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It seemed like the start to an uncomfortable dinner when my Vietnamese dining companion began interrogating the server about the details of the menu. Are the rolls egg rolls, or are they wrapped in rice paper? Do the meatballs have tendon in them? Do you make your vermicelli noodles in-house?
Then they'd make an abrupt switch from English to Vietnamese, and I was completely lost. And hungry. We'll find out if the meatballs have tendon in them when we eat them, right? It doesn't matter if the wings are fried or if the bun bo Hue is spicy. Just let her bring us food, for the love of God!
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m to 9 p.m. Grilled pork spring rolls (2): $4 Chile basil wings (5): $7 Beef noodle soup (pho bo): $8 Hue style spicy beef noodle soup (bun bo Hue): $7.50 Grilled chicken rice plate: $7 Spicy tofu rice plate: $7 Grilled pork banh mi: $4 Assorted macarons: $2
For more on Ba Mien Bistro: Slideshow: A Closer Look at Ba Mien Bistro Blog: A Step Back in Time to French Indochina At Ba Mien Bistro
Clearly, my stomach was doing my thinking for me, because these are exactly the kinds of things I like to know when I eat at a restaurant for the first time. But I'd been hungry even before we made the 45-minute drive north to Cypress Creek Parkway (a.k.a. FM 1960), and now all I wanted was pho in my mouth as soon as humanly possible. Tendon-y meatballs and all.
We'd made the trip out here for the express purpose of dining at Ba Mien Bistro, and once my friend had uncovered every culinary nuance within the short menu, we were finally able to do so. And I was actually really happy he'd given the server the third degree. I'm pretty sure we found the best thing on the menu that night.
The chile basil wings — five for $7 — are masterpieces of poultry , and all the more delicious because I was so surprised by them. When I think traditional Vietnamese food (as opposed to more modern fusion takes on the cuisine), I think pho and banh mi, not chicken wings. So it was with much anticipation, and then rapture, that I bit into the sweet, garlicky, juicy wings topped with paper-thin wisps of fried basil.
I'm not entirely sure how the wings are prepared at Ba Mien, because that part of the conversation took place in Vietnamese, but they tasted like they were roasted, rolled in chile paste and garlic, then caramelized with sugar and fish sauce in a wok. Each bite filled my mouth with a jolt of umami and heat, and I made sure not to leave any of the rich dark meat on the bone.
Later in the meal, I caught one of my friends sucking on a bone from the wings, even after all the meat and sauce had been pulled off and eaten.
"What?" he said, not at all sheepishly. "Even the bone is good."
Considering I live a five-minute drive from several great Vietnamese restaurants, I wasn't thrilled at the thought of driving so far for dinner. My obsessions with Chinatown and Galveston seafood shacks should tell people that I'm not averse to leaving the Loop. But driving nearly to Tomball for Vietnamese food when I'm so close to Little Saigon felt to me like a Texan going to New York for Mexican food. Why bother?
And then I had Ba Mien Bistro's wings. And the grilled pork spring rolls, which are better than any I've had in Midtown. And the spicy tofu, which looks like stir-fried erasers but tastes like MSG and happiness.
A husband-and-wife team, along with their children, opened Ba Mien in November 2012, taking a space in a run-down shopping center and turning it into a posh bistro with clear French decor influences and a color scheme reminiscent of the delicate macarons sitting in a case up front. The walls are an inviting shade of grayish lilac accented by white trim; gilded picture frames hang throughout the space. A shiny gray-and-white marble counter with a colorful display of macarons from Ganache Dessert Bar greets diners as they walk in, and behind it are shelves filled with mismatched white bowls, plates and teacups. The space resembles the kitchen and dining room of your friend who takes home a hefty paycheck and has a design background.
It's this charming, contemporary element that elevates Ba Mien above other hole-in-the-wall authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Houston. This is a true bistro that hearkens back to the days of French Indochina, a period that heavily influenced the culture and food of Vietnam from the late 1800s until shortly after World War II. Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker warble through the speakers, and black-and-white images of French-occupied Vietnam decorate the walls. Were it not for the traffic whizzing by on FM 1960, the outdoor patio with canvas umbrellas, elegant white metal furniture and twinkling fairy lights could easily be a street cafe in Saigon in 1910.
