You couldn't tell when sitting in the cool confines of Ba Mien Bistro's dining room that the air conditioner was on the fritz. The slate blue walls and dove gray linen curtains make the Champions Forest-area bistro seem effortlessly chill even on the most humid Houston day.
But the back of the house was suffering: both the kitchen and the front counter, where all of the ordering is done, were sweltering even before summer hit this year. Even the macarons were affected. The delicate French pastries made by hand each day had to be kept in a refrigerator; left out on display up front, they would be quickly ruined by the heat.
That's why Ba Mien Bistro made the difficult decision to close for two weeks—less than a year after opening—to fix the A/C and a few other behind-the-scenes issues while they were at it. Tomorrow, however, on July 18, the bistro will finally reopen...and that can't come fast enough for its fans.
"We miss you!!!!!!" wrote patron Janice Van Derbur in a plaintive, exclamation-point-heavy note on Ba Mien's Facebook page. "You do realize this is mental anguish, right?" Wrote another customer, concerned that the landlord's lackadaisical attitude toward getting the A/C fixed would force Ba Mien to relocate: "Two generations of my family—and a lot of my neighbors—will cry if you move!"
The Champions and Willowbrook areas aren't wanting for Vietnamese restaurants, but what sets Ba Mien apart—and what has made the mom-and-pop shop a huge success in its first year—is how seriously it takes the "bistro" portion of its name. This is no hole-in-the-wall banh mi joint.
Aside from its tastefully-appointed interior that fairly well defines the term "understated chic," Ba Mien offers Vietnamese coffee made the old-fashioned way in a metal phin that takes 20 minutes to percolate (the standard drip coffee is also available if you don't want to wait) and those wonderful, house-made macarons in a variety of flavors. The small patio is decorated with fairy lights and bright umbrellas. The soundtrack is all Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, evocative of when Vietnam itself was still part of French Indochina. It's an altogether pleasant place to sip coffee and munch macarons, as much as it is to relax over dinner with friends.
The food, naturally, is also part of the draw. Pho is well-seasoned with anise and cinnamon, with the springy homemade meatbals (bo vien) as a personal favorite ingredient. Personal touches abound, too: the spring rolls are hand-rolled and fried to order, while the crispy basil chicken wings are topped with whole, flash-fried leaves of basil for extra crunch. The bun bo Hue is highly recommended for those just becoming acquainted with the hearty, heat-filled soup from Central Vietnam (pho, by comparison, originated in the north).
Bun bo Hue (pronounced boon buh way) normally features a beef-based broth that's equal parts spicy, salty, sour, and sweet—much of that owing to the lemongrass the beef bones are stewed with. Cubes of congealed pig's blood and gristly pig knuckles are common ingredients, as is the addition of briny fermented shrimp paste for an extra whollop of salty pucker. At Ba Mien, however, the bun bo Hue has been toned down considerably and resembles a spicy, lemongrass-scented pho more than anything else. But if you like this, you may want to experiment with more aggressive versions at places such as Cali Sandwich, where the heat level verges on blistering, and Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong, where it's the only dish the restaurant serves and only in two sizes: small and large.