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!
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.