Seattle is home to one of the largest populations of Vietnamese residents in the country and there’s a restaurant for any Vietnamese dish you’re craving. Just a short ferry ride away on Bainbridge Island, it’s a different story. The population on the Island is less diverse than this side of the water, so naturally there are less Vietnamese food options available.
Enter Trinh Nguyen, the owner of Ba Sa, who acquired the space in February 2019 and opened up right before Covid-19 shut everything down last March. The previous owners ran an Island staple, Cafe Nola, for 20 years. The odds were against her; starting a new business and tackling the “new kid on the block” challenge in the midst of a global pandemic is no easy feat, but over a year later, Ba Sa is thriving.
When I visited Ba Sa last month, I was admittedly a bit hesitant because I’m not used to eating at modern Vietnamese restaurants. I was born in Vietnam and grew up with my mom’s home cooking (that I now desperately long for as an adult). There’s also a fear that taste and flavors will be compromised for a more “Americanized” approach. Ba Sa’s menu had some classic Viet dishes, like eggrolls and pho (albeit vegan) but also included more uncommon dishes that I haven’t seen much in the States, like Bò Né, a sizzling (literally!) steak dish that is typically eaten for breakfast with eggs and bread. Fun fact: the dish gets its name because it is typically brought to the table on a skillet and you have to constantly dodge the sizzling oil jumping at you. Bò = beef, Né = dodge/dodging.
We tried several dishes—the Taro Eggrolls, Spicy Truffle Wontons, Sizzling Bò Né and Bún Chả Ha Noi. To my delight, the flavors were all there, even with modern tweaks. The eggrolls were delicious and crispy but not overly stuffed. The truffle sauce wasn’t overbearing. I didn’t have to né the bò but I didn’t mind not getting oil burned! The only thing I found a little odd was the tater tots that accompany it; I still prefer french bread to soak up the sauce in all its buttery goodness. Knowing that Ba Sa changes their menu depending on the season and fresh availability, we will definitely be back!
I sat down to chat with owner Trinh, about her background and what it has been like the last couple of years.
Seattleite: Can you talk about the challenges of opening a Vietnamese restaurant on Bainbridge Island, being that the population here is almost 90% white and you are only the third Vietnamese restaurant here?
Trinh: When people first heard about us, they asked why we needed another Vietnamese restaurant when we already have two. I had to explain to folks that we have a different concept; one of the Vietnamese restaurants serves primarily pho, and the other serves exclusively vegan Vietnamese food. It was a challenge but I encouraged folks to give us a try. Our concept was originally “small plates,” but we tried it here and it didn’t work so after two months, we switched our menu into a more of a party-style menu. We got some traction but then COVID happened and shut everything down. We had so much food left in the fridge that I didn’t want to go to waste so we started offering $5 community bowls, and if folks couldn’t pay, that was okay too. So many people lost their jobs and were struggling so we started focusing on the food that is essential; what do people need to eat every day? What’s accessible? It was no longer about us; prior to, the food we served was very personal but we shifted and it became all about the community.
People with the means to give started coming in and supporting us and what we were doing. There’s a huge vegan community on the Island, so we started making vegan food. We realized customers wanted fried rice that their kids would eat, so we came up with a chicken & broccoli fried rice (this still lives on their menu!). When May came, we started providing more seafood dishes. We listened to what the community wanted and we adjusted as need be. We had to ask ourselves, “Okay, this was our concept, how do we align this with what we wanted for the restaurant? If we do this, how far does it take us from the path that we want to get to? What’s important though – why do we want to cook? Why do we want to be in the industry? Is it to make money? Or to touch peoples’ souls and bring people joy through food?” Ultimately, we want people to see what we can do with food and enjoy it, all while bringing people together.
