All Shook Up
Bác Nguyen never thought he'd enter the restaurant business, despite growing up in the fragrant kitchens of his mother and grandmother who both have owned West Side restaurants, including Vietnamese restaurant Minh Anh.
Nguyen saw himself as a businessman. He graduated from Case Western Reserve University, got a job as an operations manager, and after four years, decided the position wasn't for him.
Turning back to the family business, Nguyen had one caveat for himself. If he were to open a restaurant, it had to be different. He had to shake things up.
That is exactly what he has done. His menu turns his childhood's Asian culinary influences on their heads. Some dishes are firmly rooted in his homeland's French colonial past, such as the traditional banh mi sandwich ($8) stuffed with roast pork, ham, Vietnamese sausage and pate, or coconut milk crepe ($8) and pad thai ($11), standards of Southeast Asia.
But others are combinations that blend several cultures in one, marrying ingredients most wouldn't consider: bacon mixed into guacamole, grilled pork chops topped with a fried egg. They may sound strange, but each combination works.
That's what's so fun about this comfortable, contemporary space. Nguyen calls it an Asian-American bistro, but such a classification fails to communicate the original food experience Bác provides.
Take the inventiveness of the signature cocktail menu. The 17th Parallel ($7), made with vodka, cucumber water, Vietnamese herb syrup and lemon juice, is refreshing, light and not at all sweet. The Tokyo-Politan ($7), a cranberry vodka drink, had light notes of orange and ginger. These are not your mainstream drinks.
The menu offers many of the same attractions: tradition with a twist. It's approachable for any level of hunger — a light bite from the soup and salad section or a full meal from starters and small plates to a mix of meat and seafood entrees, each served with noodles or rice.
We began with a usual selection of small starters to share. Sweet garlic vinaigrette lit up two traditional spring rolls ($5) overstuffed with ground pork, crystal noodles, cabbage, carrots and celery. Maybe it was predictable, but we couldn't pass up the pork Rangoon ($5). The crispy dumplings filled with a warm, creamy combination of ground pork, cream cheese and a touch of onions were good by themselves, but they were great with a generous douse of a slightly spicy chili ketchup.
And here we come to one of the opening surprises, namely the spicy pan-fried shrimp quesadilla ($7), a special now unfortunately gone. This stretch of a Mexican-sounding dish caused debate over whether cheddar and spicy cream cheese should even be paired with shrimp. The final vote: It should. The freshness of the juicy shrimp was a brilliant counter to the blend of spicy cheeses. Topped off with sweet mango salsa, it's one of the biggest hits of Bác's selections.
A generous plate of green papaya salad ($6) combined spaghetti-like strands of unripe papaya, basil and cilantro with sweet garlic vinaigrette and crushed peanuts. It was similar to the more common Asian cabbage salads, but again, with a twist from the papaya.
Entrees truly show off the contemporary, eclectic cuisine Bác has assembled. Seared tuna ($18), the most expensive plate at the restaurant, is one of the best items on this incredible menu. The tuna was perfectly done — pan seared on the outside and tender and pink on the inside. The accompanying nashi pear salsa and ginger soy sauce set off the buttery fish with its crisp, sweet pear and salty soy combination.
Days later I was still thinking about the crispy walnut shrimp ($15), tempura-battered, lightly fried, tossed in sweet honey dressing and topped with candied walnuts, roasted sesame seeds and scallions. The preparation is what makes this so special. The large juicy shrimp are encased in a spectacularly crisp candy-like coating. When you bite through the crust, the shrimp burst in your mouth. Nguyen says the ultra-crunch is his twist on the popular Chinese dish. It comes simply with steamed broccoli and rice.
For the less adventurous eaters, dip your toe into Bác's menu during happy hour, when many of our favorite dishes are a steal. All appetizers, including the large sandwiches (normally $8), small plates and signature cocktails are $5. After trying this low-commitment sampling, trust us, you'll be back.
12:00 AM EST
November 24, 2010