places like Charlie Was a Sinner, Farmer’s Cabinet and Palladino’s (those last two are both now closed, but not because of their drinks).
What makes B+B’s bar special? In cocktail land, almost everything is made from scratch, including the tonics, sodas and bitters — but, unlike most other spots that tout this cred, prices stay reasonable, ranging from $8 to $11. For example, the Coffee Brandy Old Fashioned is a combination of Torres 10 brandy, housemade coffee bitters and cold brew from what will soon be house-roasted coffee (as soon as the green beans arrive), yet the drink rings in at just $10. The opening drink list is just a taste of what’s to come, Search says.
“We’re not trying to publicize that we make everything here or that we put so much thought into the drinks,” he notes. “I want people to come in and get a gin and tonic like normal and then all of a sudden realize, ‘Wow, this is the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had.’”
On the beer side, there’s the same subtle expertise. The 200-plus labels waiting in coolers along the wall on the take-out side of the restaurant are priced to sell, i.e. you won’t feel like you inadvertently got mugged after checking out (*cough* looking at you, Foodery). If you get a full sixpack instead of mixing your own, expect it to come in under $15, even for high-octane IPAs.
Then there’s the large-format bottle selection, which Search used his industry connections to stock with rare finds — on Thanksgiving he was selling a handful of 22-oz. bottles of the very, very limited edition Collage 2, a barrel-aged collaboration between Deschutes and Hair of the Dog.
Wine lovers also have reasons to visit, because although the list is starting off small ($8-$10 per glass), it will rotate often, per Search, and feature unusual vintages by the bottle priced under $40.
Oh, and the food. It’s fresh, original and — judging from a preliminary tasting — very good.
Like the cocktail list, the food menu isn’t yet fully fleshed out. The concise soft-opening list does give a good idea of the kitchen’s philosophy, which Search describes as authentic but accessible.
“This isn’t Washington Avenue, so many people who come in might never have had pho before,” he notes. If not, they’re in luck, since this edition of the classic Vietnamese noodle soup is spot on, with an ultra-rich broth, and comes with street food price tag: $8.50 for a regular bowl or $10.50 for a large. Goi Cuon (summer rolls) come with fish sauce that’s not overly pungent.
There are also a few twists on tradition, like the banh mi (Vietnamese hoagie) that’s billed as “pho brisket.” Crunchy pickled sprouts (a pho topping) are nestled with the pho-spiced beef, instead of the regular pickled daikon and carrots, and the sandwich is served with a side of actual pho for dipping.
In general, Banh Mi + Bottles seems like it could become an unusual combo of neighborhood joint and tourist hot spot — which would be a welcome addition to the ever-changing fabric of South Street retail.