We’re hearing a lot lately about how immigrants harm, rather than contribute to our society. Well, I’d like to go on record as saying that here at Monsoon, Ba Bar and Seven Beef, we have a completely different set of ideas about the situation. In my over twenty years in the restaurant business, I have experienced first-hand just how vibrant and exciting the combination of a variety of cultures and cuisines can be.
Throughout that time, I have watched our restaurant group grow in the fertile environment of multiculturalism, with Vietnamese working alongside people from all walks of life to create some of the most dynamic food we possibly can. Let me tell you the story of how this all came together as it only could have in Seattle, one of the most diverse cities in the country.
My family escaped Vietnam in 1979 and settled in Edmonton, Alberta. Things were tough (as it was for all refugees), and I went to school and started working as soon as I could. My first job in 1981, at age 15, was at a fine dining restaurant called Bentley. I started out as a busboy, then migrated into the kitchen to become a dishwasher and prep cook. One day, a line cook didn’t show up and the chef asked me to fill in. I discovered I liked restaurant work.
After college, I tried my hand at accounting and real estate but eventually wanted to return to food, my passion. I told my late-father, and he was unhappy. In his eyes, being a cook was low-status. He didn’t talk to me for a week, but I stuck to my decision and in 1997, opened Lemongrass Café in Edmonton.
Going South of the Border
By then, my sister Sophie was living in Seattle. Each time I visited her, I was struck by the city’s abundance. Seattle had clams, crab, fish and produce that I coveted for preparing Vietnamese food. What surprised me most was this: Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle were not spotlighting local, fresh ingredients. They were in the mainstream, all doing the same old same old thing.
I decided that Seattle could help me grow as a chef and restaurateur. (Edmonton was also freezing cold!) Sophie, a skilled cook herself, agreed we could make a go of it together.
The ingredients were right there and super affordable. For example, a whole Dungeness crab was about $1.50 a pound! We began dreaming up a menu of favorite foods. The opportunity to make incredible renditions of miến xào cua (glass noodles with crab) and chả giò cua (fried imperial rolls filled with crab) with ingredients that were as fresh as how we experienced them in Vietnam drove us to look for a potential restaurant location.
It’s hard to imagine but eighteen years ago, Seattle’s dining scene was not much of a scene. Chinatown seemed a natural for us–we are Vietnamese-Chinese, born and raised in Saigon’s Cholon (Chinese) district. But the real estate prices in Chinatown were among the highest in town. Even if we scraped together money to be in such a high-traffic location, it didn’t guarantee success. Diners can be fickle and if they’re unfamiliar with Vietnamese food, they may fall back on reliable spots rather than try something new.
Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood was more affordable but more importantly, it was a high-density neighborhood where we could introduce Vietnamese cuisine and cultivate community. We’ve had Monsoon in the same location since then and grown it tremendously. What has fueled us has been the neighborhood and Seattle’s ongoing support.
When we opened in 1999, Sophie and I cooked with two Latino assistants. My mother came from Edmonton to train them on rolling chả giò in rice paper; she’s strict and old school in many ways. Our other sister, Yen, took care of customers along with two Caucasian men, including Geoff Smith who now does our branding and photography—who was well traveled and knowledgeable about Southeast Asian food and culture.
Sophie and I based the menu on memorable foods experiences in Saigon and Cholon. Our mom was a great cook (she inspired our fish in clay pot and other homey dishes), our dad treated family and friends to epic restaurant meals (inspiration for Monsoon’s crab feast!), and we enjoyed a lot of street food (the reasons for Ba Bar and my obsession with bánh cuốn rice noodle rolls). It wasn’t easy building our lives after we fled Vietnam but good food eased the transition.
We also distinguished ourselves with a solid wine program. My first trip to Germany in 1985 enlightened me to the beauty of pairing wines with Vietnamese food. Each enhances and balances the other, particularly when a low-alcohol wine with a little bit of sweetness is involved.
Sophie and I grew up with a certain level of formality so our approach has always been to present high-quality Vietnamese food with professional service. It’s how we respect our roots, craft, and customers.
Many Vietnamese restaurants maintain a mostly Vietnamese and Latino staff but we’ve always taken a United Nations approach. Our diverse team is made up of people interested in Asian culture, food, and hospitality. We’ve organically developed to reflect Seattle’s population and location on the Pacific.
