Vietnamese pho shops are nothing new to even the far reaches of Houston -- including the North Bammel and Klein areas of Houston, where no shortage of small, family-owned shops dot the strip centers along Veterans Memorial north of Beltway 8. For over 20 years, these small noodle and sandwich stores have enjoyed streaks of success and a constant customer base in the large Southeast Asian communities in and around Klein Forest and Aldine.
The challenge for small restaurant owners just north continues to be attracting the crush of traffic that buzzes up and down FM 1960 (I'm not calling it Cypress Creek Parkway, dammit). Families and lunchtime workers seem content to patronize fast food and fast casual chains while a steady stream of smaller restaurants of all shapes and sizes come and go seemingly unnoticed. Reasons abound for the continued failures, from poor marketing and bad locations to flat-out crummy food.
I'm as much to blame as anyone else. Having worked in and around the area for years, I was content to blindly pass small delis and barbecue joints for a fast meal at a chain down the street. Ba Mien Bistro, however, found a way -- or ways, rather -- to catch my interest well before they opened.
Driving by on my way to work last month, I noticed a bright stucco exterior along 1960 just East of Champion Forest Drive, a renovation of a former ramshackle barbecue joint. With a wrought-iron fence, street lamp-style lights and a simple front awning out front, Ba Mien is a stark contrast from its previous incarnation and stands out from the adjacent strip center, which houses three different strip mall-style houses of worship (is this a new start-up business thing I'm not aware of? DIY church?), a barber shop and a tattoo joint.
Before long, banners hung on the newly added patio area announced the impending restaurant along with something else that few small restaurants out here seem to bother with: Ba Mien has a dedicated, professional billboard front. Call me a sucker, but when business owners bother with the small yet important and often pricey details that present a complete product, I'm sold. It seems I'm not the only one, either: One week before I even noticed the place, a regular reader tipped off Eating Our Words to Ba Mien's impending opening as well.
I visited Ba Mien a few days ago during their second full week of business to see what they had to offer. I was pleased to find that the attention to detail and upscale touches seen outside continue inside as well.
The husband-and-wife team -- along with help from their children -- have fully renovated the interior. A pristine marble counter complete with pastry case and small menu board greets you as you enter. The walls and trim have all been painted a glossy gray, offering an austere match to the stripped raw concrete floors. An arrangement of small gold frames softens the metal seating in the main dining room. The hard-meets-soft aesthetic is welcoming and light in its simplicity, something often missing in even professionally designed dining rooms at multimillion-dollar restaurants -- much less at a mom-and-pop pho shop.
Despite being a lifelong Houstonian, I won't claim to be a banh mi expert and I'm not versed in the top 100 pho spots in Bellaire. I have, however, been eating the stuff since I was a teenager, so I do know what I like. Simple, fresh and well-seasoned are my keys to Vietnamese casual and Ba Mien is spot-on across the board. The vermicelli, served with two excellent egg rolls, was plenty for lunch (while probably small in comparision to some of the monster-sized plates I've seen around town), leaving me to take my bánh patê sô to go.
Knowing I wouldn't be back in the area for sometime, and having enjoyed my French patê pastry at home the night before, I visited Ba Mien again the next day to grab a quick banh mi. I found the sandwich every bit as enjoyable as the previous day's lunch, served on a large, fresh, crusty French roll with massive hunks of chargrilled pork. My added fried egg was overeasy, its yolk streaming perfectly throughout my sandwich.
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"Keep it simple, stupid" reigns supreme when dealing with banh mi sandwiches and this one was a textbook example of a genre in which "textbook" is a high compliment.
All in all, it's a clever little cafe looking to spread away from the dozens of other shops just down the road. Clever touches on the outside hint at the care and attention to detail in the food. It's nothing new, but it's certainly something different.