Food Matters: Bamboo Bear is back for summer with a taste of Vietnam
May 25, 2017
IF YOU GO …
730 E. Cooper Ave.
Open Thursday-Tuesday, 11:30 a.m to 9 p.m.
SNOWFLAKES SWIRLED outside my window last Friday, where I'd been typing at my desk all afternoon. As the clock creeped toward 8 p.m., my stomach rumbled. I had to escape my apartment and take a walk already! So I bundled up and set out in search of food. I knew just where to go for a big bowl of warming broth, a place that would welcome me to sit at an elbow-worn counter and slurp noodles solo: Bamboo Bear.
Good news: the little Vietnamese restaurant tucked in that dilapidated building on the corner of Cooper Aveneu and Original Street has secured its lease until at least September. Its owners, chef Vincent "Vinny" Bagford and manager and wife Xuan (pronounced "soon") Ha, were prepared to close for good along with the ski lifts. But now, having returned from their annual sojourn to Ha's native land, the couple is recharged and ready to make the most of the next four months (or longer, fingers crossed). Seekers of authentic Southeast Asian street food, rejoice!
I arrive refreshed and rosy-cheeked. Though confident that savory beef pho (bo) with fistfuls of fresh herbs is in my future, Ha tempts me with the day's special: meatball soup. She describes it as a rich onion broth made from pork and chicken and tender pork-mushroom meatballs with garlic and ginger. Plus soba-ramen noodles. Sold!
I climb onto a stool midway down the counter fit for 14, where view of the long open kitchen is partly shielded by racks of condiments and napkins. Behind me, a small room with seating for 12 around the "Table of Inspiration," collaged with photographs of the couple's travels. Pictures of family feasts in Vietnam figure prominently — that's where Bagford and Ha pick up new recipes and inspiration. Twelve more stools are outside.
Wearing a navy bandanna headband and quick to chat, chef Bagford is the kind of friendly, cool dude you might meet at an outdoor music festival. In fact, a funky guitar riff jams from speakers overhead.
"What's up, Tim?" Bagford greets a regular who steps through the lime green door, here to grab an order to-go. Most customers will do the same on this cold, quiet, magical evening. Another counter diner and I share a conspiratorial glance: We have this gem all to ourselves.
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It's hard to believe that Bamboo Bear opened less than a year ago, on June 7, 2016 — it feels like it's been here for years. (Perhaps because it lives where Johnny McGuire's sandwich shop operated for more than two decades.) Opening week lines queued up so quickly that Bagford and Ha — at first a two-person operation — upgraded to a more extensive menu.
Nearly everything has become a signature: giant pho soup bowls, piled with rice noodles and bean sprouts (beef, chicken, vegetarian); Korean bibimbap plates (rice, egg, house-made kimchi, protein such as pork, chicken, shrimp, beef, or tofu); zippy rice noodle salads and build-your-own lettuce cups; ginger-scallion-soy chicken breast or double-fried, quartered, crispy chicken with sweet-spicy "Bear Breath" dipping sauce. (Bagford says foreign customers put it on par with "crispylicious" Jollibee in the Philippines). Portions are generous, most with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumber, carrot spirals and accompanying sauces, herbs, and toppings. (Thai bird-eye chile upon request.)
"It's light, flavorful, fresh, but unfortunately, a lot of people think it's Thai," Bagford says. "We don't have pad thai or stir-fried noodles, and not everything's gonna be spicy."
There are summer rolls (add shrimp); pork-back ribs and crispy chicken wings sold by the pound; steamed or fried dumplings; BBQ or pork-egg steamed buns the size of softballs; and French-Vietnamese bánh mì (marinated grilled pork is classic, with marinated daikon, jalapeño, veggies, mayo, soy) on traditional baguette from a Vietnamese bakery in Denver. Most lunch special combos are 10 bucks or less; Vietnamese coffee with sweet milk and crushed ice is a treat at $5.
The meatball soup arrives. It's the size of my skull! When I lean over to inhale its hot fragrance, steam condenses on my face. Bliss. It's rich, as Ha promised, yet bright — exactly what I've been craving, yet more satisfying than I could have imagined.
"I fell in love with all the different meatballs they have over there," Bagford says, reflecting on the April trip. "When I hung out at the water park in (Vietnam), that was the snack (at) the concession stand: all these different meatballs, four or five of them on a stick, fried real quick. (The noodles we had in Japan in the airport during a 20-hour layover.) This isn't a traditional soup, per se."
Another new Bamboo Bear recipe hews traditional, though: crab soup. "We make a rich seafood broth with giant squid, dried shrimp, pork bones, and tomatoes," Bagford explains. It's topped with fresh crab, drizzled egg, tofu, and spiced tomatoes — a specialty of Ha's sixth aunt. Bagford plans to showcase more seafood this summer, maybe a Korean-fried pork cutlet. Yellow chicken curry over rice has been popular lately, too.
Cook Michael delivers a paper boat cradling Vietnamese street corn, another special that will stick around: a steamed, grilled ear doused in charred scallion oil and topped with crispy shallots. The toppings melt into the hot kernels; each bite is sweet and juicy with a double-hit of allium and smoky char. Whoa.
"People enjoy the food! They keep coming back," says Ha, in her singsong voice, ever cheerful from the front-of-house. "We have a group that came in three times a week."
Well-traveled Aspen clientele, Bagford says, gets it. There are no reservations, no waitstaff, no alcohol. Décor is "hokey" by design. Food is focused on flavor and technique, using quality Asian ingredients sourced during Denver trips. "Food is the universal language," he continues. "It's what we all know. That food experience is so powerful and nostalgic."
The chef's first memory: the Vietnamese restaurant close to his childhood home near the Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio.
"I remember my dad taking me there, and my first taste of sambal and nuoc mam (nouc is water in Vietnamese, so nouc mam is 'gush sauce') on rice-noodle salad and spring rolls — I'll never forget those flavors. They had this big picture of the Mekong Delta. I remember thinking to myself, Man, it would be so cool to be over there and learn how they cook."
Ask Bagford about his Charleston, S.C.-turned Vietnam-turned Aspen story while sitting at the counter — it's a doozy. Locals recognize the chef and Ha for their six-year tenure at the Cliffhouse atop Buttermilk Mountain, where they introduced Asian specialties, including her grandfather's pho. Mountain-goers begged for a year-round operation. Enter the gritty charm of the shuttered Johnny McGuire's last June.
"The space just screamed, 'little Asian chophouse,'" Bagford says. He talks of food as comfort. "Xuan's totally homesick," he mentions while sharing their meet-cute story, "and what can settle it but food?"
I slurp; Bagford talks. I slurp some more. An hour passes. As I prepare to re-enter the snowglobe, now dark, I want to take this moment with me as a souvenir. For as long as Bagford and Ha are here, each meal is a reminder that whenever hungry or aimless, Bamboo Bear is sure to feed my belly and soothe my spirit.
Amanda Rae's first memory of Vietnamese fare: Crunchy, oversized spring rolls in nuoc mam from Kim's Dragon near her childhood home in Pittsfield, Mass. firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO …
730 E. Cooper Ave.
Open Thursday-Tuesday, 11:30 a.m to 9 p.m.