Viet Food Education
When you come into Monsoon, Ba Bar and Seven Beef, you interact with people who know Vietnamese food. We rigorously train all employees, from the back to the front of the house. Our monthly staff meetings include cultural lessons so that the team may represent the food well.
Our wait staff knows the dishes by their Vietnamese names and correct pronunciation, for example. Someone working at a French restaurant would need to know what gruyere cheese is so why shouldn’t we insist that our staff understands the differences ngò gai and ngò om? (The first herb is like cilantro and the second is similar to cumin.) By building knowledge, we’re building culinary pride, too.
This July, we will be opening the third Ba Bar at University Village. Our Saigon Siblings restaurant group will then have about 250 employees. That is a lot of people depending on us for their livelihoods, as we rely on them for our success.
Luckily, about 50 percent of our staff has been with us for more than three years. We’ve always aimed to provide people with good salaries and benefits. All employees working more than 32 hours per week receive health benefits. We also try to promote from within to recognize individuals who believe in us.
Building a strong and diverse team for Saigon Siblings means that we’ll continue to improve and grow. The kitchen staff is always thinking how to do things better, how to evolve a dish, or even return it to its roots. When someone travels somewhere, he/she brings back ideas.
A few years ago, Sophie’s son, Chris, decided to pursue a career in food. We were thrilled and have been encouraging him as much as we can. He recently finished training in dim sum making (Sophie sent him to work under a chef friend in Edmonton). Right now, he’s in a culinary program in Southeast Asia.
Sophie and I learned by doing. Our refugee experience helped us to survive and persevere in this tough industry. When Chris announced his career decision, no one grumbled. We celebrated our efforts to becoming a great restaurant family.
We’re truly blessed to be part of Seattle’s unfolding food history.
Saigon Siblings Restaurant Group
Artwork “E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)” by Sup
Photography from Geoffrey Smith
It’s been a while since we’ve gone on a soup rant, so we thought we might take a closer look at another very popular bowl of noodles we serve daily at Ba Bar. If you remember our very first soup rant, we broke down the very time consuming process of making our absurdly expensive Oxtail Phở in glorious detail. Well, compared to Mì Vịt Tiềm, Oxtail Phở is a walk in the park. Let’s take a closer look at how we craft this Chinese-inspired soup.
You can find Mì Vịt Tiềm joints in District 5 (Saigon’s Chinatown) as well as other noodle shops around Vietnam. It is a very herbaceous soup made with simmered duck legs and medicinal Chinese herbs. The classic way to prepare Mì Vịt Tiềm is to cook the duck legs until tender, deeply seasoned, and mahogany brown. Typically, the duck is marinated, flash-fried for color, then simmered in broth for several hours.
When we opened Ba Bar we followed this original approach, but we found that the duck meat would not stay intact and would fall apart over night. So we tinkered with the recipe and decided to confit the duck legs instead. This classic French technique allows the legs to be stored longer and acquire much more flavor due to the duck fat coating.
There are two main steps to making Ba Bar’s Mì Vịt Tiềm:
Step One: Confit
We use premium grade birds from Maple Leaf Farms. The legs are covered with a mixture of kosher salt, brown sugar, fresh cloves, and bay leaves. After curing for twelve hours, the mixture is carefully removed. The legs are then placed skin side up in a large metal pan and covered in duck fat. The legs are then covered in parchment and the pan is covered in foil to be placed in a low heat oven for four hours. Once removed they can be stored skin side up in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Step Two: Herbaceous Chicken Stock
You might be asking why we don’t use duck bones to make the stock? Well, duck bones are just a bit too gamey and strong for this soup. Therefore, chicken stock it is! We use fresh, Washington grown chickens to make this broth—a lot of them. This is the key to making a delicious chicken broth: don’t skimp on the chickens! After several hours on the stove, secret Chinese herbs and red dates are added to the stock and simmered for another hour or so. (Okay, the herbs aren’t really secret, we just don’t know what half of them are.)
Step Three: Egg Noodles
This isn’t really a step, but regarding noodles—we went with Sun Noodle. These guys make the best noodles. After tasting over 15 brands, Sun Noodle stood out. They contain no baking soda and no preservatives—the very best. (Momofuku in New York uses Sun Noodle and David Chang knows his noodles!)