Any time you do something ahead of the curve, you’ll find yourself facing a lot of challenges. It was hard to tell people, “You should follow our concept, trust us,” but the key is to get community buy in. One of our non-negotiables, no matter how innovative our dishes are, is we won’t compromise flavor and spices. Our plating is beautiful and the concept is different, but when you eat it, you can tell it’s Vietnamese food. There are fresh chilies, garlic, nước chấm, all the classics. Our concept can scare away a lot of Vietnamese clients who are used to a particular concept and may view us as too Americanized or modernized but we don’t shy away from the flavors we use and once they’ve tried it, they enjoy it.
Seattleite: What was your favorite dish growing up that isn’t served at the restaurant?
Trinh: A lot – I like the dishes that brought our family together like Bánh xèo (think Vietnamese crepe) or Lẩu (Vietnamese hot pot) where it’s an interactive eating experience. I was in a refugee camp for 7 years before coming to America and I returned to Vietnam for 1.5 years. Sturgeon fish hot pot brings back memories of my family when we got together in the winter. I learned how to cook different dishes from different people in my family. I don’t write down any recipes; I have a photographic memory with food in the way that I can watch it being made once, eat it, and know exactly how to replicate it. This was an issue for my staff to learn without recipes. It’s hard to hire Vietnamese people on the Island and if you don’t have the exposure to the food, you don’t know what’s missing or what it “should” taste like. But my staff is picking up on a lot of stuff now. I still come in every morning to draw the broth and sauces because I’m a “control freak.” I feel that we are still in the phase of wanting to make the right impression and we talk about how we want to make our culture proud and showcase it. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes!
Seattleite: What do you miss about Vietnam?
Trinh: Everything! Bún chả Ha Noi; I used to think it wasn’t that impressive but there was so much rave about it; Anthony Bourdain loved it, Obama loved it. Before I opened Ba Sa, my mom wanted us to go to Vietnam because she knew I would be too busy after so when we flew to Hanoi, I asked the locals where we should go for bún chả – they said don’t go to Bourdain or Obama’s favorite place and pointed us to a place. They used charcoal to cook all the meat and it came out so fragrant and there were fresh herbs; it’s basically a deconstructed version of vermicelli bowl. As I ate it, I realized, ok this is why people like it. I miss eating all the chè (Vietnamese sweet beverage/dessert soup or pudding), sticky rice with all the flavors and the banana leaves.
Seattleite: Would you ever move back?
Trinh: Home is where family is and my parents and in-laws are here. I want to backpack Vietnam though, and I’m determined to do it even if I have to do it alone!
Seattleite: What do you wish people knew about Vietnamese culture?
Trinh: When we came to the States in 1998, we lived in Rainier Beach, then we moved to Othello & Rainier, and then Beacon Hill. We had a lot of unwelcoming encounters. When we moved to Poulsbo, we were one of ten Asian families but we felt welcomed here and didn’t think about our different skin color. At the beginning of COVID, we had a few encounters but I was pretty vocal about it and expressed to the community here that if they thought we had COVID because of the color of our skin instead of using logic to judge the situation, they weren’t doing themselves a favor; that they were discriminating because of fear and need to take a step back and evaluate. We had a lot of support and I was vocal about it on social media, even though I’m not usually on there. I know I can’t always be there to protect my staff or family but community awareness is how I can protect them; to voice that it’s not ok and to encourage folks to use logic rather than bias or prejudice. There was an incident that happened to my son at a dog park and I spoke up on the community forum. I expressed that for how long we have been here, we didn’t fear leaving our home or going to the store until now. I didn’t look at the incident as just us being Asian or what the explanation was for what happened; I cared that my son and he was traumatized so it was important to bring community awareness. He still won’t go to that dog park.
You don’t look at or focus on the color of your skin when you’re in a safe environment. In our culture, we think that if you work hard, keep your head down and do good in school or work, the rest of it will pay off but with everything that is happening, it raises questions if we should continue to do that or do we question everything we know? People have asked me what I think of the protests that the Asian community is doing now; I know we can be persistent, resilient and persevere. If we can continue to do it, we can build the awareness.