When I think Vietnamese food in Houston, I think Midtown. I think Little Saigon, and hole-in-the-wall bánh mì shops and wonderful pho with very little charm.
Ba Mien Bistro, the subject of this week's cafe review, might just change that notion.
When you step inside, you're immediately greeted by a light lavender, white and gold color scheme, reminiscent of something an art director might have proposed for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. There are black and white photos of a bygone era filling one whole wall, their gilded frames creating windows into a time when Vietnam was neither Vietnam nor France, but something in between. A time when cultures and flavors melded to create the Vietnamese cuisine we know today.
This was French Indochina, and this is what Ba Mien Bistro evokes through its décor, its simple but elegant cuisine and those dainty macarons shining like jewels from a case on the counter.
After its victory over China in the Sino-French war in 1885, France claimed for itself the equivalent of three modern-day countries: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, for better or for worse. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great prosperity in Vietnam as well as a time of much turmoil. The French brought European technologies to Vietnam and poured money into the colony to help the local economy, which, in turn would help France.
Of course, this financial aid was mainly felt in the large cities, while the majority of the population who lived in rural areas suffered under French rule. Indochina was not a colony where the French people sought to move; it was purely a moneymaker for the country.
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French rule was abolished in 1954, after a number of battles and treaties, but the legacy of colonization lives on in many ways. Some remnants, like the French language, are virtually gone in Vietnam, while others, like architecture, the railway and, of course, baguettes, live on.
Ba Mien Bistro doesn't exactly glorify this low point in Vietnam's history, nor does it ignore the impact. The atmosphere is clearly influenced by the French notion of a bistro, with twinkling fairy lights strung over wrought iron tables on an outdoor patio. And then there's the ubiquitous bánh mì, certainly not specific to Ba Mien, but executed flawlessly there. I see elements of French cooking in the quality of meat that's used (no chewy bits here) and the contemporary white china on which the delicately plated dishes are served. Cafe sua da is still made the old fashioned way, with a slow French press that elicits maximum flavor from the ground.
And nothing says France quite like dainty little macarons, invented and perfected by the French and not generally found on Vietnamese menus. Ba Mien Bistro has embraced them, though. Macarons are the only dessert option available, and, somehow they seem to go with the food better than any sweet potato, rice cake or jelly more native to Vietnam.
Not only is Ba Mien Bistro a purveyor of delicious food, but you just might get a little history while you're at it.