All said, there are numerous interpretations of Mì Vịt Tiềm. An excellent bowl should be very fragrant, rich with umami, slightly sweet, and even a bit salty. We serve this soup every day and we’d like you to come down and try it. Ours is served with chives, Chinese dates, Chinese celery, longan fruit, and shiitake mushrooms. It sells for $14.50. If you think you can make it at home for cheaper than that, you go right ahead. If not, see you at Ba Bar soon!
Photography from Geoffrey Smith
The last time we reported on the state of the phở in Seattle, we presented our argument for spending $10 or more on a bowl soup. While a few folks still consider this idea controversial, we think the majority of people are on board with paying a little more for quality ingredients, and we now sell around 200 bowls a day. Funny enough, the point that caused the most stir in our previous report wasn’t the cost, but the admission that we do add a touch of MSG to the broth. No apologies.
But that’s old news! And we’re here to talk about what’s new for phở in 2016: For Ba Bar, it’s hand-cut noodles! That’s right, as of today, we will be using only fresh, hand-cut rice noodles instead of the usual dried stick noodles you normally find in phở. It’s a lot of extra labor for us to prepare these noodles, but it’s going to improve your soup in several different ways.
First, the noodles themselves: The texture is velvety and the non-uniform cuts make for a much more interesting mouthfeel. (Yes, we said “mouthfeel”). They are softer, fresher, and tastier. Another huge benefit is to the broth: When you stick dried noodles into a soup, they will expand and leach starch into the broth causing dilution. This alters the flavor quite a bit. If you’ve ever left a half-eaten bowl of phở out on the counter and come back in an hour or so, you will see a sad mess of swollen noodles and much less broth. This doesn’t happen with fresh, hand-cut noodles. They are already cooked and they retain the same silky consistency throughout your meal. But best of all, they’re damn tasty! If you’ve enjoyed hand-cut pasta with your ragu in the past, there’s no reason why you won’t enjoy hand-cut rice noodles in your phở.
Stop by Ba Bar and try our hand-cut noodles with any of our standard phở offerings. And, if you like your soups a bit spicier, we highly recommend the Phở Hà Nội. We’ve been running this one as a special for some time now and it’s been very popular. In northern Vietnam there is a lack of fresh lime and spicy herbs, so Phở Hà Nội came about by using vinegar and pickled bird’s eye chiles instead—with fresh ginger chopped right into the beef. We garnish it with plenty of cilantro and bean sprouts, and serve it with a savory Chinese donut. Phở Hà Nội is lighter—but much spicier than traditional phở. If you like it hot, this one is for you. If you are spice adverse, you should probably stick to the regular phở, as we have no way to throttle the heat.
We have plans for more phở varieties in the coming months, so keep an eye out for the next installment of The Ba Bar Phở Report. Cheers!
Photography from Geoffrey Smith
We are proud to announce 50¢ Chicken Wings every Tuesday! There will be two types of wings available: Our standard Sài Gòn Chicken Wings made with local chicken, caramel sauce, roasted garlic chili, rice vinegar, and fish sauce. In addition we will also feature a rotating weekly special wing.
The wings are available in orders of 10, for $5, all day in the bar area—Tuesdays only.
First Rule of 50¢ Wings: Available in the bar only.
Second Rule of 50¢ Wings: A drink order is required.
Third Rule of 50¢ Wings: No to-go orders.
We’ve been making and serving phở at our restaurants now for many years. We grew up eating phở in the street markets and specialty phở shops of Sài Gòn with our father, and this simple soup is important to us for many reasons. In Southern Vietnam, phở is generally eaten for breakfast or lunch—but it also makes the perfect midnight snack after a late night out with friends (and one of the main reasons Ba Bar stays open until 4AM on the weekends). Here in Seattle, phở has become the perfect way to warm up on a wintery day. It’s food, it’s a remedy, and it’s delicious. Bottom line: everybody loves a good bowl of phở.
That said, we do get a certain complaint about our phở from time to time. Nobody ever says it’s not delicious. Nobody ever complains about our portion size or the richness of our broth. No, people only ever say one thing when they complain about the phở at Ba Bar or Monsoon:
“Ten dollars?! For a bowl of phở? I can get this down the street for only five bucks! What a ripoff!”
