Ba Mien, the new Vietnamese food court as it styles itself, opened this Labor Day weekend in the old spot vacated by the Monaco restaurant/karaoke club on Broadway, half a block south of Argyle (those latter folks have moved to Tien Gang on Argyle with nearly the exact menu). Having been cut loose early from work on Friday, I ambled in around mid-afternoon and found the waitstaff and management still scurrying to put the finishing touches on what seems to be an elaborately decorated restaurant for the Argyle neighborhood. I was surprised to see an open kitchen to the right immediately upon entering, and was even more impressed to witness culinary staff attired in traditional whites. A pair of enormous drums fronted in the entranceway, and I could make out a bicycle rickshaw still under wraps as well as a near-to-life-sized single horse-drawn carriage carved from mahogany. The new owners have knocked down the back wall separating the former dining room from the karaoke bar, resulting in an expansive new dining area, furnished with bamboo accented chairs and tables. An empty bar stands midway against the northern wall. Multi-colored paper lanterns hung from the ceiling while the northern wall was crammed with asian wall hangings of every sort giving the distinct impression that some importer/exporter on Argyle was having a fire sale.
Of particular note were five or six pushcarts of the sort typically seen being perambulated by street vendors, now standing idle and mostly empty. I was approached by someone I initially assumed was the owner, who explained that the carts would eventually be filled with tempting Vietnamese delicacies, although of what sort, I was unable to discern. One of the carts though, was filled with steamed buns resembling chinese bao (more traditional than the LEY sort I assume). My waiter, who revealed himself to be the building contractor who was assisting with the grand opening, explained that it would be week or so before all the carts were in full swing. He then handed me a xeroxed menu enumerating twenty or so items that were typical of many snack shops in the area -- noodle soups, spring rolls, rice dishes with a grilled pork chop, iced coffee drinks, etc. I got the feeling that I arrived about a week too soon given the paucity of the offerings, but decided to console myself with a hu tieu noodle soup and an avocado shake. I also ordered a banh gio from the sole operational cart at his recommendation.
Moments later, he returned crestfallen, and informed me that both the hu tieu noodle soup and the avocado shake were not yet available. No problem -- I told him to order me a noodle soup that was available and tacked on a mango smoothie. In the meantime, he brought me the banh gio, which is a dumpling formed from sticky rice, steamed so as to form a gelatinous shell. Inside was ground pork and minced tree ear fungus. It was greasy, but good, and the chili garlic paste was accordingly called into play. As he came back to check on me, I fell into conversation with him and learned that the owner also runs the Trung Viet grocery store on Sheridan and that his (the contractor's wife) was one of the hostesses/waitresses running around in gaily colored silk tunics. They had opened immediately after being inspected and were still awaiting a liquor license. During the time we chatted, I noticed a number of Argyle merchants/colorful characters wandering in to convey their well wishes and to visit, including the hostess/owner of Furama and one of the counter persons from BaLe.
By this time, my mystery noodle soup arrived, and lo and behold, in the midst of a sweltering summer day, I was delivered a piping hot bowl of bun bo hue. For the uninitiated, bun bo hue is simply described as a hearty beef noodle soup with pork hocks and lots of chili -- not what I would usually order given the weather. Bun bo hue is a favorite of mine however, so after heaping basil and bean sprouts into it, I tucked in. It turned out to be *very* spicy (attn: zim) with a numbing sear I attributed to sichuan peppercorns. Mopping my brow, I asked my companion whether this was so, and he told me no, that they used fresh chilis only. I also noted an irregular meatball which he assured me was homemade. In this version, the accompanying beef slices were slightly chewier than I preferred but the cross section of pork hock was tender. Any subtlety lent by the addition of the basil was overwhelmed by the intense heat generated by the chilis. The noodles were of the round rice variety, and al dente to start with. Between successive helpings of bun bo hue and sips from my water glass, the noodles became somewhat sodden towards the end.
Quite satisfied, I paid the bill, amounting to ~$12 with tip, which brought the question to mind as to who they were targeting as demographic population. Ba Mien is cheap enough to sate everyday lunchtime appetites, but the number of empty tables in the large dining area seems to indicate higher aspirations. We'll have to wait and see if they're able to fill their seats once they settle down a bit and offer a more extensive menu. That open kitchen promises more than noodle soups.
4941 N. Broadway