Vietnamese with a French Accent
Eric and Sophie Banh, brother and sister, fled their native Vietnam in 1978, while young teenagers; the family settled in Edmonton, Alberta.(This explains the poutine on the menu at Ba Bar.) In Seattle, the siblings started Monsoon restaurants on Capitol Hill and in Bellevue, two Baguette Box sandwich shops, and then Ba Bar.
Eric trained as an accountant and sold real estate for seven years, but had worked as a busboy in a classical French restaurant in Edmonton called Bentley’s, where he cleaned the ashtrays and loaded the table-side salad carts. When he moved to Seattle in 1996 to start a restaurant, his parents were furious. “We didn’t risk our lives to leave Vietnam so you could become a cook!” they said, though they relented a bit when Sophie joined him in the business.
BaBar is in the mold of French-Vietnamese bistros in Saigon that open early for pastries and stay open past 10 o’clock at night. The original building once housed Watertown Coffee, across from the Seattle University campus. It’s on the east end of Little Addis Ababa (a string of Ethiopian restaurants), a bit isolated from the rest of the Capitol Hill buzz. Eric especially loved the cloudy-hazy glass windows on the north side and the floor-to-ceiling windows in front.“There’s nobody upstairs, so nobody’s going to complain about kitchen odors or noise, the way they did when we opened Monsoon East in Bellevue.” Except for the windows, he gutted the space. There’s new insulation, and a whole new kitchen. “It was unbelievably expensive; we had to sell Baguette Box to raise the money.”
Vietnamese food appeals to maybe five percent of the public, not the broad base of people who enjoy Italian or French; it’s not even in the top ten of ethnic cuisines. Eric and Sophie do a lot of charity events, but they don’t advertise. “We tried one coupon program at Monsoon East (Living Social), to let people know we were there, but we won’t do it again. Good honest food at an affordable price, that’s the best advertising.”
Andthere’s no better dish than oxtail pho, a couple of inelegant bones served atop a bowl of steaming broth and rice noodles, garnished with mint, basil, and bean sprouts. There’s no dainty way to eat this; you have to hold it with your fingers gnaw at it like a cave man. Nothing quite like it for primal satisfaction.
But wait, there’s more. Walk into the Capitol Hill Ba Bar on a Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see a cook standing in a cloud of steam preparing a dish called Banh Cuon. It’s a Vietnamese rice crèpe, filled with ground pork (Carlton Farms) and wood mushrooms, topped with slices of cha lua (Vietnamese ham) garnished with cucumbers and bean sprouts, and a generous sprinkling of the sweet dipping sauce called nuoc cham.The trick is getting the crèpe to the proper, gossamer-thin consistency. An order of three Banh Cuon is $10. Perfect for breakfast, on weekends at the Capitol Hill location, weekdays at lunch in South Lake Union.
Eric Banh thinks the hardest part of running a restaurant is finding good people, which requires a skill set of its own, and one he acknowledges is not his strongest suit. What he looks for are team players, not prima donnas. “A restaurant has a lot of moving parts, and you can’t run it on so-called passion alone.” Nonetheless, the original Ba Bar begat two more, in South Lake Union and University Village. And then came a steakhouse, Seven Beef, that proved too ambitious for the neighborhood and morphed into a Texas-style barbecue shop called Central Smoke.
Barbecue is still neglected in Seattle, demonized as vaguely low class and redneck. Wood Shop, one of the best, went from a food truck to a shopin the Central District, to a second store in Georgetown. Another is Jack’s BBQ, started by Texas native Jack Timmons, who opened in SoDo,then added South Lake Union and hit it big-time with a spot at Safeco Field.
One misconception: that Central Smoke will have “smoke-heavy”cocktails. “A single smoke-infused cocktail takes three minutes,” Banh points out. That might be acceptable for a single order at the bar at Monsoon, for example, but a disaster for a six-top dinner party. The biggest advantage of barbecue: nobody expects it to be prepared àla minute or cooked to order. On the contrary. A brisket takes 20 hours in the smoker.
The new chef is Mike Wisenhunt, late of Brimmer & Heeltap. Andit’s the 20-hour brisket that sets Central Smoke apart: appealingly pink and meltingly tender, it’s soul food for anyone with a soul,regardless of origin. Even for eastern Europeans who would normally eat it with horseradish and sour cream. Wisenhunt has created two sauces especially for the brisket: a spicy barbecue condiment(mustard, vinegar, tomatoes, butter), and a second, creative,coffee-flavor (with added espresso and molasses) which should send the suits at Starbucks into paroxysms of ecstasy. As I type these lines, the brisket is set to be a Saturday-Sunday special, but I can foresee a pitchfork uprising to require more regular appearances on the menu.