Wear Elastic Pants. That is the best advice I can offer if you decide to eat at Bắc, Tremont’s newest bistro. Opening their doors this February, Bắc adds appetizing Asian and Asian-accented dishes within a relaxed dining atmosphere to one of Cleveland’s food hotspots. Your happy reviewer has eaten there four times.
Bắc is divided into two sections. The entrance opens onto a long granite bar with classy and understated décor. The light is soft, but not dark. Modern music plays low for conversation, and is interesting enough that I inquired about the artist. Purse and coat hooks span the length of the bar; thank you, thank you, thank you! The bartender, Chris, not only changed the channel on the large screen TV at my request, but also bothered to explain the several Asian-inspired cocktails. My dinner partner expressed excitement over the Oriental flavors used in the drinks. From childhood, she remembered her mother cooking with the same ingredients, such as lychee fruit and hot Sriracha. Chris also relayed the reason for including Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on the drink list: a goal of Bắc is to eliminate any notion of pretension. If you feel adventurous try a Cha-Yen cocktail, flavored with chrysanthemum tea and Thai spice syrup. If not, sit back and sip a PBR.
The short hallway near the kitchen divides the bar from the cozy main seating area. Tables rest at an appropriate distance apart and a secluded nook allow for more private mastication. You must deliberate over a range of menu options from the popular avocado Kobe burger to more typically Asian cuisine such as Pad-Thai or a Bahn Mi sandwich (thin slices of roast pork, ham, Vietnamese sausage, and other flavorings). Nearly half of the main courses can be prepared as vegetarian. This would be a failed review if I did not emphasize the Mango Curry (with shrimp in my case). Each bite was an inspiration for the next, and I fretted that my plate looked overly small. Yet in the end, this is the meal that focused my attention on the constricting pants I wore. The other two meals I ordered were also both excellent, and I have heard ravings about the Pho Beef Noodle soup and the Braised Short Ribs. Seasonal extras such as an on-the-house sesame encrusted coconut and mung bean dessert for the Chinese New Year and a Lent-certified Salmon plate highlight the thoughtfulness of the food offerings.
Some readers, perhaps, may be familiar with Bac in reference to Blood Alcohol Content, but in reality it identifies the proprietor, Bac Nguyen. Raised in a restaurant family, his parents continue to work side by side with him in the kitchen. Adding to the homey atmosphere, the family finds time to greet the patrons in between stir-fries. Where Bắc ultimately succeeds and earns my high recommendation is as a blend of interesting Asian-inspired comfort food and relaxing ambiance, yet still a fun classy destination. The proof: I overheard a large birthday celebration at the bar on Saturday alter their plans for an en evening on the town. Instead they opted to stay the night enjoying Bắc.
To hear the history and influence of Bac’s restaurant family as well as the chefs thoughts on the food, read the interview with Bac below.
Your family has a storied restaurant career. Can you tell me about your experiences growing up in a restaurant family and how this influences the design and/or food at Bắc?
My late grandmother was one of the original partners of Cleveland's very first Vietnamese restaurant, Minh Anh, which opened in 1985. After my grandmother retired, my mother ran her own restaurant for about 14 years. Growing up in my family's kitchens, I had the opportunity to experiment with food and knew that I had a passion for cooking. But it wasn't until after my mother sold her restaurant (about 4 years ago) that I realized how much I wanted to continue my family's legacy in the restaurant business. So I started working on a concept that could combine my family's authentic recipes with my own culinary ideas. The food at Bắc is a tribute to my cultural roots, as well an expression of how I see the future of Asian American cuisine.
What should someone order if they could only come to Bắc once?
I think that my family's Spring Rolls are hands down the best. They are a staple item at all family functions, and I think that anyone who tries them will understand just how passionate we are about cooking.
When it comes to flavor, what is the goal of the food at Bắc?
If I could sum it up in one word - "balance". I feel like when you have the right combination of flavors (savory, sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy, etc.) the food becomes more than the sum of its parts - it takes on a life of its own. We try to achieve this level of balance with all of our recipes.
Future plans for the restaurant?
My main priority right now is to continue developing the flavor and presentation of our food and drinks. I have a few other goals in mind for the long term, but right now I think the most important thing is to stay focused on the basics.
How do you distinguish Bắc from other Cleveland restaurants?
I feel like we've developed a very unique concept for Cleveland. The goal for Bắc was to create a place that presented folks with something new and different - but also familiar. I intentionally avoided going too high-end or upscale, and instead focused on creating a menu that features simple, real food that is delicious but also displays some creativity. I wanted a place that both Asian food connoisseurs as well as everyday people who just want a good meal at a fair price could enjoy.
What is special about your bar?
I wanted to surprise people by having a legit bar with a unique drink menu at an Asian restaurant. We put a lot of effort into our specialty drinks, craft beer, and specialty wine selections - which reflect the diverse flavor profile of Asian cuisine.
Interview and write-up by Nick Kaye