Uptown has a bumper crop of new Vietnamese restaurants offering their own renditions of noodle house standards. Ba Chi Canteen is in that number, but it also offers something rare: a taste of what happens when a Vietnamese chef stops trying to impress the grandparents with traditional recipes and instead starts exploring multicultural possibilities.
On any given visit, half the tables in the bright, casual dining room will be anchored by large bowls of pho. But all over the menu and specials board there are one-of-a-kind creations. Some draw from sushi bar garnishes, others fold in bold Korean or subtle Thai flavors and a few arrive with the artful presentation one would expect at a maverick tapas bar.
A softball-sized, panko-crusted orb opens to reveal pork fried rice, with egg yolk and fish roe dribbling from the top. Whole shrimp are trussed with crunchy egg noodles. Diners dredge buttery, stretchy, black-blistered roti bread through a bubbling pot of short ribs in beef gravy mellowed with coconut milk. Grilled corn on the cob is sliced like a sushi roll and topped with crawfish tails, a hay of shredded beets and streaks of basil aioli — composed like a sonnet to familiar summer flavors but recited in a foreign tongue.
Some of this seems to come from left field, but the starting point for Ba Chi Canteen is on the West Bank. Quinn Nguyen and Phat Vu opened the place in April, and diners may recognize them from Tan Dinh, the Gretna standout Vu's family has operated since the 1990s.
Some Tan Dinh specialties made the leap to Ba Chi Canteen, notably garlic-butter chicken wings, fantastically crisp, yellow-hued egg rolls and lemon grass chicken, served in great hunks over noodle salad or in banh mi rolls. The pho tastes familiar too, though this version is not quite the ambrosial match of its Gretna forebears.
Ba Chi Canteen serves another example of the trend for folding and filling bao steamed buns like tacos. Here they're called "bacos," and the list is extensive, including fried shrimp and soft-shell crab versions, tempura chicken and pork belly ("ba chi" in Vietnamese), all dressed with various combinations of aioli, sweet potato, nori strips, eel sauce and pickled ginger. There's potential with the assertively spicy ones, but I think the slightly chewy, somewhat sweet, generally bland bao themselves are among the least interesting items at Ba Chi. I'm drawn more to items like Vu's "gyoza nacho," a baroque construction of Japanese dumplings, raw jalapeno, herbs, edamame salsa and streaks of honeyed Sriracha mayo.
Traditional Vietnamese coffee is the strongest beverage at this BYOB cafe. It's also irresistible and makes the case for retaining some old favorites while exploring new territory.