They are right. You can indeed get a bowl of phở down the street for around five or six bucks. And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with getting a bowl of phở down the street for five or six bucks. It’s cheap, it satisfies, and it’s mostly good. But it’s also a compromise.
There’s no way you can use quality ingredients in a dish that requires this much labor and get away with only charging five dollars unless you are cutting corners somewhere. It’s just not possible. We don’t want to cut corners, we want to serve a bowl of phở that costs ten dollars. We even want to serve a bowl of oxtail phở that costs thirteen dollars. Not because we want to cash-in on our name and make a huge profit off a bowl of cheap soup—quite the opposite. We want to make the best bowl of phở in Seattle—or anywhere else. We think there is a market for it. People will pay money for things that are made with care. (Case in point: Ba Bar sells about 120 bowls of phở a day during the winter.) We want to make phở with Painted Hills all-natural, grass-fed eye of round beef and brisket. We want to use Northwest Tofu and Washington-raised chicken. We want to use fresh, local oxtail in a stock that cooks for 24 hours. We don’t want to cut any corners. We want the best.
So, how do the other guys do it? Well, start with the beef. There are stores here in Seattle (that will remain unnamed) where you can get beef for $1.99 a pound and oxtail for $3.50. That’s cheap! Why is it so cheap? Because it’s terrible. It’s tough, it’s sinewy, and it’s likely beef rendered from old dairy cows that no longer produce milk. Sad, old milk cows who find a final resting place in your bowl of five dollar phở. We’ve tried cooking with this beef before, and even after six hours on the stove, it’s still tough as leather.
If you compare the Painted Hills beef side-by-side with the two buck discount beef, you will immediately see the difference. Again, there’s nothing criminal with using cheap beef—it’s not going to kill anybody after all—and it makes your soup very affordable. But it’s not what we are after. We want to provide something different, something with a bit more care and and a bit more ambition. When you experience our phở you will immediately understand why it’s better. And why it’s worth the cost. We want to make the best bowl of phở. Period.
Here’s how we do it: We start with half beef bones and half water. And not just any bones, they need to be the perfect ratio of marrow bones and knuckle bones. This is what makes our phở deeper and richer than most shops in town—we’re simply using more bones. The bones are 1:1 with the water. On top of that, we are adding fresh oxtails, and this step really elevates the broth. Once you have a rich phở broth with oxtail stock, it’s hard to go back to that thin “spice water” of the five dollar shop. During the cooking process we remove and rinse the bones with cold water to remove impurities, keeping the broth clean and clear. Brisket is added for several hours and then removed to really let the broth settle in, it will simmer for 18 more hours at this stage.
So now we’re at the 21 hour mark and here’s where we start adding our spices: cloves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, thảo quả, star anise, cinnamon. Then we add charred ginger & onion and simmer this for three more hours while removing more solids from the broth with a mesh ladle. After that, it’s finally strained through a chinois and we have arrived at our 24 hour phở broth. From here we add rock sugar, kosher salt and white sugar to taste then finish it all off with a touch of MSG. That’s right, MSG—it’s not really evil. (Everything you have heard about monosodium glutamate is wrong. It’s simply a sodium ion attached to a glutamate—a naturally occurring amino acid which is already inside of you every day.)
But we’re still not done. To build a bowl of phở we need rice noodles, scallions, onions and the beef itself. We’ll add our previously cooked brisket first, and then paper-thin slices of rare Painted Hills eye of round. We then pour our phở stock over the top and the eye of round begins to cook in the broth while it’s on the way to your table. It’s served with plenty of fresh bean sprouts, basil, jalapeño, cilantro, chili, lime, Sriracha, and the best hoisin money can buy: Koon Chun.
In our humble opinion, this is among the best phở you can find anywhere. It’s worth ten bucks. Just like a bowl of fresh tagliatelle with ragu and Parmigiano-Reggiano is worth at least ten bucks, our phở is worth the same. Easily. To charge any less would surely raise suspicion.
Photography from Geoffrey Smith
If you are planning on having too much fun at the Northwest Tequila Fest this year we are planning a special cure for what ails you. Introducing the first annual Ba Bar Hangover Brunch with a special brunch menu from Chef Banh and a special morning cocktail menu from Jon Christiansen featuring Sombra Mezcal and Astral Tequila.