Some elements of French cuisine have had lasting influences on Vietnamese food, and Ba Mien Bistro pays full homage to items like macarons, crusty French bread and the ca phe phin, a French drip filter used to make the sweet and soothing cafe sua da, or Vietnamese coffee. At Ba Mien, it's prepared in the classic manner and takes at least 20 minutes to percolate in the old-fashioned phin. Such attention to detail does not go unnoticed.
When Ba Mien first opened, I'm told, the food veered even more toward traditional, with sinewy pig knuckles and cubes of congealed pig's blood making appearances in the bun bo Hue, a spicy beef broth soup. Diners weren't so sure about congealed pig's blood, though, so the kitchen has since tweaked the menu and recipes to make the food more appealing to the average Houstonian. The bun bo Hue is reminiscent of pho, only spicier, brinier and more sour, and the thick, chewy vermicelli noodles transform it into a hearty and filling dish.
The pho is less exciting — not quite salty or beefy enough. The thinly sliced brisket swirling in the broth is flavorful and tender, but the soup itself needs more star anise, more cinnamon, more coriander and more fish sauce. In the absence of such things at my table, I found myself adding generous squirts of both hoisin sauce and Sriracha to elicit as much flavor from the subtle bowl of soup as possible.
A rice plate with grilled chicken was also disappointing; the chicken was grilled nearly to death. It had a nice, savory char, but was cooked to the point that it was devoid of juice, almost like chicken jerky. The hand-rolled egg rolls are perfectly crispy on the outside, but the meat on the inside is bland and takes on too much oil from the frying.
In spite of a few less appealing dishes, Ba Mien's short menu continues to surprise me when I make my way out there. Recently, I ordered a spicy tofu rice plate to go, and found I'd eaten nearly every fried cube of tofu right out of the Styrofoam box with my fingers by the time I'd made it home. Unlike a lot of fried tofu, Ba Mien's manages to stay light and firm even after being doused in hot oil. The thin, spicy sauce of jalapeños, garlic and soy sauce surrounding the tofu is simple, salty and full of fresh chile-pepper flavor. This is something the Vietnamese definitely did not get from the French, but the Gallic country would have been wise to take some lessons in Vietnamese spice before they were ousted in the 1950s.
The classic banh mi illustrates beautifully the ideal fusion of French and Vietnamese that Ba Mien Bistro evokes through its food and atmosphere. Crusty French bread envelops thick strips of peppery grilled pork, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, jalapeños and onions. Vietnamese pâté and mayonnaise — vestiges from the colonial era — add richness to the light, crunchy sandwich, and a fried egg on top, ubiquitous though they may be these days, completes the consummate fusion of modest Vietnam and its gourmandizing invader.
When I first started this job, I got a lot of comments from readers advising me to get outside the Loop and explore what else Houston has to offer. Those of us who live in the Loop can develop a mind-set according to which anything and everything you could ever want is contained within the confines of Interstate 610. Much of the food writing in this town reflects that mentality, and in doing so it ignores some treasures that reside just a little farther down the road.
I once made the comment that the Galleria was so far away and such a long drive, and was quickly corrected. A 15-minute drive is not a long drive. A 40-minute drive isn't even a long drive in Houston. Having grown up in a city where one can drive from one side to the other in 20 minutes, I'm still getting accustomed to traveling such a distance for food (though, to be fair, I'd gladly fly hours for some authentic Hungarian goulash or a French salade niçoise).
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So here's the question I grappled with over my banh mi, cafe sua da and macarons: Would I come back to Ba Mien Bistro just for the food, or would I continue to frequent my haunts in Midtown and Chinatown? Is it worth the drive?
Even after dining there several times, I hadn't made up my mind until I went to fill up my car with gas earlier this week and did some math. It was $2.97 a gallon. It takes about 2.8 gallons to drive from my apartment to Ba Mien Bistro and back. That's $8.35 with my car's gas mileage.
If paying that means I can get more of Ba Mien's chile basil wings, pork spring rolls and banh mi, I'll gladly pay the fuel surcharge. It's still pretty darn cheap for what you get.