Feb. 15, 2019 By Nathaly Pesantez
Zen Yai, the Vietnamese noodle and coffee shop that was among several Queens Boulevard businesses destroyed in a fire late last year, will soon reemerge in Williamsburg, according to the owner, who said he remains committed to one day returning to Sunnyside.
The restaurant, which opened at 45-04 Queens Blvd. two years ago before a five-alarm fire on Dec. 13 brought it and five other connecting stores down, is anticipated to open this spring at 208 Grand St., a few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge.
The new restaurant, more than double the size of the former 30-seat location, will retain the Zen Yai name and much of the prior site’s menu, which includes varieties of pho, stirred fry noodles dishes, rice bowls, and curry. Cafe beverages like coffee and teas also formed part of the restaurant’s selections.
The larger kitchen at the Brooklyn location will also allow for additional items to be prepared and served, like Hainanese chicken rice and Vietnamese barbecue dishes. A full liquor license is also being sought for the site.
Bryan Chunton, the restaurant owner, told the Sunnyside Post that the Williamsburg location was already in the works before the December fire. He had started looking for a place to expand to six months ago, and had the lease in hand ready to sign, but the early morning blaze delayed the signing until about a month ago.
Chunton, a 49-year-old Woodside native who now lives closer to Elmhurst, said he had a premonition that something was to occur with his restaurant in the hours before the 2 a.m. fire.
“It was kind of strange before the fire,” he said, adding, “The store seemed weird—it was a weird feeling.”
He hadn’t been at the restaurant the day before—an unusual departure from his routine—and eventually got around to the Queens Boulevard site at around 10:30 p.m., just hours before the fire.
But the store, which often stayed opened a little past its 10:30 p.m. closing time for lingering diners, had already shut its doors for the day.
The days after the massive fire saw widespread support and organizing efforts for the impacted business owners and employees, estimated at more than 100 people in total. About $165,000 had been raised as part of fire relief efforts.
Chunton was overcome by the neighborhood’s swift response and willingness to help, and vowed to rise again in Sunnyside.
“That’s what makes me want to go back,” he said. “But I just want to do it right.”
He said several offers have come his way, but were turned down because of location, with many of the proposed sites off Queens Boulevard.
“I think it’s important because the pricing of the product is low, so I need the high volume,” he said of his choice to remain on the boulevard. Practically all Zen Yai menu items are priced below $10.
The ideal plan would be to open back up at the same spot once its redeveloped, which Christopher Petsanas, the third-generation property owner, intends to do, Chunton said.
“We had a long term lease there,” he said, adding, “We had incurred a relationship with the landlord.”
He reiterated that the question is not if, but when.
“Whatever it takes, I will come back,” he said. “If there is a spot across, maybe I’ll take it if it’s good. Or I’ll wait until they build the building back.”
The Williamsburg spot would have been Chunton’s third restaurant after Zen Yai in Sunnyside. The restaurateur, who said he was “born into the business,” opened Eat’s Khao Man Gai in the East Village last summer. The locale specializes in khao man gai, a popular street food in Thailand.
Chunton, who returned to New York more than a decade ago after opening and later selling a handful of restaurants in the west coast, is also planning on expanding Eat’s Khao Man Gai to the Essex Street Market in Manhattan this spring.