When: Sunday, August 25th 8AM
Where: Ba Bar
Drink Menu – $6
The White Shadow – Bird’s Eye Chili-infused Sombra, Fresh Jicama Juice, Fresh Lime, Agave Nectar, Lavender Egg White Foam.
Dr. Keith Richard’s Magic Elixir – A shot of Astral Tequila Blanco, and a Reduced Pho Broth Pineapple Sangrita.
Ice Pack – Astral Slushy, Blue Curacao, Fresh Lime, Coconut, Pineapple.
Brunch Menu – $10
Sautéed Sweet Corn, Smoked Bacon, Chao Sauce, Poached Egg, Caramelized Onion.
Congee, Pho Beef Bone Marrow, Shiitake Mushroom, Housemade Chinese Donut.
Vegetarian Hash, Asian eggplant, Soy-pressed Tofu, Szechuan Chili Oil, Salted Radish, Fried Egg.
All of our regular breakfast items will be available until 11AM as well. The special menu will be served until 2PM. See you next Sunday!
Sara Dickerman spends time with Eric & Sophie discussing Vietnamese comfort food and offers plenty of cooking tips and recipes. Bar Manager Jon offers instructions on how to make The Spirit of Saint Tran as well. Check out the complete article with plenty of great photography on sunset.com.
In a recent issue of Seattle Magazine dedicated to The Best Noodles in Seattle, our Oxtail Pho makes an appearance. From the article:
“At Ba Bar, it’s all about the beef broth, heady with star anise, basil, cilantro, and slivered onions, but deep and layered too. The braised oxtail meet is unctuous, the rice noodles slippery but just a touch firm.”
More at seattlemag.com
We’re excited to announce that Ba Bar Breakfast starts tomorrow! Coffee and pastries are available daily beginning at 7am. Croissants, Danish, Seasonal Fruit Jalousie, Quiche, Huckleberry Financiers, Specialty Tea Cakes, and a variety of Macarons.
Then, our complete breakfast menu starts at 8AM and will be served until 11:30AM. For now, the breakfast menu will be served from Wednesday to Sunday, while pastries will continue to be served daily.
See the complete menu here.
Hope to see you for breakfast at Ba Bar soon!
We now offer a special $5 cocktail menu on Sundays and Mondays. Five bucks will get you:
1. Ranier Beer & Underberg Bitters
2. Moscow Mule
Vodka, ginger beer, lime
Cachaça, lime, sugar
4. Old Fashioned
Bourbon, Agnostura bitters, orange, sugar
5. Mai Tai
Dark rum, orgeat, lime, orange curacao, mint or cherry
All day. Every Sunday & Monday. Join us!
Another interview from the folks at AllRecipes.com, this time it’s all about the phở. Watch the video.
Chef Banh explains the finer points of Vietnamese Vermicelli in this video from allrecipes.com
We’re nearing our one year anniversary and we decided to begin celebrating by expanding the bar seating with the addition of three new tables and 18 new seats. This means a lot more space for happy hour and cocktails.
In addition, bar manager Fairness Peck, alongside Chef Banh, have spent the last few months working with Alcohology Consultants to expand and refine the cocktail menu. The Alcohology team is: Andrew Friedman of Liberty Bar, Jay Kuehner of Sambar, and Casey Robison of Barrio, and they helped the Ba Bar crew better match cocktails to the menu and come up with some new creations as well.
“It was great working with the Alcohology guys,” says Peck. Our team knew what flavor profiles we wanted, and Andrew’s team was able to take our vision and with a little tweak here or there, nail what we were shooting for, exactly.”
The new menu kicks off officially on Saturday, June 30th. The newly expanded bar is open now. So get down here and try some of our new drinks. Check out the complete menu over here.
Photography from Geoffrey Smith
Thanks to Seattle Magazine and its readers! We got voted among a select few for Best Restaurant Happy Hour and we also nabbed the Reader’s Choice for Best Vietnamese Food award. Thanks people. We appreciate all the support we have received since we opened last year. We certainly couldn’t do it without you.
Get down to Ba Bar soon! Chef Eric Banh is behind the wheel. Happy hour is daily from 3PM to 7PM.