Food Matters: Bye-bye, Bamboo Bear
After five years of uncertainty, the Vietnamese eatery closes for good
Bamboo Bear took its last bear breath on Jan. 31, then quietly vanished from Aspen’s dining scene.
While the normal pace of life has been warped this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was alarming to learn of this news more than a month after the fact. When Bamboo Bear opened in June 2016, nobody thought it would last this long.
“A nine-month lease turned into five years,” says chef Vinnie Bagford, who ran Bamboo Bear with his wife, Xuan Ha.
The building it called home, known as Buckhorn Arms on the corner of Cooper Avenue and Original Street across from City Market, has been slated for demolition and redevelopment since before Bamboo Bear moved in. Mark Hunt purchased the 7,000 square-foot, mixed-use commercial and residential space for $1.5 million in 2013, back when it was inhabited by Johnny McGuire’s and Domino’s Pizza. (The “Health Food Sucks!” sandwich shop of 24 years packed up by the end of ski season in spring 2015; Domino’s skipped town last year in 2020 after the pandemic hit.)
For years Hunt has pitched his plan to tear down Buckhorn Arms and build another mixed-use lodge called Base 1, among his many commercial redevelopments downtown.
Now, Bamboo Bear — one of Aspen’s last remaining “affordable” restaurants and the only dedicated Vietnamese joint, a funky oasis slinging street food downtown — is gone. Why didn’t The Aspen Times or the Aspen Daily News cover the demise of Bamboo Bear among the pages of those newspapers before this Weekly column?
“The Daily only wanted to write a story if we were affected by COVID,” Bagford says. “We packed up for a month now … boards on the windows, looking like a crack house in the middle of downtown.”
Forget middle: Aspen is sandwiched by two boarded-up former eateries currently. On the other side of town, the crumbling, brick Main Street Bakery & Café has been shuttered in the same way for years, itself the victim of a stalled project. Hunt purchased the 9,000-square-foot bakery, too, for $3.3 million in 2019. Plans to bring Napa’s famed Oakville Grocery to the 130-year-old building fell through in 2018 after the founder’s sudden death in California.
Bamboo Bear closing might represent the end of an era. Where else can you get cheap, filling food with exotic flavors, especially simple dishes layered with handcrafted pho broth, crunchy vegetables, and tons of fresh herbs and chiles? Where does a health-conscious diner on a budget dare go past 6 p.m. in Aspen? Many of the longtime local-favorite spots left are daytime operations: The Big Wrap, Grateful Deli, Jour de Fête. The Red Onion, built in 1892 and Aspen’s oldest restaurant in operation, went dark just a few months ago, in December 2020. Its owner — Mark Hunt, no surprise there — was quoted as saying that the restaurant “is 100% coming back.” We shall see.
For now: let’s observe a moment of silence for Bamboo Bear, beloved for authentic Asian street food that even ski bums could afford. I’ll be honoring these popular menu items: crispy chicken, served over broken jasmine rice with pickled vegetables and two special sauces; summer rolls, noodle salads, and bánh-mì sandwiches; the crab curry special; and beef and vegetable pho, the spiced broth prepared in the traditional style based off a recipe shared by Ha’s grandfather in Vietnam.
The couple returns overseas to Ha’s homeland frequently for family time and R&D. An early photograph of Bagford standing in a thicket of bamboo inspired the restaurant’s name: The chef was known as “Bear” when the couple ran The Cliffhouse at the top of Buttermilk Mountain for six years before opening Bamboo Bear.
Despite the building’s plans hanging in limbo for years, Bamboo Bear persevered. In 2018, Bagford and Ha expanded the restaurant by more than 300 square feet into the space formerly occupied by Tulips Body Waxing Studio next door. This allowed them to arrange more traditional seating — standard-height tables and chairs, preferred by older clientele—to complement the original dining room’s high-top tables and long line of “bar” seats facing Bamboo Bear’s steamy open kitchen.
Thanks to capacity restrictions in the past year, however, Bamboo Bear had been operating on a takeout-only basis. (Which may be why word of the restaurant closing took weeks to trickle through the grapevine.) When Domino’s departed, Bagford used the vacant area to dehydrate and produce his artisanal beef jerky. A version of the dried snack marinated in piquant “Bear’s Breath” sauce (popular on the crispy chicken plate, among other dishes) was a bestseller.
“Goodbye, stranger!” quips the chef-restaurateur, quoting one of many rock classics that once filled his kitchen. What’s next for Vinnie Bagford, king without a castle, and Xuan Ha, queen without a throne? Time will tell. For now, Bagford is soaking in nostalgia.
“Two words sum it up: sadness and gratitude,” he says. “We are grateful for our opportunity. And grateful for all the employees who made Bamboo Bear possible, and worked along Xuan and I to make our dream a reality…all the amazing people we served. A great community.”