Ba Bar review: The third iteration of Ba Bar, originally a busy, morning-to-late-night destination in Capitol Hill, justly famous for its pho, suffers a bit from its growth but does well in University Village.
Ever since Sophie and Eric Banh opened the original Monsoon 18 years ago, the Saigon-born siblings have been feeding us well, all the while broadening our experience of their fatherland.
Their own father was actually born in China. Like his children, who came to this country as teenagers, he left his homeland at a young age and landed in Vietnam. When the Banhs opened the original Ba Bar on 12th Avenue in 2011, it was partly a tribute to their dad. Ba means father, and Chinese-style rotisserie chicken, duck and pork belly are included on a roster of mostly Vietnamese street food — noodle soups, bún bowls, chicken wings, banh cuon and — starting this week — banh mi. (A pork version is in tryouts on the University Village lunch menu. Plans are to offer it at the other two locations in the coming weeks.)
Ba Bar began as a bar-driven restaurant, a unique, personal expression of the Saigon cafe life Eric and Sophie Banh remember from their youth. The original remains a busy, morning-to-late-night destination, as justly famous for its pho as for its fine-tuned, food-friendly cocktails. A second Ba Bar opened a year ago in South Lake Union. Over the summer, a third moved into the former Liam’s space in U-Village.
Ba Bar University Village ★★½
2685 N.E. 46th St.; Seattle
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: lunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. daily; dinner 3-10 p.m. daily; happy-hour menu 3-6 p.m. and 8 p.m.-closing daily
Prices: $$ (plates $6.50-$15.50)
Drinks: full bar; creative, well-constructed cocktails; beer; Northwest and imported beers; $8 wines by the glass
Service: by turns rushed or relaxed
Parking: free on site
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Slick, handsome and fast-paced, the youngest Ba Bar is the biggest one yet, seating as many as 175 if the sheltered patio is included. The splashy Saigon back-street vibe is intact. You see more families with young children in this dining room than at the other two, but the bar still figures prominently in the layout, as does the pastry case. Positioned next to the front door, it’s filled daily with a rainbow of macarons by pastry chef Brad Vanmeerten. Fuji Bakery supplies the fruit custard tarts and other treats. Don’t leave without a crunchy, vanilla bean custard-filled doughnut. (Anything left after 6 p.m. goes for $2.)
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The original Ba Bar doubles as a production kitchen. Signature menu items such as rotisserie chicken and duck, imperial rolls and banh nam dumplings are delivered daily to South Lake Union and U-Village. While the food here is often very good, it is sometimes rote. Perhaps that’s due to the bigger volume, a shortage of experienced cooks or a need to cater to a shopping center’s mainstream clientele, but pork blood cake and oxtails notwithstanding, this Ba Bar fits in all too well on a block that includes Din Tai Fung, Joey’s, Eureka and Chipotle.
Food arrives with Road-Runner speed. Stagger your order to control the timing, unless you want everything at once. One night, the imperial rolls beat the beverages to the table. The cocktails were far more diverting. The rolls’ pork, prawn and mushroom filling was nondescript. Their chief virtue is crunch, which makes them well-suited to lettuce wraps, which is the intent. Be sure to include plenty of pickled carrot and daikon, fresh herbs and the indispensable Vietnamese condiment nuoc cham, a blend of fish sauce, lime, vinegar, sugar, garlic and pepper flakes.
The rotisserie-cooked duck breast is cooked at the central kitchen. It tastes reheated. The skin was a rich mahogany color but lacked crispness. The scored flesh, though tender and subtly seasoned with five-spice, was difficult to pry from the bone, even with the sharp knife provided. Too much work for too little reward.
You can watch banh cuon being made at a kiosk right in the center of the dining room. Prepared Saigon-style, the delicate steamed rice pancakes are served cold, rolled around crumbled pork, jicama and slivered mushroom. Accompanying slices of cha lua (steamed pork roll) had the right springy texture, but chilled fried tofu was rubbery. A side of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh herbs allows you to turn the whole ensemble into a salad, if you wish, splashed with nuoc cham.
Fragrant, fresh herbs are a hallmark of Vietnamese food. Perilla leaves added pungency to a lime-dressed cucumber, tomato and radish salad. Dill resonated in the Hanoi classic Cha Ca La Vong, made here with rockfish, though an overdose of salt muted the herb’s bright presence.
Almost everyone orders the chicken wings. Crisp-skinned and sticky with caramelized fish sauce, they have a sweet-sour-salty appeal that makes them disappear with alarming speed. Pork-filled banh nam are billed as “rice tamales,” and that’s exactly what those delectable rice dumplings — flattened and steamed in a banana leaf — resemble.
It’s smart to check Ba Bar’s fresh sheet. Lately it has featured wonderful garlic noodles tossed in aged Red Boat fish sauce with pickled mustard greens. Lily blossoms and tiny specks of cod roe cling to the spaghetti-like wheat noodles.
Soups are always rewarding. They are based on fragrant, bone-rich broths and loaded with top-quality meats and noodles. There are several ways to go. The chicken pho, enriched with a soft-cooked egg, tastes almost sweet. The oxtail pho (bones and all) comes on stronger, revealing star anise, clove and more. For something really rough-and-tumble, try Bun Bo Hue. Dig deep in the dark, bold, spicy broth and you’ll find banana blossoms, beef brisket, balls of pork sausage and bits of belly meat. The crowning touch is pork blood cake, sometimes called blood pudding. Its texture is as soft as fresh tofu and its brick-red color belies its mild taste.
The gentler congee is offered at lunch. The brothy rice porridge thrums with ginger, scallion and cilantro. I like it bolstered with spoon-size nuggets of pork belly and shiitake mushroom caps. A deep-fried Chinese doughnut comes atop every bowl. In this season of rain, it’s a meal as comforting as a father’s hug.