My husband, my brother-in-law, and I emerge from our ornate passenger boat after a morning cruising Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Fishy saltwater fumes blast us in the face: we’re descending a flimsy gangplank above murky, brownish water, our destination the white-sand beach where lunch will be served. Rock formations jut from the serene water. Crisp white table linens, chairs, silverware, and two servers in tuxedos and white gloves magically appear: it’s a post-colonial cartoon image. The five-course meal, carried from the boat in tureens, is a bizarre assortment of fried seafood, vegetables that taste like fish, and an exotic looking assortment of bland fruit. The landscape is beautiful and complex; the food is tasteless and boring. As we pull away from the island to another destination on our itinerary, I ask myself: can this be authentic Vietnamese cuisine?
Here in Seattle, “pho” can be devoured anywhere from the University District to Ballard. I’ve had fresh spring rolls in the International District under bright fluorescent lights, with paper napkins and hard steel-framed chairs for a seat. Savory “bun cha gio”—or dry noodles with eggrolls—from a Styrofoam container had the perfect combination of salty, sweet, and spicy flavors. Is this authentic Vietnamese cuisine? I’ve returned to those places time and again, but I’d never willingly return for a meal to that perfect island in Ha Long Bay.
I remembered the incongruity of that experience while I ate at Eric Banh’s new restaurant, Ba Bar, in the no-man’s land between the International District and Capitol Hill. Tall ceilings, an airy dining space, and a light-filled interior give Ba Bar a hipster feel. There’s plenty of space to lounge at the benched seats along the wall, or gather with your friends at one of the tables in the center. But after eight, conversation becomes an exercise in reading lips. The bar is worth a trip in its own right: cocktails range from the Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer, and lime served in a copper cup) to the Penicillin, with a base of single malt Scotch. Preparation is precise: Evan Martin, the bartender, used a swizzle stick to sample his creation before it arrived at my table.
On successive visits to Ba Bar, I had the Pate Chaud ($5), a mixture of pork and vegetables encased in a layer of puff pastry, and the Hue Dumplings ($6), a mung bean package served with a spicy vinaigrette. Both came hot to our table once, luke-warm the other time. Pho Ga ($9) was served with traditional fixings, but the broth tasted only mildly of chicken, and lacked the punch of Mi Viet Tiem ($10), duck confit soup. Here, the dark rich brown broth was a delight, with tender pieces of meat alongside lightly al dente noodles. Spicy Pork Belly ($11) and Grilled Chicken Vermicelli ($12) were sound but not special—unlike Bun Rieu ($10), a heady soup of fish, herbs, bloodcake and banana blossom. My tablemate orders the Bun Rieu because her family made it while growing up. Could this be the authentic dish I’ve been searching for?
Since my trip to Vietnam two years ago, I’ve thought a lot about whether my food is authentic. Instead, perhaps I should be asking myself whether my food fits its place. After all, I’ve tried many times to recreate food from my mother’s recipes, and yet it never comes out quite right. Perhaps it’s not the proportion of soy to sugar, but the fact that mom isn’t calmly stirring at the stove, or salting to taste, as she prepares the dish.
Personal history, in the end, is what we all use to decide whether food is good or not. For most of us, tasty food depends less on traditional recipes, and more on food that matches our expectations for how, where, and why it is served. My experiences with eating pho may never allow me to truly appreciate upscale Vietnamese cuisine, because the plastic bowls and cheap, unctuous broth have shaped my perception forevermore.
Ba Bar is open in the morning to serve me a double latte and French pastries. On Fridays, it will show me Kung Fu movies while I nosh on steak and fries. It’s open late, for my restaurant-working friends who want a meal and a nightcap. It serves many people for many different reasons—but at the end of several visits, I’m still not sure whether it can live up to so many different personal expectations.