Bac Nguyen's timing seemed impeccable. Just as contemporary pan-Asian eateries were becoming the darling of the food scene, the Case Western Reserve grad was putting the final touches on his eponymously named restaurant. Situated in a prominent corner storefront in food-obsessed Tremont, Bac was meticulously designed to take advantage of the latest dining trends. A top-to-bottom redesign has given the old Tortilla Feliz space a fresh new look. The menu boasts an array of inexpensively priced Asian dishes. And a spruced-up lounge attracts a stream of hip young things, thanks to cool tunes, craft brews, and snazzy cocktails.
It's a shame the food and service don't inspire the same enthusiasm.
Rather than go the modern Asian-fusion route, Nguyen opted to play it safe with a roster of tried-and-true Thai and Vietnamese chestnuts. Dishes like spring rolls, pot stickers, pad Thai, and basil fried rice can be ordered at countless mom-and-pop shops throughout the city. Unfortunately, the versions served at Bac are no better — and at times are worse — than those available elsewhere. Neither original nor exceptional, the food at Bac does little to distinguish itself from the competition.
Edamame ($3), the beer nuts of Asian bistros, often provide a diner's first impression of the kitchen. Our first impression was of a kitchen that overcooks its edamame. While pleasantly warm and salty as expected, the soybeans were also watery and unappealingly mushy. A pair of plump, fresh, but bland summer rolls ($5) — gauzy rice-paper wrappers stuffed with shrimp, noodles, and herbs — relied on the accompanying peanut dipping sauce to act as a flavor saver. Pan-fried dumplings ($5), served by the half-dozen, are crisp, chewy, and flavorful — but also scantly filled and a tad greasy.
We fared far better with a large Vietnamese crepe appetizer ($7). Light, lacy, and possessing a beguilingly sweet coconut essence, the crepe held its own against the best of the bunch. When dissected, the eggy omelet oozed large shrimp, bits of zesty pork, and a tidal floe of bean sprouts. On one occasion, a bowl of tom yum soup ($4) tasted like Campbell's tomato tarted up with lime juice and shrimp. On another, the very same soup charmed us with its deft balance of spicy and sour. Though a buck or three overpriced, the addictive banh mi sandwich ($8) was a tasty stack of meats, veggies, and herbs on a toasty baguette.
Among the 10 or so entrées on the menu, one or two could be described as atypical for an Asian restaurant. But unusual does not equal exciting, as exemplified by a dish of seared tuna served with asparagus ($18). We sidestepped the fish in favor of more reliable options like pad Thai ($11), basil fried rice ($12), and grilled pork chop over rice ($12). And by and large, we were content with the spread. Bac's pad Thai won't win any noodle Oscars, but the popular dish is a wise choice for diners looking to play it safe. Same goes for the basil fried rice, a generous stir fry of meekly seasoned rice with shrimp (or chicken, beef, pork, or tofu), scrambled egg, and broccoli. Though poorly trimmed and gristly, a grilled pork chop and runny fried egg combined to make a hearty and enjoyable meal. Almost everything we sampled over the course of two visits would have benefited greatly from a liberal dose of sriracha and fish sauce.
Like a beauty-pageant contestant, service at Bac is sweet but ditzy. Rather than stick around throughout the ordering process, our server decided to flee the scene in mid-order, leaving the table to scratch its collective head in bemusement. An almost deafening noise level in the rear of the dining room made it a challenge to communicate with her, causing portions of our meal to be no-shows. It took a diligent bartender delivering a round of cocktails to remove a passel of empty plates our server repeatedly overlooked.
All of the above is not meant to imply that Bac is without appeal. By offering affordable Asian fare, the restaurant plugs a gap in the Tremont dining scene — and does so in an attractive setting. A late-night menu, offered until midnight on weekends, provides boozy tourists fuel for the return trip. Cocktails — like the feisty Singapore Redux ($7), a muddle of gin, juice, and chiles — are ample and inspired. Out front, a swanky new patio transforms yet another patch of dusty sidewalk into an urban oasis. And owner Bac Nguyen is intelligent, thoughtful, and dedicated to improving every aspect of his fledgling operation.
Food and service can always be improved. The scene and setting, not so much.
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